Robert Louis Stevenson has remained an enigma because of the exaggerations of two sides in an acrimonious feud that erupted shortly following his death in 1894. Critics such as Arthur Quiller-Couch placed him in the company of William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Keats: “Put away books and paper and pen. . . . Stevenson is dead, and now there is nobody to write for.” Fanny Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne fostered this image of Stevenson as literary giant, adding the enhancement of martyrdom, a genius struggling against debilitating congestive diseases that called for Fanny’s constant care and Lloyd’s creative assistance. Fanny forced Sidney Colvin, who had been Stevenson’s own choice for biographer, to turn over the official project to the more malleable Graham Balfour, who finally produced The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson in two volumes (1901).
From the first, however, there were plenty of people able and willing to recall that Stevenson had feet of clay. In 1898 his old adversary Eve Simpson revealed the mild debauchery of his young manhood. William Ernest Henley used the pretext of a review of the official biography three years later to blast his old friend’s vanity and narcissism and to note the debilitating influence of a domineering older wife who had ruined an author of great promise. Even admirers such as G. K. Chesterton unwittingly undermined Stevenson’s reputation by tracing his inspiration to Skelt’s juvenile theater. With debunking critical studies by Frank Swinnerton (1924), E. F. Benson (1925), and Thomas Beer (1926), the literary demolition was nearly complete.
Frank McLynn, after a thorough reading of the refinements in Stevenson scholarship, has in Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography fashioned a unified articulation of two trends that have been emerging since that time. First, he clearly and persuasively destroys the image of Fanny as ministering angel, demonstrating that she was instead a constant drain on Stevenson’s limited strength and an ever-present hindrance to his literary integrity. This had been clearly recognized by Henley and others, but in their mouths had been suspect on grounds of personal bias. Second, McLynn argues that Stevenson was a novelist of the first rank, treated “with great respect and sensitivity” by the “great figures of late Victorian literature,” including Henry James, George Meredith, Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Although McLynn does not go to the critical extremes of Quiller-Couch, in the end his Stevenson is even larger than Fanny’s, for he had to overcome the twin peaks of debilitating disease and neurotic wife.
McLynn emphasizes the significance of youthful experience to Stevenson’s later life, particularly the psychological influence of two people. First in importance was his father, Thomas, a successful engineer and stern Calvinist, followed closely by his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham, the devoted “Cummy” of legend. According to McLynn, Cummy was a “religious maniac” who stuffed Stevenson with the “more unacceptable excesses of Calvinism and the Old Testament.” With Thomas, she planted in Stevenson a “deep sense of guilt that would never leave him.” This combined with frequent sickness, harrowing nightmares, and the atmospheric gloom of Scotland to make Stevenson a lonely child who yearned for a broader, brighter world.
There is undeniable truth in the broad outlines of this picture of Stevenson’s youth, yet much to suggest that the harshness has been exaggerated. As McLynn himself notes, Stevenson “appeared to bear Cummy no grudge” and in fact praised her for inspiring the “musicality” of his prose. Both Cummy and Thomas loved him (as did his invalid mother) and encouraged his interest in drama. Thomas early on treated his son as an adult and encouraged his literary ambitions. Too, McLynn recognizes that as early as 1863, Stevenson was able to poke gentle fun at the excesses of Cummy’s personality.
Without Stevenson’s categorical testimony to the terror of childhood, McLynn resorts to questionable interpretations of later phrases in letters and novels. It is hard to imagine, however, that Stevenson’s wishful observation that in “a better state of things . . . every mother will nurse her own offspring” is a “sign of anger and resentment” against his own nurse. Nor need a phrase about unnoticed “only sons,” from Stevenson’s posthumously published Weir of Hermiston (1896), indicate more than a straightforward recollection of childhood circumstance. Stevenson undoubtedly was lonely on occasion, as were most boys when sent off to boarding school, was frequently ill, and did suffer from nightmares that were perhaps exacerbated by tales of hell from the nursery. On the other hand, this seems to have been more than compensated for by loving parents, comfortable surroundings, the company of vivacious cousins, and frequent opportunities for travel. By his thirteenth birthday, Stevenson had seen much of Scotland and the Lake District; had visited London, Salisbury, and Stonehenge; and had traveled twice to the Continent. Whether it was the terror or the bourgeois creature comforts that were responsible, he had already embarked on his career in writing, having...
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