Cover image for Louis : a life of Robert Louis Stevenson
Louis : a life of Robert Louis Stevenson
Callow, Philip.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : Ivan R. Dee, [2001]

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xi, 336 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PR5493 .C28 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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There are many Stevensons behind the initials RLS, but the one that has endeared him to readers for so long is surely the fighter, battling to stay alive. Jorge Luis Borges described his brief life as courageous and heroic. In Philip Callow s absorbing new biography, one can see why. Doctors, called repeatedly to what should have been his deathbed, would find a scarecrow, twitching and alive. A sickly child, Louis became in turn a bohemian dandy, a literary gypsy traipsing through the mountains of France with a donkey, and at twenty-eight the lover of an American woman ten years his senior, the fabulous Fanny. He escaped his Scottish town, his family, his friends who had mapped out a literary career for him in London, and instead went chaotically across the Atlantic and overland to California in poverty and despair to reach his beloved, whereupon he escaped into marriage and committed himself to being a nomad. He sailed the Pacific and dreamed of being an explorer; his restlessness was Victorian. With the power of a novelist and the grace of a poet (of which he is both), Philip Callow captures this great writer and his many contradictions. He was a born exile longing for home; a northerner who thrived on tropic sunshine; a near atheist who organized Sunday services for his Samoan workers. He has been called Scotland's finest writer of English prose, a more economical Walter Scott. As an essayist he equaled Hazlitt. In emotional crises he wept openly, to the embarrassment of his wife. His feelings are always his reasons, said Henry James, and caught in a sentence the secret of Stevenson s popularity as one of the last of the classic storytellers. Louis brings him alive. With 8 pages of black-and-white photographs."

Author Notes

Philip Callow's biographies of D. H. Lawrence, Son and Lover and Body of Truth, were widely praised. Mr. Callow, himself a novelist, poet, and biographer, has also written lives of Chekhov, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Walt Whitman, all published to critical acclaim. Mr. Callow lives and writes in England.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Clearly, Stevenson (1850-1894) understood the biographic potential of his life when he wrote An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey. Callow is only the latest to map the author's route from Edinburgh to the South Seas. Following the recent publication of Stevenson's complete letters and Frank McLynn's centenary biography, Callow concentrates on producing a readable account while incorporating recent research. Stevenson's pampered but sickly childhood, his dandyish dilettantism at university and his rebellion against his generous father's rigid Presbyterianism led unsurprisingly to his literary career. His love for Fanny Osbourne, a married Californian a decade older than himself, launched him in unexpected directions. Embarking in pursuit when she returned to California from Europe, he barely survived a rough Atlantic crossing and the primitive, newly constructed transcontinental American railroad. Even after they married, his fragile lungs and spiritual restlessness kept them on the move while he wrote nonstop, notably Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, until they settled with Fanny's children in Samoa. Callow maintains a quick, steady pace right up to Stevenson's sudden death at 44. The biographer's admiration for his subject enlivens his text as he defends him against Bruce Chatwin's recent criticism (he called Travels "the prototype of the incompetent undergraduate voyage") and compares Stevenson to his previous weak-lunged biographic subjects, Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence. Relating this brief life briefly, Callow's biography works best as an introduction to Stevenson's many voyages, only some of which the novelist chronicled himself. 8 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 6) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Novelist and acclaimed biographer Callow (Chekhov) readily acknowledges that this offering is intended for readers "with no specialized knowledge," and he freely praises the books from which this one is drawn, including Frank McLynn's definitive 1994 biography Robert Louis Stevenson (LJ 11/1/94. o.p.). As G.K. Chesterton said, Stevenson had the instincts of a man cutting wood: sharp and clean. This was Stevenson's weakness as well as his strength; Twain and Dickens drew with clarity, but they shaded their characters in a way that Stevenson could not. Or chose not to, perhaps: his early poems have the raw power of Whitman's until he decided to write the sing-song material that secured him a place as a children's author yet cost him the chance of being taken seriously as a poet. Even if he showed that he understood the heart's complexities in his undisputed masterpiece, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson's charm as both writer and man is that he remained forever childlike. Louis is ideal for developing collections requiring a brief, up-to-date biography of a man as "strange and romantic," in the words of Henry James, as a character of his own creation, a solid craftsman who seemed content to remain on the fringes of great literature. David Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

With five other biographies under his belt, Callow can be regarded as a professional biographer. This life of Stevenson shows distinct professional artistry. It is soundly researched, very well written, compact and focused, and moves along nicely. Callow manages to make sense out of the often-disjointed but remarkable series of events in Stevenson's short, complicated life. If he sometimes reads a perspective into events in order to give them cohesiveness they otherwise lack, his commonsense, insight, and sympathy to Stevenson generally convince the reader to trust his version of things. He uses The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehewthe (1994-95; v. 1-2, CH, Feb'95), to good effect, and also cites other Stevenson biographers--Jenni Calder, Bruce Chatwin, Ian Bell, Richard Holmes, Frank McLynn (whose 1994 Robert Louis Stevenson Callow considers "definitive"). There are frequent references to writers like Lawrence and Whitman, about whom Callow has written, and unexpectedly apposite quotes from figures like Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Patrick O'Brien. In addition there is a low-key wryness--a sharpness--in phrasing and perspective that permeates and unifies this account. This is not a life necessarily intended for literary scholars, but it is always personable and engaging. Highly recommended for public and college libraries. T. Loe SUNY College at Oswego



Chapter One Why Has God Got a Hell? Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson on November 13, 1850, at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh. After a spoiled and sickly childhood, educated at home or left to his own devices, he entered Edinburgh University at seventeen to read for a degree in science.     In most of the recollections of the young man, soon to be called Louis because it made him sound French, one has the impression of a person readily accessible, open to all and sundry, happy to spill all his secrets, fears, and troubles. This, together with his great charm, has been called Stevenson's lovableness. By all accounts he was a marvelous talker, a teller of tales, a nonstop monologuist. So it is remarkable to read that he could really listen, making himself wholly receptive as he concentrated intently.     One could say that to sit looking for the real Stevenson is to risk losing sight of him altogether. He was forever on the move, "by native instinct and temperament a rover," as he confessed, and if we want to know him truly we have to travel with him, be his shadow, follow in his footsteps. Everything would be stored in his interior baggage, as it is with all of us--in his case the peculiar isolation of his childhood, Cummy his nurse, his "unwholesome" background, a complex father who opposed as he loved him, an ailing mother, Edinburgh with its rigid streets and vile weather which "weighs on me like a curse," his rebellious friends and his cousin Bob, and that other city of the night, Old Town, with its proletarian taverns, dank alleys where the Middle Ages still lingered, its rabbit-warren slums and brothels where he became a pet of prostitutes and known as Velvet Coat.     When he was twenty-five he sat one evening in the family house in Heriot Row listening to William Seed, a New Zealander who had come to consult his father Thomas Stevenson on the subject of lighthouse engineering. Louis listened to Seed talking about his travels, explaining that he had been to Samoa to compile a report on trade in the islands for the New Zealand government. The young Stevenson couldn't hear enough about the South Seas, native customs, sights and sounds, plying their guest with questions late into the night. "Awfully nice man here tonight. Public servant--New Zealand," he wrote to his new friend Mrs. Sitwell. "Telling us all about the South Sea Islands till I was sick with desire to go there...."     Bruce Chatwin, a recent denigrator of Stevenson who was at the same time uncomfortably aware of resemblances to himself, derided the Scot for being an aesthete who yearned for adventure, for, in Stevenson's own words, "a pure dispassionate adventure such as befell the great explorers." Considering other literary vagabonds such as Whitman, Rimbaud, and Hart Crane, Chatwin saw Rimbaud's marathon walks as a way of walking away from sickness and back to health. It is a startling idea.     Can Stevenson's wanderlust ever be emphasized enough? Was it perhaps lodged in his blood? His father, a seemingly staid and conscientious engineer, had a taste for adventure stories and traveled around the coasts and islands of Scotland as part of his profession: he built harbors and lighthouses. Robert, Louis's grandfather, built the Bell Rock lighthouse, and like his son traveled around the Scottish coast inspecting sites and supervising lighthouse and beacon construction. On his annual tour of the Northern Lights in 1814 he had Sir Walter Scott as a traveling companion. Before this, the Stevensons of the past belonged to a tradition of settlement and husbandry, modest farmers and millers in the Lowlands outside Glasgow. Margaret Balfour, Louis's mother, came like her husband from a large family. The Balfours were as eminent in their fields as was the Stevenson dynasty of engineers, and their line could be traced much farther back. Generations of doctors, philosophers, and clerics bring us to the Reverend Dr. Balfour, Margaret's father, minister of the Church of Scotland. She had brothers who became doctors: John saw service as a doctor to the East India Company and was the last man to leave Delhi in 1857 when the Indian Mutiny began. Another brother, James, emigrated to New Zealand and became a government engineer there.     When G. K. Chesterton set out to write his book on Stevenson, he said cunningly that he was interested in the story of his life, "but not exactly the story in his biography." What really interested him was the internal story. For him the clue lay in Edinburgh, or more precisely in Louis's childhood and youth. Those early years shaped him as nothing else did, and though the details have become very familiar to us, their importance cannot be denied.     Stevenson's engineer father was a man of some complexity, not at all the ogrelike Victorian father one assumes from a first impression. For any account of him to make sense, the story of Scotland's recent past needs to be invoked, since he embodied many of its contradictions. Living inside him were strands which the son soon came to know firsthand: the fervor of John Knox; Calvin his mentor; the National Covenant, signed, according to tradition, on February 28, 1638--Covenanters were said to have signed with their own blood to demonstrate the depth of their feelings; the eleven-year rule of Scotland by the Covenanters under Argyll and their avowed aim to create a nation in God's name, ruling the nation by Presbyteries and making church attendance compulsory, raising a Covenanting army to wage a holy war against the English.     By the time Louis was seven the family had moved from the edge of New Town to the very heart of it, at 17 Heriot Row. Thomas Stevenson was representative of a professional class demanding more space and light, and only eighty years before Louis's birth the hand some Georgian squares and fine crescents of New Town were being built, leaving the Old Town around the castle to degenerate into the dangerous slum it became, with its criminals and whores, its medieval wynds and courts, and Britain's first high-rises, ten-story tenements crammed with starving tenants. But Thomas Stevenson and his engineering forebears were shaped by a factor that affected so many Scotsmen after the Treaty of Union of 1707, when Edinburgh lost its status as a national capital. Out of the bitterness of this defeat rose a determination to prevent Edinburgh from becoming a backwater, and the Scottish Enlightenment with its lawyers, philosophers, doctors, and writers changed the town into an "Athens of the North." In part a product of outrage, the Enlightenment carried with it much patriotic nostalgia.     "First and foremost," writes the historian Tom Steel, "the Scottish Enlightenment was the culmination of a national system of education that had its roots in the far-off days of the Reformation. By the middle of the eighteenth century the desire of Calvinists like Knox to have a school in every parish was becoming a reality, certainly in Lowland Scotland, and the fruits of a nation's near-obsession with education showed themselves in the late eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth." The failure of the Forty-five Rebellion (1745) and the departure of Bonnie Prince Charlie the Young Pretender made the English, who assumed all Scots were Jacobites, more determined than ever to undermine Scottish culture. After the slaughter at Culloden, the victorious Hanoverian Cumberland earned himself the nickname "Butcher" for his savage reprisals. Members of Parliament in London considered drastic action, some even advocating the sterilization of all "Jacobite" women. Others thought the Highlands should be cleared and repopulated with people from the south. A vicious act passed by the British government and not repealed for forty years forbade the wearing of Highland dress. Highlanders had already been banned from carrying weapons, even the dirk, primarily a utensil for eating. Emigration began in earnest as a way of escaping a Britain hostile to the Highlanders. Dr. Johnson, on tour in 1773, saw that "Their pride has been crushed by the heavy hand of a vindictive conqueror," and by laws which "make every eye bear witness to subjection." Now that the Young Pretender was vanquished, Scotland was effectively severed from her old connections with France and joined to England's Protestantism. Modern Scotland was about to emerge from these afflictions and changes.     The rise of the Scottish Enlightenment was a deliberate attempt to save a culture in danger of extinction, one which went back a thousand years. The nobility in Scotland, finding themselves without a parliament, moved south in large numbers in a search for other sources of power. The new class that emerged to fill the political and social vacuum included men of learning and letters, the "literati" of this Enlightenment, who set out to rival England and be its intellectual superiors.     Any array of names illuminating the Enlightenment would be headed by David Hume, born in Edinburgh in 1711. His informal education and his belief in knowledge gained from experience would have been an example to Thomas Stevenson as well as to his son. In France for three years as a young man, Hume wrote his Treatise on Human Nature , spent time in London, published his Political Discourses , and became keeper of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh. His History brought him fame, and he returned to London on two occasions, each time ending bored by those "barbarians who inhabit the banks of the Thames." Proud of being a Scot, Hume spoke with a dialect broader than Burns's. Braid Scots was widely spoken throughout Lowland Scotland: it had its own vocabulary, pronunciation, and idiom, and Robert Burns fashioned a vigorous poetic language from it.     This is not the place for a history of Scottish culture, but mention should be made of a Scot of even greater importance than Hume. Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , published more than two hundred years ago, has never been out of print. A philosopher and economist, he was born in Kirkcaldy in Fife in 1723. In Tom Steel's words, "He left behind a book that, apart from the Bible and Das Kapital , perhaps did more than any other to change the Western world." Victorian society with its unrestrained materialism was modified by it, and its influence has reached modern Japan. The Wealth of Nations was envisaged as a blueprint for Britain, a way of regulating the post-Industrial Revolution philosophy of laissez-faire for the common good.     A man of the "literati" for whom Stevenson felt a powerful affinity, oppressed as he was in his own youth by a repressive culture which seemed out to "fleg [frighten] mankind frae being good," was Robert Fergusson, born exactly a century before Louis. At twenty he wrote his first poem, "The Daft Days," about the local characters of the filthy Edinburgh streets, and then "Auld Reekie," a masterpiece celebrating the city's most unspeakable citizens, policed after a fashion by the City Guard or "black banditi." By twenty-four his hectic flame had burned out: he died in 1774 in a madhouse. Stevenson's hero-worshiping had its element of morbidity: more than once he thought his own life would be as brief. He admired Fergusson's recklessness and his attack on hypocrisy for their own sakes when he read such lines as ... there's an unco dearth o' grace That has nae mansion but the face, And never can obtain a part In benmost corner of the heart. Why should religion make us sad, If good frae virtue's to be had?     In his thirties, certain he was going to die, Louis the once-wonderful boy wrote to his friend Henley of his "Fergussonian youth." At the end the ghost was still there at his elbow, the doomed poet born in the same town as himself, wild as he, "both sickly," whispering from the madhouse like a warning. BEFORE WE CONSIDER Louis's father and the remarkable dynasty of engineers to which he belonged, let us meet Margaret Isabella Balfour, the woman he was fortunate enough to meet and marry. A photograph of her with Louis aged four, looking girlish and chubby, shows a mother little more than a girl, tall and attractive, straight hair parted severely, concentrating on staying still. She married at nineteen in 1848. Louis was her only child. Very different in character from her husband, she adored her son, and he remembered how he loved to be with her, running upstairs to the top flat of their second home, "both of them singing `We'll all go up to Gatty's room, to Gatty's room,' Gatty being contracted for Grandpapa, my mother's father, who was coming to stay with us." The little boy was called Lou, or "Smout," Scots for any small creature, first by his rather severe father and then by his mother and other members of the family. He was clearly precocious from infancy. His mother in her diary of July 1853 recorded: "Smout's favorite occupation is making a church; he makes a pulpit with a chair and a stool; reads sitting, and then stands up and sings by turns." This must have pleased her simple piety, as did his wish to have the Bible read to sheep and horses, who were ignorant of God. Apart from the influence of the parents, Cummy's teaching was having an obvious effect. "Cummy" was Alison Cunningham, the family nurse, who had joined the household when Louis was eighteen months old. Though she soon made him as fanatically religious as herself, Cummy had to deal with the searching questions of this highly intelligent tiny child. He wanted to know, for instance, why God had made Mary Magdalene "naughty," and, even more to the point, "Why has God got a Hell?"     The family now lived at I Inverleith Terrace, a larger house than that at Howard Place but more exposed to Edinburgh's storms and fogs. Stormy nights, with gales ripping at the roof and casements, would tip the fearful boy into nightmares which Cummy had helped to bring about with her gleeful tales of Hell, Evil, and Damnation. A poem, "Childhood," refers grimly to "The long black passage up to bed."     Three years later the family were on the move again, alarmed by doctors advising somewhere less likely to encourage the child's feverish colds and coughs. The Stevensons moved this time to another Georgian terrace, 17 Heriot Row, a south-facing street in the city's New Town. This was the elegant, genteel environment Louis would know through childhood and adolescence.     The sweet-natured, companionable, and optimistic Margaret Stevenson, called Maggie in the family, was the youngest of thirteen children of the Reverend Lewis Balfour, who spoke broad Scots yet was considered a gentleman, and had married the daughter of the minister of Galston. Margaret was therefore a child of the church on both sides. Her father was a terrifying figure to his children, though surprisingly tender at times, like his son-in-law. Sickly as a youth, he went to the Isle of Wight in an attempt to cure a week chest. He passed this ill health on to his daughter, and probably through her to Louis, whose first serious illness at twenty-nine months, the first of many, was diphtheria. Although the weak lungs which always plagued him could no doubt be traced to the Balfours, the medical history of the Stevensons was also suspect.     Maggie herself, separated from a husband often away traveling on business, suffered poor health from the time of her son's birth through to 1862. This meant that Cummy became to all intents and purposes the boy's "second mother," to use his own words, nursing him devotedly through many a night of feverish illness. When he was thirty he recalled hellish childhood dreams, waking with "my knees and chin together, my soul shaken, my body convulsed with agony." Sometimes his highly nervous temperament would bring on attacks of hysteria. One story goes that he locked himself in his room by accident and wept hysterically, thinking he was trapped forever. A servant was dispatched to bring a locksmith while the boy's father did his best to comfort him by talking gently through the door. Any real stability during Louis's formative years was provided by Cummy, even though paradoxically she was a morbid influence. His tribute to her devotion is moving to this day. "She was more patient than I can suppose of an angel: hours together she would help console me in my paroxysms; and I remember with particular distinctness how she would lift me out of bed and take me, rolled in blankets, to the window, whence I might look forth to the blue night starred with street lamps and see where the gas still burned behind the windows of other sickrooms ... where also, we told each other, there might be sick little boys and their nurses waiting, like us, for the morning."     It would be easy to condemn Cummy as a bigot, with her hatred of "Popery," of the Continent and its depravity, of playing cards (the devil's picturebooks), of the theatre, of novels. She poured stories of hellfire, ghosts, and persecuted Covenanters into the defenseless child's head, giving him a taste for melodrama and a dread of the night. Only when the country carts clattered in over the cobbles and he heard the drovers bawling and whips cracking around the horses did he know it was daybreak and feel safe again. Cummy's religion was the narrowest Covenanting form of Scottish Presbyterianism, but he remembered her singing and dancing for him, and above all her readings from the Bible. The last time they met, he told her that it was she who gave him a passion for drama. "Me, Master Lou?" she answered. "I never put foot inside a playhouse in my life." "Ay, woman," he said, "but it was the grand dramatic way ye had of reciting the hymns."     Frank McLynn in his biography writes tellingly of the boy's yearning for the presence of his real mother, instead of the absent invalid always in bed till noon. "Goodnight, my jewellest of mothers," he has been recorded as saying. Vowing to call her "mother" so that he remembers "to do it when I'm a big man" gives us a poignant reminder of his sense of loss and his longing for maternal love.     Any account of Louis's father should begin with his grandfather, who died in 1850 just before Robert Louis was born. Robert Stevenson, the grand lighthouse engineer overshadowing all others, entered the virgin profession because of his stepfather, Thomas Smith of Edinburgh. Smith, a shipowner who dealt in lamps and oils, must also have been an engineer of' sorts, since the newly created Board of Northern Lighthouses took him on to improve the coal flares in lighthouses by substituting his own oil lamps and reflectors. The stepson, Robert, learned his trade from Smith, and then went far beyond him in accomplishment, as well as cementing the relationship by marrying Jean, his stepfather's daughter by a previous marriage.     Robert's achievements were indeed extraordinary. As first engineer of the Board for forty-seven years he was involved in the building of twenty-three lighthouses in Scotland, introduced his own invention of intermittent lights, and supervised the building of roads, bridges, harbors, canals, and railways. He left his own written account of the construction of the Bell Rock lighthouse, finished before Thomas Stevenson was born. This was his great work, built with crude equipment on a half-submerged reef against all odds. After he died his son Alan went on to raise the Skerryvore lighthouse in 1844, called by Robert Louis in his memorial essay "the noblest of all deep-sea lights." Thomas served under him in this enterprise, and then joined with him in the creation of two further deep-sea lights, Chickens and Dhu Heartach. The brothers went on to build twenty-seven shore lights and twenty-five beacons, and to build many harbors and improve rivers in England as well as Scotland.     In his memorial essay, his son proudly extols Thomas's other achievements, his research into the propagation and reduction of waves, his study of storms--"his sworn adversaries"--and his inventions, unprotected by patents. One was the louver-boarded screen for the protection of meteorological instruments. But his chief claim to fame rests on his pioneering work in the field of optics, bringing to perfection the revolving light his father had initiated. As a result, wrote his son, "In all parts of the world a safer landfall awaits the mariner." Louis went on to relate an anecdote which he was glad to repeat, of a Peruvian who admired the works of Stevenson--but he had never heard of the author of Dr. Jekyll : it was the engineer he had in mind.     Thomas Stevenson's firm was known worldwide; they were consulting engineers to the Indian, New Zealand, and Japanese lighthouse boards. In Germany he was called "the Nestor of lighthouse illumination." Honor was longer coming in France, but he was finally recognized and esteemed, as indeed he was in his small circle in Edinburgh: "few men were more beloved ... where he breathed an air that pleased him, and wherever he went, in railway carriages or hotel smoking rooms, his strange, humorous vein of talk and his transparent honesty raised him up friends and admirers." But in London he was virtually unknown. He seldom went there, and only as part of his work. He refused to dine out, went to the same restaurant, same church, same theatre, and was glad to leave.     Thomas's education was so scrappy that his writer son praised him for succeeding in spite of being so ill-equipped. He was no mathematician, which was curious to say the least for someone practicing applied science. In order to deal with the formulas for the instruments he invented he had to enlist the help of physicists such as Professor Swan, his cousin, and his friend Professor Tait, both of St. Andrews University. As for the lack of patents, this was a matter of principle. Like his father before him he looked on his work as belonging to the nation. All the same he was prosperous enough to employ servants, collect furniture, prints, and pictures, and live in a substantial house. He had never had Greek but retaught himself Latin after leaving school, where he had been "a mere consistent idler." Writing this comment must have pleased the son who wrote in his essay "An Apology for Idlers": "Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized by the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself." Whitman would have applauded. Natures whose tendency was to brood, like his own and his father's, should, he thought, be left to do so.     Thomas Stevenson read theology voraciously, especially Lactantius, the third-century convert to Christianity. He was a strict adherent to the Scottish Kirk yet thought himself unworthy to be an office-bearer. He never tired of rereading Scott's Guy Mannering . Robert Louis called his father's sense of his own unworthiness morbid, like his dwelling on death and the brevity of life. Unlike his wife, who was essentially the peacemaker, equable in temperament, there was a Celtic melancholy flowing under Thomas's thoughts, many of which he kept to himself. He was both stern and soft, the blend wholly Scottish, a man who had been, in his son's words, "an idle eager sentimental youth" whose imagination was romantic, who made up stories during bouts of insomnia that were full of "ships, roadside inns, robbers, old sailors, and commercial travelers before the era of steam." When Louis was enduring his many disturbed nights, his father would sometimes sit at his bedside and slip into his unfolding mind these tales of his own invention. Later, when Louis came to compose and read out the first version of Treasure Island in installments for the entertainment of his stepson, Thomas was one of the book's first admirers, to such an extent that he was ready with suggestions of his own as the story developed. This was when father and son were as reconciled as they would ever be, long after the violent family rows that had nearly shipwrecked them for life. The richness of material Stevenson had to draw on came not only from his father but his whole Scottish experience, as he makes clear to Henry James: "A Scottish child hears much of shipwreck, outlying iron skerries, pitiless breakers and great sealights; much of heathery mountains, wild clans and hunted Covenanters...."     The harmony between father and son was hard-won. More than one only child has come to see himself as a rival for his mother's love. When the tension between Louis and Thomas was at its height, he wrote to his friend Mrs. Sitwell: "Today in Glasgow my father went off on some business, and my mother and I wandered about for two hours. We had lunch together, and were very merry over what people at the restaurant would think of us--mother and son they could not have supposed us to be." One is reminded of Paul Morel's delight in his closeness to his mother in Sons and Lovers .     Thomas Stevenson was "passionately attached, passionately prejudiced," a man of extremes, short-tempered, genial in company, handicapped by having no firm foothold in life. Without his wife's steadying nature he would have been rudderless. He was a strict Tory who had radical views, and his gallantry toward women led him to favor a marriage law under which any woman could have a divorce on demand, but no man should ever be granted one "on any ground whatever." As if this wasn't extraordinary enough, he founded a Magdalen Mission in Edinburgh and was its main supporter behind the scenes. Other eccentricities included a whimsical belief that dogs had souls, which meant that he felt obliged to greet any stray he met in the street. He could also be seen stopping schoolchildren carrying books to or from school, telling them to learn only what interested them, or if nothing did to avoid book learning altogether. He was an intense, nervous, sometimes anxiety-ridden man, eager to do good and fearing his own inadequacies. When his son broke away from the church, the clashes between them were prolonged and bitter.     If the sickly child in his nursery high in the house felt bewildered by a praying father who gave dinner parties and played cards--which Cummy warned were the work of the devil--what could he have made of this droll man with a "freakish" sense of humor who joined with Cummy in stimulating his interest in drama, especially in the form of miniature theatre? Then highly popular, these miniature stages, with cutout actors and actresses to be pushed on and off stage with tabs of card, could be bought at stationery stores. The eager little boy was soon an addict. Another enthusiast was Jack Yeats, the artist brother of the poet, who not only gobbled up the lurid melodramas, often of pirates and brigands, but was soon writing his own plays for miniature theatre, doing everything himself, drawing the characters and mounting them on cards and coloring them. In Jack Yeats's day as in Stevenson's, most successful plays, if they were suitable, ended up in the miniature theatre. Behind this magical world of cheap melodrama stood a Mr. Skelt, a name to conjure with, whose idea for a juvenile drama was a toy theatre with texts provided, and with the scenery and characters ready to be scissored out and colored. After Skelt, the material was taken over by Parks, Webb, Redington, and Pollock, other producers.     Louis was given his first Skelt for his sixth birthday. The flavor and excitement of it all is captured in his essay "A Penny Plain and Twopence Colored," wherein he lists some of the texts, mostly anonymous, which he avidly collected: Aladdin, The Red Rover, The Blind Boy, The Old Oak Chest, The Wood Demon, Jack Sheppard, The Miller and His Men, The Smuggler, The Forest of Bondy, Robin Hood, The Waterman, My Poll and My Partner Joe, Three-Fingered Jack, The Terror of Jamaica, The Floating Beacon, The Wreck Ashore, Sixteen-Strong Jack : on and on they went, "this roll-call of stirring names," a kaleidoscope from a childhood full of changing pictures, echoing in his mind as they receded into the past.     He would go with Cummy and later by himself to a stationer's shop at the corner of Antigua Street and Union Street on Leith Walk, feasting his eyes on the theatre displayed in the window, all in working order, "with a forest set, a combat, and a few robbers carousing in the Slides," together with other plays in heaps jumbled up together. Then came the dive inside, to an interior that was dark, smelling of Bibles, and Mr. Smith behind the counter, exasperated by a child too excited to make a choice. Stevenson writes with characteristic honesty that the purchase and the first half-hour at home, "was the summit. Thenceforth the interest declined little by little. The fable, as set forth in the play-book, proved to be not worthy of the scenes and characters: what fable would not?" And before long these childish disappointments were leading him to the dreaming of his own fables.     This now forgotten genre probably originated in London, which had shops specializing in all the trappings, and when Stevenson came to write his essay he realized he had gone south without ever leaving his playroom. Skelt, he remembered, had a strong flavor of England ... "the hedgerow elms, the thin brick houses, windmills, glimpses of the navigable Thames--England, when I came to visit it, was only Skelt made evident: to cross the border was, for the Scotsman, to come home to Skelt; there was the inn-sign and there the horse-trough, all foreshadowed in the faithful Skelt."     G. K. Chesterton, one of Stevenson's most astute critics, had no doubt that the story of the man begins with what Louis liked to call Skeltery or Skeltdom. "What am I? what are life, art, letters, the world," he declared, "but what my Skelt has made them? He stamped himself upon my immaturity. The world was plain before I knew him, a poor penny world: but soon it was all colored with romance." As a small child, a whole series of ailments kept him inside his own home, and more often than not in his own bedroom. Because he was far from robust he was guarded from the world outside, though he could hear it, see it from his window, and at night fear it. In a strikingly unsentimental poem, "The Land of Counterpane," he does his best to make light of it all: When I was sick and lay a-bed I had two pillows at my head. And all my toys beside me lay To keep me happy all the day.... And sometimes sent my ships in fleets All up and down the sheets: Or brought my trees and houses out, And planted cities all about. I was the giant great and still That sits upon the pillow-hill, And sees before him, dale and plain, The pleasant land of counterpane.     If we think it absurd to say that the images in Stevenson's stories stand out in sharp outline and are in fact all edges, because as a child he began cutting figures out of cardboard, we should read what the wily Chesterton has to say. Stevenson was attracted to the angularity of woodcuts. His maritime figures, commented Chesterton, are all edges, "and they stand by the sea, that is the edge of the world." There is a clarity about a Highland tale by Stevenson. His mountains have little mist, just as his Celts have nothing of Celtic twilight about them. He wanted details to stand out, like the hilt of a sword or a feather sticking out of a hat. Even when he set scenes at night, like the duel in The Master of Ballantrae , the emphasis falls on the stiff frost rather than the dark: the candles as rigid as swords, the candle flames as sharp as the stars. His instinct as a craftsman, wrote Chesterton, was that of a man cutting wood, sharp and clean. And he loved splashes of color, as if always conscious of the red gold and blue seas and azure skies of Skeltdom that had so affected him with their simplicity. "How the roads wander, how the castle sits upon the hill, how the sun radiates from behind the cloud, and how the congregated clouds themselves uproll, as stiff as bolsters."     Poetry is never far away in Stevenson, any more than the sea is: and the Skelt influence comes out in him as frugality--not a word one associates with so copious a writer. But he was Scottish to the bone, which means frugal, as well as generous to a fault. And the human wisdom in his work, always lying under the rejoicing of a child which he hung on to all his life, was something out of his own individual temperament that he added on to Skelt rather than found in it. Sickly as he was, this physical frailty left him stranded behind thick walls with a toy theatre and toy soldiers, while outside the abominable Edinburgh weather was either blowing or raining when it wasn't foggy or clogging the streets with snow. The city on its narrow neck of land, exposed to huge winds tearing in from the Atlantic on the west and the North Sea to the east, ironbound in winter and uneasy in summer, with its coal fires and granite houses, had the cold of Puritanism settling in the blood of its citizens in all seasons, and for the time being the isolated boy was happily oblivious. What we can at the very least say about the advent of Mr. Skelt is that it was the first of Stevenson's great escapes. Copyright © 2001 Philip Callow. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Robert Louis Stevenson
Forewordp. ix
Part I
1. Why Has God Got a Hell?p. 5
2. The Noise of Pens Writingp. 21
3. The Thunderbolt Has Fallenp. 38
4. Remember That I Come of a Gloomy Familyp. 52
5. To Marry Is to Domesticate the Recording Angelp. 74
6. The Great Affair Is to Movep. 91
Part II
7. A Shipful of Failuresp. 113
8. All Kinds of Miseries Herep. 130
9. The Wolverine on My Own Shouldersp. 146
10. Flutes of Silencep. 170
11. A Steam Press Called the Vandegrifterp. 189
12. The Purity of Forestsp. 210
Part III
13. Get Out Your Big Atlasp. 231
14. To See These Dread Creatures Smilep. 251
15. It Does Make You Feel Wellp. 265
16. Do I Look Strange?p. 288
Postscriptp. 307
Acknowledgmentsp. 311
Chronologyp. 313
Worksp. 315
Selected Bibliographyp. 317
Indexp. 321