R. Dee, 2001
Louis Stevenson led a life to rival any of his characters
adventures. He is, in short, the stuff of legends: a sickly child
grew into a sickly man who travelled six thousand miles across an
ocean and a continent to answer one telegram from the woman he loved.
Philip Callows Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson
is a commendable exploration of a wordsmith whose life cannot adequately
be captured in words. Where other biographers pander, lecture, exaggerate
or understate, Mr. Callow is content with an intimate recitation
of fact and fiction. Louis
is a definitive guide to the myth
and mystery behind Robert Louis Stevenson.
both defies and defines the literary prototype of an undependable,
self-destructive black sheep. His was a life of vagrancy that many
writers undertake when books grow tedious and inadequate. He was
self-destructive in the sense that he did not choose domestic tranquility,
even when the travel and the late nights and, no doubt, the hundreds
of cigars, did nothing but harm to his weakened lungs. After he
swore off religion in his youth, he was something of a pariah to
his reverent family. But as a manstill a casual agnostiche
held Christian services for native workers at his final home in
Samoa. He loved his native Scotland to a fault, ever consumed by
the English injustice served to the Covenanters years before his
birth in 1850. But he changed the spelling of his name to the French
"Louis" from the traditional "Lewis" out of a spontaneous admiration
for continental affectations. Mr. Callows depiction sees through
the results of what may be a hundred different causes, all peculiar
to Stevensons time and temperament, and refuses to place the
author in an uncomfortably generic box.
transcended the stereotypes. He was loved, at times fanatically,
and he compensated his family and his fans with unceasing loyalty
to them and a quiet devotion to his work that belied both his physical
state and his wanderlust. Mr. Callow lets Louis issue the best description
of his personality: "Past eccentric-obscure and oh we never mention
itpresent industrious, respectable and fatuously contented.
... Curses some. Temper unstable ... Has been an invalid for ten
years but can boldly claim you cant tell it on him. Given
to explaining the UniverseScotch, sir, Scotch," and his philosophy
("There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.
By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain
unknown even to ourselves ... ).
has been gone for more than 100 years. But his stories linger and
through them something of him. Revered in his time for adventure
tales including Kidnapped
and Treasure Island
saw one of his best works, The Amateur Emigrant
, edited into
oblivion because his faithful recounting of the lives of Americas
newest children did not sit well in prudish English parlors. His
words are active; his books transcend the simple fairy tales some
detractors would have us expect. There is a reality in work like
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
that resonated in the troubled receding
century and that rings true today. He is the prophetic H. G. Wells
of his genrehuman nature.
it is not surprising that Stevenson, the man, insists on contradictions
in his life and work. Thin, unearthly pale and inexplicably ill,
he yearned both for a schooners decks to force a refinement
of the oceans inexpressibility and for Scottish earth to inflict
memories of nightmarish windsa common symbol in his workon
his dreams. He married a prescient enfant terrible who was both
an inspiration and a torturous master. By the end of Mr. Callows
fine testimonial, my, we know
this enervating bundle of genius
and anguish. We would like to tell him not to despair. There is
no justice in his suffering. "My skill deserts me," Stevenson wrote
shortly before his death from a brain aneurysm in 1894, "It was
a very little dose of inspiration and a pretty trick of style, long
lost, improved by the most heroic industry." One questions if this
man of remarkable will somehow willed his own demiseif his
lost spirit, his lost capacity to produce, killed the spark evident
in his many captivating photographs. Mr. Callow is mull. So this
is the riddle RLS left for us: Is it better to live with the knowledge
you will not be again what once you were, or to be gone in an instant
before the world can catch its breath and sigh disapprovingly and
wonder where your merit went?
is not up to his audience to offer his excuses or make his case.
Stevenson inflicts dreams on even the unwilling, the stubborn and
callous. He asks nothing in return. What could we possibly offer?
He is beyond laughter and tearsbeyond us both in time and
in a simple ability to take the essence of childhood and weave it
into stories for men. Perhaps that was left behind in the simplicity
of the Victorian era, which was not so much simple as smothered.
To his credit, Mr. Callow understands that fact. He knows when silence
is the best exclamation. His is a close biography, a tight narrative
of the life of an author who has done more to validate real-life
Peter Pans than any other writer. Mr. Callow proves himself to be
a formidable biographer, one who does not let his personal agenda,
if indeed he has one, interfere with an objective portrayal of his
subject. He is to be praised most highly as an invisible biographer
who chooses carefully when it is prudent to step to the forefront
of his readers minds and when to let the tale of a magical
mind work its magic. Mr. Callow is in control of this book; his
work is a refreshing departure from those who, after no doubt careful
and scientific analysis, discover that their preoccupations and
ideas (or revisions of accepted ideas) are more important than historical
is what it claims to be. We cannot ask more of a biographer
than truth. When a book like Louis
offers a rare glimpse
into a spirit, the surprise is enough to earn laud for its author.
But even more rarely, a book forces questions of its readers. Where
are our heroes? Are they still heroic when their character in its
flabby and undisciplined state is exposed? Mr. Callow answers for
Stevenson and leaves us to answer for the lives that malinger. Damn
his audacity but bless his accomplishment. Louis
is a sieve
for thought and reflection that Robert Louis Stevenson, the master
himself, would not fail to appreciate.