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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Literary Life.
William Gray
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£49.95, xvi + 190 pages, ISBN 0-333-98400-5 (hardback).
£16.99, xvi + 190 pages, ISBN 0-333-98401-3 (paperback).

Nathalie Saudo
Université de Picardie Jules Verne


Henry James's famous statement, which is quoted in the conclusion, that Stevenson "has superseded, personally, his books, and this last replacement of himself so en scène (so largely by his own aid too) has killed the literary baggage" is probably the best starting point to understand William Gray's task in this biography of Stevenson. Acknowledging that biographies of Stevenson are in themselves a genre, William Gray made the choice of a literary life which provides an overview of his works, his friendships and his literary influences. The specificity of this biography is two-fold: Stevenson's own voice can be heard throughout the book thanks to a fine exploitation of the most recent edition of his correspondence (1) and many quotations from his fiction and poetry. The selections from this correspondence and from his lesser works (such as "The Treasure of Franchard" [42-43], "The Story of a Lie" [82-83]) are one of the most appreciable features of the book, as they take the reader into an exploration of unfamiliar Stevenson. This exploration is even a form of defamiliarization, since the chronology of Stevenson's life is overlooked, in favour of a topographical approach. William Gray maps out his life in five areas: England, France, Scotland, America and the South Seas with the aim of showing the cultural and personal influences at work in his writings. "The English Scene" focuses on his friendships with Fanny Sitwell, Sidney Colvin, Meredith and Henry James.

The chapter on France is devoted to showing why Stevenson was, in his own words, "a complete Gaul": it deals with his stays in Mentone and Barbizon, with the literary and artistic figures who influenced him (François Villon, Victor Hugo), and the works that betray a French influence (An Inland Voyage, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and The New Arabian Nights). Scotland and its history are given a central place on account of their continuous influence on Stevenson's works till the very end of his life: "the placing of Scotland at the heart of the book is […] a kind of metaphor for the idea that Stevenson's Scottishness lay at the very core of his being both as a man and a writer" [xii]. "The Body Snatcher," "Thrawn Janet" and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are replaced in the context of Presbyterianism, the obsession with evil, tales of the Covenanters and Calvinist theology. Stevenson, William Gray writes, has "portray[ed] a Scottish identity divided against itself" [54]. Kidnapped is examined through the issue of the politics of language [54-59]. The chapter ends with analyses of The Master of Ballantrae, "this dark subversion of romance" [66], and Weir of Herminston in the light of Stevenson's relationship to the "Kailyard School." Walt Whitman is presented as Stevenson's first successful introduction to America.

The account of his first crossing of the Atlantic and his train journey to California, as they are related in The Amateur Emigrant, is a particularly good read. The rest of the chapter focuses on Stevenson's literary activity at Silverado and Saranac Lake. The longest chapter deals with the writing and the editorial history of In the South Seas, with extracts proving that "Stevenson's work as a keen and perceptive amateur anthropologist makes for fascinating reading but it [was] hardly the kind of material MacClure had expected when he commissioned the letters from the South Seas" [118]. The most fascinating elements in that chapter are probably the analogies Stevenson made between Scottish culture and tribal Polynesia: "if the Marquesans (and Samoans) are like the folk of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, then the Paumotuans are like the canny, lowland Scots (at its most reductive, we seem to be dealing with a Pacific version of 'Highlanders and Covenanters')" [121]. We then follow the chronology of his life, from the purchase of Vailima in 1890, his experience in farming and the writing of the Vailima Letters and "The Beach of Falesa" to his collaboration with Lloyd on The Ebb-Tide. The late fiction is dominated by a fictional return to Scotland, with his grandfather's biography and Weir of Hermiston, although he remained involved in Samoan politics, which he wrote about in articles for The Times. The conclusion is mainly devoted to his heated exchanges with Baxter and Colvin over the Edinburgh Edition of his complete works.

Although people rather than places are privileged, there is something very adequate in the topographical structure, which reconciles Stevenson's appetite for travelling with his peregrinatio in stabilitate on the wings of imagination. As a matter of fact, it is extremely successful in toning down two of the unavoidable and arguably tedious elements that usually provide a continuity in Stevenson's life: his sickly condition and the influence of Fanny Osbourne. It is appreciable that his literary career can be discussed seriously without systematic references to these topics.

This approach also has the advantage of bringing out some unexpected links between the books and the places where they were written, such as the American landscape of Treasure Island, or the unexpected relationship between the Samoan context and the content of Catriona [62-63].

What is somewhat to be regretted is that the text is so dense and the proper names so numerable (there is hardly a single sentence without one) that it is sometimes difficult to find one's bearings. And yet some of the events in Stevenson's life which are more fully developed seem to have an anecdotal dimension, since their presence in the text is of questionable interest: the Nixie quarrel [104-109] or the Damien controversy [127-130] are rather confusing and even drawn-out.

This accounts for the fact that the biography is hardly for the non-initiated. In case readers get confused between the several Fannys, have difficulty in getting their bearings or finding their mark between the different books, they are advised to refer to the chronology at the beginning of the text. But the fact remains that, in order to acquire a coherent and memorable view of Stevenson's life, a traditional biography appears to be preferable. Nevertheless the student of Stevenson's works will surely benefit from the discussion of separate works and remarks on Stevenson's literary and ideological positions, such as discussions of his conception of the gentleman [80, 86, 102-103].

(1) Booth, Bradford A. and Mehew, Ernest (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 8 vols. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994-95


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