April 27, 2012

Book: Robert Louis Stevenson – A Biography by Claire Harman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:00 pm

Robert Louis Stevenson’s life has many interesting parts – to be sure. For one thing, he (“RLS”) was sickly throughout his life, and expected to die at a young age even before any of his most famous novels were conceived. For another, he spent most of his last years in life on Pacific Islands, away from his native Scotland. And his last few novels were arguably not his best works: those came before. There is enough to keep the reader occupied. But….

Before we come to the `but‘ part, here is the preview of what the book covers. Like any good biography should, it covers the family background, where his great grandfather, his grandfather and his father were all Engineers, and so were the two elder brothers of his father, Thomas Stevenson. Even his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, had contempt for schoolwork, preferring practical engineering and on the job learning as superior to book learning. His father was the youngest of three brothers. His father’s brothers show this streak of sickliness as if the whole family is stamped with that affliction. His father’s eldest brother, Alan Stevenson, was a great engineer but was suddenly `afflicted with a total mental breakdown’ and completely withdrew from work into a world of books and writing (yes!). The next brother, David, was the one who stayed in the family business of engineers – for generations, they built lighthouses in very difficult places. The family seems to have been wealthy.

Thomas Stevenson, father of RLS, also was an engineer, and also was afflicted with what appears to be a nervous breakdown. He was very strict, Calvinist to be precise, and his nanny of young age was even stricter. Interestingly, RLS was the only child of his parents, unusual in his day, I think. Even more interestingly, he himself fathered no children.

What is unusual about his life is that RLS rebelled at being an engineer and played truant, citing his constant illnesses as an excuse not to work. He was asked to study to be a lawyer and quit that too, in the middle. Even in his beloved writing, he was not consistent. He used to start a lot of projects and lose interest in them before he could finish, starting  something else. Even at the time of his death, he had many projects half finished. He tried his hand at plays, meeting no success and abandoning it midway.

He was in love with an older lady called Fanny Sitwell, who married his best friend Colin. He then fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with a grown up daughter Belle, and son Lloyd. She was also older, like the other Fanny. It is interesting that she was in love with his cousin Bob Stevenson, and was `persuaded’ by the cousin to transfer her affections to RLS. She seems to have been brash, outspoken, and with her American mannerisms that found instant disfavour with all of the crowd around RLS. She changes her mind midway and tries to get back to her husband, with whom she is still married, but it does not work out. A love struck RLS pursues her to the US and marries her.

His relationship with his parents seems to have been complex. They disapproved of everything he did. But they sponsored him almost throughout his adult life, even after marriage, until he could support himself through his writing. He also had a great heart, helping out friends with great sums of money when they needed it.

He seems to have had blood vomiting episodes almost all his life. He was so troubled that he found that only at sea and in islands like Hawaii and, later, Samoa in the Pacific that his health stayed stable and decided to live there (after trying to be a `flower child‘ among peoples of Gilbert Islands).

The last years of his life were tragic, with Fanny in the throes of full blown insanity, and his work frittered away with the major preoccupation being writing letters to the Editor on the plight of the Samoans.

It is interesting to note that his best known work, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written just in about three weeks – written twice and not once, at that! (He destroyed the entire story and rewrote it slightly differently). It is also interesting to read that most of his life, he wrote desperately to support his ever more expensive livelihood (a large entourage, marine trips, what not)

We learn that those times, Hawaii was called Sandwich Islands and was ruled by (what turned out to be the last) King.

We learn that even after great popularity, the house he built for himself in Samoa had a tin roof and leaks with pouring rain, and all the discomforts one would associate with poverty. It is also interesting to note repeatedly that Fanny and Robert had no concept of dress sense and were seen often in dirty clothes, and lived what would be called a `hippie’ lifestyle if they had lived in the nineteen sixties.

Now comes the `but… ` part mentioned in the beginning.

In spite of all these, the book does not really have much to say. RLS lived a pretty uneventful life, for a person living in his time. He worked and lazed, and died abruptly in Samoa.

The long book gives a lot of details about his life, but after reading it, one does not get the sense that one watched a great life unfold. It is not the author’s fault, perhaps, but the subject had a very ordinary life, all in all, and that does not make a great story. Of course, if you are interested in RLS and his life, and are not looking in general for an entertaining biography, this is the book for you.

I would say a 5/10

— Krishna


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