Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve just finished reading a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman. Hmm. Interesting man, interesting life.

It’s also interesting to compare the life of a writer then and now – the similarities and the differences. The similarities: you can work for 10 or 20 years to be an overnight success. Stevenson was made famous by Treasure Island, and then went stellar with Jekyll & Hyde, but he had been writing for over 10 years when Treasure Islandwas written for serialisation in a magazine, earning a decent wage for a while but not creating much of a splash. It then sat in a drawer for two years until a friend had the idea of pushing it as a book to a publisher. Yup, I can sympathise with that.

The differences: the fact that Jekyll & Hyde could sell 40,000 copies in the UK, which Stevenson knew about, and 250,000 in the US (some legal, some pirated) which he didn’t. Copyright and IP wasn’t quite as vigorous then as now. And the whole publishing world was so much smaller. You get the feeling that it was like science fiction used to be in, say, the 50s – small enough that, in principle, you could read everything that was written.

Another difference, though: any successful author that I know today is organised, plans their plots, pays their tax and national insurance on time, and above all is disciplined in the writing. Stevenson was certainly a disciplined writer, but as for everything else he was vague, woolly minded, useless with money, constantly overflowing with noble dreams and projects which withered on the vine before he had got the first paragraph down. But for a few lucky breaks and an undeniable talent once he actually got writing, he would have been forgotten as yet another wealthy dilettante. This is probably why I would want to slap him if I had ever met him – except that I wouldn’t, because I’m nice and because one good blow would probably have killed him.

I frankly find it amazing that heroes such as Jim Hawkins and David Balfour – steadfast, brave, reliable, exemplary role models of integrity – could be created by someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, who wasn’t any of the above. It shows he was at least aware of the desirability of these virtues. Stevenson was the only son of a successful Scottish engineer, who was the wealthy head of a family firm that specialised in building lighthouses. His general uselessness at related subjects like maths made it clear to everyone, even eventually his reluctant father, that he wouldn’t be following the family trade, so instead he trained as a lawyer, in which after qualifying as an advocate he handled precisely one case, which didn’t even require him to speak and yet he still managed to bungle. The only interest he ever had was in being as writer and that was what he stuck at, living off his parents until eventually he got lucky.

Note that I do not criticise him for being useless at maths and physics, or not being a good lawyer, or even not following in his father’s trade. I do however get immensely fed up with the sense of entitlement shared by Stevenson and far too many wannabe writers that because they are clearly meant to be a writer, the world owes them a favour until such time as the fame kicks in. Like ‘eck it does. Get a job, you sponger. There is a poetic justice in that just as he got rich, he started having to support his own generation of parasites – mad wife, lazy stepson, not much less lazy stepdaughter and alcoholic stepson-in-law. Still, at his death he was probably the best known and best selling writer in the world, and to many was considered the best writer, period. That’s quite a hat trick.

To be fair, one thing against his ever settling down and earning a living –had he been so inclined – was that he had to travel constantly to stay alive. He was never well; in fact it’s astonishing that he made it through childhood, where received wisdom was to make a child’s room as hermetically airless as possible, and his mad Scottish nurse filled his head with Wee Free guilt and terrors, and then when this already highly strung child couldn’t sleep would dose him with strong coffee.

By the time he reached adulthood the cold and damp of Edinburgh was killing him. A pattern for over thirty years was that he would leave for a dryer climate, get better, return to Edinburgh and have a relapse. He was only ever really healthy when he settled in the South Pacific in the last ten years of his life, and that is when his life really gets interesting. I find it fascinating that he lived at a time when the world was mostly at peace and a well-off Victorian gentleman could go pretty well anywhere he liked. It is also amazing that in the 1880s and 90s there was already enough of a global communications network that a man could settle in Samoa and conduct a successful literary life, living off the earnings he was making in Europe and America. However, it was a one-way process as he lagged a long way behind what other writers were doing. It meant he was writing into a vacuum and it probably wouldn’t have worked at all if he didn’t have a loyal contingent of friends back home seeing that his stuff got into print. He could fire off manuscripts of all shapes and sizes and subjects with a reasonable expectation that they would still get into print regardless. (Another difference with today’s writers …) Inevitably he became more and more isolated from the contemporary writing scene and it is interesting to speculate whether he could have stayed quite so successful without suddenly dying at the age of 44 and making the matter academic. By the time he was my age, he had been dead for two years.

I must read Weir of Hermiston, which apparently ends mid-sentence because that’s where he put his pen down to take a break on the day he died.

The character I find most admirable in his story is his mother, Margaret. After her husband died when she was in her late fifties, this respectable Edinburgh widow decided to take an extended holiday with her son and his family across the US and then on a yachting cruise around the Pacific. In fact, she liked it so much that she then decided to move fulltime to Samoa. With her piano. Still a respectable widow throughout, photographs show her dressed and looking a bit like Queen Victoria, complete with starched widow’s cap. Go girl!