The whole secret

Louis: the life of Robert Louis Stevenson

Philip Callow <em>Constable Robinson, 336pp, £20</em>

Robert Louis Stevenson died in 1894. The official biography, by his cousin Graham Balfour, was published in 1901. There soon followed memoirs by other family members and people who had known him in his last years in Samoa. His literary reputation dipped between the wars, but his life still held fascination for biographers, although Graham Greene (himself a distant cousin) once dismissed it as "comparatively uneventful (adventurous only to the sedate Civil Service minds of Goase and Colvin)". In the 1950s came lives by J C Furnas (perceptive and with much new material) and Richard Aldington (perfunctory). James Pope-Hennessy wrote one in 1974; it was difficult to see why, because he had little interest in Stevenson's work. As the centenary of his death approached, there was a spate of lives and studies, the best being Ian Bell's Dreams of Exile. Now comes another, lucid, fair and easily read biography, from Philip Callow; it has many merits, but these don't include any close involvement with Stevenson's writings. For the most intelligent critical work, one must still return to Janet Adam Smith, for so long the literary editor of this paper.

Callow's Life is interesting - though any account of Stevenson's struggle against his wretched health becomes wearisomely repetitive. It is important to remember that if reading about the haemorrhages and the weeks of fever and confinement to bed is tedious, they must have been far worse to live. Yet one can't pretend that his travels still have the glamour they held for his contemporaries. California, Australia, Samoa - they are places from which students on gap years send e-mails home.

In essence, the interest of this life of Stevenson is reduced to two elements: the struggle to make himself a writer, which was also a struggle to liberate himself to make smug moral judgements so evident in his early essays; and the story of his odd and often stormy marriage. Fanny Stevenson, at least ten years older than Louis - some thought 15 - was certainly a peculiar and uncomfortable character. Adam Nicolson has written a short biography of Kipling's wife Carrie, with the title The Hated Wife. Not uniquely hated, it seems. Both these American ladies were neurotic toughs who annexed their man and took charge of his life. In Fanny's case, it must be said, she probably kept that life going, even though Stevenson's recurrent illnesses frequently made her take to her own bed - perhaps in rivalry.

Callow is fair to her, sees the point of her, admires her spirit (as Henry James did), while admitting that Stevenson experienced "those moments of misogyny when men and women seem natural enemies and the relations between the sexes become outright war, and that resentment a man feels at his dependence on a woman who is nevertheless indispensable". At this point, one remembers that Callow is the author of a good biography of D H Lawrence.

In the last years in Samoa, Fanny and Louis quarrelled repeatedly; she became morose, suspicious, utterly unpredictable, jealous of her own daughter, Belle. (Richard Aldington suggested she should have been jealous of her son, Lloyd, instead. Callow, incidentally, shows none of the fierce disapproval of the charming, selfish Lloyd that Frank McLynn displayed in his own biography.)

Where Callow seems inadequate is in his failure to engage with Stevenson's work. After all, as Proust said, the best of a writer is in his work - or, rather, the truth about him is to be found there. Stevenson made false starts, but the work of his last ten years is remarkable, not only for its quality, but for being quite unlike what anyone else was doing at the time. He may have been a divided self: part Romantic cavalier, part Calvinist moralist; and there have been plenty of Scots who displayed the same barely compatible qualities and attitudes. Although he could be tiresomely sententious, his best work has a care for style, a lightness, and a sense of being complete in itself, which is like nothing else in Scottish literature, and very little in English. The main influences on him - as indeed on Kipling - were French, not English or Scottish, and nothing better sums up his view of art than the remonstrance he directed to his friend and admirer Henry James: "The whole secret is that no art does 'compete with life'. Man's method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality . . . Literature, above all in its most typical mood, the mood of narrative . . . pursues an independent and creative aim. So far as it imitates at all, it imitates not life but speech; not the facets of human destiny, but the emphasis and the suppressions with which the human actor tells of them."

This essay and a companion piece on Romance I return to again and again, and shall continue to return to, even though I should now be content never to read another biography of their author. In an age when the fashion is for biography, it is necessary to say that no biography can compete with the novel; no biography can tell the truth like a novel; Stevenson the biographee is less interesting than Alan Breck or David Balfour, Long John Silver or Weir of Hermiston, Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde. That said, Callow's book is admirably well balanced and full of such interest as biography can offer.

Allan Massie is a novelist

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures