I am obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson. He has become a habit, and it’s costing me a fortune in books.
Like many famous authors, Stevenson is surrounded by a fog of mythology and legend. It seems unfair that he should be remembered for children’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped when his work sprawled across all kinds of varied and challenging terrain. Most people know that he suffered from recurring illness throughout his life; it’s a curious piece of pub trivia that he dropped dead unexpectedly in Samoa. But beyond those scanty impressions, the man himself is oddly obscure.
During a cold weekend in October, I buried myself in Richard Woodhead’s 2001 book The Strange Case of RL Stevenson. It’s a biography in the loosest sense of the word because the book is only partially true. In a bid to shed light upon the precise nature of Stevenson’s life-long illness, Woodhead imagines a series of interviews with several doctors who cared for the author during the course of twenty years. The narrative is based on medical notes, diaries and extensive research, but the gaps are patched with fabrication and guesswork.
And it’s entirely fitting that the real Stevenson should shine like a furnace in this odd hotch-potch of fact and imagination. His personality is revealed with such warmth and excitement that I could’ve leaped into the pages and hugged him. Forget that dry, establishment figure who recently passed his 170th birthday; here is a giddy, passionate boy, wracked by illness and burning with extraordinary love for the world around him. He’s mercurial, rapturous and desperately vulnerable; torn by Presbyterian guilt and yet simultaneously driven forward by a wild and desperate rebellion against authority. I simply warmed to him with every passing page.
We’ve all stumbled over the name “Robert Louis Stevenson” for so long that it was a joy to realise that he was merely “Louis” to his friends (pronounced Lewis). Stripped away from his novels and the cult which emerged to consume his work after he died in 1894, I was able to see Louis fidgeting with excitement in a haze of his own cigarette smoke; giggling and bright-eyed with some fresh adventure or dream. After this glimpse of the man himself, I am desperate to revisit everything I know of his work, including many books and writings which I have never seen before. It’s a kind of pilgrimage, and it delights me more with every passing day.
The Strange Case of RL Stevenson is printed and circulated by a small publishing house in Edinburgh. It’s a marginal text for a niche audience, and I doubt we’ll see it on any bestseller lists. But as a frame to capture and express a personality, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling “biography”.
I’d like to write an awful lot more about Stevenson over the next few months on this blog, but it’s worth throwing down a marker now that, for me, it all began with this strange biography.