‘Home from the sea’
Robert Louis Stevenson led a much more complicated life than you might think by contemplating his adventure stories and his poetry. “Treasure Island” comes to mind when his name is mentioned casually. Long John Silver is a name well known as the pirate leader in that story, but how he came to be created and the sporadic flow of that narrative and others are not as well known.
Philip Callow, an English biographer, tells the story of Stevenson’s often tumultuous career in “Louis.” The author also of a biography of Chekhov, he makes numerous comparisons between those two figures. Not that they met or were alike in writing style, but they were each periodic travelers, not so much to view new scenes as to get away from wherever they were.
Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson. He changed “Lewis” to “Louis” when he grew up in order to have the name sound more French. He spent a lot of time in France. That was where he met the woman who later became his wife, Fannie Cabourne, who was in Europe while awaiting a divorce from her husband in San Francisco.
Stevenson’s father and grandfather were engineers specializing in construction of lighthouses. His mother was a strictly religious person. Neither approved of their son’s bohemian lifestyle, though as time went on they came to accept it.
John Singer Sargent, well known as a portrait painter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, produced a portrait of Stevenson that tells a lot about the author’s nature. The face looks out from a dark and somewhat red background. There are two rings on one hand, and the other hand holds a cigarette. Considering the fact that lung trouble plagued him for most of his life, you might think he would stay as far from tobacco as possible. But that was not to be. He was an inveterate smoker.
Callow, the author, cites modern medical opinions that say Stevenson’s lung trouble was not tuberculosis, as was widely believed in his own lifetime, but instead was a different kind of bronchial bleeding, which caused him to cough up blood during his bouts of illness.
His wife had a son by her previous marriage, and one summer in Scotland when Stevenson was entertaining the boy, he drew a map. Once it was drawn, he began to tell a story about it, and the early chapters about pirates and buried treasure began to take shape. The story attracted the attention not only of the stepson, but of his father as well. In fact, the father got so involved in the account that he drew up a list of the items to be found in the chest that Jim Hawkins and his mother opened when they were seeking money that their pirate tenant had owed them.
Not only that, but Stevenson’s father was the one who thought up the apple barrel that Hawkins hid in aboard ship when he overheard the pirates discussing their plots.
The book, originally titled “The Sea Cook,” was serialized in a boys’ magazine, and you can tell from various chapter endings where each installment ended so as to inspire curiosity as to what would come next. The publishers persuaded Stevenson to change the name to “Treasure Island.”
But while that remains an outstanding adventure story for youth, the work that really made Stevenson famous was “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The macabre tale of a double personality went through numerous printings in the first year it appeared. It gave the author a reputation among adult readers that provided him with access to publishers and agents for the rest of his life.
How the Stevenson entourage managed to get to the South Seas and end by settling in Samoa is recounted in detail by Callow. It began as part of Stevenson’s travel-prone instincts and only incidentally led to his taking up residence on the island and conducting his literary affairs from afar.
Considering how lung trouble followed him through the years, it’s surprising that Stevenson’s death was due to a cerebral hemorrhage. And the biographer follows the course not only of his survivors, but also that of his reputation as a writer. In the end, his nature can be epitomized by the concluding lines of the epitaph he composed himself:
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea
“And the hunter home from the hill.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.