O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Sunday, December 12, 2010

R.L. Stevenson, Life

Robert Louis Stevenson,

Robert Lewis (later: “Louis”) Balfour Stevenson was
born in a Georgian terrace-house in  Edinburgh on 
13 November 1850.
He  was   the  only  child  of   Thomas Stevenson, a
lighthouse  engineer (1),    and  Margaret  Isabella
Balfour  who  came  from  a  family  of  lawyers and
church ministers. 
When Robert Louis was seven the family moved to
17  Heriot  Row,  a  solid   respectable  house  in
Edinburgh’s New Town.
It is not surprising,  therefore,  that  his  childhood
was shaped  by  the  strict  code  of  respectability  of the Victorian middle class in that town.
Because his parents feared for his life when he was very young, the ever-present threat of death intensified their indulgence towards the delicate child. He did suffer numerous health problems in  childhood, chiefly due to an affection of the lungs, a condition which was to plague him throughout his life. He acquired this physical delicacy from his mother (2) who herself suffered from a lung weakness that often rendered her unable to care for her son.  Being his father (3) often absent on business, the task of his upbringing was given to his devoted nurse, Alison Cunningham or “Cummy”, a fundamentalist Christian, whose gory tales of Scottish religious martyrs nourished Robert’s imagination.
She was undoubtedly the person who most affected his early life and with whom he developed his closest relationship.
When a boy, because of his chronic coughs and fevers, Robert continually had to interrupt his schooling.  As a consequence  he spent most of his early years in his bedroom where Cummy would labour to teach him the difference between the pursuit of a life of good or evil, the latter course leading, inevitably, to the everlasting torments of Hell. She made sure that Robert Louis was not spared the details of these torments, causing him to suffer terrifying nightmares, which he often recalled later in his memories and which afflicted him throughout his life. He also recalled that she would try to convince him that there were two distinct camps in the world:  one of the perfectly pious and respectable and one of the perfectly profane, mundane and vicious; one mostly on its knees and singing hymns, the other one on the high road to the gallows and the bottomless pit.(4)
Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh which itself had two faces: the prosperous, middle-class New Town, where he himself lived, and the “old black city” with its poverty, disease and overcrowding.
This was also a city with a macabre past, which helped to feed the young man’s developing imagination and his taste for horror and the supernatural. Stories of William “Deacon” Brodie,  well-respected craftsman by day and criminal by night (5), and also of Burke and Hare, the “body snatchers”(6), were well remembered in the city and, indeed, in his childhood bedroom Stevenson possessed a cabinet made by Brodie.
At the age of seventeen he enrolled at  Edinburgh University  to study engineering,   with the aim – his father hoped – of following him in the family firm. 
During his years at university Robert Louis would spend a great deal of time at night in the disreputable taverns of the Old Town. It has been argued that he himself, like Jekyll, was leading a double life, respectable by day and debauched by night.  But, although he enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle with his fellow students, his witnessing of these double standards amongst the middle classes made him determined to avoid hypocrisy and to react against the strict Scottish Presbyterian background which he felt helped to create it. And mixing with friends at night in that part of Edinburgh was, in a way, his explicit rebellion against the strict conventions of his time. Of course his father could not see these entertainments as socially correct and the differences and incomprehensions between them became greater and greater. Moreover, at the age of twenty-one Robert Louis confided to his father that he did not wish to become an engineer and wanted to become a writer instead. He abandoned his course of studies and, to soften the blow, made the compromise of studying law.
During his university’s summer vacations he used to go to France to be in the company of other young artists, both writers and painters. He liked that world and was attracted by it.
In 1875 he finished his law studies and “passed advocate”. A brass plaque (“R.L.Stevenson, Advocate”)  was put outside the front door of his house but he never practised since he was determined to be a writer.
Soon after his degree he was on his way to France to join his cousin Bob, who was a lively member of the famous “Barbizon school”, a colony of landscape painters in a village near Paris.
At Grez-sur-Loing the cousins spent the summer of 1875 together and this was the scene of Stevenson’s first meeting, in 1876, with Fanny Osbourne, his future wife.
Fanny was a fellow-painter and,  living in that all-male colony of artists,  she appeared quite unusual at that time.  She was thirty-six, separated from her husband and with two children, Lloyd and Isobel.  Fanny was the image of the independent American “new woman” (7). Stevenson was twenty-five and fell deeply in love with her.  They had a love affair which soon turned into a marriage promise.  But, suddenly, Fanny had to go back to the States because her husband had cut off all kinds of support. A year later, after having received a letter from Fanny saying she was very ill,  Stevenson set out for California to persuade Fanny to divorce her husband and marry him.  Knowing that his parents would approve neither of the trip nor the marriage, he left without informing them and cut himself off from his father’s financial help. (8)
His long journey to reach Fanny proved disastrous for his delicate health and brought on a deterioration which inevitably dictated his future. He lost weight after a long fever, and those who saw him at the time described him as thin and worn-out as a convalescent and his behaviour as unsteady as that of a drunkard.   Barely recovered from this near fatal illness,  Stevenson moved into cheap lodgings in San Francisco  where  he and Fanny could get married in 1880.  They had a very hard period of economic difficulties.  His friends secretly raised two dollars a week to enable the Californian editor Bronson to hire the impoverished Stevenson as a part-time reporter.  He never allowed himself to give in to self-pity and in fact he faced ill health and poverty with cheerful courage. But Fanny got worried and worried (9) and their financial condition, in the end, became unbearable.  Probably by intercession of his friends, Stevenson received from his father a help which allowed him to take the decisive step to return home along with his new extended family.  He accepted an annual allowance from his father and agreed to live in a house that his parents had bought for him and his wife at Bournemouth.
But, unfortunately, the frequent relapses of his lung disease forced him to leave England and to wander about various sanatoriums in Switzerland and France.  His first full-length work of fiction, “Treasure Island”,  was written, in fact, in Switzerland and was published in November 1883. The success was immediate. As a result Stevenson gained new self-confidence and a strong justification for devoting time to his writings. He decided to settled in Bournemouth in 1884 but his serious health problems persisted. Although the period between 1884 and 1887 saw a sharp decline in his health, he was to publish many works.   Among them  “The  Strange  Case  of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”  (1886) emerged distinctly as it became immediately a popular literary sensation.
The death of his father brought about a general change. At last, Robert Louis felt that the ties which had bound him to Britain could now be severed. Moreover is bad health problems were getting worse.  On 22 August 1887  he left Britain for the last time sailing for the United States  in order  to seek a friendlier climate.  Fanny,  Lloyd  and Stevenson’s old mother (10) accompanied him.
He soon found himself in a sanatorium near Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, where the life around him offered only depressing dullness. He decided it was not a place to stay for long.  A yatching cruise was quickly planned, and for nearly three years he  “wandered up and down the face of the Pacific”   aboard one ship or another.
He visited the Marquesas,  the Hawaiian Islands  and the  Gilberts.  In Papeete,  Tahiti,  Robert fell seriously ill and,  thanks to Fanny’s determination and insistence, a long stay was decided on. The local aristocracy welcomed them, and princess Moe insisted on caring for him personally.  As his health miraculously improved, he resolved to continue his journey finally reaching the Samoa Islands.  He liked Upolu, the main island,  and felt at once that it was the right place to remain in and in which to build a proper home.  He purchased an estate of 300 acres in the hills (11) and,  while the site for his house (12)  was being cleared of jungle,  he sailed for Sydney. 
In November 1890,  Stevenson made his way back to the Samoa Islands.  No one who has read “In the South Seas” (1896)  will ever forget the emotional enchantment with which the first sight of the island,  “which touched a virginity of sense”,  touched him.
It was the ideal place for sufferers from respiratory  diseases and  there, in fact,  his health improved amazingly.   Europe never saw him again.
This vagabond from birth had at last found a way of life with which he could identify.  He wished from the start to make friends among the Samoans and, as he got to know them better, he became interested in their political problems  and  fascinated  by  their history and culture, songs and tattoos, legends and traditions. He fought hard with words,  sending off letters to “The Times” in London to defend the rights of the  native people against Imperial exploitation by Britain and Germany.  Attempts were made by the governments of both countries to have him deported as a political menace.
The vitality which he achieved during this period was like a rebirth for Stevenson.  He became a keen reporter, was socially involved and on very good terms with the primitives. (13)
Considering the physical disabilities that denied him the normal activities of a healthy man, the extent to which he attempted to lead the life of a fit, sound human being is quite amazing.   For the first time the novelist’s imagination played upon scenes and characters of a world with which he had a direct contact.
He lived and wrote happily in his loved new world until his sudden death.  He was only forty-four when he died, struck down by a cerebral haemorrhage on 3 December 1894.  At this time he was still dictating to his stepdaughter another novel he was busy writing, “Weir of Hermiston” (1896).  Many think that this might have been his masterpiece, if only he had finished it.
“One little army after another marching up with their chiefs” (14) came to fulfil Stevenson’s wish to be buried upon the summit of Mount Vaea and to cut a path for the coffin through the dense jungle.  Stevenson’s affectionate Samoan friends  and servants carried up his body on their shoulders. They had given him the native title of “Tusitala” (narrator of stories) and credited him with supernatural powers, in the knowledge that he, who lived through the telling of tales, was capable of the greatest magic of all.

(1)  His father belonged to a respectable family of engineers who had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coasts of Scotland.
(2)  In a way, this was counterbalanced by her gift of humour and optimism.
(3)  Stevenson later portrayed him as a strict Presbyterian, a difficult and contradictory man  of “blended sternness and softness, wise and prejudiced”.  Towards the end of his own life Stevenson was saying something very similar about himself.
(4)  It was from one of his adult nightmares that “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” grew,  a story which was to refute Cummy’s simplistic doctrine, and argue that there is light and dark in all mankind.  In the words of Jekyll: “man is not truly one, but truly two”.
(5)  He was hanged in 1788.
(6)  This was another  famous judicial case which stroke the town of Edinburgh. Burke and Hare killed people to sell their bodies to the famous anatomy Professor Robert Knox (1793-1862) for his lessons at Edinburgh University.
(7)  She usually wore Indian dresses and liked to walk barefoot.  She embodied the idea of “freedom” and young Stevenson was undoubtedly  captured by her.
(8)  “The Amateur Emigrant” (published posthumously in 1894), and its sequel “Across the Plains” (1879), are both accounts of Stevenson’s first journey to America.
(9)  For several months they were unable to pay currents bills.
(10)   She decided to leave her home country, her relations and the sheltered comfort of a large house to go into voluntary exile with her only son.
(11)  The estate was on the slopes of Mount Vaea.
(12)  Which was to be called “Vaillima”,  meaning “the five streams”.
(13)  They loved him and they gave him the strength he needed through their simplicity and culture. As for him, Stevenson tried to help them through his strong experience trying to transmit them something of his own culture too. Among them he used to tell stories often belonging to his own personal world and reproduce on his flageolet the scores of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Chopin.
(14)  As his stepson Lloyd Osbourne has recorded.

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