An engaging look at the life and writings of a complex and contradictory fellow.
Veteran biographer Harman (Fanny Burney, 2000, etc.) takes on the legendary Robert Louis Stevenson, benefiting from the knowledge gained while editing two collections of his work. As fantastic as his best-known tales are, she reveals, they still uphold the axiom of art imitating life. Taking her title from a phrase Stevenson used to describe the duality of his personality, Harman here draws parallels to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, portraying her subject as a manic, effeminate man, alternately driven (after Jekyll and Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream, he wrote the entire manuscript in just six weeks) and easily distracted (he left behind dozens of incomplete works). The sickly only child of a Scottish engineer, Stevenson wanted both to write and to be respected by his parents; it was a struggle from the start to fulfill those joint goals. His thorough and opinionated biographer spares him no criticism, at times blasting what she views as Stevenson’s incompetence in writing and in personal relationships, always emphasizing the irony of his double life. An academic with degrees in engineering and law, a socialite proud of his Scottish heritage, Stevenson spent the last years of his short life (1850–94) in self-imposed exile in the South Seas with very little intellectual stimulation—and he loved it. His writing turned from the romanticism of Treasure Island to political realism as he raged against German rule in Samoa, but his true passion became working the land. “Nothing is so interesting as weeding,” he wrote to a friend. Harman bolsters her arguments with many quotes taken from his letters. Stevenson, it turns out, was a strange case indeed.
A beautifully detailed biography, rendered with honesty, integrity and humor.