ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: A Life Study by Jenni Calder

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: A Life Study

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Calder--daughter of Stevenson scholar David Daiches (Robert Louis Stevenson and His World, etc.) and author of There Must Be a Lone Ranger (a 1975 study of the American West mystique)--attempts here ""a life study, not a biography"" of RLS; and it's a readable, graceful runthrough that's strong on the sheer interesting oddness of the life, less strong on literary analysis or psychology. Like Dalches and others, Calder emphasizes the Calvinist, middle-class Edinburgh background against which atheist, bohemian Louis rebelled. . . and the lonely childhood illnesses that led him to fantasy. And, though slightly Pollyanna-ish Calder shrinks a bit from the unmistakable resonances in Louis' attraction to older women only, the RLS parents--outraged, forgiving, clingingly supportive--emerge splendidly: hearty yet moody Thomas, mild yet plucky Maggie (who'd later roam the Pacific with the RLS mÉnage). Sympathetic treatment, too, for wife Fanny--the dusky, sloppy California divorcee scorned by most of Louis' literary cronies as she slaved to be ""guardian of a man who at times refused to be guarded."" But Louis himself, plagued by illness (perhaps partly psychosomatic) and slow to really write as he moved about in search of agreeable climates, never quite comes into focus here: Calder ascribes his hobbled achievement to money-vs.-art conflicts, to unresolved ambivalence about bourgeois values and sin, to a basic discontent: ""the major dislocation in his life and career was that his art, his marriage, his love for friends, his parents could never coalesce."" This is fuzzy portraiture, and Calder's assessments of the oeuvre (she prefers Kidnapped and the Pacific stories, which are less burdened by his conflicted past) are similarly murky. Still, when not straining for eloquent syntheses, Calder does well with the story itself: the hard times in America, the literary friendships (Henry James, et al.), the South Seas travel that unintentionally turned into permanent settlement (along with droopy stepson, blowsy step-daughter, drunken step-son-in-law, and near-psychotic Fanny). Uncertain conclusions, then, but an ever-fascinating life re-examined with compassion and balance.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press