Another literary biography from an English novelist who has taken on Chekhov, Lawrence, and Whitman in the past.
Callow (Chekhov, 1998, etc.) tracks the Scotsman’s peregrinations through Britain, Europe, the US, and the South Seas, and he is concerned with the character of the man rather than sources or significance of his work. Stevenson’s stiff but devoted father Thomas gets a good deal of attention, as does his strong-willed, erratic American wife Fanny Osbourne Stevenson, who alienated most (though not all) of the writer’s literary pals in London. This is clearly a labor of love, and the reader cannot help but share the biographer’s fascination with the vagaries of this peripatetic, sickly rebel, his unexpected toughness, and his uncanny charm; but, as Callow points out in his preface, there has been no dearth of Stevenson biographies, and the point of this particular contribution is, to put it charitably, difficult to fathom. He claims to be debunking the myth that surrounds his subject—without clearly stating just what that myth consists of—yet most of his commentary is in fact directed at defending RLS from his detractors and caviling at his critics (notably Bruce Chatwin, whose motivations regarding Stevenson are dissected more effectively than any of Stevenson’s own decisions). Even more confusing than his approach to his subject is his attitude toward his readers. Callow avers that his study is meant for “the intelligent reader with no specialized knowledge,” yet he alludes to events in Stevenson’s life and often quite obscure people in his circle as though they were already familiar. Knowledgeable RLS students will find no new information and very little in the way of a coherent, original perspective on the man; newcomers to Stevenson will get no introduction either to his work or to the world of Victorian letters and manners from which he was in constant flight. The tone veers irritatingly between scholarly journalism, popular biography, and belle-lettristic musing; his sentences and paragraphs on the other hand are consistently packed with redundancies and non sequiturs.
These stylistic tics, along with strained comparisons with the subjects of Callow’s other biographies, suggest that the author is addressing no audience other than himself.