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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Literary Life, by William Gray; pp. xvi + 190. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, £55.00, $55.00.
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination, by Ann C. Colley; pp. x + 217. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2004, £47.50, $79.95.

Robert Louis Stevenson has never lacked biographers. The impulse to approach Stevenson's work by way of his life has always been strong among readers. Upon reading Graham Balfour's 1906 biography, Henry James lamented that the seemingly universal fascination with Stevenson the man had, scarcely a decade after his death, "superseded, personally, his books, and this last replacement of himself so en scène (so largely by his own aid, too) has killed the literary baggage" (qtd. in Gray xi). As James recognized, Stevenson himself had helped foster the aura of celebrity that came to surround "RLS," especially during his years in Samoa, and that too often eclipsed the mere "literary baggage" in the public mind. Over the past century, the pace at which new biographies or memoirs of Stevenson have appeared has remained remarkably steady. The bibliography of William Gray's Robert Louis Stevenson: A Literary Life lists no fewer than thirty of the more prominent, from Balfour's through the important mid-century revaluations by David Daiches [End Page 568] and J. C. Furnas to more recent accounts by Jenni Calder, Frank McLynn, and Michel le Bris. Why add to their number?

Gray is acutely aware that the "Life of Stevenson" is "almost a minor literary genre in its own right," one that has flourished even during those long stretches when "serious critical attention to Stevenson's literary works languished" (xi). In lieu of yet another telling of Stevenson's well-documented and eventful life, Gray offers instead what he calls a "literary geography" of the writer. Largely eschewing chronology, he organizes his book by place, with separate chapters devoted to the geographical spaces in which Stevenson lived and worked: Scotland, England, France, the United States, and the South Seas (Switzerland doesn't make the cut). Readers looking for an informed, informative overview of Stevenson's literary life will appreciate the breadth of Gray's book as well as its lucid brevity. Each chapter provides basic biographical facts, but the focus is squarely on Stevenson the writer. With admirable economy, Gray delineates Stevenson's engagements with different literary cultures and traditions—he is especially good on the fertilizing effects of French literature on Stevenson's imagination—and then lays out the varied fruits of those engagements: essays, poems, letters, travelogues, plays, and prose fiction. The approach has its drawbacks: Gray places his main discussion of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), a novel written in Bournemouth and set in London, in the chapter on Scotland—a defensible decision given the Calvinist atmosphere that pervades the novel, but hardly an inevitable one. The book's structure also compels Gray to treat works with multiple settings, such as The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and The Wrecker (1892), piecemeal, a little in one chapter, a little more in another. Taken altogether, however, Gray's treatment is illuminating. It reveals the importance of place in Stevenson's imagination, an imagination more pictorial than is usually recognized. Overall, Gray shows how Stevenson absorbed the various "environments" (construed in the widest sense) he inhabited, and then transformed them in his writings.

Gray places his chapter on Scotland at the center of his book to indicate that "Stevenson's Scottishness lay at the very core of his being" (xii). Scotland, by the final years of Stevenson's life in Samoa, had become exclusively a place of memory, yet its hold on him only strengthened as a result of his self-imposed exile. As many critics have noted, some of Stevenson's most vivid evocations of his native country date from his time at Vailima. They take their place in his oeuvre alongside the large body of writing— conflicted, uneven, but unfailingly interesting—he produced during this same period on topics related to the cultures of the South Sea islands. Stevenson's sincere efforts to represent those cultures in what he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 568-571
Launched on MUSE
2006-10-04
Open Access
N
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