- RLS Biography
The title of Claire Harman's biography acknowledges that more than any other nineteenth-century writer, Stevenson's life and work articulated the coexistence of the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the subconscious, the explicit "self" and the repressed "other fellow." Stevenson's biographers over the last century have had to deal with a whole series of "other fellows" (not least Fanny Stevenson) since Graham Balfour's officially sanctioned (and sanitised) hagiography The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1901), but few have dealt with the duality inherent in his life and work with as much aplomb as Harman.
Conscious of the valorisation of Stevenson's life over his writing, Myself and the Other Fellow is emphatically a literary life, offering an astute analysis of Stevenson's oeuvre. Harman notes the extraordinary prevalence of work started and abandoned unfinished, a sign of both Stevenson's virtuosic versatility and contingent approach to writing. This is particularly apparent in her appraisal of the circumstances surrounding Stevenson's most famous work, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Harman offers her readers accounts of the destruction of the first draft from the perspectives of both Louis and Fanny, and unlike many of Stevenson's previous biographers, she does not dismiss Fanny's seminal contribution to his masterpiece.
Harman demonstrates the extent to which Stevenson's literary career was dependent upon decades of financial patronage (from Thomas Stevenson and the Fairchilds) and emotional support (from Sidney Colvin, and later Fanny), a fact that few biographers have acknowledged adequately. Until the publication and sales success of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) the main source of Stevenson's household income was a £250 annual stipend from his seemingly curmudgeonly father; Harman notes that for the first five years (1878–1883) of his career as a professional writer, Stevenson's literary receipts amounted to just £655, a meagre £131 per annum. Despite his apparently insurmountable breach with his son over issues of Christian doctrine, Thomas Stevenson repeatedly subsidised the writer's sometimes extravagant expenses, paying, for example, for the entire household's passage from California to England in first class in 1880, and in 1884, buying them their first family house ("Skerryvore") for the substantial sum of £1700, with a further £500 thrown in to pay for furniture. [End Page 214] Stevenson's move to America and permanent expatriation, just weeks after his father's death in May 1887, was facilitated by a £3000 inheritance, and Fanny and her children's future was secured when they were named in the will as sole beneficiaries after Margaret Stevenson's death. For most of his life Stevenson and his family were dependent upon Thomas Stevenson's largesse derived from a successful career as a lighthouse engineer; the author's famous generosity (he gave Colvin £400 outright in 1878) is put into perspective when one realises whose money he was actually giving away.
No biography can ignore Stevenson's perpetual struggle with ill health, and in this regard, Harman's book is both sensible and wonderfully informative. Weighing up the available evidence, she questions the biographical orthodoxy of the tubercular Stevenson (he never tested positive for the bacillus) and lends some support to Guttmacher and Callahan's recent diagnosis of haemorrhagic telangiectasia (Osler-Rendu-Weber syndrome), a hereditary illness that he may have inherited from his mother, as a possible explanation for his repeated physical breakdowns. Harman carefully articulates both the complicity and bewilderment of Stevenson's physical and mental conditions, suggesting that both the desperately unsuccessful attempts at health cures (clinics in Davos and Saranac Lake or winters on the French Riviera) and the unexpected recurring spells of good health (she notes that in 1873, just days after being prostrated by illness, Stevenson walked eight miles from Bury St. Edmonds station to his cousin's house) simply added to Stevenson's own sense of the inevitability of his physical deterioration. Harman's sensitive reading of Stevenson's own belief in the predetermined, hereditary outcome of his...