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Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson - A Biography.

High on his Patmos of the Southern Seas Our northern dreamer sleeps...

Thus Richard Le Gallienne's Elegy for the newly-dead Robert Louis Stevenson: obit. December 3rd, 1894.

In these past ninety-nine years the biographies of R.L.S. -- from Balfour's hagiography through Baildon, Masson and Chesterton to Daiches, Elwin, Furnas, Aldington, Pope-Hennessy and Calder -- have risen to a tombstone's height, and 'like a portrait attempted too often, Stevenson has acquired many faces'. Is there space for yet another? Unequivocally, yes. And it was well worth publishing, for Mr. Bell has some very interesting things to say, and says them very interestingly. At a mere 289, well-leaded, pages, this account of the intricate odyssey of R.L.S. cannot afford the expenditure of detail lavished to Furnas by 500 pages and to Balfour with his spendthrift 440. But Mr. Bell's book is not so architected. His is the art of significant selection -- the provision of canny insights, bolstered by apt and amply telling quotation -- and succinct speculation. It helps that he is himself a precipitous citizen and has walked of natural habit all his days and nights in the footprints of his fellow Edinburgh native. In a sense, the whole of R.L.S.'s life was a long goodbye in a short compass. Goodbye to Victorian Scotland that 'bore, shaped, made aware', the natal cord pulling wherever after he wandered. The granite of the Athens of the North had entered into his soul; his body, too, prolonging the frail string of his existence to 44 years and 3 weeks.

It may be, as Mr. Bell asserts, 'a cliche to say that a writer can be found ... in a certain place', but many cliches have become so because of their habit of reiterating truths. And there is no denying the Edinburgh presence, scampering, velvet-coated, a Hyde, up the Lothian Road; a not altogether willingly wigged and robed Jekyll, stalking the corridors of the High Court of Justiciary; a small boy gazing entranced into the penny plain, tuppence coloured little old stationer's shop in Antigua Street, or at desert island play amid the boscage of the deep green ravine garden between Heriot Row and Queen Street; a little child in the old nursery aloft at No. 17 Heriot Row, staring out at a black night sky thick-furred with a dazzle of stars, winking and twinkling high, high above Leerie's street-lamp.

Mr. Bell diagnoses soundly R.L.S.'s position in relation to Scottish life and literature, 'half prodigal son and half deportee; half patriot and half deserter'. An advocate -- the lawyers were, and still are, the elite of Edinburgh -- he rejected that privileged role. Product of a divided city -- Old Town, New Town -- his lifelong character was 'a matter of dualities'.

Mr. Bell's obiter dicta come thick and fast, stray facts and thoughts pop forth like tempting plums from a pudding... 'His art was a moral argument presented in an entertainer's costume'... 'His illnesses were as prolific as his imagination'... 'The Master (of Ballantrae) is an ethical hall of mirrors'. He identifies the Cevenol traveller as 'setting out, like some Victorian hippy, to "find himself".' He reports Stevenson's nutshell description of New York as 'a mixture of Chelsea, Liverpool and Paris', and provides the tourist titbit that in the replica of Saint-Gaudens' medallion of Louis for placement in St. Giles Cathedral, Auld Reekie, the cigarette in his right hand is 'replaced with a discreet pen'. R.L.S. himself saw in the Polynesian islands 'that change of habit is bloodier than a bombardment', and Mr. Bell sees the whites 'corrupting the South Seas with Christ and commerce'.

But for the time-tired traveller those Southern Seas lapped Paradise landfall -- 'A sheet of jungle streaked with lava flows, worn volcanic shapes rising from the ocean floor, plantations of coco-palms, some houses and churches scattered on the slopes, the surf thunderous on the barrier reef'. Tusitala, the sailor, is home from sea, the hunter home from the hill.

Then ... 'a blood vessel exploded in his skull'.

Let us end as we began, with Le Gallienne's elegaic:

Not while a boy still whistles on the earth, Not while a single human heart beats true, Not while Love lasts, and Honour, and the Brave, Has earth a grave, O well-beloved, for you!
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:715
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