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Dark side of a real wild rover.


CAN there be anyone in the world who would not recognise a one-legged sea cook with a parrot perched on his shoulder who goes by the name of Long John Silver?

And who hasn't shared young Jim Hawkins's fear when Blind Pew comes to deliver the Black Spot to rum-sodden pirate Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn?

Or held their breath along with Jim as he hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates planning mutiny?

Since the moment it was first published in 1883, Treasure Island has had a legitimate claim to be the greatest boy's adventure story ever written.

Even if you haven't read the book, you've certainly seen one of the umpteen film versions and you're bound to have done an impersonation of Robert Newton saying: 'Arrr, Jim lad.'

It all began with a map as Robert Louis Stevenson idly sketched the outline of an imaginary island. From it sprang all the characters and a plot that sent them in search of Captain Flint's buried treasure.

In 1885 another idea came to him in a dream and he spent three days writing feverishly before triumphantly unveiling his new tale to his family. His wife Fanny hated it and in a fit of pique, he burnt the lot and started again.

The second version, about a character he described as 'the essence of cruelty and malice and selfishness and cowardice,' was a huge success.

Within six months of its publication in 1886 it had sold 40,000 copies and has been a bestseller ever since.


This was the classic chiller Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the horrific examination of the dark and evil side of human nature, unleashing the ogre who lurks in shadows to scare us witless.

But who exactly was the man who wrote compelling tales of pirates and delved into the sex and sadism of monsters?

Evesham author Philip Callow has the answers in Louis - A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (Constable, pounds 20).

It's hardly surprising that Stevenson, who explored 'the ambiguity of evil,' was a complex character who has divided the critics. Some dismiss him as a long-haired, Bohemian poseur who merely dreamed of being an adventurer while others declare him to be an undoubted genius.

Stevenson was a sickly child who grew up to be an even sicklier man, plagued by consumption.

As a student, he was said to haunt the pubs and brothels of Edinburgh's Old Town where the whores knew him as Velvet Jack.

But, as Callow says, the key to Stevenson is his restlessness. He called himself a rover who could never settle down.

He travelled through France, met a woman 10 years his senior and followed her to America to make her his wife in a fiery marriage.

The ceaseless wandering eventually led him to Samoa in the South Pacific, where he died in 1894, still only 44 years old.

He wrote travel books, short stories and plays, in addition to the novels that also included Kidnapped, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae and The Black Arrow.

Anyone eager to discover more about the dark corners and flamboyant excesses of an extraordinary man will find that Philip Callow has him pretty well pinned down.

No mean feat when your subject is a moving target as elusive as Robert Louis Stevenson.


POSEUR OR GENIUS?... Robert Louise Stephenson
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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