Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Smoking Interrupted Only for Kissing and Coughing

Robert Louis Stevenson


HarperCollins 482pp £25

Robert Louis Stevenson holds a peculiar fascination for biographers. The centenary of his death ten years ago occasioned half a dozen lives, the best of them Ian Bell’s – curiously omitted, along with Janet Adam Smith’s admirable 1937 book, from Claire Harman’s bibliography. Of course his life was interesting, but it was also, as his distant cousin Graham Greene observed, ‘comparatively uneventful – adventurous only to the sedate Civil Service minds of Colvin and Gosse’. His struggle to write through years of ill-health was heroic; but, as against that, the record of his illnesses grows tedious to read. His family circumstances were curious and interesting, and his work can often be more closely related to his life than is the case with some greater novelists – Scott and Stendhal for instance. But there have been many writers, including those two, who were more interesting as men than Stevenson, and who offer just as many puzzles for the biographer to seek to elucidate.

It’s pointless, admittedly, to put the question, do we need another life of Stevenson? Authors write books not because they are needed but because the subject attracts them, and publishers commission them for the same reason and because they think they can sell them. No more need be said to

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