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Robert Louis Stevenson biography rings with authenticity

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``Myself & the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson'' by Claire Harmon; HarperCollins ($29.95)


As a child, according to Claire Harmon, Robert Louis Stevenson ``liked to be attended to as much as possible, especially by women.'' Harmon herself attends to him very well in this new biography, which is everything a literary biography ought to be.

Harmon has done an immense amount of research - reading, for instance, the notes Graham Balfour prepared for the first, official biography of Stevenson - but the research hasn't overwhelmed her, and she doesn't allow it to overwhelm the reader. She makes the hard choices every good biographer must to devise a coherent narrative portrait. This is Stevenson as Harmon sees him, and her view seems as authentic, and certainly as vivid, as John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of the author striding across the drawing room of his house in Bournemouth.

Sargent highlighted two of Stevenson's best-known characteristics: his animation and his penetrating gaze. Harry Jay Moors, the American trader who befriended Stevenson when the writer moved to Samoa, noted both at their first meeting: ``He could not stand still. When I took him into my house, he walked about the room, plying me with questions, one after another, darting up and down.''

As for Stevenson's gaze, Moors wrote that ``I was struck at once by his keen, inquiring eyes, brown in colour they were strangely bright, and seemed to penetrate you like the eyes of a mesmerist.''

For her part, Harmon highlights Stevenson's doubleness.'' The ambidextrous author ofThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'' recalled in a letter to psychical researcher F.W.H. Myers how, when sick as a child, he had often been aware of having two consciousnesses.'' He called theseMyself'' and the other fellow.'' The former was his everyday, common-sense self, the latter his irrational, absurdother'' self.

What interested Stevenson about this, Harmon says, was his awareness of their coexistence.'' Duality certainly figures in his fiction, not just in Jekyll and Hyde, but also in Long John Silver's easy shift from charm to menace, and of course in the relentless conflict of the Durie brothers inThe Master of Ballantrae.''

Doubleness also figured in Stevenson's life. The child of privilege and Presbyterian convention was a natural bohemian, the spinner of romances who went to live in the South Seas - like the painter Gauguin - wrote realistically and unsentimentally about the corruption and squalor he found there.

Then there is the question of his sexuality. Harmon says there is no evidence of Stevenson's ever having had a homosexual experience, while there's plenty of evidence of his involvement with female prostitutes. He seems to have been especially attracted to older women. The one he married, Fanny Osbourne, was a married mother when he fell in love with her, and he crossed the Atlantic and the North American continent to win her away from her husband.

Yet his manner and dress were notably fey and he was extremely attractive to men. Scholar Andrew Lang, who was gay, said that Stevenson possessed, more than any man I ever met, the power of making other men fall in love with him.'' Harmon surmises that Stevensoncan't have been unaware of the homoerotic forcefield he generated'' and concludes that he rather enjoyed it,'' given that he wasa man with an insatiable appetite for attention and affection.''

Harmon does not regard, as Frank McGlynn did in his 1995 biography, Stevenson's wife as a villain. Though his friends didn't like her - nor she them - until Fanny's increasing mental and emotional instability made living with her well-nigh unbearable, the two seem to have genuinely loved each other, and she seems to have had a salutary effect on his creativity.

And what about that creativity? To what extent does Stevenson the writer merit our attention? Harmon is level-headed in her appraisal of his work. He may have been overpraised during his lifetime but has certainly been underrated since.

Simply put, the power of his imagination can hardly be gainsaid. As Harmon points out, Long John Silver is a fictional character far more real to most people now than any historical pirate.'' And, she notes,we all understand what `Jekyll-and-Hyde' signifies.'' Most of all, Harmon provides evidence that Stevenson was continuing to grow as a writer. His letters from this period, she notes, ``are some of the most extraordinary ever written, a one-way ticket into his mind.''

It is somehow appropriate that Stevenson, who started far more books than he ever completed, should have left Weir of Hermiston, which might well have proved his best book of all, hanging in mid-sentence:

There arose before him the curtains of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain, he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a willful convulsion of brute nature

A few hours after writing that, Stevenson died of a stroke at 44.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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