Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson

Philip Callow, Author Ivan R. Dee Publisher $27.5 (336p) ISBN 978-1-56663-343-7
Clearly, Stevenson (1850-1894) understood the biographic potential of his life when he wrote An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey. Callow is only the latest to map the author's route from Edinburgh to the South Seas. Following the recent publication of Stevenson's complete letters and Frank McLynn's centenary biography, Callow concentrates on producing a readable account while incorporating recent research. Stevenson's pampered but sickly childhood, his dandyish dilettantism at university and his rebellion against his generous father's rigid Presbyterianism led unsurprisingly to his literary career. His love for Fanny Osbourne, a married Californian a decade older than himself, launched him in unexpected directions. Embarking in pursuit when she returned to California from Europe, he barely survived a rough Atlantic crossing and the primitive, newly constructed transcontinental American railroad. Even after they married, his fragile lungs and spiritual restlessness kept them on the move while he wrote nonstop, notably Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, until they settled with Fanny's children in Samoa. Callow maintains a quick, steady pace right up to Stevenson's sudden death at 44. The biographer's admiration for his subject enlivens his text as he defends him against Bruce Chatwin's recent criticism (he called Travels ""the prototype of the incompetent undergraduate voyage"") and compares Stevenson to his previous weak-lunged biographic subjects, Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence. Relating this brief life briefly, Callow's biography works best as an introduction to Stevenson's many voyages, only some of which the novelist chronicled himself. 8 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 6)
Reviewed on: 04/09/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
The Best Books, Emailed Every Week
Tip Sheet!