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Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson
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Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson

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by Claire Harman

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He thrilled readers the world over with breathtaking tales of pirates (Treasure Island) and monsters (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). But the short life of writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) was as adventurous as almost anything in his fiction. He was both engineer and aesthete, Covenanter and atheist, dutiful son and reckless lover


He thrilled readers the world over with breathtaking tales of pirates (Treasure Island) and monsters (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). But the short life of writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) was as adventurous as almost anything in his fiction. He was both engineer and aesthete, Covenanter and atheist, dutiful son and reckless lover. His travels, illnesses, creative struggles, volatile relationships, and titanic quarrels were the stuff of legend.

Until now, no biography has done justice to the complex, brilliant, and troubled man who was responsible for so many remarkable literary creations, the least "Victorian" of Victorian writers. Claire Harman's Myself & the Other Fellow is a fascinating portrait of a man of humor, resilience, and strongly unconventional views, the most authoritative, comprehensive, and perceptive biography of Robert Louis Stevenson to date.

Editorial Reviews

John Carey
“A delight from start to finish. [Harman] is steeped in Stevenson and can match his swift, vivid style.”
Literary Review
“Harman’s narrative is full, rich, intelligent, and smooth...and is a continuous pleasure to read . . . Uncommonly good.”
Booklist (starred review)
“A deeply nuanced portrait of an amazingly complex figure . . . Meticulously researched and well written.”
The Economist
“[A] complex portrait...Harman’s kaleidoscopic light suits a man whose personality seemed in a state of constant flux.”
“Well researched . . . [Harman’s] readings of RLS’s literary prose are critically strong.”
Washington Times
“Splendid...Ms. Harman’s clear-eyed, wry approach to Stevenson and his colorful coterie will grab you and not let go.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“Knowledgeable, vastly detailed biography... Harman lucidly analyzes Stevenson’s immense variety of writings and his even greater variety of unfinished projects.”
Washington Post Book World
“Claire Harman’s judicious, witty and insightful life is as gratifying as it is poignant.”
Charlotte Observer
“Everything a literary biography ought to be.”
New York Times Book Review
“[A] shrewd and sparkling biography.”
"A deeply nuanced portrait of an amazingly complex figure . . . Meticulously researched and well written."
John Crowley
It is still unclear what caused Stevenson's death, though Harman assembles the best modern guesses; but if whatever he suffered from hadn't killed him at 44, the short shelf of classic romances that are his legacy might now be seen as the Victorian prologue to the works of a pioneering modern consciousness. Instead, as Harman finally declares, "When the new discipline of 'English Literature' emerged in the new century, Stevenson was nowhere to be seen. He had been popular, he had been a romancer, a writer for boys, a Scot." Only a further century has restored him. Claire Harman's judicious, witty and insightful life is as gratifying as it is poignant.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Harman, the skillful biographer of Fanny Burney and editor of Stevenson's poems, stories and essays, writes, "some things become less knowable about a subject the more data accrues around them." Stevenson's short life (1850-1894), plagued by ill health, took him from Edinburgh to California and finally to the South Seas, creating a romanticized reputation along the way. Celebrated as the accomplished essayist of Virginibus Puerisque and the bestselling author of Treasure Island and A Child's Garden of Verses, Stevenson frustrated his literary friends W.E. Henley and Sidney Colvin with a creative output that never produced their expected masterpiece. He also estranged them with his uxorious marriage to a strong-willed older American divorcEe, Fanny Osbourne, whom Harman portrays sympathetically enough (especially the possibility of a failed pregnancy early in their relationship). Harman doesn't delve too deeply into the psychology of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's author. In interpreting Stevenson the writer, she emphasizes his restless, multigenre dilettantism, which resulted in many false starts and incomplete plays, stories and novels. Stevenson's popularity as an author may always outstrip the biographical record, but this readable narrative of his kaleidoscopically colorful life helps narrow the gap. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In striking and at times excessive detail, Harman (Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography) traces the pampered, sickly life of British writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94). Weighing a mere 116 pounds at one point and struggling through a tempestuous second marriage, Stevenson was saved by a faithful group of friends that included Sidney Colvin, William Ernest Henley, and Henry James Jr., all of whom sensed that the man was doomed to die young. Because of their intervention and with funds from his most popular works-Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Master of Ballantrae-Stevenson's health recovered, and he spent the remainder of his short life on the primitive South Seas island of Samoa. In Stevenson, Harman discovers an inborn and abiding attraction to polar opposites of character that would eventually show itself in his fiction, most notably The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He also cites Stevenson's capacity for starting but failing to finish his works as the hallmark of his creative life. This comprehensive and insightful volume is highly recommended for large academic libraries.-Charles C. Nash, formerly with Cottey Coll., Nevada, MO Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An engaging look at the life and writings of a complex and contradictory fellow. Veteran biographer Harman (Fanny Burney, 2000, etc.) takes on the legendary Robert Louis Stevenson, benefiting from the knowledge gained while editing two collections of his work. As fantastic as his best-known tales are, she reveals, they still uphold the axiom of art imitating life. Taking her title from a phrase Stevenson used to describe the duality of his personality, Harman here draws parallels to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, portraying her subject as a manic, effeminate man, alternately driven (after Jekyll and Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream, he wrote the entire manuscript in just six weeks) and easily distracted (he left behind dozens of incomplete works). The sickly only child of a Scottish engineer, Stevenson wanted both to write and to be respected by his parents; it was a struggle from the start to fulfill those joint goals. His thorough and opinionated biographer spares him no criticism, at times blasting what she views as Stevenson's incompetence in writing and in personal relationships, always emphasizing the irony of his double life. An academic with degrees in engineering and law, a socialite proud of his Scottish heritage, Stevenson spent the last years of his short life (1850-94) in self-imposed exile in the South Seas with very little intellectual stimulation-and he loved it. His writing turned from the romanticism of Treasure Island to political realism as he raged against German rule in Samoa, but his true passion became working the land. "Nothing is so interesting as weeding," he wrote to a friend. Harman bolsters her arguments with many quotes taken from his letters.Stevenson, it turns out, was a strange case indeed. A beautifully detailed biography, rendered with honesty, integrity and humor.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Reprinted Edition
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

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Myself and the Other Fellow

A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson
By Claire Harman

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Claire Harman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0066209846

Chapter One

Baron Broadnose

Born 1850 at Edinburgh. Pure Scotch blood; descended from the Scotch Lighthouse Engineers, three generations. Himself educated for the family profession . . . But the marrow of the family was worked out, and he declined into the man of letters.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 'Autobiographical Note'1

In 1884 or thereabouts, Robert Louis Stevenson purchased a copy of a slim booklet by the scientist Francis Galton (grandson of Erasmus Darwin and inventor of the term 'eugenics'), that purported to help members of the public forecast the mental and physical faculties of their children by arranging in tabular form as much data as could be gathered about their ancestors. No clear way of making deductions from this process was indicated; Galton seemed merely to be suggesting that the Record of Family Faculties would serve as a sort of life album for future perusal. In fact his design was more 'to further the science of heredity' than to enlighten individuals about their genes, for Galton was offering a prize of £500 to whichever reader compiled 'the best extracts' from the point of view of 'completeness', 'character of evidence', 'cleanness' and 'conciseness', to be sent, with accompanying documentation if possible, to his London address.

Robert Louis Stevenson did not oblige the insatiable statistician by posting off his copy of the booklet, and only filled in two pages of information, one for each of his parents. Like so many of his own books, this was one he couldn't quite finish. But Galton's introductory remarks, full of provocative assumptions about race, personality, inherited and acquired behaviour, touched subjects of perennial fascination to the scientist-turned-literary man. 'We do not yet know whether any given group of different faculties which may converge by inheritance upon the same family will blend, neutralise, or intensify one another,' Galton had written, 'nor whether they will be metamorphosed and issue in some new form.' The year in which the project was advertised, 1883, was a time when Stevenson himself thought he was going to be a father, an eventuality he had tried to avoid on the grounds of his poor health. But whether or not Stevenson bought Galton's book in order to predict his expected child's chances in the lottery of family attributes, the author's words certainly resonated for himself.

Robert Louis Stevenson characterised his paternal ancestors as 'a family of engineers', which they were for the two generations preceding his own, but in the seventeenth century they had been farmers and maltsters near Glasgow, 'following honest trades [ . . . ], playing the character parts in the Waverley Novels with propriety, if without distinction', as Stevenson wrote satirically.2 In the mid-eighteenth century two Stevenson brothers, working in partnership as traders between Glasgow and the West Indies, both died suddenly from tropical fever within six weeks of each other while in pursuit of an agent who had cheated them. Jean, the twenty-three-year-old widow of the younger brother, was left almost destitute by his death, as her father also died in the same month and she had an infant son to support. Her second marriage, to a man called Hogg, produced two more sons but ended in desertion and divorce. By this time, Jean was living in Edinburgh and there met and married her third husband, a ship-owner, ironmonger and underwriter called Thomas Smith.

Smith was the founder of the 'family of engineers', or rather, the step-family, since it was his new wife's teenaged son Robert Stevenson, not his own son, James Smith, who was grafted onto his thriving enterprise as heir. Thomas Smith seems to have been a man of enormous industry and ingenuity, setting up a business in lamps and oils, running something called the Greenside Company's Works in Edinburgh (a kind of super-smithy) and inventing a new system of oil lamps for lighthouses to replace the old coal-lit beacons like that on the Isle of May. The lights of 'lights' remained a source of fascination in the step-branch of the family: Robert Stevenson experimented with revolving devices, his son Thomas developed both holophotal and condensing lights, and Robert Louis Stevenson's one and only contribution to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts was a paper on a proposed new device to make lighthouse lights flash. But there was another reminder of this heritage, closer to home. One of Thomas Smith's lamp-making projects was the design of the street lighting in Edinburgh's New Town at the end of the eighteenth century. His parabolic reflector system quadrupled the power of oil-lit lamps and focused their beams, a revolutionary innovation that must have made the elegant Georgian streets look even more modern and sleek, even more of a contrast to the dark, narrow closes and wynds of the Old Town. And it was the successor to one of these lamps, just outside 17 Heriot Row, that Robert Louis Stevenson celebrated many years later in his poem about Leerie the Lamp-Lighter from A Child's Garden of Verses:

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!3

But the original lighter of the lamps had been the poet's ingenious forebear.

Thomas Smith's involvement in lighthouse-building began in 1787, five years before marrying Jean Stevenson, when he was appointed engineer to the new Board of Northern Lighthouses, a post his stepson and three grandsons would hold after him. Until this time, the Scottish coastline had been one of the most dangerous in the world, so jagged and treacherous that mariners used to steer well clear of it, keeping north of Orkney and Shetland and west of the Hebrides. There were no maps or charts of the coastline before the late sixteenth century, and the first lighthouse, built in 1636 on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, was one of . . .


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What People are Saying About This

John Carey
“A delight from start to finish. [Harman] is steeped in Stevenson and can match his swift, vivid style.”

Meet the Author

Claire Harman's first book, a biography of the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in England, and her second, Fanny Burney: A Biography, was shortlisted for England's Whitbread Award. She has published acclaimed editions of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays, poems, and short stories. Harman teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts. She lives in New York City and in Oxford, England.

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