AUTUMN BOOKS SUPPLEMENT
R. L. S.
Voyage to Windward : The life of Robert Louis Stevenson, By J. C. Furnas. (Faber. 25s.)
IT is hardly possible, however one may hesitate to dispute a statement printed by a harassed publisher on the wing of one of his jackets, to accept without protest a description of Voyage to Windward as " excellent reading throughout and in every way worthy of the author of Treasure Island, the teller of tales.' " The book is indeed a monument of industry, a ,torehouse of enlargements and corrections of our knowledge of /Robert Louis Stevenson. Mr. Furnas has tracked Stevenson all over the world, travelling 30,000 miles, living for months in Vailima, tireless in pursuit of impressions, reminiscences and documentation. He has had access to masses of material previously unavailable. Over years he has " lived " Stevenson—virtually been Stevenson—with an intensity miraculously shared (or at any rate tolerated) by his nearest and dearest. But the one thing he has not done is to produce " excellent reading worthy of the author of Treasure Island." All of 200,000 words in length, his book is endlessly allusive, frequently jaunty and, despite its wealth of new information, its self-confidence and its whole- hearted devotion to the memory of R. L. S., becomes in the long run wearisome.
Manner of presentation apart, what contributions to the Stevenson story are provided by the material to which Mr. Furnas had priority- access, and in what other respects does his very long book outdo its predecessors in relevant information ? Mr. Furnas fills in the background of the several phases of his hero's life with a lavish and convincing assiduity. Further, as a man widely travelled in the South Seas and the author of an important study of the coming of the white man to Hawaii and the Islands, his establishment there and his relations with the native races, Mr. Furnas is fully qualified to interpret Stevenson's decision to make his last home in Samoa, to describe the attitude of the Samoans to their distinguished visitor, and to supply a survey of the chequered political history of the Island group. All of this we can respect for its own sake ; but whether it was strictly necessary to burden the frail shoulders of R. L. S. with quite such a weight of garnered fact and skilfully applied personal experience remains an open question.
The letters, manuscripts and other hitherto unexamined documents consist, in the main, of Stevenson's letters to Mrs. Sitwell (Lady Colvin), presented to the National Library of Scotland by Sir Sidney Colvin, with a reservation-ban until 1949, and extensive portions of the Beinecke collection of Stevensoniana at Yale. This voluminous trouvaille, apart from isolated points of detail, enabled Mr. Furnas to clear up the mystery. of " Claire," to establish beyond doubt the true relationship of R. L. S. and Mrs. Sitwell, and to confirm and 'embellish the generally accepted view of the disastrous influence on Stevenson's later• life of his wife Fanny.
Once again credit is due to each document per se. But how much does " Claire " matter ? Even if Louis, as a very young man, was involved with a prostitute, is our judgement of his story-telling genius in the least affected ? Mr. Furnas proves that he was not so involved, and moralists can go on their way rejoicing. But our Opinion of the author of Jekyll and Hyde, of Thrown Janet, of Weir of Hermiston, still remains precisely what it was. As for the milli antoureuse with Fanny Sitwell, this is now prcived to have been yet another of those blameless, simili-passionate yet highly-educative Egerian enslavements, to which serious young highbrows during the Prudish and hypocritical seventies and eighties of last century were so pathetically, so boringly, doomed.
It is no fault of Mr. Furnas that his new material hardly affects the major events in Stevenson's life as previously known. But it is Much to his credit that he never overplays its importance, administer- ing it fairly and judiciously. One could wish that, when in his own Person he is in conflict with earlier commentators, he had shown the same control. George Moore, E. F. Benson, Clement Shorter and others get a scolding they are hardly important enough to deserve ; while the haughty arrival in Samoa of Henry Adams and John La Farge brings down a sledge-hammer of sarcasm on the antennae of
two fairly negligible beetles. MICHAEL SADLEIR.
In next week's " Spectator " Professor Bonamy Dobree reviews a new book on Browning ; Frederick Etchells discusses a volume on " English Parish Churches " ; and Professor Emile Cammaerts considers the late J. Huizinga's " Erasmus of Rotterdam."