Variously seen as a writer of adventure stories for the young, a skilled essayist, a poet, a frail genius fated to die young, Robert Louis Stephenson was all of these and more. In Ian Bell’s Dreams of Exile readers not only gain a unique insight into the man and the writer, but his life, his influences and, of course, his legacy.
Born into a family that had risen from the soil to prosper as lighthouse engineers, Stephenson was much influenced by the environment in which he was raised and the principles held by his ancestors, including a dour Calvinism which provided the obsession with evil so evident in works such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Indeed, many of his tales can be traced back to youthful fantasies stemming from ghost stories he heard from his nurse, Alison 'Cummy' Cunningham.
Ian Bell's entertaining biography also explores how Stephenson’s preference for older women led to his marriage to the American divorcee Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne and his subsequent adoption of her family, which was often detrimental to his own best interests.
Finally, Bell explores Stephenson’s connection to the South Pacific, where he found himself sympathizing with the native peoples, seeing similarities between their treatment by the so-called civilized nations and the way in which his native Scotland was treated by England.
Stevenson was only 44 when he died and, as Bell points out, barely into his maturity as an artist. What he might yet have achieved had he lived can only be surmised. This biography encourages us to return once more to the classic books we came to love – books we came to treasure.