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More than a boy’s adventure writer: Robert Louis Stevenson

March 29, 2011

Due for a literary make-over: Robert Louis Stevenson.

Revivals of forgotten or undervalued authors are a hallowed literary tradition, but I’m not so sure about this strategy: Take a neglected British “Great Writer,” uncover his lost and incomplete first novel, finish it yourself, and then publish it. In French.

That’s the plan of Michel Le Bris, a 66-year-old French scholar specializing in Robert Louis Stevenson. Bris’ search for the Scottish author’s abandoned first novel, The Hair Trunk,  was “a two-decade labor of love,” according to The Herald Scotland.

Written when Stevenson was 27 in 1877, The Hair Trunk was little known even to scholars, who considered it “a mere juvenile curio.” The word “juvenile” in this context is a technical term referring to any work written before an important writer finds his finished voice and style.

The Hair Trunk is said to follow the comic adventures of a  group of Cambridge students who abandon England to establish a bohemian utopia. Sea battles, tempests and “the discovery of a desert island off the west coast of Scotland” are involved.

“We are watching the birth of Stevenson the novelist here,” Le Bris told the Herald from his home in Brittany. “I think it shows wonderful invention.”

Stevenson abandoned the book after a transformative period in which he visited American and got married. His first published novel was the mixed-blessing masterpiece, Treasure Island — a bestseller that made him one of the most popular authors of his day, but which has condemned him– unfairly– to the reduced status of a “boy’s writer.”

Le Bris was working on a biography of Stevenson’s early life in 1990 when he found a reference to The Hair Trunk in  collection of unpublished letters. He first tracked down an eight-page rough draft at Yale, then a 140-page manuscript at the Huntington Library in Califorrnia.

Le Bris, who is apparently a respected Stevenson scholar, decided to finish the narrative himself, adding seven chapters to the nine left behind by Stevenson. There are no plans to publish The Hair Trunk in English, although I don’t know whether to be sad or grateful.

Ian Bell, author of a biography of Stevenson (and a Herald columnist), echoes my opinion when he says Le Bris’ work will be primarily of interest to scholars. But he adds that Le Bris makes one important point.

“It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if there is more Robert Louis Stevenson in print in France than here,” says Bell, who is also a Herald columnist. “And what does that say about us?”

Well, according to Robert McCrum, in this excellent piece in the Guardian last Spring, it means Stevenson’s reputation has suffered from literary snobbery for more than a century.

Best remembered today for Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was not only a writer of vivid imagination and skillful plotting. He was also, says McCrum, “a master stylist, a literary craftsman engaged on an eternal search for the mot juste.”

I agree that Stevenson deserves to be regarded not merely as the author of a couple of enduring children’s books, the creator of a handful of vivid characters, but I’m pretty certain Le Bris’s version of The Hair Trunk isn’t going to do much to rehabilitate Stevenson’s literary reputation.

After all, Stevenson was a genius storyteller and Le Bris — well, he’s a scholar. The Hair Trunk is most likely to be the literary equivalent of a platypus — ungainly, unlovable and poisonous.

But, in fairness to Le Bris, I’m just as skeptical of Andrew Motion’s plans to pen a sequel to Treasure Island. As Britain’s poet laureate for the past decade, Motion might  have the literary chops for the job –but it does not always follow that a good poet is also a good storyteller.

Still, I grudgingly acknowledge that his set-up and plot line sounds plausible — Jim Hawkins’ son and Long John Silver’s daughter team up to return to the island in search of the rest of the treasture: Call it: “Treasure Island: The Next Generation.”

But just because, as Motion points out, Treasure Island ends with some unresolved subplots (Long John Silver escapes with part of the loot, pirates are marooned on the island, much of the treasure is unrecovered) does not mean Stevenson failed to wring all the juice from the story.

On the contrary, the ambiguities at the end only serve to strengthen the energy, verisimilitude, and general joy of the book’s conclusion. Leave that book alone, sir. Stevenson needs no help. Not even the poet laureate’s.

Alas, no one ever listens to me. Motion’s book, Return to Treasure Island, is scheduled for U.K. publication next Spring.

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