Robert Louis Stevenson's Split Personality

A detail of an image of Robert Louis Stevenson from the book's cover shows a split visage.

The author of 'Treasure Island' and 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' was complex, brilliant and often ill. HarperCollins hide caption

itoggle caption HarperCollins

Myself & The Other Fellow is a new biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. His works are well known, but the author's own story may surprise readers. Biographer Claire Harman finds a complex, brilliant and troubled man.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Many of us first met Robert Louis Stevenson when we were children, maybe home from school with sniffles in bed with "A Child's Garden of Verses," or perhaps discovering "Treasure Island" or investigating "Kidnapped" or exploring the split personality of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." For all the swashbuckling adventurers and scary characters he brought to life, Robert Louis Stevenson was physically frail, often suffering from respiratory problems. He died young at 44 years old, 101 years ago this week. He also struggled with writer's block and some of his best-loved works were nearly literary accidents. Claire Harman has written the story of one of the English language's greatest storytellers. It's "Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson." When Claire Harman joined us from NPR's New York bureau, I asked her to explain the title, "Myself and the other Fellow."

Ms. CLAIRE HARMAN ("Myself and the Other Fellow"): This is a phrase that Stevenson used to describe two states of consciousness that he experienced, in particular, when he was having a fever one time, you know, to do with his lung problems and his illness. And he wrote to a friend that when he was in a high fever, he felt that his mind split off into `myself' and what he called `the other fellow.' `Myself' was the rational side, and `the other fellow' was the sort of dark side, the creative, difficult, seething side of his subconscious. And he loved it. He loved the fact that he had these simultaneous and slightly conflicting states of mind going on. And obviously, he used it very much in his work. And it animated a lot of his ideas. You know, that you could be two people at the same time.

KAST: Is that where "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" came from?

Ms. HARMAN: Yes, that duality and the idea of the double self is all through Stevenson's work. I mean, he was really obsessed with the notion that there's really no part of the self that you can contain within one individual.

KAST: Tell us about his health. It seems like nearly everyone in your book is a hypochondriac.

Ms. HARMAN: Yes. Yes, they are. Well, Stevenson was an only child and his parents were both incredibly fussy about his well-being and, you know, he was always being wrapped up in shawls and given coffee in the middle of the night, which was--his nurse thought was a good cure for insomnia.

KAST: That's odd.

Ms. HARMAN: Yes. And you know, one--they didn't have the windows open because they didn't want to have any nasty drafts. So he was actually brought up in quite a neurotic and, also, fairly unhealthy environment. And he was a hypochondriac himself. It would have been hard to escape that. You know, he was plagued by all sorts of ailments. It's hard to tell now what was really the problem with him, whether it was, you know, a mixture of psychosomatic things plus frail lungs, which he clearly did have a lung problem. But clearly, he was very thin and, you know, he didn't have any extra energy. So he'd have these flare-ups of excitement and rather manic periods, followed by periods of collapse when he'd just have to go to bed and rest. But he and his wife and his parents were all invested in the project of Stevenson being ill. That was their joint project.

KAST: Well, how did that focus shape who he was and what and how he wrote?

Ms. HARMAN: Very much, because he wrote in a way that shows a lot of impatience. You know, he wanted to get things done. He wanted to write fairly short forms, like novellas, short stories, short novels. He didn't feel he had any staying power because he felt that if there was any protracted physical effort to be made when he was writing, you know, illness could intervene and interrupt that. So there's a sort of quick turnover element in his work, and that sometimes is an advantage and it makes it very vivid and very adrenaline fueled. But sometimes you get a feeling with his work that he has just somehow lost interest or, you know, the flame has just lowered.

KAST: One of Stevenson's best-loved books, "Treasure Island," started as an entertainment for his stepson, Sam, when he drew him a map. Correct?

Ms. HARMAN: Yes, that's right. Yeah.

KAST: And then?

Ms. HARMAN: Well, they were on a wet holiday in Scotland and most holidays in Scotland are wet holidays, and they got stuck indoors with nothing to do. And Sam, who was 12 years old at the time, had a paint box and some paper. And Stevenson, having painted a map of an island, then became absolutely entranced with his own picture. And, you know, his imagination just flooded into this picture of an island and he--and to him it suggested a whole story about pirates and adventure and the period which he loved, which was the, you know, early to mid-18th century. Everything seemed to fall into place, and having painted the painting, he then immediately set about writing the first chapter of "Treasure Island." And he wrote a chapter a day while the rain kept going. If the weather had been better that August in Scotland he might well never have written the story.

KAST: Stevenson received literary praise early in his career, but then the critics, even his friends, seemed to feel he hadn't delivered on his early promise. Is he...

Ms. HARMAN: Yeah. I mean, aren't friends awful sometimes? Stevenson, he had this, you know, early career that was to do with formal prose and a kind of exquisite prose style, and his friends were encouraging him to carry on like that. And when books like "Treasure Island," which was a best-seller, and then "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"--when those books came out, his friends lamented the fact. They thought he was going down market. And Stevenson was quite irritated with them because, clearly, he could do both those things. He had a lot of different works inside him and he didn't want to constrain himself. But there was a kind of jealousy and possessiveness that made some of the people in his circle just not receive those other works very well.

KAST: Is he more appreciated today?

Ms. HARMAN: No, I think he was very much appreciated in his own day, and he has had a great deal of staying power. With writers of classic texts, what always happens is that the text, like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Treasure Island," to some extent "Kidnapped" and "A Child's Garden of Verses," these books detach from the author, so we now know them as great classic books and not everyone will associate them with the author, with Robert Louis Stevenson. But I think and hope that he's getting to be properly appreciated now.

KAST: Claire Harman's new book is "Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson," published by Harper Collins. She joined us from New York. Thanks.

Ms. HARMAN: Thank you.

KAST: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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A Life Of Robert Louis Stevenson

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