Creators of Children's Classics Spotlighted in Two Biographies
TALES of adventure - along with those of romance and fantasy - tend to be consigned to the realm of children's literature, even when they may in fact contain elements of literary sophistication, moral complexity, and psychological ambiguity that would render them more suitable for adults. Novels like ``Treasure Island,'' ``Kidnapped,'' and ``The Master of Ballantrae'' live on as children's classics, but seldom find a place on college curricula.
As Robert Louis Stevenson's most recent biographer, Frank McLynn, points out, ``Treasure Island,'' although written expressly for serialization in a Victorian magazine called Young Folks, presents a dark, morally murky view of the universe along with its calculatedly hair-raising tale of pirates and buried treasure. The world according to Stevenson is a violent, chaotic place where even a seemingly enlightened human being, like Dr. Jekyll of his most famous story, is potentially a savage Mr. Hyde. ``Children,'' Stevenson himself observed, ``think very much the same thoughts and dream the same dreams as bearded men and marriageable women.''
Born in Edinburgh in 1850 to a prosperous engineer and his cultivated wife, Robert Louis Stevenson was a frail, highly imaginative only child. His early years were colored by the terrors induced by tales of demons and hell-fire told by his devoted, but bigoted and superstitious Calvinist nanny.
Even as a child, Stevenson loved to invent stories of his own, and soon found a companion for his games in his cousin Bob. The bond between them continued into adulthood: ``[T]he two mad Stevensons,'' wrote a woman who met them in their 20s, ``... with all their suffering are ... so filled with the joyfulness of mere living, that their presence is exhilarating....''
The woman who wrote these lines was Fanny Osbourne, an American 10 years their senior, who first set her sights on Bob, but ultimately married Louis (as Stevenson was known). The Indiana-born Fanny was, quite literally, a ``pistol-packing mama'': The mother of three, not yet separated from her philandering husband when she and Stevenson first met in Europe in 1876, she took her firearm wherever she went. Once they were married, according to McLynn, Fanny contrived to keep Bob - and many other of Stevenson's friends - pretty much at bay.
McLynn, whose introductory remarks cogently assess Stevenson's place in the literary pantheon, is oddly less incisive in the rest of the book. He is quite trenchant - almost disconcertingly so - however, when it comes to evaluating Fanny's influence. Unlike previous biographers, notably J. C. Furnas and James Pope-Hennessy, McLynn sees Stevenson's wife as the bane of his existence: a selfish, manipulative harpy who censored his writing in the hope of keeping it commercially viable, while draining his resources with schemes for her equally manipulative grown children.
Years of travel in search of a climate beneficial to Stevenson's poor health culminated in the family's move to Samoa in the Pacific, where Stevenson became known among the locals as ``Tusitala'': the storyteller. His death in 1894 opened the door to prolonged squabbles over his literary and financial legacy - an ironic footnote to a life distinguished for gallantry and generosity. McLynn's biography, published in the centennial year of Stevenson's death, provides a poignant portrait of the man, and may help restore his place in the literary canon.
The writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944), like Stevenson, subscribed to a heroic code that was a bit of an anachronism. An impoverished aristocrat, he became one of the pioneers of French aviation, although he was not, by most accounts, an especially good pilot. Idealistic, brave, and at 6 foot, 2 inches engagingly bearlike, the author of ``Night Flight,'' ``Wind, Sand, and Stars,'' ``Flight to Arras,'' and the children's classic, ``The Little Prince,'' retained much of the spontaneity and dreaminess of childhood well into his adult life.
The ``world of childhood memories,'' he confessed at the age of 30, still seemed ``hopelessly more real than the other.'' His personality, like his spare yet lyrical prose, cast a spell over almost all who knew him (including Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a fellow writer-aviator who appreciated his unusual combination of qualities).
Increasingly disheartened by the modern world, he met his death, perhaps even willingly courted it, flying a reconnaissance mission over his native France in World War II.
Stacy Schiff's biography is well-researched, but proceeds rather lumberingly, despite (or perhaps because of) her attempts at ``elegant'' writing. While clearly admiring Saint-Exupery, she manages to sound somewhat patronizing about him. No such condescension may be found, however, in the worshipful treatment she accords Saint-Exupery's mistress-literary executrix, whose name, following the lady's wishes, she coyly declines to disclose. While it may have been necessary to accede to this demand in order to gain access to Saint-Exupery's papers, the deferential tone Schiff adopts when discussing ``Madame de B'' and other members of the French aristocracy is enough to make one squirm.