Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894). Portrait by Girolamo Nerli, 1892.
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I’ve recently finished reading Claire Harman’s thoughtful and affectionate biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. He seems to have been an unusually likeable person as writers go, though perhaps best appreciated at a distance. As a child I found Treasure Island too frightening to finish and the biography is good at conveying a kind of cheerful ruthlessness in Stevenson’s character. My favourite behind-the-scenes glimpse of this was his own description of his nicotine habit in a letter to J M Barrie in 1893, the year before he died: “Cigarettes without intermission except when coughing or kissing.”
William Ernest Henley (1849 – 1903)
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According to Robert Louis Stevenson’s letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his real-life friend W. E. Henley. Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, described Henley as “… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet”. In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island Stevenson wrote: “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver… the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you”.
As well as being the author of the much-quoted Invictus (‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’) Henley also wrote the rather piratical poem, Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom:
Madam Life’s a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.
You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.
With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;
But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.
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There’s also a good audio version on YouTube