Sunday, November 13, 2016

Birthday: "To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive."


Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894)

A sickly, odd-looking boy, Robert Louis Stevenson- as he styled himself- grew into a sickly, odd-looking man. His family had cornered the market for Scottish lighthouse designers, one generation after another.

His father hoped he’d come into the business, and the son studied engineering with no great will. But at 21 he said he wanted to be a writer, and his disappointed father consented- as long as Stevenson got a profession to fall back on. So Stevenson read law, joined the bar in 1875, and forgot all about being an advocate.

He’d published his first book at sixteen, and set off a-traveling, to find material for stories and a place where his health might improve. He indulged strenuous ventures like a canoe trip through France and Belgium, in between bouts of ill-health. But out of that trip came his first success, An Inland Voyage (1878).

He cranked out two more travel narratives to score some cash, and pursue an American he had met called  Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne (his father forbade the romance and- when she returned to America in 1878- refused to pay for his son to follow her). A rather Henry Jamesian character, Osbourne had fled her philandering American husband and was studying art on the Continent.

Having raised the cash from his books, just, to join her, Stevenson- telling no one- booked passage on a tramp steamer for New York, then trained across America. His health failed again, and he was near death when he arrived at Monterey.

Once recovered, he made his way to San Francisco, hoping for a reunion with Fanny and earning his keep with laborious menial jobs and occasional journalism. Fanny got her divorce and nursed him through another illness. They married in the spring of 1880.

They returned to Scotland, where- confounding the usual end of such tales- Fanny endeared herself to the clan Stevenson.

The Stevenson family- Fanny had two children- settled in Bournemouth, and wintered in the south of France. Despite his health, Stevenson produced much of his best work in the next seven years- Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses among them.

Of the greatest of them, The Writer’s Almanac says,

One day he found himself entertaining his stepson on a rainy afternoon in Scotland, drawing a treasure map. He became consumed with the idea of a story about buccaneers and buried gold and wrote the first draft in mere days. Stevenson said: “It was to be a story for boys, no need for psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone; Women were to be excluded.” The original title was The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys, and it was serialized in the magazine Young Folks. Stevenson used the pseudonym “Captain George North.”

Treasure Island introduced to the world to Billy Bones, Long John Silver, treasure maps with “x’s,” schooners, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders. The novel deeply influenced future writers like Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, though Virginia Woolf despised it. It was even adapted into an Italian/German science fiction film starring Anthony Quinn and titled Il Planeta del Tesoro, or Treasure Island in Outer Space (1987).

He also sat for three portraits by the up-and-coming American society portraitist, John Singer Sargent. Fanny didn’t like one of them, and later destroyed it; the two survivors show Stevenson in all his eccentric, if gaunt, magnetism, with Fanny, in one, barely visible.

Stevenson and his wife.jpg

When Stevenson’s father died in 1887, Robert kicked off what few traces remained. He had long since dismayed his father’s hopes with his name change, bohemian dress, loudly-voiced atheism, dilettantism (he wrote over 100 musical compositions) and general avant-gardiness. He packed up Fanny and the kids; they went back to California; hired a yacht, and sailed the Pacific.

A second voyage in 1889 brought them to Samoa, where he bought a large tract of land and settled in. He became a sort of community totem for the indigenous population and adopted a native name for himself.

His child-like side was never much below the surface: when he learned the American land commissioner’s daughter was born on Christmas Day, Stevenson executed a deed of gift of his birthday- November 13- so she could have a right one of her own. He collapsed and died of a stroke December 3, 1894.

The Samoans stood watch over his body until daybreak, then bore him to a mountaintop grave.

Of Stevenson’s epitaph, Daniel Bosch wrote:

Stevenson’s fight with tuberculosis was more retreat than attack. A Scot, born in Edinburgh, he wrote beautifully from many places in whose climates he sought relief from the symptoms of his disease: Dorset, Davos, coastal California, Hy√®res, the Adirondacks, Hawaii, New Zealand. He died and was buried in Samoa, about 9460 miles from his birthplace, so Google tells me. In light of that fact, few lines pluck at one’s heartstrings so strongly as the sentimental fiction, “Home is the sailor, home from sea / And the hunter home from the hill.” Even on his own tomb, Stevenson tells us the story we want to hear regarding our own eventual resting places, though he must lie so far from home.

Fanny left Samoa, alternating between American and Europe for two decades. Her devoted private secretary, Ned Field, accompanied her everywhere. They were widely thought to be lovers, despite their 38-year age gap, and after Fanny died, Field married her daughter, Isobel, who was twenty years his senior. Isobel carried Fanny’s ashes back to Samoa and buried them next to Stevenson in 1915.

After World War I, Stevenson’s literary reputation withered away, with much that had been good from the old world. He occupies a secure niche as a young adult adventure and horror author, but his poetry, essays, short stories, and songs have only begun to receive critical acclaim in this century. From the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, several of the major anthologies of English literature omitted him entirely.

Adopting the Samoan practice of making a prayer at day’s end, Stevenson composed a series for his household, which Fanny published as "Prayers Written at Vailima” in 1903. This is one:
Lord, behold our family here assembled. We thank Thee for this place in which we dwell; for the love that unites us; for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies, that make our lives delightful; for our friends in all parts of the earth, and our friendly helpers in this foreign isle. Let peace abound in our small company. Purge out of every heart the lurking grudge. Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Offenders, give us the grace to accept and to forgive offenders. Forgetful ourselves, help us to bear cheerfully the forgetfulness of others. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavours. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and, down to the gates of death, loyal and loving one to another. As the clay to the potter, as the windmill to the wind, as children of their sire, we beseech of Thee this help and mercy for Christ’s sake.

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