Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

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Island 1: Early Life in Edinburgh


Stevenson with his mother

As a child, Stevenson was known affectionately as "Smout," a Scots word for a young fish. Like his mother and maternal grandfather, he suffered from sometimes debilitating lung ailments, which, later in life, would force him to seek out ever-healthier climates in ever-more exotic locales.

8 Howard Place

Stevenson's birthplace, Howard Place was on the outskirts of Edinburgh's New Town, a collection of parallel and perpendicular streets that exemplified neoclassical social planning. Built between the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the New Town provided a distinct contrast to the high tenements and narrow winds of the Old Town.

Stevenson's Baby Book
San Francisco, John Henry Nash for John Howell, 1922.

Stevenson's mother kept this handwritten account of her only child's early childhood, recording his illnesses, his religious training and his precocity. The book she wrote in (Baby's Record, London: Field & Tuer, n.d.) presciently advised "young mothers" to keep a "concise registry of their darling's doings" in part as an aid to future medical treatment. This reproduction, from the height of the Stevenson cult, was limited to 500 copies.

Allison Cunningham ("Cummy" )

Stevenson's incessant illnesses mandated the hiring of a nurse. After two others proved less than completely competent, the Stevensons hired Alison Cunningham ("Cummy") when Stevenson was about eighteen months old. Cummy's fervent Calvinism and the stories she told of the Covenanters--strident seventeenth-century Presbyterians who opposed encroaching Anglicanism--would prove quite influential in the author's career.

A Cloud of Witnesses for the Royal Prerogatives of Jesus Christ; or, The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those Who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland, Since the Year 1680
Edinburgh, [1714].

An example of the heroic stories of the Scottish Covenanters and their religious persecution in the seventeenth century, which "Cummy" read to her young charge. Stevenson's grasp of stylistic archaism and his interest in historical romances can be traced to such early religious reading. He wrote to J. M. Barrie in 1893 that "My style is from the Covenanting writer."

The Pentland Rising: A Page of History
Edinburgh, Andrew Elliot, 1866.

Stevenson's first pamphlet, privately published at his father's expense, tells the story of the bloody Covenanting battle at Rullion Green in 1666.

Wilson the Stationers

It was at this shop, on the corner of Antigua Street, at the top of Leith Walk, Edinburgh, that the young Stevenson bought the cut-outs figures for the toy theatre described in his essay A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured The essay's appreciation of creativity and its feeling of joie de vivre help to explain the author's appeal to young readers.

"Earl Percy"
from Theatrical Portraits: A Selection of Penny Plain Reprints
London, Society for Theatre Research, 1963.

The mid-Victorian Juvenile Drama series (chiefly 1820-1840) was reproduced by a descendant of one if its primary publishers in the early twentieth century. The originals of these cut-out characters for toy theatres were stylized theatrical portraits used as advertising by true theatres. Publishers of juvenile dramas, though, recognized their value as accessory tie-ins, not unlike the relationship between modern films and action figures.

W. E. Lockhart
"Advocates' Close"
from Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes
London: Seeley, 1878.

The Old Town of historic Edinburgh, with its tall tenement blocks crowded together, was centered on the High Street or "Royal Mile" that ran between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace. It has been suggested that the somber streets and dark alleys of Jekyll and Hyde are more reminiscent of Old Town Edinburgh than they are of London, where the story is set. Stevenson's second book, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes was condemned by the Scotsman's reviewer for its "sarcastic, if poetic, descriptions."

17 Heriot Row

In 1853, the Stevensons moved from their home at 8 Howard Place to a larger house across the street at 1 Inverleith Terrace. Unfortunately, the house was damp, and, because it was on a corner, particularly exposed to northern winds. On the advice of doctors concerned for the health of both mother and son, the family moved once again in 1856. Their new house, at 17 Heriot Row, was a decided improvement. Located on the back side of the newly landscaped Queen Street Gardens, the Heriot Row house was drier, larger, and less exposed than either of the previous homes. It was also in the New Town proper, the area of Edinburgh inhabited by the most respectable members of the professional class. The photo here was likely taken after the Stevensons had moved out.

Edinburgh Academy

The Academy had been founded in 1824 by New Town parents (with the assistance of Sir Walter Scott) as a socially upmarket alternative to the traditional Royal High School. Stevenson entered the Greek revival school in 1861, but later wrote "I blush to own I am an Academy boy; it seems modern and smacks not of the soil."

Stevenson with his father

Stevenson's father, Thomas (1818-1887), was a prominent Edinburgh civil engineer, specializing in the development of new light apparatuses for Scotland's many lighthouses. Stevenson dedicated hisFamiliar Studies of Men and Books "To Thomas Stevenson, civil engineer, by whose devices the great sea lights in every quarter of the world now shine more brightly, this volume is in love and gratitude dedicated by his son the author."

"Bell Rock Lighthouse"
from W. H. Davenport Adams, Lighthouses and Lightships: A Descriptive and Historical Account of Their Mode of Construction and Organization
London, T. Nelson & Sons, 1870.

This lighthouse, on the famous Bell Rock or Inch Cape at the entrance of the Firth of Forth, was built by Robert Stevenson, the author's grandfather, and completed in 1811. Though Bell Rock had caused the destruction of several ships, building a lighthouse upon it was considered impossible. Robert Stevenson was hailed as a genius for his accomplishment, and the Bell Rock Lighthouse was considered one of the engineering marvels of its day.

"On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses"
from the Transactions of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, Vol. VIII, 1870-71.
Edinburgh, Neill and Company, 1871.

Stevenson was originally intended to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and trained at Edinburgh University to become an engineer. He read this essay to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in March 1871; it was published in the Society's Transactions, vol. 8 (1870-71), and won its author a silver medal. Following this success, he gave up engineering, and his father agreed he could read for the Bar.

"Say Not of Me"
Poem XXXVIII, from Underwoods
London, Chatto & Windus, 1887.

The ambivalence incorporated in this poem about giving up the "strenuous" family profession in favor of the "childish" life of authorship is a characteristic theme in Stevenson's writing.

Stevenson in his barrister's robes, 1875

On 14 July 1875, Stevenson passed his exams and was admitted to the Scottish bar. His career as a jurist was less than distinguished. Despite a brass plaque affixed to the outside of the Heriot Row house, Stevenson never earned more than a few pounds as a lawyer.

"Some College Memories"
from The New Amphion, Being the Book of the Edinburgh University Union Fancy Fair
Edinburgh, T. & A. Constable, 1886.

This essay, a series of portraits of famous professors, laments the decline of Edinburgh University since Stevenson's days: "by an odd chance, I had the very last of the very best ofAlma mater; the same thing I hear...had previously happened to my father." The portrait (by William Hole) is of the Rev. Philip Kelland (1838-1879), Professor of Mathematics, "the first Englishman with an entirely English education appointed to a chair at Edinburgh." It was claimed that "no man's education is complete, or truly liberal, who knew not Kelland."

"A College Magazine"
from Memories and Portraits
London, Chatto & Windus, 1887.

Stevenson's commitment to a literary career was fostered by involvement as an editor of the short-lived Edinburgh University Magazine. This outgrowth of the prestigious student debating club, the Speculative Society, lasted for only four numbers (January-April 1871), but included six of Stevenson's early essays.

Robert Hope
"From Above Swanston Cottage"
from L. MacLean Watt, The Hills of Home, with the Pentland Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson
London & Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1913.

In Stevenson's early youth his family had summered with his maternal grandparents in the village of Colinton. In 1867, though, his father took up the lease of Swanton Cottage in the Pentland Hills, five miles south of Edinburgh. Later in life, Stevenson would fondly recall his times at Swanston for the solace the provided from the hectic life of the city.


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