“Out of my country and myself I go.”
Is there a place where Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t travel? St. Helena, California;
Saranac Lake, New York; Samoa; Davos, Switzerland. Given his unstable health both as child and adult (respiratory problems followed by TB), it’s amazing that he ever went much farther than a few streets distant from 17 Heriot in Edinburgh. It was, after all, just across the street in Queen’s Park that his beloved nurse, “Cummy” introduced him to “Treasure Island” of the duck pond. Today, residents pay an annual fee of 300 pounds for access to the private park.
To get a sense of Edinburgh in Stevenson’s day, read his Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, available for free download at Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/382. He shares tales and lore of the city. There is the piper who tried to find the secret tunnel beneath the streets of the city that linked the castle with Holyrood, but never returned. Tourists are advised to listen for the strains of bagpipe music beneath the ancient cobblestones.
Or the story of Deacon Brodie, the respected furniture maker by day, the burglar by night. Could such a person who exhibits both good and bad personality traits be the inspiration for RLS’s infamous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Stop in at the Deacon Brodie tavern and contemplate the connection.
Kidnapped offers a more mature view of Stevenson’s writing and plenty of Highlands scenery, but for his earliest stories, Pavilion on the Links (1880) provides a thrilling, if sentimental, mystery with a damsel in distress and even Italian mafia set along the German Sea (renamed North Sea after the first world war). Links is the Scottish “name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf.”
To get a better sense of RLS as a person, though, a 2014 novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan (author of Loving Frank, 2007) gives an in-depth portrait of him as well as his flamboyant and creative, if under-appreciated American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Selecting literature for travel always features moments of insight. For me, it was especially keen when I read the description of John Singer Sargent painting Louis and Fanny, a work that she disliked, featured only in part near the edge of the painting while he is center stage, pacing nervously. The next morning at the Writer’s Museum, the facsimile of the painting provided the visual information of how demeaning that picture would have been to a woman who counted her own creativity on a par with her husband’s. (See http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/robert_louis_stevenson_and_his_wife.htm.) It is that kind of juicy detail that makes a small collection like the Writer’s Museum, located at Lady Stair Close near the Edinburgh Castle entrance. Seeing the black and white photographs (taken by Fanny’s son by a previous marriage) of the Stevenson clan at their last home in Samoa was ever so more interesting because of my reading.
Stevenson was near death many times during his life. During one such moment on a transcontinental rail journey to reunite with his beloved Fanny, he penned these lines.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
Ad I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
When I was dining with travel companions one evening and talking about the Horan novel, as soon as I mentioned its title, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, one of them recited from memory this poem. It was a particular moment when the power of literature was so every evident.