Sunday, July 30, 2017

Communing with the Son of a Lighthouse Engineer


Robert Louis Stevenson---I've written about him in previous blog posts, I know....but in recent days I felt like I met him, communed with him, even walked with him, if only in spirit. He's among my favorite authors, an affection whose origin I've never quite nailed down. Is he a favorite for his writings--and there are truly many I could list--or his affiliation and kinship with the famous Stevenson family of lighthouse engineers? I suspect it's a little of both. 


I re-read a couple RLS tales prior to my trip to Edinburgh, and they were even more edu-taining and edifying than in my youth. Maturity. Being in my sixties rather than my teens and twenties means the themes RLS chose have greater meaning for me, themes like duality, the rigid father, nostalgia for childhood, and human rights. On my flight I read some of his letters and essays as well; they were new to me but even more fascinating and applicable to my own world than the RLS standards I read in high school and college. Ideas such as "What can't be cured must be endured" and "I have some superficial acquaintance with myself" resonate with me now in ways they never could have years ago.




But, back to that metaphysical experience of rubbing shoulders with RLS....


I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland on July 10th. The next day, I took off on foot from my hotel to visit the Writers' Museum. It's a place off the main tourist-trod Royal Mile that is devoted to Scotland's Big Three: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I love all three great writers, but Stevenson...well, he and his work occupy a special place in my heart.




I've read many of his works, but also several biographies of him. They have endeared me to him, so much that I wish I could go back in time and give him a good dose of antibiotics for his ailing lungs, take away his hand-rolled cigarettes and his pipe, and chase off his leeching wife and stepchildren. Had his health been better and he lived without the madness and manipulative strain of his wife Fanny Osbourne and her retinue, I suspect he would have been happier and probably would have lived longer. Who knows what wondrous stories were yet to flow from his pen?



RLS, as he's popularly known, is profiled in the bottom level of the Lady's Stair tower where the Writers' Museum is housed. Spiral steps lead down to the displays--apropos for a man whose father, grandfather, and uncle built Scotland's most majestic and amazing lighthouses, edifices with their own spiral stairs. RLS was always proud of his family legacy. He spent much of his life reconciling his marine engineering heritage with his decision to become a writer.



He won a medal for a paper he wrote on a new type of intermittent lighthouse beacon. The sea and the nautical ambiance of lighthouses were woven into his work. He grew up by the sea and never wandered far from it. He was happiest breathing ocean air and standing on the bowsprit of a small vessel. Even travel on large ships agreed with him, both spiritually and health-wise.

The island of Fidra off Berwick, Scotland, where RLS's family summered and a lighthouse guarded the waterway into Edinburgh, became the inspiration for Treasure Island and its sequel Kidnapped. Treasure Island was Stevenson's first financial success as a writer; it was gestated in the womb of his youth in Edinburgh at the broad mouth of the Forth River, the Firth of Forth.



Fidra Island and its lighthouse in July 2017.

Later, when RLS bought a home in Bournemouth, England he named it Skerryvore, for the magnificent lighthouse built by his uncle Alan Stevenson in the Hebrides. A model of the lighthouse sat on Stevenson's front porch and another model stood in the garden in back of the house. You can be sure the walls of his home were adorned with images of the great towers that he called "our pyramids and monuments."






All that remains of RLS's Bournemouth home is a stone footprint of the house, which was destroyed by a German bombing during World War II, and one of the stone Skerryvore lighthouses that adorned his home. He had one on the front porch and one in the back garden. Obviously, he loved this graceful and beneficent lighthouse!

I spent a good two hours in the Writers' Museum. I would have stayed longer, but it closed at 5:00 PM. Sir Walter Scott and Bobby Burns got a cursory look. RLS's rooms completely absorbed me. I read all the documents and papers on the walls and in notebooks. I studied a bust of him, thinking it wasn't really a good likeness. RLS was painfully thin, with a sunken chest and scarecrow limbs. His face was narrow, but the most unnerving feature were his eyes--dark brown and glinting with a bit of mischief.

I took a selfie next to his portrait and sent it to my family members along with a glib text: "Hanging out with RLS."



I asked the docent a gazillion questions, which she politely and patiently answered.

"He was such an avid traveler, despite his bad health," she said. "He lived in so many places. That means there are museums and sites devoted to him in Edinburgh, in France, in Switzerland, England, New York, California, and, of course, Samoa. You know he is buried above the harbor at Apia, Samoa?"


I did know that, and I rue that I may never get to visit his resting place. Scottish historians have stated that RLS grave is the most far-flung of all their men of letters. This may be the reason Edinburgh has few memorials to RLS. Perhaps the city has never forgiven him for leaving.


RLS with a cigarette. It's said that he was only without one when he slept. Today, we know smoking is a major contributor to strokes. A hemorrhagic stroke killed RLS at 44.

For a very long time I stared at the black boots on display in a glass case. He wore them for much of his later life, during the years when he wrote some of his best stories. I suspect he wore them to Point Pinos Lighthouse when he lived in Monterey as a newlywed. He played the piano in the keeper's dwelling and likely found the little sentinel quaint compared to the massive towers his ancestors built. I think he had on those well-traveled boots when he stopped in Tahiti and saw Point Venus Lighthouse, designed by his father. He appears wearing the boots in many photos.


RLS always enjoyed a somewhat bohemian style of dress.


Here, RLS sits on the broad porch of his home in Samoa. The Samoan people loved him and called him Tusitala, the Teller of Tales.

Looking right and left, and with no one in sight, I gently laid my hand against the display cabinet separating me from the boots that carried RLS's skinny feet so many places. I felt they possessed some part of RLS I might absorb through the glass. His amazing prolific pen? His disregard for suffering and his incredible endurance? His fertile mind? 


Sadly, I remembered, he had no children. The limb of the tree of the lighthouse empire of the Robert Stevensons ended there, as did the might-have-been branches of literary genius. The great lighthouse engineers endured for many more years, but no other Stevenson left such a mark of accomplishment on the literary world.


His well-worn boots--note he's wearing them in the images above.

RLS's pipe lay in its case under glass. I viewed it with bittersweet appreciation. His smoking likely shortened his life and probably did its part in triggering the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him at age 44. He was helping his wife make mayonnaise at the time. He was, despite his literary stardom, an everyday man with basic needs and tastes. He loved riding his horse, Jack. He loved throwing parties and making conversation. He cooked and made his own bed, read countless books, wrote numerous letters, was interested in everything. He would have benefited enormously as a writer from a career as a lighthouse keeper--hours to himself for drafting and revising.

The damp conditions at lighthouses weren't ideal though. Lightkeepers couldn't have bad lungs or weak constitutions. These were exacerbated at lighthouses, especially the sea towers like the Bell Rock and Skerryvore. RLS knew of the dank conditions at lighthouses. He had visited many of them with his father. His writings and poetry are rife with those experiences.



Fifteen-year-old RLS with his father, Robert Stevenson. RLS worked in his father's office at the Northern Lighthouse Board at this time.

In the end, it was pure sea air that helped his lungs, Pacific air in fact. He moved to Samoa and never left. Those boots went with him, but somehow they made it back to Edinburgh after RLS died. I'm glad. They were, among all the relics on display at the Writers' Museum, the most beguiling for me. If the chance offered itself, I'd have slipped my feet into them and taken a walk!


RLS wore his boots in this image from Vailima, Samoa where he built his final home. He was dictating a story to his step-daughter.



All images in this blog, where not otherwise noted, are from the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in California or the Writers' Museum in Edinburgh.

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