WHEN it comes to great Scottish writers there is a tendency to think of Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott. Robert Louis Stevenson, by contrast, is often relegated to the category of a writer of children’s literature. He was, and is, so much more.
RLS Day aims to change all that. A collaboration between the City of Literature Trust and Edinburgh Napier University’s Centre for Literature and Writing, it was conceived as a means of celebrating Stevenson as one of Edinburgh’s, and Scotland’s, most famous literary figures and wonderful characters.
Born at 8 Howard Place in Edinburgh in 1850, Stevenson suffered from chronic lung problems, and long sought a congenial climate for his health. His parents engaged a nurse, Alison “Cummy” Cunningham, who instilled in the young Stevenson – affectionately known as “Smout” – her fierce Calvinism. Nevertheless, at the age of 23, Stevenson announced to his father, Thomas, that he didn’t believe in Christianity, causing lifelong tension between the two.
He became a tearaway, leading his own Jekyll and Hyde existence in his home city. By day he was a respectable law student at Edinburgh University; by night he donned his famous velvet jacket and caroused in the taverns of the High Street and Southside, drinking with his friends and fraternising with prostitutes. This was Stevenson’s rebellion against his deeply conservative domestic environment.
Stevenson’s sense of fun and playfulness permeates works like New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter. His tales of Prince Florizel and company in these volumes are full of practical jokes and comic characters, many of whom, like “the young man with the cream tarts” are modelled on his cousin, Bob Stevenson. Bob became Stevenson’s partner in crime, with Fanny, Stevenson’s wife, once remarking: “Whenever my husband wished to depict a romantic, erratic, engaging character, he delved into the rich mine of his cousin’s personality.”
With Bob, and their friend Charles Baxter, Stevenson formed the LJR, the Liberty, Justice, Reverence League, whose motto was “disregard, everything our parents taught us,” causing his father much distress.
When Stevenson finally settled down it was on the island of Samoa, with his wife and extended family. In Samoa he became known as Tusitala, the “Teller of Tales”, and renowned for his lavish feasts in the grand house, Vailima, built for his family. Stevenson died there suddenly in 1894, and is buried on a steep hill above Vailima. But, despite his long exile, Stevenson never forgot his native city, exemplified by this poetic extract in the unfinished Weir of Hermiston:
“I saw rain falling and the rainbow drawn
On Lammermuir. Hearkening I heard again
In my precipitous city beaten bells
Winnow the keen sea wind. And here afar,
Intent on my own race and place, I wrote.”
Stevenson’s “precipitous city” will not forget him either, on the anniversary of his birthday tomorrow. Last year’s inaugural celebrations saw a number of activities take place, culminating in an RLS Evening with Ian Rankin, Nigel Planer and Professor Dame Joan Stringer talking to a packed audience at the City Art Centre.
RLS Day has since become a whole lot bigger. The City Council have given their approval and, tomorrow, a series of RLS-themed events will take place across the capital.
But even if you can’t get involved in the celebrations, I’d ask you to join me in raising a glass to RLS tomorrow. A truly great Scottish literary figure. Cheers!
• Linda Dryden is Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh Napier University, Director of CLAW and co-founder of RLS Day
A NEW CHAPTER IN WRITER’S LEGACY
Robert Louis Stevenson Day (RLSDay) is being marked tomorrow with a wide range of celebrations.
It will all start with a Tache mob at 1pm in Parliament Square, when people are invited to don a moustache and velvet jacket and create a cacophony for Stevenson by reading their favourite of his works. There will also be a chance to enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson’s personal holiday snaps from 1888, when he toured Polynesia and Micronesia at Ill-Charted and Unlighted Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pacific Photography, to be held in the City Arts Centre.
Stevenson’s writings will also line the streets and everyone is encouraged to share their favourite RLS facts on Facebook and Twitter #RLSDay.