Woman unearths rare Robert Louis Stevenson book while emptying mother's house

A copy of a rare vintage book, written by Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa in the years leading up to his death, has been discovered during a house move.

Saturday, 21st August 2021, 4:55 am

Elizabeth Robson, a grand niece of renowned English silver screen actress Dame Flora Robson, was stunned to find the elaborately-decorated book, Prayers Written at Vailima, while emptying the contents of her mother’s garden shed in London.

The book, which bears a message to Flora Robson, was gifted to the movie star – who starred in films alongside Errol Flynn, Ingrid Bergman and Laurence Olivier during Hollywood’s Golden Age – and subsequently passed on to Elizabeth Robson’s mother prior to Flora’s death in 1984.

First published in 1890, Prayers Written at Vailima is a collection of family prayers the Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde author conjured up while living in the remote Polynesian islands in his final illness-marked years.

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Elizabeth Robson was stunned to find the vintage book, which was published in 1905.

Ms Robson, 45, from West London, says her family’s copy, a second edition, published in 1905, is one of only two in existence in the UK – the other belonging to the British Library.

She says she plans to donate her copy to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh for its section dedicated to the legendary writer, who was born in the Scottish capital in 1850.

Ms Robson said: "We were just moving lots of things from my mother’s house, and the shed was the very last thing to empty – it was there we found the book. It was quite fragile and the dust jacket was crumbling a bit.

"The message inside records that it was been given to my great aunt Flora Robson in 1938 by Alice Bowley, a relative of Ada Bowley, who was the illustrator of the first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Elizabeth Robson's great aunt, silver screen actress, Flora Robson, was gifted the book in 1938.

"The whole thing is thrilling and my mum, who is 80 now, is really pleased as she feared it had been lost. Flora died in 1984, so she must’ve given it to my mum before she died.”

Ms Robson says the 1905 Chatto and Windus edition of the book is highly collectable, as the dust jacket is rare, and the Medieval-style inlays, comprising hundreds of colours and gilt-edged pages, could mean it is worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

However, she says she has no interest in making profit from the 116-year-old artefact, and would instead like to donate it for public display.

She said: "I contacted the British Library and they’ve been very helpful in imparting information about it.

"It’s stunningly beautiful, and apart from the British Library, I think I’m the only one in the UK who has a copy.

"I was hoping to donate it to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, but they have been closed recently due to Covid.”

In the prologue of Prayers Written at Vailima, and despite struggling with language barriers, the author’s wife Frances Stevenson paints a delightful picture of the Stevensons’ life at that time, living alongside the native Samoans.

The locals are said to have treated the Scottish writer with great affection, and referred to him as “Tusitala” – Teller of Tales – and would gather round him for wisdom in the form of prayer.

The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh has been approached for comment.

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