Women who caught eye of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson's wife, Fanny
Robert Louis Stevenson's wife, Fanny
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Jekyll and Hyde author Robert Louis Stevenson had conflicts of his own, which included the need to visit city brothels

He is the writer who brought the world Jekyll and Hyde, the story of one man torn apart by two sides of his personality, a story which many believe reflected the city in which Robert Louis Stevenson was raised.

Robert Louis Stevenson. Picture: contributed

Robert Louis Stevenson. Picture: contributed

It would seem that the author was also torn between his middle-class upbringing and sedate university life by a desire to frequent the city’s brothels.

So much so, that while he may have conducted a “grand romance” with Fanny Osbourne marrying her when he was 30 – and she a 40-year-old American divorcee – he had ­already “opened his heart” to a number of Edinburgh women long before then.

In an event to be held tomorrow –on RLS Day which marks his birthday – at his childhood home in 
Inverleith Row, RLS biographer Jeremy Hodges will regale an audience with tales of Stevenson’s lost loves, including his brothel ­romances.

Here are the ten women who were loved and lost...

1 KATHARINE: At age 14, Louis enjoyed a romance in the Borders with his cousin Katharine Stevenson. At 13 Katharine was fey and fascinating but their innocent love was fleeting. She went on to marry maths tutor Sydney De Mattos, with whom she had two children but he had affairs with other women.

Katharine left him and ran away to France with her little daughter – and Louis as their protector. Such was the scandal that Louis feared being cited as correspondent in Katharine’s divorce – but that came years later, without mishap, long after he had married Fanny.

2 JEANNIE: When walking between Edinburgh and the Stevenson’s summer home at Swanston, 19-year-old Louis would take tea at Buckstone Farm, run by a widow called Jean Romanes, who sometimes had her 16-year-old niece Jeannie Evans staying with her.

In 1870, Louis told his cousin Bob that he had been “very much a hit with a certain damsel, who shall remain nameless”. He also penned a love poem to “Jenny” and confessed “I never was so nearly hooked” – but on detecting “a nasty over-friendliness towards me on the part of her relations” he shied away from the sound of wedding bells.

3 MARY H: Instead of going to university lectures, Louis spent long hours reading and trying to write in a brothel in Leith Street, where he was befriended by “threepenny whores” and found them “singularly decent creatures, not a bit worse than any anybody else”.

One, a factory girl and part-time prostitute he called “Mary H”, fell in love with him and tried to make him jealous, although later he confessed: “It never occurred to me that she thought of me except in the way of business”. He learned the truth years later, just as Mary was about to emigrate, and they had a tearful farewell: “I can still feel her good, honest, loving hand as we said goodbye.”

4 KATE: Stories persisted that at the age of 20 Louis fell in love with a girl called Kate Drummond in a brothel in Leith Street, where he became her protector and wanted to marry her. One RLS biographer, given information by someone who knew Louis and had seen the girl, said Louis was forced to abandon Kate by his father, who threatened to throw him out of the house. 
Later Louis did confess to receiving a series of letters from an unidentified girl who could barely afford the postage, and that he had not answered them and eventually burned them all, crying: “Don’t I deserve the gallows?”

And 20 years later, he would write a novel whose heroine is Catriona Drummond, using the Gaelic form of Catherine or Kate.

5 MADONNA: To her alcoholic and abusive Anglican clergyman husband, she was Mrs Fanny Sitwell, but Louis, who met her while on holiday in England, called her Madonna during their passionate but unconsummated secret affair, conducted almost entirely through letters.

She wrote to him at the university, to prevent his parents finding out, and he burned her letters at her insistence. But she kept his letters in a wooden casket, where they remained a secret until after his death, and are now in the National Library of Scotland


6 EUGENIA: When lonely and depressed, Louis would smoke hashish (marijuana) and hang out in Edinburgh graveyards, including one overlooked by the Waterloo Hotel.

At the hotel, a beautiful housemaid, broom in hand “for some days together, dumbly flirted with me from a window and kept my wild heart flying”. Once she followed Louis into the graveyard: “Her hair came down, and in the shelter of the tomb my trembling fingers helped her to repair the braid...” He then drew a veil over what happened with “the wise Eugenia”, although in fact her name was Euphemia Spence, a 16-year-old scullery maid from Orkney who never suspected she would one day be ­immortalised in literature


7 CHARLOTTE: In the 1870s, Louis was friendly with Professor Fleeming Jenkin, whose neighbour in Great Stuart Street was the Scottish judge Lord Mackenzie. The judge had several daughters and the youngest would one day marry Jenkin’s son Frewen – whereupon Louis, in a letter of congratulation, revealed “my own former admiration for a sister of the bride’s”.

The girl would have been Charlotte Mackenzie, the same age as Louis. In the novel Catriona, David Balfour is fascinated by the eldest daughter of the Lord Advocate, Barbara Grant – for whom Charlotte was Louis’s ­inspiration.

8 EVE: One of Louis’ closest friends was Sir Walter Simpson, son of the famous gynaecologist and chloroform pioneer. With both parents dead, Simpson lived with two brothers and his young sister Eve, to whom Louis at one point took a fancy – bringing her a pair of silver match-holders for her 21st birthday and laying them at her feet.

Simpson discouraged the match, while at the same time keeping a secret teenage mistress and illegitimate daughter, without Eve knowing. He later married his mistress and she was presented at court as Lady Simpson, along with her “niece”.

But Simpson’s own family – ­including Eve – protested publicly at the supposed insult to Queen Victoria, and Lady Simpson could no longer show her face in society.

On hearing of this “dastardly” behaviour by Simpson’s relatives, Louis raged: “What in God’s name could have happened to Eve? When I remember that I once seriously dreamed of marrying that underhand virago, my heart wells over with ­gratitude.”

9 LEILA: Fleeming Jenkin was keen on staging amateur dramatics with Louis as one of the actors. He appeared as the foppish Sir Charles Pomander with the rustic beauty Mabel Chester, played by Leila Scot-Skirving.

After rehearsals, Louis would walk Leila home. One night she invited him in for an impromptu supper, when their talk awoke her parents upstairs – a scene Louis would use in his novel St Ives. But Leila chose to marry a doctor, who died young. Later, she befriended Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.

10 FLORA: Among the young ladies at the Jenkin theatricals was Flora Masson, daughter of an English professor. She was a regular guest when Louis’ parents held dinner parties for their son.

After Louis disappeared suddenly to America in 1879 in pursuit of Fanny Osbourne, Flora went away to London and trained as a nurse with Florence Nightingale. She never married but a neighbour in London would reveal that “Miss Flora Masson might, had she wished, have been Mrs RL Stevenson” and also that “the proposal letter was still in existence”.

It is not known if she turned Louis down, or if he broke off the engagement because he had fallen for Fanny Osbourne – but the heroine of his novel St Ives is called Flora.

• For more information on RLS Day, visit www.cityofliterature.com or follow @EdinCityofLit on Twitter and #RLSDay

Joker and whisky fan

PRACTICAL joker, moustache sporter, whisky fan and wordsmith, is how Robert Louis Stevenson is described by Edinburgh’s Unesco City of Literature Trust – the organisation running tomorrow’s RLS Day celebrations on his birthday – which is why the events organised to mark the author’s life involve as fun as well as serious discourse.

The Filmhouse has spent the weekend screening Muppet Treasure Island, but this evening it will show Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Frederic March and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and followed by a question and answer session with Professor Linda Dryden, an RLS expert.

Tomorrow, there will be numerous events, including an all-day free reading of his short stories and poems at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the High Street; a toy theatre production by Edinburgh schoolchildren similar to one that RLS played with as a child at The Writer’s Museum, Lady Stair’s Close; and many guided walks (some free) following in his footsteps through Swanston, the Old and New Towns, and through the Hermitage of Braid.

You could also find out what Edinburgh meant to Stevenson through readings of his works at 2pm at The Writers’ Museum, or at 3pm find out things you never knew about the author at the Teviot debating hall.

Children could make their own RLS moustaches at Corstorphine Library or hear Blackhall’s poet in residence Ryan Van Winkle read from RLS’s collection of poems A Child’s Garden of Verse.

The enduring appeal of Treasure Island will be celebrated at the council chambers where a Jolly Roger flag will be flown from the building, while the story’s success will be discussed at the National Library of Scotland with illustrations from the library’s archives.

To round off the day, An Evening with Robert Louis Stevenson – A Conversation with Louise Welsh and James Naughtie – will be held to discuss RLS’s life, work and travels at the Royal College of Physicians in Queen Street.

A free combined eBook and podcast version of Strange Tales: Three Uncanny Stories will also be available free from Edinburgh city libraries and from www.cityofliterature.com/rlsday.