Another abandoned career, part 1

Thomas Stevenson, the father of RLS, was a civil engineer who specialized in lighthouses and harborworks. He had expected that his only son would be like him and go in with the Stevenson family firm of engineers which included the boy’s two uncles, Alan and David. After all, Thomas and his brothers had apprenticed into their father’s business as had their father, Robert Stevenson, of Bell Rock fame, learned from his stepfather Robert Smith. That young Louis had professed an ambition to write for a living did not deter Thomas from pressuring his boy into enrolling at Edinburgh University for courses in engineering. That was in late 1867 when Louis was sixteen. The next three years would be revisited by the author in 1887, when he wrote an essay for Scribner’s Magazine at Baker’s in Saranac Lake and called it The Education of an Engineer.

Upon completing his curriculum and reading his paper Notice of a New Form of Intermittent Light to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, Louis still had one more thing to do. It had been building up. He had to tell Thomas that the education of this engineer had been in vain and that father should have listened to son when the latter had announced his desire to build with words, not stone. Louis would also let out how he had bribed his professors at the University with his charm and power of persuasion to give passing grades to a fake student who was seldom seen anywhere inside the walls of Edinburgh University.

While Robert Louis Stevenson was living in Saranac Lake, he sent a letter to George Iles, a Canadian journalist in Montreal who had asked to know more about the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Part of the reply says:

“I was educated for a civil engineer on my father’s design, and was at the building of harbors and lighthouses, and worked in a carpenter’s shop and a brass foundry and hung about wood yards and the like. Then it came out that I was learning nothing and on being tightly cross-questioned during a dreadful evening walk, I owned I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession, but I might be called to the bar if I chose; so at the age of 21, I began to study law.”

That was in 1871. “The truth shall set you free,” someone said. It wasn’t the last showdown between school-skipping Louis and domineering Thomas but it was the last one about career choice. Thomas was finally catching on. His son’s scrawny frame and blood-spitting ways belied the presence of a strong will. “It is the fascinating personality of a man of genius who, with all his gaiety of manner and desire to give pleasure, was yet in a matter of essential principle, like flint–a block of iron painted to look like a lath.”

So said Charles Guthrie of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, fellow student for the Scotch Bar at Edinburgh U. in the early 1870s. Charles did well, good enough to become Lord Guthrie, MP, and in his retirement he became the first British Representative of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake as well as an important donor to their collection of memorabilia.

For Thomas Stevenson, the outcome of that “dreadful evening walk” in 1871, was the worst defeat he would suffer until the failure of his breakwater at Wick on the North Sea six years later. But he had handled it well along with a brilliant compromise proposal which might have seemed Heaven sent to Louis. Thomas challenged his son to study law like a real student, no tricks, and if he succeeded in getting an authentic diploma, father promised that he would cease and desist from berating his son’s true ambition. The aspiring writer would be free to carry on less paternal resistance and Thomas and Margaret Stevenson could boast about their son, the barrister, the most respectable profession in a city long known as a stronghold of the law.

And so it was. Four years later on July 14, 1875, Robert Louis Stevenson was called to the bar and the photograph then taken of RLS in wig and gown went promptly on display with seven other photos of him arranged by his mother. When Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson showed the results to her boy, she said, “There you are Louis, from baby to bar.” This pocket size red leather folding album can be seen today resting in a glass case where it has been for over a century in ‘Maggie’s’ former winter quarters at Baker’s in Saranac Lake.

Robert Louis Stevenson as a genuine student of the law seems to be the most unremarkable achievement of his short life to judge from the biographies, e.g. “So Robert took up a legal course in the University of Edinburgh and after four years, during which time he was able to divert himself in the long vacations with writing, reading and congenial companionship, he was called to the bar.” It was those diversions between his studies that would shape the fate of RLS and draw the attention of generations of writers writing about him. Making friends might be what Stevenson did best and the friends he made outside the classroom and between semesters would be far more consequential than ever his degree would be.

Charles Guthrie it was who introduced his new friend with the initials RLS into the Speculative Society (the ‘Spec’) at the university. This famous literary and debating club was founded in 1764 and remains active to this day where now can be seen the Union Jack from the schooner-yacht Casco in which Stevenson had explored the South Seas. Of his peers in the Spec., Charles Baxter, James Walter Ferrier and Sir Walter Simpson AKA ‘Bart’ were to play an important role in his life.

Mrs. Fanny Sitwell, recently separated from the Rev. Albert Sitwell of the Church of England could be found in London, England, in the summer of 1873, visiting a friend, Maud Balfour, a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. Fanny, 12 years older than Louis, made a profound impression on the young law student when first they met at Maud’s house in that summer of ’73. His infatuation with this older woman of remarkable beauty, intellect and world experience should fill pages of any thorough biography of RLS and there is more to it than just hopeless, misguided puppy love (Stopford Brooke, biographer of Tennyson, said that Mrs. Sitwell had more men in love with her than any woman he knew). Fanny had a real close friend named Sidney Colvin, essayist and art critic, then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, later Curator of Prints at the British Museum and much later a British Representative of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake. By the time Mrs. Sitwell had her first hour in the company of Louis, she had stamped him a “genius” and wrote to Colvin to come at once to meet “a fine young spirit.” Stevenson had found sponsors without even trying.

(“Another Abandoned Career” — to be continued next week.)

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