Transition, part 1

Edinburgh — The Royal Mile and St. Giles Cathedral

By the end of 1876, France was firmly established as a second homeland for Scottish-born Robert Louis Stevenson whose new forwarding address was in Paris, 5 Rue Douay on the heights of Montmartre. Therein, on the fourth floor, lived Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, the woman he already knew he wanted to marry. So right away there was a problem. Sharing the apartment were her two children, Isobel or “Belle,” 17, and her brother Lloyd, eight. Paying for the apartment and their food, etc., was Samuel Osbourne, Fanny’s estranged husband far away in California. The fascinating young man, “so vitally alive that other people seemed colorless beside him” according to Belle, who had recently started dating their mother, would be taking them all for an incredible ride for 18 years but they couldn’t know that yet. It would even take them to Saranac Lake.

But on New Year’s Day, 1877, at 26, RLS was still just another aspiring writer but probably working harder at it than most. By the time he came into the Adirondacks at 36, to live with the Bakers, his efforts had paid off in a big way. In a letter from Baker’s to George Iles, a Canadian journalist in Montreal, Stevenson laid the blame for his success on his hard work.

“No one ever had such pains to learn a trade as I had; but I slogged it out, day in, day out, and I frankly believe (thanks to my dire industry) I have done more with smaller gifts than almost any man of letters in the world.”

The author said all that in the wake of the universal success of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886).

One of the steps Stevenson took on the way to that success coincided with the first year of his love affair with Fanny which in itself produced a series of essays listed under the heading Virginibus Peurisque. In London he had become a contributing writer to a new weekly paper called London and the French influence came out strongly in his writing at this time. A fictional account of the 15th century outlaw, Francois Villon, called “A Lodging for the Night” was his first published short story and followed by “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door,” also set in 15th century France.

In 1878, Stevenson’s friend, William E. Henley, took over editorship of London and relied on his skinny friend Louis for copy but London just couldn’t last. It folded in 1879 after 114 issues. London is remembered but only for the publication of RLS stories called “The New Arabian Nights” when they appeared as a book. G.K. Chesterton, critic and author, was in his day a certified member of the worldwide community of Stevenson lovers and had even put out his own perceptive book on the subject in 1927, called Robert Louis Stevenson. Discussing New Arabian Nights, he said, “It may seem a paradox that his most original work was a parody.” Claiming that these stories are “the most unique of his works,” Chesterton goes on to accuse Stevenson of having “invented a genre which does not really exist outside his works, an atmosphere where incongruous things find a comic congruity … a sort of solid impossibility.” Chesterton liked it enough to have attempted something similar in “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (1908) and in some of the Father Brown stories from 1911. In a BBC “Home Service” talk on Aug. 26, 1963, Jorge Luis Borges said that both Stevenson and Chesterton had “the idea of thinking of London as a kind of fairy-land where anything may happen.” Like ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’

Paris to London to Edinburgh, back to Paris and do it again, over and over was the routine that worked for RLS during this period of Transition, as his cousin Graham Balfour called Chapter VII of his biography, meaning the years 1876-79. In the mind of Louis, Paris had a singular importance because Fanny was there, London meant friends and business and Edinburgh symbolized repression, “my cage,” he called it but that’s where his parents were and everything else that had gone into the love-hate relationship he had with his hometown between the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills. He got it all out of his system during this transition with another series of articles later published in book form and called “Edinburgh–Picturesque Notes.”

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