France again

“We now leave Davos for good, I trust, Dr. Reudi giving me leave to live in France.”

— RLS to his mother, April 1882

Robert Louis Stevenson had no problem about putting Davos, Switzerland, in his rear view forever, even though he may have saved his life by going there. The same thing could have been said about Saranac Lake exactly six years later when the chronic invalid writer from Scotland climbed aboard a coach of the new Chateauguay Railroad at its new Saranac Lake station on April 16, 1888. He would never return, though he had planned to return, but that’s another story.

The six years between Stevenson’s first winter at Davos and his only winter in Saranac Lake were the most productive of his short career, when he produced his “greatest hits” starting with “Treasure Island.” Much of the summer of 1882, like the previous one, saw Louis and his wife Fanny and stepson Lloyd Osbourne spending time in the Scottish Highlands with his parents Thomas and Margaret. Before looking for a suitable locale to pass the next winter of 1882-83, Louis and Fanny had a chance to move around and reconnect with people on the home front, like Colvin, Baxter, Gosse, Henley and, of course, cousin Bob. At Burford Bridge, Louis renewed his friendship with George Meredith and, during a week’s expedition with his father to a place called Lochearnhead, made inquiries about an event of significance called the Appin murder and recorded some local traditions about the murderer that were still circulating. That planted the seed for another big hit down the road, and it isn’t “Jekyll and Hyde.”

And then it happened again. “Bloody Jack” was back, Stevenson’s nemesis, a life-threatening lung hemorrhaging attack by a disease he and his circle thought was TB until Dr. Trudeau, in Saranac Lake, said it wasn’t. “Jack” interrupted the invalid’s progress on his latest short story, “The Treasure of Franchard.” By Sept. 9, Louis was back in London consulting with another physician, Dr. Clark, who probably said what his patient most wanted to hear, that a return to Davos wouldn’t be necessary. Southern France had potential, though. Three years before meeting Fanny, Louis had wintered alone, per doctor’s orders, in a Riviera resort town called Menton with a medieval castle. Out of it came “Ordered South,” his first signed appearance in print in MacMillan’s magazine, May 1874, a copy of which is in the Stevenson Society collection on Stevenson Lane.

France it would be. It wasn’t a smooth transition. Now it was Fanny who was ill and remained behind while cousin Bob went south with Louis.

“Their object was to discover some place suitable for both husband and wife, possessing more of the advantages and fewer of the drawbacks of a health-resort than the Alpine valley from which they were now finally released.” So said Dr. Graham Balfour, the author’s cousin, in his book “A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.” Another hemorrhage along the way put everything on hold again, but finally the two Stevensons could see the Mediterranean Sea from Marseille. There Fanny, feeling better, caught up with them to switch places with Bob, who went back to Scotland. The reunited couple thought St. Marcel had promise as a home, but nothing seemed to work there except more, though light, hemorrhaging. According to Balfour, “At the end of the year an epidemic of fever broke out in St. Marcel and he found himself so unwell, that in desperation he went to Nice lest he should become too ill to move.”

Once again Fanny stayed behind, this time for logistical reasons. Louis went alone. It was days before Fanny got to Nice, only to find that she couldn’t find her husband. It would take three days, but along the way, according to Balfour, she “had been assured by everyone that he must have had a fresh hemorrhage, have left the train at some wayside station, and then died and been buried.”

Refusing to believe that, reunification finally happened again for Louis and Fanny, who randomly set their sights on a little town called Hyeres on the coast between Marseille and Nice. Hyeres stakes its own claim on RLS from something he wrote in the South Seas in 1891. If you ever get to Hyeres you can read it for yourself on their plaque … at their train station, too:

“I was only happy once; that was at Hyeres.” — Robert Louis Stevenson


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