Weevil in a biscuit, part III

“There are people who might live a life of the wildest adventure, of the most picturesque diversity, and yet be dull. Stevenson could lie in a sick room for weeks without speaking, and yet declare truly, as he asserted to Mr. Archer, ‘I never was bored in my life.'” — Graham Balfour, “Life of Robert Louis Stevenson”

William Archer, a London drama critic, journalist, and translator of Ibsen, had written an article about “A Child’s Garden of Verses” in which he assumed that the verse maker, Robert Louis Stevenson, must have been a strong, robust boy who could run and jump and dig holes in the beach and fly in a swing and play in a pond and even “Rise and go where the golden apples grow.” Archer didn’t appreciate “The Land of Counterpane” until he went down to Bournemouth to meet the self-proclaimed “weevil in a biscuit,” the prisoner of Skerryvore, a bohemian surrounded by bourgeoisie, “A popular novelist,” says Balfour, “toiling incessantly at his writing, and confined by ill health almost entirely within the walls of a suburban villa” like a weevil in a biscuit.

William Archer and RLS became serious friends starting with their first meeting at Skerryvore. Sidney Colvin would later say that Archer was “the best critic and truest appreciator of R.L.S.” They were active pen pals, and in a number of letters, Stevenson threw in some themes that came to be called the Stevenson philosophy, e.g.: “When I see strong men and rich men bleating about their sorrows and the burden of life in a world full of ‘cancerous paupers’ and poor sick children, and the fatally bereaved … In my view, one dank, dispirited word is harmful, a crime of lese-humanite, a piece of acquired evil; every gay, every bright word or picture, like every pleasant air of music, is a piece of pleasure set afloat; the reader catches it, and, if he be healthy, goes on his way rejoicing; and it is the business of art so to send him as often as possible.” RLS would explore this theme in depth when he came to Saranac Lake, in an essay for Scribner’s magazine called “Pulvis et Umbra.”

Much has been made of Stevenson’s state of mind when he felt like a weevil in a biscuit, stuck inside his house in Bournemouth, never having a single day of good health. That anybody could be optimistic living like that might seem a stretch but optimism was baked into RLS and his year long American experience in 1879-80 was proof that it worked. Here it is worth quoting a real Stevenson expert, Jenni Calder — this from her “Life Study” of RLS (1980):

“We know of course that there were times when it was quite impossible for Louis honestly to declare life happy, but his insistence on a philosophy of optimistic cheerfulness was not specious. For him it was the right thing to do, the correct moral stance to take up in his position. If he had ever more than momentarily accepted negatively the bleakness of his situation, he would never have written himself into men’s minds. His talent integrally involved his belief that it was always worth trying. But he knew better than anyone that he could not always live up to his belief.”

The Robert Louis Stevenson of Skerryvore is the author many of us grew up on from sources like “The Author’s Card Game” and photographs in books. Part of the reason is that the reputation of Long John Silver’s creator was on the rise. From time to time, his first fans began dropping by to pay their respects, but he was not always able to receive them. Also, artists came by to sketch or paint him, the most notable of whom was John Singer Sargent who is said to have been slightly annoyed that his subject had someone read aloud “Huckleberry Finn” during the sittings.

Sargent had been part of that Anglo-Saxon gang of bohemian painters in Fontainebleau, France, in the mid-1870s, which his friend and fellow student Will Low had described in his book “A Chronicle of Friendships” (1908). That’s where Stevenson and Sargent had their first encounter. Sargent, an American, had a rich friend in Bostonian Charles Fairchild, president of a paper company. Thanks to Sargent, Charles got to meet RLS on one of his trips to England. He it was who commissioned Sargent to paint the two portraits of the author at Skerryvore, for his wife, who was a fan of Stevenson’s writings. The day would come when the Fairchilds would come to Saranac Lake to have dinner with Robert Louis Stevenson in Andrew Baker’s living room, and Will Low is the one who shipped them quality booze from New York City to celebrate the occasion.

And then there were the Shelleys, neighbors like the Taylors, where Mr. and Mrs. RLS enjoyed evenings of dinner and conversation when health allowed. Sir Percy Florence and Lady Shelley were older than their guests. Percy was the son of one of the greatest and more controversial of the English Romantic poets, the Shelley responsible for “Prometheus Unbound.” His wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, gave us “Frankenstein,” and her daughter-in-law had filled their Bournemouth residence with “Frankenstein” memorabilia. Percy’s hobbies centered on amateur theatricals and photography. Louis became one of Percy’s subjects, which provided some classic images of RLS. Lady Shelley was fascinated with Louis, in whom she imagined a likeness to her celebrated father-in-law, and some say she suspected reincarnation. Lady Shelley was reportedly addicted to Vin Mariani, a potent wine laced with cocaine. Coincidentally, Stevenson’s Bournemouth doctor was prescribing him a similar coca wine as medicine; however, in Stevenson’s case, there were some disturbing side effects, like sudden bad temper.

Cocaine has been known to stimulate conversation and affect sleep patterns. One can only wonder. What might you talk about when you’re doing drugs in a house filled with “Frankenstein” memorabilia, a monster of fiction made in a laboratory? If you’re Robert Louis Stevenson, you might go home and sleep on it and then dream on it and then write about the dream two years later when you came to Saranac Lake.


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