The Scribners series of 12 essays

Living on a farm in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state, on the outskirts of a backwoods hamlet, in the house of an Adirondack guide and his family that overlooked a river that reminded her of Scotland, was the new normal for Margaret Stevenson, age 58, formerly of 17 Heriot Row in the plush New Town part of Edinburgh, Scotland. How she ended up here had given her material for the first letters she wrote to her sister Jane Balfour back home. Now, having settled into Baker’s for at least the coming winter of 1887-88, “Maggie,” to her friends, was writing another letter to Jane in late October:

“I must give you some account of how we pass our days here. My stove is lit about 6:30 in the morning, and warms the room very quickly, so that I can soon sit up to read or write. Louis and Lloyd breakfast rather early and work until lunch-time.” Louis was Maggie’s son Robert Louis Stevenson, age 36 and the newly famous author of “Treasure Island” and the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Lloyd was Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s stepson, age 19, to whom “Treasure Island” is dedicated. The work they were doing before lunch was co-authoring their first book together. It was Lloyd’s project. The year before, he had dropped out of school in Bournemouth, England, to be a writer, too, like his stepfather, who gave him free lessons. Lloyd was bright and had some talent but probably not on a par with Louis, who heard Lloyd one morning at Baker’s playing with his new typewriter in the sitting room next to the fireplace. RLS was only a few feet away on the other side of a plaster and lath wall, passing the morning in bed and propped up on pillows, writing a letter to Henry James, describing events in real time: “As I write, the sun (which has long been a stranger) shines in at my shoulder; from the next room, the bell of Lloyd’s typewriter makes an agreeable music, as it patters off (at a rate that astonishes this experienced novelist) the early chapters of a humourous romance.”

The story was first called “The Finsbury Tontine,” then “A Game of Bluff” and finally “The Wrong Box.” A comedy, the plot involves a mismanaged trust fund and a reappearing coffin. Stevenson was impressed by his stepson’s creation and wanted in, and that’s how the duo ended up spending mornings writing in the sitting room and making it difficult for Maggie to get to the kitchen because she was too considerate. “If I want to go out without disturbing the two authors, I get out by the window,” she told Jane in her letter. Scribners published “The Wrong Box” in 1889, with mixed reviews, and probably had more success as a movie filmed in Bournemouth, England, in 1966, starring Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, Peter Sellers and John Mills. However, sales of “The Wrong Box,” the book, were good enough to help finance Stevenson’s last big adventure.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne would write two more novels together, “The Wrecker” (1892) and “The Ebb-Tide” (1894). Louis and his wife Fanny had also done some collaborating, most notably on “The Dynamiter” (1885), in which Fanny’s imagination is unrestrained. They say that Fanny had potential as a writer on her own merits, and she did independently write a few short stories that appeared in magazines between 1884 and 1890. Her husband thought highly of her critical judgement and had even burned his first draft of “Jekyll and Hyde” on her account. Much to the concern of Stevenson’s literary friends like Colvin, Gosse and especially Henley, Fanny had succeeded in appointing herself as mandatory first reader of any draft. But Fanny wouldn’t do much of that in Saranac Lake because she was gone most of the winter, making trips around the country and touching base with people she had not seen for seven years — ever since her marriage to RLS in San Francisco in May 1880. It is a testament to Fanny’s faith in Dr. Trudeau, and the astonishing improvement in her husband’s condition since arriving in Saranac Lake, that allowed her to be gone from his side for long periods of time, a luxury she had not enjoyed in years.

So what did Stevenson write at Baker’s when Fanny wasn’t around to criticize? “The Wrong Box” had been a fluke, an unexpected distraction from his normal routine, which was to spend his mornings in a solitary way in his room, chain-smoking his thinly rolled cigarettes and pushing his pen around on a pad of paper. When Stevenson came to Saranac Lake, he had brought along something new in his experience — a contract. He had reached that plateau in his career to which most writers aspire, when publishers come to you, not you to them. He heard astronomical offers in New York, which he declined because he was a very modest current celebrity and actually had a conscience. Scribners magazine, owned by Charles Scribner, had an advantage since its chief editor Edward Burlingame knew Stevenson’s friend Will Low, with whom he first met RLS on board the steamship Ludgate Hill as soon as it docked in lower Manhattan on Sept. 7, 1887. Having turned down $10,000 for 52 weekly articles in The World because the amount was obscene to Louis, he was still reluctant to take $3,500 for 12 monthly essays for Scribners magazine, but that was his choice, and he would have to live with it, and that’s how the Scribners Series of Essays by RLS came to be, all written in Saranac Lake. It’s the kind of thing he would write about to his friends across the ocean.

To “Bart” Simpson, he writes from Baker’s: “I was offered $10,000 a year for a weekly article; and I accepted (and now enjoy) $3,500 a year for a monthly one, each article, as long or as short as I please, and on any mortal subject. I am sure it will do me harm to do it; but the sum was irresistible.” To William Archer, he says, “I am now a salaried party; I am a ‘bourgeois’ now; I am to write a monthly paper for Scribner’s, at a scale of payment which makes my teeth ache for shame and diffidence. … I am like to be a millionaire if this goes on, and be publicly hanged at the social revolution; well, I would prefer that to dying in my bed …”

Published in Scribners

1. “A Chapter on Dreams,” January 1888

2. “The Lantern Bearers,” February 1888

3. “Beggars,” March 1888

4. “Pulvis et Umbra,” April 1888

5. “Gentlemen,” May 1888

6. “Some Gentlemen in Fiction,” June 1888

7. “Popular Authors,” July 1888

8. “Epilogue to ‘An Inland Voyage’,” August 1888

9. “Letters to a Young Gentleman,” September 1888

10. “Contributions to the History of Fife: Random Memories,” October 1888

11. “The Education of an Engineer: More Random Memories,” November 1888

12. “A Christmas Sermon,” December 1888


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