‘Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin’
“It was as a student that I first knew Fleeming” (pronounced Flemming), begins Part IV of Robert Louis Stevenson’s finest biographical piece. “His was an individual figure such as authors delight to draw, and all men to read of, in the pages of a novel.” Jenkin was one of Stevenson’s professors at Edinburgh University between 1867 and 1870 when Louis was in his late teens. Many years later when he was in Saranac Lake, the author of “Treasure Island” relived those student days in his essay called “The Education of an Engineer,” which appeared in the November 1888, issue of Scribners magazine.
Stevenson was a poor student of engineering because he didn’t want to be an engineer. It was a family pressure issue; however, Louis was a world-class truant armed with charm and enough persuasive power to elicit undeserved grades from his teachers at the university with one exception — Fleeming Jenkin. So consistent was Stevenson’s failure to attend his class that Jenkin doubted his very existence. Organized education was incompatible with Stevenson’s self-schooling, which had to do with the study of the world around him and reading everything he could get his hands on — no exaggeration here — everything! Stevenson did want to build but with words, not with stone. Authors with admirable styles he would emulate, and thus, eclectically, he eventually hit upon his own unique approach to arranging words. Too bad none of that impressed Professor Jenkin.
When RLS did show up for class, teachers were reminded why they didn’t mind his absence. His boredom was unmistakable, and on at least one occasion he told teacher that he hadn’t read the textbook because the style didn’t suit him. “I was inclined to regard any professor as a joke,” wrote Louis, “and Fleeming was a particularly good joke, perhaps the broadest in the vast pleasantry of my curriculum.”
This aspiring writer changed his tume when he approached Fleeming about his unearned certificate, a practice in which Stevenson claimed to be “a master in the art.”
“It is quite useless for you to come to me, Mr. Stevenson,” said the professor. “There may be doubtful cases but there is no doubt about you. You are no fool, and you chose your own course. … You have simply not attended my class. … You see, Mr. Stevenson, these are the laws, and I am here to apply them.” But Louis knew how to apply pressure in his genteel way, and finally even Fleeming caved in when his truant pleaded that “it was only for my father’s eye that I required his signature, it need never go further … and I am still ashamed when I think of his shame in giving me that paper. … It told me plainly what dirty business we were on. … That was the bitter beginning of my love for Fleeming. I never thought lightly of his afterwards.”
As things turned out, it was through Mrs. Anne Jenkin, Fleeming’s wife, that professor and student finally got to know and appreciate each other. Starting off as Anne Austin, she was a gifted amateur actress in 1859 when she married Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin, a distinguished electrical engineer. Fleeming had married up to get Anne and had nothing to offer except himself. One day he took Anne for a long walk away from her accustomed surroundings. “When their walk,” quoting RLS, “brought them within view of the river, she beheld a sight to her of the most novel beauty: four great sea-going ships dressed out with flags. ‘How lovely’ she cried. ‘What is it for?’ ‘For you’ said Fleeming. Her surprise was only equaled by her pleasure.”
Fleeming was 35 when he accepted the chair of professor of engineering at Edinburgh University. That was in 1868, the same year that Robert Louis Stevenson, 17, enrolled there, ostensibly as a student. And so it was that upon settling into Edinburgh’s upper-middle-class society, Anne found herself one day having tea at 17 Heriot Row in the so-called “New Town” of Scotland’s capital city, in the home of Thomas and Margaret Stevenson. It was also the home of their son, Fleeming’s delinquent student, who showed up just in time to open the door for his mother’s guest as she left. Anne’s first brief encounter with RLS was another one of those incredible first impressions that Louis went around leaving on people. When Will Low first met Stevenson in France, he recognized immediately that “here was one so evidently touched with genius that the higher beauty of the soul was his.” That was in 1875. When Mrs. Estelle Martin, a Saranac Laker, got to meet him at Baker’s in 1887, she said, “I had two hours of RLS and he was the most interesting man I ever met.” When Anne Jenkin got home after her first encounter with the youth, she excitedly told Fleeming about this “young Heine with a Scottish accent.” Heinrich Heine, the German romantic poet, had just recently become Stevenson’s newest literary hero, so to him, this was a huge compliment.
Mr. and Mrs. Fleeming Jenkin were enlightened citizens and shared many interests like music, philosophy and literature. In these, they indulged liberally with fellow city dwellers in Anne’s salon. Louis, her “young Heine,” became a regular at this “oasis in a desert of convention and prejudice,” as his friend Edmund Gosse described the Jenkin residence. Theater was the main preoccupation of this radical group, and their year revolved around the annual play, for which the Jenkins’ home was temporarily converted into a stage for new interpretations of works by the likes of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Moliere. Louis, deficient in play acting like he was in play writing, was given minor roles, which were great fun with the colorful costumes and champagne dinners. Museum artifact No. 634, donated by Ms. Isobel Field, Stevenson’s stepdaughter, shows RLS decked out for the role of Sir Charles Pomander in a Jenkin home theatre production of “Masks and Faces.”
Before going to the university, Fleeming Jenkin had been much upon the sea, laying down submarine telegraph cable, the cutting edge of the day’s technology. Stevenson’s memoirs of Fleeming contains letters the latter wrote to Anne from his wave-tossed home at sea, the cable ship Elba, as its crew struggled with the elements to advance civilization. Reading these letters could make you think the whole enterprise of connecting continents like that should have been doomed to failure, considering the administrative bungling, logistical obstacles, the weather and the endless cycle of finding, retrieving and repairing broken cables. Fleeming loved the mental and physical challenges of his job and excuded the energy and ingenuity that prompted his delinquent student to later say “for what we may call private fame, there is no life like that of the engineer, who is a great man in out of the way places, by the dockside or on the desert island or in populous ships, and remains quite unheard of in the coteries of London.”
Laying submarine cable was a challenge and a duty, but hardly of sufficient appeal to satisfy the cerebral appetite of a Renaissance man who could, like few people, call RLS to the carpet. “All the while, he was pursuing the course of his electrical studies, making fresh inventions, taking up the phonograph (he had made his own based on press reports from America), filled himself with theories of graphic representation; reading, writing, publishing, founding sanitary associations, interested in technical education, investigating the laws of metre, drawing, acting, directing private theatricals … the very bubble of the tideway of contemporary interests.” Yet, “until the day of his death, he had one thought to which all the rest were tributary, the thought of his wife.”
Robert Louis Stevenson confessed his debt to Fleeming when he wrote this to his other principal mentor, Sidney Colvin: “My dear Colvin, I owe you and Fleeming Jenkin, the two older men who took the trouble, and knew how to make a friend of me, everything that I have or am.”
Fleeming Jenkin died in June 1885 at the age of 53, of complications following an operation. Within two years RLS would finish his memoir, while suffering the passing of his own father Thomas Stevenson. That event triggered the voyage that would land the author of “Kidnapped” in Saranac Lake. While he and his family awaited the onslaught of arctic conditions that were advertised to be good for his diseased lungs, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the preface to the American edition of “Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin,” ending it like this:
“If Jenkin, after his death, shall not continue to make new friends, the fault will be altogether mine.” — RLS, Saranac Lake, October 1887