Maggie’s Room, Part III

“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a book of which the oft-repeated statement is literally true, that its perusal is an unbroken spell.”

— Newspaper review, 1887

Robert Louis Stevenson was already a household name before he rocked his contemporaries of the Victorian Age with Dr. Jekyll, a man of fiction whose experiments on himself provoked an intense culture shock throughout the English-speaking world and everywhere else in the wake of the ensuing translations. Its only real competition in this regard, was Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

“Treasure Island,” “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” “Kidnapped” and some say “The Black Arrow” are rated as Stevenson’s “greatest hits” so to speak, along with “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” By a stretch of the imagination, they might be compared to the Adirondack High Peaks, in the sense of a select few that stick out from the crowd around them, be they mountains or books. Stevenson was very prolific and, being who he was, just had to experiment with everything available — for example, ballads, verses and poetry, travel narratives and novels, short stories, plays, moral emblems, biography, autobiography, even anthropology in his own way. And the countless essays about every conceivable subject, it might seem — for example, “On the Philosophy of Umbrellas.” In Saranac lake, RLS wrote 12 essays. The first one is “A Chapter on Dreams.”

“A Chapter on Dreams” was a reflex to Stevenson’s sudden rise to fame on this side of the Atlantic, thanks to his schizoid blockbuster mega-hit, which had its premiere inside his head while he slept in the house he called “Skerryvore” in Bournemouth, England, in October 1885. It was something like a dream. In his essay, Louis says that dreams are an important tool in his writer’s tool kit. The general consensus is that “Jekyll and Hyde” is the quintessential creation from that writer’s dream factory.

Stevenson’s professional routine, wherever he went, was to spend mornings in bed, writing for money. In Saranac Lake, he was writing for Scribners, a New York City based monthly magazine. It was his first contract. Dr. E.L. Trudeau, the author’s backwoods physician, described seeing this patient at work to Alfred Donaldson for his History of the Adirondacks: “Dr. Trudeau tells of often finding him there, his long legs drawn up for a table, his head propped forward by pillows, in one hand a pencil, in the other a cigarette, sheets of scribbled paper everywhere; the windows shut, the room stuffy with stove heat and tobacco smoke.”

Only ten feet from the chain smoker’s den was the door into his mother’s room at Baker’s, a room she said she liked because it was “bright and cheery and beautifully situated above the river, upon which we look down.”

In her own room, with her own woodstove, Maggie had ways to pass the time like reading or sleeping or knitting or sewing, in which she was very skilled. An intricate lace doily (no. 813) she made can be seen in Mggie’s room today. It is presumed she wrote her letters in here too, an activity not restricted to sister Jane. Jane’s letters would give later generations an insider’s view of operations inside the Stevenson expedition; not only in Saranac Lake but beyond–way beyond.

Maggie had something else in her room, that had already travelled far, that being her current scrapbook, one of three in today’s Saranac Lake collection. It still had many blank pages soon to be filled with everything being said and written about her suddenly famous son in the media. It had begun in earnest when they showed up in the Big Apple on Sept. 7, 1887.

Too bad for Robert Louis Stevenson that he was too sick to enjoy his American reception. Illness had begun aboard ship off Newfoundland when he caught a cold. In Stevenson’s case, too often a cold preceded another hemorrhaging event from his diseased lungs. Every time “Bloody Jack” paid a visit, it was potentially lethal. For this reason, the Stevenson expedition took their unexpected detour to a new place, Saranac Lake. It was a lot closer than Colorado and cheaper, too, plus the big city doctors said that the air up there was just as good, if not better, than Rocky Mountain air. It is because Louis caught a cold far out to sea, that you are reading this. The feared hemorrhage never came, not this time.

Once ashore, the immediate concern was to hustle Louis out of the city as quickly as possible, like first thing in the morning after one night of rest in his free suite in the Victoria Hotel on Broadway. Their rich American friends, the Fairchilds of Boston, had a suitable place for him to go, that being their ostentatious, ocean front summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. RLS craved ocean air. At this juncture, the Stevenson expedition split up. Lloyd Osbourne, the author’s stepson and Valentine Roch, the portable servant from Switzerland, took their leader on to Newport, while the two Mrs. Stevensons, Maggie and Fanny, stayed back for a dose of big city life.

Besides the customary shopping and sight-seeing, they wanted to take in a play, but not just any play but the first ever stage production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the current bestseller novelette written by Saranac Lake’s soon-to-be resident author. Yet the upcoming event was news to the Stevensons, fresh off their ship from London. That’s because it was an unauthorized play adaptation and a good one, by Richard Mansfield, a huge stage star and producer of his time who died soon after returning home from a vacation in Saranac lake.

On the night of Sept. 12, Will H. Low, a close friend of RLS from Albany, escorted the lady Stevensons to see Mansfield at work. Once inside, Thomas Russell Sullivan, who wrote the script for Mansfield’s production of “Jekyll and Hyde,” offered Fanny his personal box seat, an appropriate gesture. During the ovations after the curtains fell, the audience turned to Sullivan’s box, shouting, “Author! Author!” — presuming that Low was RLS, putting Will in an awkward place.

The very next morning, from her Broadway hotel, Maggie wrote to Jane all about it: “Just a line to say the play was most thrilling and a great success. Hyde is the most dreadful creature you can imagine, and Jekyll so much the reverse, that how he can change from one to the other is past my comprehension–it is marvelous, especially the latter part. The murder scene was too much for me. I could not look at it … the play was enthusiastically received and the house was packed.”

Twenty-one days later, Maggie settled into her bright and cheery room at Baker’s, on present day Stevenson Lane. Eventually she must have got around to pasting into her scrapbook all the new material she brought here from NYC, including a review of Mansfield’s production, part of which reads:

“Those who know the technical difficulties of transforming a novel or a romance into a play, even when all the conditions seem propitious, may well have looked for the failure of any attempt to recast in a satisfactory dramatic form, Mr. Stevenson’s weird story of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the effort of which depends so much on analysis, introspections and psychological details, which evade personification and outward demonstration … Much credit, therefore, is due to Mr. T.R. Sullivan for his dramatization of the story with Mr. Richard Mansfield in the double part of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

And so it was, Maggie and her fellow wanderers hunkered down at Baker’s, awaiting the onset of an allegedly brutal winter. At the time, she still believed or hoped that they would all be home again in Scotland, within the year, scrapbooks and all. She knew not how far they still had to go. No one did. That’s because Samuel McClure had yet to make his debut at the “Hunter’s Home.”


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