Past British representatives

Lord Guthrie with “Cummy,” Stevenson’s childhood nurse. (Photo provided)

British Representative Nicholas Rankin was born way too late to employ the bragging right his predecessors had enjoyed, that of having a personal friendship with the object of the cult of personality known as the Stevenson Society of America. Like the author’s stepdaughter, Mrs. Isobel Field, or “Belle,” said in her letter to this organization on Aug. 11, 1930:

“He was so vitally alive that other people seemed colorless beside him. No one ever said of R.L.S., ‘I don’t remember whether I ever met him or not.’ He made an instant impression that was unforgettable.”

Presented here are some personal impressions of the dead friend they called Louis by the first three men to bear the title “British Representative of the Stevenson Society of America.”

1. Lord Charles Guthrie, MP, befriended Stevenson at Edinburgh University when they were law students and members of the “Speculative Society” — or “Spec,” to its members — a debating club to this day. Here is the preface Lord Charles wrote for Stephen Chalmer’s book “The Penny Piper of Saranac–An Episode in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson”:

“The Penny Piper of Saranac is a most sane and real sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson. I call it a sketch of Stevenson, and not merely of his life at Saranac, for it shows much insight into his character, which was so complex that many people of broad minds but narrow sympathies thought it contradictory.

“His Puritanism was every bit as genuine as his Bohemianism. Such people could not, and their present-day representatives cannot, understand this. But that was, and is, their fault; not his. When people ask me what I thought of Stevenson, when, in the early seventies, we were much together in Edinburgh, at college and in the Speculative Society, and in 17 Heriot Row, his father’s house, I usually reply, ‘Which Stevenson? I knew at least four!’

“Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, in his Saranac memorial bas-relief, has got beneath the surface and behind the mask. I liked the first sight of Borglum’s work. It has charm, and it has strength, and it has pathos. It is the invalid who can say, ‘O Pain! Where is thy victory?’ It is the fascinating personality of a man of genius who, with all his gaiety of manner and desire to give pleasure, was yet, in a matter of essential principle, like flint–a block of iron painted to look like a lath!”

2. Sir Sidney Colvin, essayist and art critic, was Slade professor of fine art at Cambridge, England, when he met the incredible RLS:

“If you want to realize the kind of effect the made, at least in the early years when I knew him best, imagine this attenuated but extraordinary vivid and vital presence, with something about it that at first sight struck you as freakish, rare, fantastic, a touch of the elfin and unearthly, a sprite, an Ariel. And imagine that, as you get to know him, this sprite, this visitant from another sphere, turned out to differ from mankind in general not by being less human but by being a great deal more human than they; richer blooded, greater-hearted; more human in all senses of the word, for he comprised within himself, all the different ages and half the different characters of man, the unfaded freshness of a child, the ardent outlook and adventurous daydreams of a boy, the steadfast courage of manhood, the quick sympathetic tenderness of a woman and already, as early as the mid-twenties of his life, an almost uncanny share of the ripe wisdom of old age …”

3. Sir Edmund Gosse was the translator, author, literary historian and critic who introduced the work of Ibsen and other continental writers to English readers. He was 18 when he met RLS, 19, by chance, when the latter was in his last year as a student of engineering at Edinburgh University. However, their meeting was aboard a steamer in the Hebrides archipelago of northern Scotland in the autumn of 1870. Forty-three years later he recalled that occasion in his book “Critical Kit-Kats” (1913).

“… At the peir of Portree (isle of Skye) a company came on board– ‘people of importance in their day’ … There were also several engineers of prominence. At the tail of this chatty, jesting little crowd of invaders came a youth of about my own age, whose appearance, for some mysterious reason, instantly attracted me …”

After a few lines of incidental memories: “This early glimpse of Stevenson is a delightful memory to me. When next we met, not only did I instantly recall him, but, what was stranger, he remembered me. This voyage in the ‘Clansman’ was often mentioned between us, and it has received for me a sort of consecration from the fact that in the very last letter that Louis wrote, finished on the day of his death, he made a reference to it.”

Fifty-three years after this first encounter with RLS, Sir Edmund wrote a letter to his fellow members in the Stevenson Society of America, in Saranac Lake, to be read at the annual birthday dinner in Stevenson’s honor, on Nov. 13, 1923. In conclusion, he makes this observation:

“More than 52 years have passed since Stevenson and I met for the first time, steaming northward from Oban to Skye, but this incident and the face of my new friend are as fresh in my memory as if it was yesterday. If someone had told us then that the name of Robert Louis Stevenson would within half a century be honored and loved in every quarter of the globe, I should have received the prophecy with incredulity and he with derision. But so it is.”


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