Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter III

The Child Father of the Man

R. L. STEVENSON was born on 13th November 1850, the very year of the death of his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, whom he has so finely celebrated. As a mere child he gave token of his character. As soon as he could read, he was keen for books, and, before very long, had read all the story-books he could lay hands on; and, when the stock ran out, he would go and look in at all the shop windows within reach, and try to piece out the stories from the bits exposed in open pages and the woodcuts.

He had a nurse of very remarkable character — evidently a paragon — who deeply influenced him and did much to form his young mind — Alison Cunningham, who, in his juvenile lingo, became “Cumy,” and who not only was never forgotten, but to the end was treated as his “second mother.” In his dedication of his CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES to her, he says:

“My second mother, my first wife,

The angel of my infant life.”

Her copy of KIDNAPPED was inscribed to her by the hand of Stevenson, thus:

“TO CUMY, FROM HER BOY, THE AUTHOR.
“SKERRYVORE, 18TH JULY 1888.”

Skerryvore was the name of Stevenson’s Bournemouth home, so named after one of the Stevenson lighthouses. His first volume, AN INLAND VOYAGE has this pretty dedication, inscribed in a neat, small hand:

“MY DEAR CUMY, — If you had not taken so much trouble with me all the years of my childhood, this little book would never have been written. Many a long night you sat up with me when I was ill. I wish I could hope, by way of return, to amuse a single evening for you with my little book. But whatever you think of it, I know you will think kindly of THE AUTHOR.”

“Cumy” was perhaps the most influential teacher Stevenson had. What she and his mother taught took effect and abode with him, which was hardly the case with any other of his teachers.

“In contrast to Goethe,” says Mr Baildon, “Stevenson was but little affected by his relations to women, and, when this point is fully gone into, it will probably be found that his mother and nurse in childhood, and his wife and step-daughter in later life, are about the only women who seriously influenced either his character or his art.” (p. 32).

When Mr Kelman is celebrating Stevenson for the consistency and continuity of his undogmatic religion, he is almost throughout celebrating “Cumy” and her influence, though unconsciously. Here, again, we have an apt and yet more striking illustration, after that of the good Lord Shaftesbury and many others, of the deep and lasting effect a good and earnest woman, of whom the world may never hear, may have had upon a youngster of whom all the world shall hear. When Mr Kelman says that “the religious element in Stevenson was not a thing of late growth, but an integral part and vital interest of his life,” he but points us back to the earlier religious influences to which he had been effectually subject. “His faith was not for himself alone, and the phases of Christianity which it has asserted are peculiarly suited to the spiritual needs of many in the present time.”

We should not lay so much weight as Mr Kelman does on the mere number of times “the Divine name” is found in Stevenson’s writings, but there is something in such confessions as the following to his father, when he was, amid hardship and illness, in Paris in 1878:

“Still I believe in myself and my fellow-men and the God who made us all. . . . I am lonely and sick and out of heart. Well, I still hope; I still believe; I still see the good in the inch, and cling to it. It is not much, perhaps, but it is always something.”

Yes, “Cumy” was a very effective teacher, whose influence and teaching long remained. His other teachers, however famous and highly gifted, did not attain to such success with him. And because of this non-success they blamed him, as is usual. He was fond of playing truant — declared, indeed, that he was about as methodic a truant as ever could have existed. He much loved to go on long wanderings by himself on the Pentland Hills and read about the Covenanters, and while yet a youth of sixteen he wrote THE PENTLAND RISING— a pamphlet in size and a piece of fine work — which was duly published, is now scarce, and fetches a high price. He had made himself thoroughly familiar with all the odd old corners of Edinburgh — John Knox’s haunts and so on, all which he has turned to account in essays, descriptions and in stories — especially in CATRIONA. When a mere youth at school, as he tells us himself, he had little or no desire to carry off prizes and do just as other boys did; he was always wishing to observe, and to see, and try things for himself — was, in fact, in the eyes of schoolmasters and tutors something of an IDLER, with splendid gifts which he would not rightly apply. He was applying them rightly, though not in their way. It is not only in his APOLOGY FOR IDLERS that this confession is made, but elsewhere, as in his essay on A COLLEGE MAGAZINE, where he says, “I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read and one to write in!”

When he went to College it was still the same — he tells us in the funniest way how he managed to wheedle a certificate for Greek out of Professor Blackie, though the Professor owned “his face was not familiar to him”! He fared very differently when, afterwards his father, eager that he should follow his profession, got him to enter the civil engineering class under Professor Fleeming Jenkin. He still stuck to his old courses — wandering about, and, in sheltered corners, writing in the open air, and was not present in class more than a dozen times. When the session was ended he went up to try for a certificate from Fleeming Jenkin. “No, no, Mr Stevenson,” said the Professor; “I might give it in a doubtful case, but yours is not doubtful: you have not kept my classes.” And the most characteristic thing — honourable to both men — is to come; for this was the beginning of a friendship which grew and strengthened and is finally celebrated in the younger man’s sketch of the elder. He learned from Professor Fleeming Jenkin, perhaps unconsciously, more of the HUMANIORES, than consciously he did of engineering. A friend of mine, who knew well both the Stevenson family and the Balfours, to which R. L. Stevenson’s mother belonged, recalls, as we have seen, his acting in the private theatricals that were got up by the Professor, and adds, “He was then a very handsome fellow, and looked splendidly as Sir Charles Pomander, and essayed, not wholly without success, Sir Peter Teazle,” which one can well believe, no less than that he acted such parts splendidly as well as looked them.

LONGMAN’S MAGAZINE, immediately after his death, published the following poem, which took a very pathetic touch from the circumstances of its appearance — the more that, while it imaginatively and finely commemorated these days of truant wanderings, it showed the ruling passion for home and the old haunts, strongly and vividly, even not unnigh to death:

“The tropics vanish, and meseems that I,

From Halkerside, from topmost Allermuir,

Or steep Caerketton, dreaming gaze again.

Far set in fields and woods, the town I see

Spring gallant from the shallows of her smoke,

Cragg’d, spired, and turreted, her virgin fort

Beflagg’d. About, on seaward drooping hills,

New folds of city glitter. Last, the Forth

Wheels ample waters set with sacred isles,

And populous Fife smokes with a score of towns,

There, on the sunny frontage of a hill,

Hard by the house of kings, repose the dead,

My dead, the ready and the strong of word.

Their works, the salt-encrusted, still survive;

The sea bombards their founded towers; the night

Thrills pierced with their strong lamps. The artificers,

One after one, here in this grated cell,

Where the rain erases and the rust consumes,

Fell upon lasting silence. Continents

And continental oceans intervene;

A sea uncharted, on a lampless isle,

Environs and confines their wandering child

In vain. The voice of generations dead

Summons me, sitting distant, to arise,

My numerous footsteps nimbly to retrace,

And all mutation over, stretch me down

In that denoted city of the dead.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30