Heliotrope

John Sutherland

  • Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of Exile by Ian Bell
    Mainstream, 295 pp, £14.99, November 1992, ISBN 1 85158 457 9

Ian Bell protests his disqualifications as a biographer rather too much: ‘I have approached Stevenson in the most unscholarly way. I am a journalist, and do not pretend to be anything else.’ But Bell, as he is at pains to point out, is a Scottish journalist and it is through the privilege of shared race and place of origin that he claims a blood-intimacy denied scholars. The key to Stevenson’s personality, as Bell apprehends it, is that however far he travelled, he could never leave. Scotland came too. In the wilds of Northern California, where he and his wife spent their honeymoon as Silverado squatters, Stevenson pondered the paradoxes of being a Scot out of Scotland. Many emigrants sentimentalise the old country – not least fellow Celts like the Welsh and Irish. But the difference with Scots is that, however moist-eyed, they carry with them an undimmed recollection of how awful the place was and how right any sane person is to get out and stay out: ‘There is no special loveliness in that gray country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly-looking cornlands; its quaint, gray, castled city, where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat. I do not even know if I desire to live there; but let me hear, in some far land, a kindred voice sing out, “Oh, why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country. And though I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scots clods.’

Stevenson had his first wish: he died as far from Scotland as it was possible to get before the invention of space travel (he also died before refrigeration reached Samoa – his body received a swift tropical burial in the alien clods of Mount Vaea). He was not, as was popularly supposed, detained in the South Seas by tuberculosis. His disease had been arrested some years before at Swiss and American sanatoria. Stevenson could have returned to Scotland without risk and had the money to do so in some style. As he said, he was there because ‘I simply prefer Samoa.’ More particularly, he preferred the weather. Edinburgh, he had written in an early work, when he was still a prisoner in the city, has ‘one of the vilest climates under heaven ... The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright necrological purgatory in spring.’ Five generations of Stevensons before Louis had braved the Scottish elements, designing lighthouses that defied the worst the country’s storms could throw at them. (Their most famous achievement was the Bell Rock lighthouse, a miracle of marine engineering.) Louis turned tail and ran. He was not going to be a Lighthouse Stevenson, but the family’s first heliotrope.

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