Remembering RLS: Stevenson & Cultural Memory

Robert Louis Stevenson died on the veranda of his home, Vailima, Samoa, on 3 December 1894.1 On the centenary of his death the house became the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. During his final years, Stevenson had become known in that part of the world as ‘Tusitala’ (Samoan: ‘Writer of Tales’), and the locals saw fit to bury him on the summit of Mount Vaea, where a tomb was placed some years later. In 1903 Abbot Handerson Thayer painted his Stevenson Memorial, depicting an angelic figure sitting on a rock inscribed ‘VAEA’. All around the world, in fact, Stevenson’s legacy is marked with statues, plaques, and other honorary dedications. His works are celebrated globally; none more so, perhaps, than Treasure Island (1883; serialised as The Sea Cook 1881–82) and Jekyll and Hyde (1886). It would take a very long time to find the cultural manifestations of these texts in film, computer games, and other visual media. According to Lavoie, Treasure Island is the most widely held Scottish work in library collections globally.2 The shape of the island, the ‘x’ on the map, and other motifs have become synonymous with the work and, by extension, the author. Even as recently as 2011, a stone plaque dedicated to Treasure Island and Stevenson was unveiled in North Berwick. There is no doubt, then, that Stevenson’s legacy is fruitful and long-lasting. But in order to fully understand the true nature of Stevenson’s ‘cultural memory’, and how it was formed, there are many factors to consider. We can think of cultural memory as a shared understanding or interpretation of any one thing built up over several generations, as opposed to ‘collective memory’, which is more concerned with living witnesses. But before we go any further, an honourable mention should be made to this very online journal, named after the Stevenson short story. Just type ‘Stevenson’ in the search bar and you will find dozens of great articles and book reviews related to the author already published here. 

Stevenson was born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on 13 November 1850, into a family of renowned lighthouse engineers. At the time of his birth, the city had become peopled with monuments to the great and good, including Nelson (1816), Melville (1823), Stewart (1831), Pitt (1833), Burns (1839), and Scott (1844). In 1850, Queen Victoria visited Edinburgh, and, following an increasing awareness of the city’s sorry state, including the collapse of a section of the old town wall in 1854, a new Improvement Act for the city was passed (1867). Edinburgh was in a process of change. More than most, Walter Scott was credited for a new ‘religion of names and of monuments’ sweeping not just Scotland, but Britain.3 The notion of Edinburgh as a venue of memory was not lost on Stevenson. In his Picturesque Notes (1879), Stevenson said: 

The character of a place is often most perfectly expressed in its associations […] in this spirit [Scott] made the ‘Lady of the Lake’ for Ben Venue, the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ for Edinburgh, and the ‘Pirate’ […] for the desolate islands and roaring tideways of the North.4

More than just individuals, there was a turn in the second half of the nineteenth century to remember old ideas, customs, and architecture. In 1853 John Ruskin delivered a series of lectures on architecture and painting. According to Richard Roger, ‘stone inscriptions had begun to appear’ on Edinburgh buildings within a decade of Ruskin’s lectures, ‘and from the late 1870s […] heraldic shields were common additions to the external decoration of property.’5 In 1886 Edinburgh held an International Exhibition showcasing an old fictional street in which Mary of Guise, Symson the Printer, and Cardinal Beaton were all neighbours, and in 1891 a Heraldic Exhibition was held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Unlike Burns and Scott, who became icons of this new culture, Stevenson was born into it, and came of age as it reached its peak. This cultural fascination for the past undoubtedly shaped Stevenson’s own views of literature and of commemoration. 

Writing to W. Craibe Angus in April 1891, Stevenson politely declined the invitation to return to Scotland for the planned Burns exhibition, stating ‘I have gone into far lands to die, not stayed like Burns to mingle in the end with Scottish soil.’6 He then goes on to discuss ‘poor Edinburgh Robin’ (Robert Fergusson) and, together with himself and Robert Burns, proclaims ‘we are three Robins who have touched the Scots lyre this last century.’ His particular affinity with Fergusson seems rooted in their Edinburgh citizenship, sharing fates on ‘the same ancient stones, under the same pends, down the same closes, where our common ancestors clashed in their armour, rusty and bright.’7 Stevenson hoped that Fergusson would also receive a monument like Burns’s: a wish not fulfilled until 2004, when the Fergusson statue was placed by the Canongate Kirk. 

It is often said that Stevenson was firmly against the notion of having a statue of himself. In a letter to a committee member in the midst of planning a memorial for R. M. Ballantyne (1825–1894), Stevenson petitioned against funding a large statue, and suggested they donate most of the subscription money to Ballantyne’s widow and child.8 Writing about this to Charles Baxter, Stevenson reports his advice to the committee in harsher tones: ‘If there is to be any foolery in the way of statues or other trash, please send them a guinea.’9 These opinions have in turn defined the aesthetic of fairly recent Stevenson memorials. In 2004, for example, on Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, a new sculpture by Alexander Stoddart was unveiled by Sean Connery. On a stone base, on which a medallion portrait of Stevenson is centred, the sculpture depicts David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, characters from Kidnapped (1886). It was commissioned by the brewery company Scottish and Newcastle, to be placed ‘within yards’ of ‘the sport where the two characters finally parted.’ The spokesperson for the company cited the notion that ‘Stevenson didn’t want statues of himself erected when he died.’10 

In 2013, a statue by Alan Herriot was unveiled by Ian Rankin outside Colinton Parish Church, the site of Stevenson’s youth. As such, the statue depicts the author as a boy, with his Skye terrier and two books. The BBC article proclaimed this ‘the first outdoor statue of Robert Louis Stevenson in the city of his birth.’11 

Stevenson memorial in Colinton, Edinburgh. Wikimedia Commons CC [user: SylviaStanley]
That it has taken until the twenty-first century for ‘outdoor’ statues of Stevenson to be placed in public view seems to reinforce this notion that Stevenson was against the idea of having his likeness portrayed. But Stevenson was of course happy to be the subject of artists, as we see from John Singer Sergeant’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885) and the famous reclining likeness by August Saint-Gaudens, captured c. 1887–8. We should also consider that Stevenson’s ideas about legacy can be found often in his writing. In his memoirs, for example, he wrote:

I have often thought that to find a family to compare with ours in the promise of immortal memory, we must go back to the Egyptian Pharaohs:—upon so many reefs and forelands that not very elegant name of Stevenson is engraved with a pen of iron upon granite…12

Talking literally of course about the many lighthouses – monuments in and of themselves – to bear the family name, Stevenson’s words are not without pride in having a rich cultural memory. In 1887 – around the time he sat for Saint-Gaudens – a poem by Stevenson was published containing similar sentiments:

Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.
But rather say: In the afternoon of time
A strenuous family dusted from its hands
The sand of granite, and beholding far
Along the sounding coast its pyramids
And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
Smiled well content, and to this childish task
Around the fire addressed its evening hours.13

Whatever Stevenson’s true thoughts on being commemorated, there are several markers to consider in a review of his legacy. We find sculptures of Stevenson, including the portrait bust in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (c. 1894–95) and the portrait statue in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (c. 1902). In Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, plaster medallion portraits can be found on the walls. Stevenson sits between Scott and Burns in the top row, above Hogg, Ramsay, and Tannahill in the second row. These cultural memory ‘sets’ are often very revealing in terms of national identity, as is the case with the Hall of Heroes in the Wallace Monument, in Stirling, in which Ramsay and Burns sit proudly. Stevenson is missing. He is also missing from the Processional Frieze around the four sides of the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1897–98), though his grandfather Robert Stevenson (1772–1850) is depicted with a model lighthouse. However, Robert Louis Stevenson was not long dead, and his cultural memory had yet to crystallise. 

The first major attempt to commemorate Stevenson began in 1896, two years after his death. Stevenson editor and literary critic Sidney Colvin expressed his desire to have an outdoor monument, because Stevenson was ‘essentially an out-of-door person’. This, for Colvin, was preferable to any memorial ‘in a building, whether church, university, or law court.’14 As Docherty explains in brilliant detail, the committee did not receive enough contributions to build an elaborate outdoor monument, and so the western wall of St. Giles in Edinburgh’s High Street was chosen as an alternative. Colvin was already in possession of one of Saint-Gaudens’s portrait medallions of Stevenson, and so he approached the artist to produce the new memorial in 1898.15 Writing to Saint-Gaudens in 1893, Stevenson addressed the artist as ‘My dear god-like sculptor’, requesting copies of the medallion, including the one for Colvin.16 Saint-Gaudens laboured over the work through ill-health and it was finally unveiled on 28 June 1904. 

 

Stevenson memorial in St. Giles’, Edinburgh. Wikimedia Commons CC [user: Enric]
Adorned with excerpts from Stevenson’s writing – carefully chosen by the committee to suit the religious setting – and with a long dedication to the writer, the St. Giles memorial is the first major touchstone of his cultural memory. Contrast this with the other Edinburgh sculpture found in Princes Street Gardens. Created by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1987 on a commission by The Stevenson Society, the humble headstone bears the following inscription: ‘A MAN OF LETTERS | R. L. S. | 1850–1894’. In the landscape it can be easily overlooked, especially considering the nearby portrait statues of Ramsay and Wilson, and the gargantuan Scott monument. Alex Thomson offers an excellent analysis of this monument, drawing emphasis to the sculptor’s pun (‘RLS’ = ‘Man of Letters’) and the ‘truncated column’ on top of the stone, allowing the tree behind it to ‘double as the pillar of a woodland temple’. Going further, Thomson says that the memorial ‘seems a fitting response to the grotesque Gothicism of the Scott monument […] The elegant, spare style of the former contrasts favourable with the overwrought architecture of the latter.’17 It is indeed an understated and witty dedication to a writer of abundant quality. 

Elsewhere in Edinburgh there are many plaques which plot key moments in Stevenson’s life. On the exterior of 8 Howard Place, a plaque reads ‘ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON | was born in this house | on 13th November 1850’. Inscribed on stone outside 17 Heriot Row, it says ‘The Home of | ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON | 1857–1880’. On the gate there is a further dedicatory plaque, and the property is in fact the ‘Stevenson House B&B’. In Edinburgh’s New Town, on a Baptish Church Hall in Cannonmills, a plaque bearing the likeness and dates of the author, declares: ‘IN THIS HALL | ROBERT | LOUIS | STEVENSON | first went | to school | Circa 1857.’ In Drummond Street, near Rutherford’s Bar a plaque reads ‘IN MEMORY OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, 1850–1894, son and student | of Edinburgh.’ A long quote, extracted from The South Seas, September 1888, mentions the bar, and is presented ‘on behalf of all Stevenson lovers… September 1995.’ At 7 George Square, the University of Edinburgh have also dedicated a plaque ‘in honour of’ Stevenson: ‘POET, AUTHOR OF TREASURE ISLAND, | KIDNAPPED, DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, | ALUMNUS OF THE UNIVERSITY’. In Colinton there are more markers beyond the 2013 statue, including Stevenson’s Yew, with the old brackets still fixed to the branch ‘as a memorial to Stevenson’s childhood’, and in 2020 a derelict tunnel was given new life as Chris Rutterford led a community effort to cover 140 metres with new art, including a portrait of Stevenson and the text of ‘From a Railway Carriage’ (1885). In Bridge of Allan you can visit a cave now named after Benn Gunn from Treasure Island, with the site said to have been the author’s inspiration. The cave is also cited in a plaque on Fountain Road, in Bridge of Allan, commemorating Stevenson’s time spent in the town. 

Many more moments in Stevenson’s life are commemorated with plaques. On the Point Venus Lighthouse in Tahiti a plaque marks Stevenson working with his father in the summer of 1866. Outside Cunzie House, Anstruther, a stone plaque marks Stevenson living there in the summer of 1868, followed by lines from ‘To F.J.S.’ At the Wick Customs House, the Literary Society placed a plaque there to mark Stevenson staying there in autumn of the same year. In the Globe Hotel, Cockermouth, there is a plaque marking that Stevenson stayed there in 1871. At 7 Mount Vernon, Hampstead, a plaque declares that Stevenson ‘lived here’ but offers no dates. In France, a plaque at 114 Rue Wilson, Grez-sur-Loing, marks Stevenson meeting his wife, Fanny, in the area in 1876. In Cevennes, there is a fountain and plaque marking Stevenson’s ‘arrival in town with Donkey in October 1878’. In Pitlochry, on the wall outside Kinnaird Cottage, a plaque bearing a quote from a letter to Colvin declares that Stevenson ‘LIVED IN THIS HOUSE FROM THE 7TH | OF JUNE TO THE 2ND OF AUGUST 1881.’ At the Chalet la Solitude, 4 Rue Victor Basch, a plaque bears the following, partly outrageous, information: ‘1883–1884 Here Lived the English Author.’ In Skerryvore, Alum Chine Road, Bournemouth, the site has several markers of Stevenson’s time living there from April 1885 to August 1887. And on the Sydney Writers Walk, Stevenson was honoured with a plaque in 1976, with the information that he was ‘four times in Sydney, early 1890s’.  

In the United States there are also significant markers, monuments, and houses. In Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, a stone plinth topped with a cast ship marks Stevenson’s time there from December 1879 to March 1880. It was unveiled in 1897. 

Unveiling of the Stevenson Memorial in San Francisco, from Stevensoniana: An Anecdotal Life and Appreciation of Robert Louis Stevenson (1907)

The inscription ‘To Remember | Robert Louis | Stevenson’ is followed with a long extract from Across the Plains (1892). There is a Stevenson House at 350 Houston Street, Monterey, CA, and a Stevenson Cottage at Saranac Lake, NY. These visitor sites are important, not just for their nomenclature but for the relics and lore which help perpetuate cultural memory in an active way. On Mount Saint Helena, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a stone tablet in the shape of an open book was placed at the site of Stevenson’s honeymoon cabin in 1911 by the Clubwomen of Napa County, kicking off pilgrimages to the site. In 1959 the surrounding park lands were given the dedication of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, surely the largest memorial we have of the author. 

So, what does all this mean? ‘What is the relation,’ asks Adrian Poole, ‘of all these memorials to Stevenson’s writings?’ Poole – whose contextual analysis of the St. Giles memorial casts its planners in a very poor light – laments the ‘ever-widening gap between the experience of actually reading an author and the paraphernalia for preserving his public “memory”.’18 But memory does not rest forever in the cast sculptures of the great and good. It changes, renewed with each generation, so that monuments take on new meaning and scrutiny. But why ask ourselves what Stevenson would make of this or that sculpture? We would be as well asking how Burns would have voted in the Scottish Independence Referendum, as some indeed have. After all, the monuments, plaques and paintings are just part of the great web of cultural memory surrounding Stevenson. They do not prevent anyone from reading his work, though they might serve as timely reminders. In fact, since the foundation of RLS Day in November 2011, there have been commemorative reading events, giveaways, and other activities in schools and libraries. Together with the One Book One Edinburgh initiative (2007), during which there was mass (re)publications and group readings of Kidnapped (2007) and Jekyll & Hyde (2008), the words of Stevenson have been given new prominence. This ‘collective gaze’, as Corbett calls it, is arguably more powerful in the short-term than any static monument or plaque.19 In any event, these events form part of the whole memory picture, and there is no telling how it might be altered with time.  

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End Notes

  1. My thanks to Prof Patrick Scott of South Carolina and Duncan Jones, Director of the Association for Scottish Literature, both of whom contributed many great ideas and research points over the past year.
  2. Brian Lavoie, Not Scotch, but Rum: The Scope and Diffusion of the Scottish Presence in the Published Record (Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research, 2013), 26: https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2013/2013-07.pdf 
  3. Craig Lamont, The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow (Edinburgh: EUP, 2021), p. 5.
  4. Robert Louis Stevenson, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1879), p. 14.
  5. Richard Rodger, The Transformation of Edinburgh: Land, Property and Trust in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), p. 467.
  6. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Sidney Colvin, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), p. 300.
  7. Ibid., p. 301.
  8. Glasgow Herald, 1 June 1894, p. 8.
  9. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson v. 4, ed. Sidney Colvin (London, Methuen & Co. LTD., 1911), 258.
  10. Scotsman, 9 September 2004.
  11. BBC News, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson statue unveiled by Ian Rankin’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-24685842.
  12. Memoirs of Himself by Robert Louis Stevenson (Philadelphia: Privately distributed, 1912), p. 16.
  13. Ballads and Other Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Child’s Garden of Verses; Underwoods; Ballads (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), p. 152.
  14. Edinburgh Evening News24 December 1896, 3.
  15.  Linda J. Docherty, ‘Transience and Timelessness: The Origins and Afterlife of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 19:1 (2020): https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring20/docherty-on-augustus-saint-gaudens-portrait-of-robert-louis-stevenson
  16. M. Gilchrist, ‘“My Dear God-Like Sculptor…” RLS & Saint-Gaudens’, Cencrastus 49, 11–13: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/68443/1/68443.pdf.
  17. Alex Thomson, ‘Stevenson’s Afterlives’, The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Penny Fielding (Edinburgh: EUP, 2010), 159.
  18. Adrian Poole, ‘“A grand memory for forgetting”: Stevenson and survival’, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Great Affair: Movement, Memory, and Modernity ed. Richard J. Hill (London & New York, Routledge, 2017), 18.
  19. John Corbett, ‘Press-ganging Scottish Literature? Kidnapped and the City of Literature’s One Book, One Edinburgh project’, International Journal of Scottish Studies 2 (Spring/Summer 2007).
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Craig Lamont

Craig Lamont is an academic and writer working at the University of Glasgow, as editor and research associate on two major AHRC-funded projects: Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century, led by Prof Gerard Carruthers, and The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay, led by Prof Murray Pittock. He is also the Secretary of the Association for Scottish Literature.


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