HAPPY UN-BIRTHDAY, ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON – by Nancy Horan
Posted on: 12/11/2013 with tags: author blog, birthday, historical fiction, history, Nancy Horan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland, Treasure Island
Today is Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday. How I wish that I could sit down and celebrate it with him. Since embarking on a novel about him five years ago, I have come to think of him as the one man in history with whom I’d most enjoy spending a day. He was admired in his own time as a brilliant, hilarious, and provocative conversationalist. Could we manage to communicate across the 120-year gap since his death in 1894? What would he think of our world? I suspect he’d have strong opinions about the iPhones we’re tethered to — he hated the intrusive sound of a telephone and found electric street lights obnoxious — but I’m certain he’d have great curiosity about who we are today and what we value.
I don’t know if Louis, as his intimates called him, would agree to celebrate on November 13, the date of his birth, however. He gave away his birthday to a little girl he knew who’d had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Day. In 1891, at the age of 40, having run out of any use for it, Stevenson gifted it by official document to the daughter of an American friend. He transferred “all and whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.”
So maybe we’d get together on November 14th instead, meeting someplace where he could smoke cigarettes, and I’d catch him up on other news. That his beloved Vailima, the house he built in Samoa where he spent his last years, still stands. That his death, just three years after he gave away his birthday, crushed his friend Henry James, who wrote to his widow, Fanny, “He lighted up one whole side of the globe … We are smaller fry and meaner people without him.” That Fanny Stevenson devoted the remainder of her life to promoting her husband’s legacy.
“And what of my legacy?” he might ask, since he thought about it quite a bit before his death. I’d have to admit his literary star tarnished for a while during the 20th century when critics dismissed him as a fuddy-duddy old Romantic. But I would assure him that, despite his low profile during that period,he remains one of the most translated authors in the world, and his Treasure Island has never gone out of print. I’d also let him know that some of the greatest writers of the 20th century —Hemingway, Borges, and Nabokov, to name a few — have expressed immense admiration for him; and a new generation of scholars has re-assessed his work and found it not only masterful but quite modern. He might be amazed to learn other ways his legacy continues: that the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” is part of our vernacular, even if the story is no longer widely read; that there is a chain of seafood restaurants named after the pirate he created, Long John Silver; and that the clever sleeping bag he invented to keep himself warm while traveling with a donkey in the Cevennes has become a requirement for modern campers.
Would he be pleased to know November 13 has been declared Robert Louis Stevenson Day in Scotland and is fast becoming a tradition? Tickled, no doubt. But I suspect he’d be happiest to know that mothers and fathers still put their kids to bed reading A Child’s Garden of Verses; and that his words continue to have the power to make us laugh, shiver, and cry.
Nancy Horan’s new novel, UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY, tells the passionate and turbulent story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny, and it will be published by Two Roads in January 2014. Nancy Horan’s previous novel, Loving Frank, the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, was a New York Times bestseller and a Richard & Judy Book Club pick. Find out more about Nancy and her novels on her website, and at Two Roads.