How Europe influenced Robert Louis Stevenson's lesser-known work
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Robert Louis Stevenson might be known for his gripping tales of adventure, but CHARLIE CONNELLY finds comfort in the gently flowing narrative of one of his lesser known works
“We made a great stir in Antwerp docks,” would be a great opening line to any book, but it happens to be the first line of the first book published by one of Britain’s greatest writers. It’s provided a salve for the soul over the last week or so, as the new lockdown took hold and the United States election careered noisily around the circus ring of global politics like an old-fashioned, bell-clanging fire engine with clowns hanging off the ladders.
Of all the writers born and raised on these islands few have been as Europhilic – and indeed globalphilic, if that’s a word – as Robert Louis Stevenson, born 170 years ago this week on November 13, 1850. Best known for Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was a prolific writer of novels, poetry, travelogues and essays and travelled widely, first in Europe, then the USA and eventually the Pacific Ocean which, considering he died at the age of 44, represented a life as mobile as it was busy.
The second half was spent mostly on the western side of the Atlantic, notably after he met Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcée ten years his senior who would become his wife, and travelled to join her in San Francisco in 1879.
The restless Stevensons spent time in Dorset, San Francisco, Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti and New Zealand before deciding in 1889 to settle permanently in Samoa. There they lived happily until Stevenson’s sudden death in December 1894 from a cerebral haemorrhage while opening a bottle of wine (he paused, asked his wife, “Does my face look strange?” and collapsed to the floor).
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For all these wider travels it was Europe that played the biggest part in forming Stevenson the man and Stevenson the writer. He was born in Edinburgh into a family of engineers responsible for designing and building many of the lighthouses around the coasts and islands of Scotland and Robert, an only child, was expected to join the family business. Although he enjoyed the summer tours made with his father to inspect the lights, often on remote islands, Stevenson had little interest in the engineering involved. While his relatives tended to be dour, buttoned-up Presbyterians Robert was an atheist with a flamboyant wardrobe who wore his hair long, and his father came to accept that his son wasn’t made for a life sizing up storm-lashed rocks with a theodolite.
A five-month family tour of Europe made in 1863 when Stevenson was 12, taking in France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium, had stoked his nascent love of the continent, and its literature and art in particular, and when he spent the winter of 1873-74 on the French Riviera for the benefit of his health it encouraged a passion for the country and a desire to experience wider horizons than the draughty Stevenson home in Edinburgh could provide. He spent a significant amount of time in France every year during the mid-1870s, visits that contributed in no small part to the development of the author who would go on to write some of the English language’s most famous works of fiction.
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“I have lived much of my time in France,” he wrote to the French translator of his books in 1890, “and loved your country, and many of its people, and all the time was learning that which your country has to teach - breathing in rather that atmosphere of art which can only there be breathed.”
In 1876 at the age of 26 he made a river trip from Antwerp to Pontoise on the Seine with his friend Walter Grindlay Simpson paddling Arethusa and Cigarette, kayaks fitted with single sails, on a three-week trip taken purely for pleasure when such an excursion was a novelty. Stevenson’s account of the voyage was published two years later as An Inland Voyage, his first book and the first step in his plan to pursue a career as a writer financially independent from the family known as the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’.
An Inland Voyage is a book I revisited last week in the light of its author’s 170th birthday and in an attempt to avoid the cacophonic news cycle of the US election, as well as reminding myself of a time when the rest of Europe was but a short hop away culturally and spiritually as well as physically.
There would have been an antediluvian feel to reading An Inland Voyage even before the Great Madness descended in 2016 followed four years later by the coronavirus. It was a pioneering work for its time, not in the traditional travel writing mould but more in line with the currently popular genre of landscape and nature writing. It speaks of a more innocent age in a more innocent Europe, albeit one still picking up the pieces of the Franco-Prussian War.
The perfect read to escape the coronavirus/Trump/Brexit anxiety treadmill in fact, a gentle immersion in a different Europe of a different age. This is a Europe where canal boats ease gently between willow-dipped banks as “the horse plods along at foot pace as if there were no such thing as business in the world”. The soundtrack is the gentle splash of paddle in water, birdsong and church bells. Stevenson is guided by nothing more than his flexible itinerary, free of the binds of the clock and free to roam where and when he pleases.
The journey begins with that commotion at Antwerp docks as the kayaks are put into the water and the pair are soon lost in the idyll of a voyage that feels even to them far removed from the stresses and strains of what they’d left behind. It’s not long before an already exhilarated Stevenson is questioning the way he lives his life.
“I wish sincerely,” he writes near the beginning of the book having set his small sail and leaned back into his seat, sucking gently on his pipe, “for it would have saved me much trouble, that there had been someone to put me in a good heart about life when I was younger; to tell me how dangers were most portentous at a distant sight; and how the good in a man’s spirit will not suffer itself to be overlaid, and rarely if ever deserts him in an hour of need.”
This relaxed introspection sets the tone for the rest of the journey. It rains sometimes and he has to change his wet clothes, but otherwise there’s a notable absence of the kind of peril and jeopardy that would normally be required to sustain a narrative of this kind. Instead Stevenson and Simpson ease their way along calm rivers with willows and reeds lining the banks, a few fishermen sitting stock still next to their rods and the occasional woman sitting patiently by a small jetty waiting for a rowing-boat ferry.
“The river doubled among the hillocks; a shining strip of mirror glass, and the dip of the paddles set the flowers shaking along the brink,” he writes of their gentle progress.
Near Brussels they prove a hit with a sailing club whose youthful members are impressed by their vessels and insist on providing them with eager and generous hospitality.
“The nightmare illusion of middle age, the bear’s hug of custom gradually squeezing the life out of a man’s soul, had not yet begun for these happy star’d young Belgians,” he observes.
Stevenson has such a nice time that in different circumstances An Inland Voyage would have been a very dull read indeed. “Towards the afternoon we got fairly drunken with the sunshine and exhilaration of the pace,” he says at one point. “We could no longer contain ourselves and our content,” he gushes at another, while further on, “in a green meadow we bestowed our limbs on the grass, smoked deifying tobacco, and pronounced the world excellent."
Ordinarily, such smug self-regard would have me hopping on the Eurostar, tracking them down to their meadow, taking a hatchet to their canoes and shoving their faces, pipes first, into the black mud of the foreshore, but whether it’s the prevailing carnage among which we find ourselves among today or just the quality of the writing, I couldn’t begrudge this pipe-smoking, sky-watching idyll one iota.
Few mishaps befall them. Stevenson does fall in at one point trying to pass under a tree that had fallen across the river; at La Fère they are turned away from an inn they liked the look of because the owner thinks they’re penniless pedlars (but they find a better guesthouse round the corner, run by a couple they come to adore); and they stay at an inn at Précy-sur-Oise they declare to be the worst in France (“Not even in Scotland have I found worse fare”) but that’s about it.
Sometimes the innocence of the trip does take on a cloak of poignancy. At Landrecies, a small town near Mons in which Stevenson finds little to detain him, he watches as a few local soldiers drill half-heartedly in the square.
“It reminded you that even this place was a point in the great warfaring system of Europe and might on some future day be ringed about with cannon smoke and thunder,” he writes. In August 1914 the Battle of Landrecies would be fought on the outskirts of the town at the cost of hundreds of lives. The town now has its own Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.
At Compiègne the Oise widens into a more substantial waterway that flows through much larger and more industrial towns where the travellers, who had been treated like celebrities in some villages along the way, are practically anonymous, Stevenson finds the repetitive routine unfulfilling and there are definite lockdown resonances as he describes how the monotony dulls his mind. He finds he can’t concentrate on reading and even the maps over which he and Simpson delight in poring are “thumbed with the blankest concern”.
“About one thing we were mightily taken up with, and that was eating,” he declares. As someone who has definitely added the ‘corona stone’ to his midriff since March this was greeted with a wry nod of familiarity from this reader. “The seventh heaven of stupidity,” he called his feeling of dozy listlessness, a phrase that someone should definitely use as the title for a history of Britain since 2016.
By the time he reaches the point where the Oise meets the Seine Stevenson is aware his journey is coming to an end, having been “no more than a siesta by the way on the real march of life”.
Like the reader, he knows it’s time to go back, to return to the real world and find “what surprises stood ready for us at home; and whither and how far the world had voyaged in our absence. You may paddle all day long but it is when you come back at nightfall, and look in at the familiar room, that you find Love or Death waiting at the stove; and the most beautiful adventures are not those we go seek”.
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