Take the RLS Test
Impress your friends on RLS Day by showing you are a true Stevenson aficionado. All Stevensonians should be aware of these ten fascinating facts – are you?
What’s in a name: Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was never, ever known as Robert. He and many of his cousins were all named after their lighthouse-building grandfather Robert Stevenson but were distinguished by their other names. RLS was known as Lewis, after his maternal grandfather the Rev Dr Lewis Balfour of Colinton. As an undergraduate he dropped the name Balfour and changed the spelling of his name to Louis – but still pronounced the ‘s’. And Louis is what his Stevensonian friends have always called him, to the present day.
- Spell it right: The Stevensons in Scotland built lighthouses. The Stephensons down south built steam locomotives. To help keep down his fan mail, Louis binned all letters addressed to ‘Robert Louis Stephenson’ unopened. Yet he was delighted when French people who found his surname hard to pronounce called him ‘Monsieur Steams’ – more appropriate, you might think, for the inventor of Stephenson’s Rocket.
- Strange but true: Louis called his world-famous horror story Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because he wanted the title to read like a newspaper headline. His first publisher Longmans got it right, but numerous others have added ‘The’. Stevensonians, of course, know better. But should we all follow Louis in pronouncing ‘Jekyll’ to rhyme with ‘treacle’? The world will never stop rhyming it with ‘speckle’, making ‘Jekyll’ sound more sinister like ‘jackal’. In this case, might the world know better than the author?
- Snow joke: While generally law-abiding, Louis had a criminal record of which all Stevensonians are aware. As a student at Edinburgh University he was once arrested for taking part in a two-day snowball riot across Nicolson Street between the university and Surgeons’ Hall. He claimed he had only been a spectator and was let off with a reprimand.
Thrown in jail: On a walking tour in France, Louis spent an anxious couple of hours in a police cell in the little town of Châtillon-sur-Loing on suspicion of being a German spy because he had no papers. He was eventually rescued by his respectable friend and Baronet Sir Walter Simpson, ‘ready with his passport… and well supplied with money’.
- Beating the bankers: Louis’s disreputable appearance led to figures of authority viewing him with suspicion. At a bank in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand he enquired about a letter of credit from his bank in Edinburgh, only to be told there was no such bank and he should leave before the police were called. Spotting the letter in a pigeonhole, Louis pulled it out triumphantly and subjected the bank staff to a withering diatribe until they made a grovelling apology. To celebrate, he then designed a medal to commemorate the ‘Strages Bankerorum’ or Slaughter of the Bankers.
It’s in the bag: As a pioneering travel writer hiking with a donkey across the Cevennes mountains, Louis needed somewhere to sleep – so he invented the sleeping bag. His was made from sheepskin and oilcloth, and in it he carried a leg of lamb, a Bologna sausage, a cake of chocolate, a bottle of brandy… and a revolver.
- A tale of three Rabbies: Louis had an almost mystic sense of kinship with two other ‘Rabbies’ who went before him – Robert Burns and, more closely, the young poet Robert Fergusson who died in the Edinburgh Bedlam or madhouse at the age of 24: ‘I believe Fergusson lives in me.’ Louis asked his lawyer and friend Charles Baxter about the possibility of restoring Fergusson’s grave in the Canongate kirkyard, where Burns had paid to have a headstone erected. The plan was never achieved in Louis’s lifetime but a plaque there now records his intention – finally carried out in his name in 2010.
- Marriage mockery: As a young man Louis was wary of marriage, facetiously calling it ‘a sort of friendship recognised by the police’. But he came to regard his own marriage to Fanny Osbourne as the best thing that had happened to him. What really angered him was the way illiterate girls in the South Seas were conned into mock marriages with white traders seeking sex with no commitment. He described one such fake ceremony in his story The Beach of Falesa and refused to cut the scene when his prudish publisher objected to the idea of unsanctified sex. Louis said he knew of several such mockeries in real life, including at least one where one of his own books, perhaps Treasure Island, had been substituted for the Holy Bible.
The real Long John: Louis based Long John Silver on his friend William Ernest Henley, a burly, bearded, one-legged man with ‘a face as big as a ham – plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling’, just like the Treasure Island character. Henley had a flat in Bristo Street, Edinburgh, ‘hard by the Bristo Port’ as he liked to call it. So the Hispaniola sailed from the Port of Bristol, with a cabin boy called Jim Hawkins. And on the same stair as Henley lived a widow called Hawkins, whose late husband’s name was Jim.
Yet ultimately being a true Stevensonian is not about mastering obscure facts. It’s about a lifelong love of Louis’s works in all their rich variety. There’s so much to enjoy, so much to discover. As a starting point, visit the RLS Website run by Edinburgh Napier University – www.robert-louis-stevenson.org – where you will find free downloadable versions of RLS books, a gallery of pictures and even an exclusive RLS biography called Lamplit, Vicious Fairy Land.