Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

‘I have no books’ Robert Louis Stevenson complained to one of his correspondents shortly after he arrived in Samoa in 1890.  A full six months later he was able to report, not without a little ambivalence:

Our books and furniture keep slowly draining up the road, in a sad state of scatterment and disrepair; I wish the devil had had K. by his red beard before he had packed my library.  Odd leaves and sheets and boards – a thing to make a bibliomaniac shed tears – are fished out of odd corners.  But I am no bibliomaniac, praise Heaven, and I bear up, and rejoice when I find anything safe.

Stevenson may not have classed himself as a bibliomaniac but we do get a sense from this statement of the intimate relationship that he had with his library. In a passage from the Ebb Tide, one of the final works he wrote before his death in 1894, he meditates on the importance of reading to the condition of exile:

One, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket. Certainly, if money could have been raised upon the book, Robert Herrick would long ago have sacrificed that last possession; but the demand for literature, which is so marked a feature in some parts of the South Seas, extends not so far as the dead tongues; and the Virgil, which he could not exchange against a meal, had often consoled him in his hunger. He would study it, as he lay with tightened belt on the floor of the old calaboose, seeking favourite passages and finding new ones only less beautiful because they lacked the consecration of remembrance. Or he would pause on random country walks; sit on the path side, gazing over the sea on the mountains of Eimeo; and dip into the Aeneid, seeking sortes. And if the oracle (as is the way of oracles) replied with no very certain nor encouraging voice, visions of England at least would throng upon the exile’s memory: the busy schoolroom, the green playing-fields, holidays at home, and the perennial roar of London, and the fireside, and the white head of his father. For it is the destiny of those grave, restrained and classic writers, with whom we make enforced and often painful acquaintanceship at school, to pass into the blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student’s own irrevocable youth. 

It was of course not England that haunted Stevenson’s own memories in his final years at Vailima, but his own early years in Scotland.  ‘Scotch is the only History I know,’ he wrote in 1891, ‘it is the only history reasonably represented in my library’. Throughout his time in the Pacific we find him returning in his reading to what he referred to as the ‘Auld Lichts’, and in particular the Covenanting writers of his youth to whom he claimed he turned most often for ‘consecration and remembrance.’ 

An annotated virtual inventory allows us to reconstruct RLS’s personal library at the time of his death. Of the over 1200 titles identified, many are association copies. Drawing together items of correspondence and marginalia it documents a life punctuated by the acquisition of books. Early items include a copy of James Aikman’s Annals of the Persecution in Scotland bearing an inscription of the young Stevenson’s name by his father. On 7 September 1868 the eighteen year old had written to his mother to thank her for this addition to his library: ‘This morning I got a delightful haul,’ he wrote, ‘a precious and most acceptable donation, for which I tender my most ebullient thanksgivings. I almost forgot to drink my tea and eat mine egg.’

Even when he was far away from his books, they were very much on his mind. He referred to the volume by name in a letter from San Francisco written to his friend Charles Baxter in 1880: ‘Among my books there is one . . . in the shelves immediately behind one as one sits at the business table on which I think you will find my name written by my father; if it is so, please keep it.’ In such acts of giving and receiving, Stevenson reinforced his personal relationships and his sense of his own past through the many books he had owned.

Curiously, RLS confessed to having based a number of details in Treasure Island on his reading of Robinson Crusoe, going on to identify the specific appeal of Defoe’s novel for him:

It is the grown people who make the nursery stories; all the children do, is jealously to preserve the text. One out of a dozen reasons why Robinson Crusoe should be so popular with youth, is that it hits their level in this matter to a nicety; Crusoe was always at makeshifts and had, in so many words, to play at a great variety of professions; and then the book is all about tools, and there is nothing that delights a child so much.

Stevenson’s own copy of the novel, an edition of 1851, was given to him when he was eight and is bound in with a Life of Alexander Selkirk. It was heavily annotated and the illustrations appeared to be coloured in by RLS himself.


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