From imagination to action

tusitala portrait

The idea of the Pacific was first put into Robert Louis Stevenson’s mind when he was in his twenties. A semi-invalid with suspected tuberculosis, he was drifting through his law studies at Edinburgh University while still living at home with his parents. In an 1890 letter, he recalled the visit of a distinguished and apparently self-assured New Zealander:

In ’74 or ’75 there came to stay with my father and mother a certain Mr. Seed (Hon J. Seed), a prime minister or something of New Zealand. He spotted what my complaint was; told me , I had no business to stay in Europe; that I should find all I cared for, and all that was good for me, in the Navigator Islands (Samoa); sat up till four in the morning persuading me, demolishing my scruples. And I resisted: I refused to go so far from my father and mother.

It was five years later that he first saw the Pacific, in August 1879. He had given up Scotland and his short-lived law career, and was now an aspiring but impoverished and still sickly writer of travel memoirs. He had published An Inland Voyage (1878), Edinburgh. Picturesque Notes (1879), and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). He was waiting out several months in the brawling seaport of San Francisco to marry Fanny Osbourne, the American he had fallen in love with at an artist’s colony in France. To rejoin her in California, he had endured a rigorous journey by emigrant ship and cross-continental train (described later in The Amateur Emigrant, 1883), and now had to wait for her divorce to come through. Out for a walk in San Francisco, he met by chance another travel writer, Charles Warren Stoddard, who gave him a copy of his South-Sea Idylls (1873), together with Herman Melville’s Pacific novel Omoo (1847). Often this is seen as the moment when the romantic imagination was caught and lured by the South Seas.

Turning imagination into action was still eight years away. Louis (as he was always called – pronounced Lewis) and Fanny Osbourne married in May 1880. Of resolute character and creative impulse, Fanny was almost eleven years older than him but always striking and vital. Her pioneering Indiana origins had equipped her to thrive on the hardships of their adventurous travelling life, and she was famous for her skill at creating domestic order in the most primitive wilderness conditions. While not always a compliant partner, she fully earned his tribute, “fellow-father true through life”, in the poem that is now her epitaph on their tomb in Samoa. They honeymooned colourfully in a derelict shack on a remote rattlesnake-infested abandoned silver mining camp in the mountains above Napa Valley. Stevenson’s aching lungs and recurrent hemorrhages drove them always to seek clear air, and lack of money limited their choices. At Silverado, they could almost see the Pacific.

Then they lived itinerantly, travelling first to Edinburgh, where they were reconciled with his forgiving parents, and on to other places in Scotland, England and Europe, settling for a while (1884-87) at the seaside health resort of Bournemouth in southern England. He was beginning now to get income from his writing. However nomadic and spartan their life, and however great the pain in his throat and chest, he always wrote, habitually and compulsively, most often propped up in bed or on whatever could pass as a sofa (a miner’s bunk during the Silverado honeymoon). Inventive and prolific, he published 16 books in that short period in Britain and Europe from 1881-88, including several of lasting popularity and literary importance. It is not possible now to conceive our culture’s stock of shared narratives without Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) was prominent in the consciousness of English-speaking children throughout most of the 20th century, and is still often republished. In three years, he had produced four lasting masterpieces in different genres. His works of fiction, especially Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde together with short stories like ‘The Body Snatchers’, continue to be re-read and re-made in all the new forms available to our own ingenious age cinema, TV serial, Broadway musical or theme-park spectacle. Dramatizations abound, and at least one Stevenson story, ‘Markheim’, has been adapted as an opera.

Stevenson’s literary importance was even greater than this populist success might suggest. He brought realism, psychological insight and a sense of history’s complexity to the old genre of period romance. With Jekyll and Hyde, he took both science fiction and the psychological horror story to a new level as serious genres. A Child’s Garden of Verses feed children’s poetry from Victorian moralizing to deal with such real childhood feelings as insecurity, fear and the sense of exclusion. He moved the English short story in lasting new directions, especially in realism, in his collections New Arabian Nights (1882), More New Arabian Nights (1885) and The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887). He was idiosyncratic and influential as a travel writer and memoirist (The Silverado Squatters, 1883), and as an essayist (Virginibus Puerisque, 1881, Memoirs and Portrait, 1887). The range is as impressive as the quantity of important work, especially for an invalid propped on pillows and wracked with coughing fits.

So when Stevenson sailed into the Pacific in 1888, it was as a celebrity. He walked out on the elite literary world of Britain just as he became one of its most sought-after luminaries. In August 1887, with some money from his writing and the death of his father in 1886, he sailed again from Britain to America. Conditions were better than his previous crossing on an emigrant ship only one step up from steerage, and he was accompanied this time by a sizeable family party. Fanny, her teenage son Lloyd Osbourne, her French-Swiss maid Valentine Roch, and his own widowed mother Margaret Stevenson all went along. Mother and son were good sailors, unlike poor Fanny, who never escaped the misery of motion sickness, and the two hatched a scheme for Maggie to “likely hire a yacht for a month or so in the summer”. This later turned into the Pacific venture.

In New York, Stevenson’s books were hot, mostly in pirated editions, and a stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was about to open. (Two were running in New York 114 years later, as well as two recent film versions, and others on video.) He was besieged by journalists and pursued by publishers.

For an “irresistible sum”, he signed as “a salaried party” for Scribner’s Magazine, giving Scribner all his American rights, but that did not deter one vigorous rival syndicalist, a young Scot called S.S. McClure. In October the entourage moved on to the next of their many extraordinary habitations, Saranac Lake in the primitive Adirondack Wilderness, far up in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. Attracted by a new tuberculosis sanatorium there, they wintered in a hut in the mountains at temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit. There Stevenson wrote most of The Master of Ballantrae (1889), incorporating settings from the forests around him, though he was to finish that strange book in Tahiti and Hawaii. He also turned out his essays for Scribner’s and ice-skated with McClure, who visited several times. When Stevenson once remarked how much better he always felt at sea, the nimble minded publisher offered to cover the cost of hiring a yacht, plus author’s fees, in exchange for travel essays or “stories of adventure and so forth. “It was the adventure stories the world really wanted from Stevenson. He would soon provide some from his Pacific experiences, in unexpected and not wholly palatable forms.

Possible voyages were discussed during the icy evening at Saranac – the Aegean, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean. But one recurred. Mrs. Maggie Stevenson, surprisingly unperturbed at having exchanged Heriot Row, Edinburgh, for an Adirondack shack, and her stable engineer husband for her unpredictable son, wrote unflappably to her sister, “We may go and sail about the Pacific next winter.” McClure sent books about the South Seas, and proposed a lecture tour to follow the cruise.

For his part, Stevenson was always fascinated by dualities, the contrasts in the human condition. It is his great underlying theme as a writer. His narratives (like The Master of Ballantrae) zigzag between extremes. So it is appropriate that he finally committed to undertake his South Sea idyll, contemplated for so long, while huddled in buffalo furs in a frozen Saranac hut with its doors and windows caulked against the blizzard.

As usual Fanny did the preparatory work. On a family visit to California in the spring of 1888, she was deputed to look out for a suitable yacht, and with her usual resourcefulness she found one. In May she telegraphed to her husband (now thawing out and messing about in boats at Manasquan, New Jersey), “Can secure splendid sea-going schooner yacht Casco for seven hundred and fifty a month with most comfortable accommodation for six aft and six forward. Can be ready for sea in ten days. Reply immediately. Fanny”

They were well matched in impulsive resolution. Stevenson sent the telegram boy back with the reply: “Blessed girl, take the yacht and expect us in ten days. Louis.”

They sailed from San Francisco just over a month later. Skipped by an irascible American, the bizarre ship’s company comprised one Russian, one Finnish, and two Swedish crewmen, a Chinese cook who pretended to be Japanese, and five totally inexperienced passengers: Robert Louis Stevenson, semi-invalid author, age 37: Fanny Stevenson, 48: Lloyd Osbourne, dropped out Edinburgh law student of literary aspirations, 20: Margaret Stevenson, widow, dressed unfailingly in starched black, 59; and the French maid/cabin boy, Valentine Roch, about 24. Once Captain Otis set eyes on his famous but cadaverously thin passenger, he is reputed to have stowed gear for burial at sea.

And when questioned about what he would do in an emergency such as the author’s elderly mother being swept overboard, he is said to have replied, “Put it in the log.”

Stevenson’s enthusiasm was undampened. “This is an old dream of mine which actually seems to be coming true, and I am sun-struck, “he wrote.

On 28 June 1888 the Casco sailed out of San Francisco Bay, setting course south-southwest for the Marquesas Island, 5000 kilometers (more than 3000 miles) away, across the open, sketchily charted, and unpredictable Pacific Ocean.