Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I’m talking to Andrew O’Hagan, who’s written a piece in the current issue of the LRB about the friendship between Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James and others in their circle, and the time they spent together in Bournemouth, of all places, in the mid 1880s. Hello, Andrew, and thank you for joining me.
Andrew O’Hagan: Hi, Tom, it’s a pleasure.
TJ: So, Bournemouth. It seems a long way from Treasure Island or the Scotland of Kidnapped, or even the Edinburgh-inflected London of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. How did Stevenson come to be there?
AOH: It’s funny with Stevenson, he once said that he took a little bit of Scotland in his shoes with him wherever he went. And it’s true that whether he was on the back of a donkey in the middle of the Cévennes or in the goldmines of California, or even in Bournemouth, that seemingly genteel health spa that it was becoming in the mid-1880s, he was ever so Scottish, looking out from his house, Skerryvore, named after one of his uncle’s lighthouses on the Western Isles of Scotland - they called it Skerryvore after that. And he used to sit in the upper window there looking out to sea, and all he could see, by his own account, were these fictional characters he’d written about or was about to write about. He had Kidnapped in mind at that time. And the trials of David Balfour out at sea, also Treasure Island and the seafaring past was all very vivid to him. That was the thing about Stevenson. He was a writer who lived with his material right in front of him and right on the tip of his tongue, as it were, at all times, no matter where he was situated.
TJ: And in some ways do you think it maybe helped not to be in Scotland, in the way that Ulysses was written when Joyce was in Trieste, and that somehow he had to leave Dublin in order to be able to write about Dublin?
Is that true of Stevenson?
AOH: I think that is true of Stevenson, you know, Tom. He was in that species of writer for whom the country of their imagination, the country of their origins, becomes more vivid the further they step back from the picture. You know that way you have some things in a gallery and it’s interesting, the paintwork, and up close you can see the brush strokes and so on, but you can’t really see the composition until you step right back. And some people, some writers are like that, I think, about their country. Only when they get a little distance can they see the shape of it and identify the rhythm and the customs and their place in the narrative somehow. Stevenson was like that. He was never in a position to write better Scottish sentences, I would argue, than when he was in Samoa, at the top of a mountain, surrounded by swamp and 46° heat. He was thinking about damp Edinburgh writing his last unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston, beautiful writing, and absolutely soaked, sodden – dreich, you might say! – with a sense of his Scottish childhood.
TJ: And that was after he’d been in his three years in damp Bournemouth. And he’d gone there, is this right, because Fanny Stevenson, his wife’s son was at school there and he was ill, and they were looking for somewhere for him …
AOH: That’s right. Stevenson was always ill, and any account of him has to take notice of the attempts, especially mounted by Fanny Stevenson his wife, to keep his lungs dry, as she would say, to keep him alive. He was at risk of haemorrhages at all times at that part of his life. He’d been ill since childhood. And he had the jitters and a hacking cough, a ‘host host host of a cough’, as he describes it in one of his letters, and she was always looking for somewhere. And they tried different parts of the globe. They’d just come from the South of France in 1884, and they came to see the London doctors who told Stevenson that he shouldn’t return to here because it was rife with cholera. And at the same time they recommended Davos, but that also was thought to be a place where you could pick up illnesses very easily. So, as you say, because Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny’s son was at school in Bournemouth, Stevenson, almost on a whim, hearing that the place was becoming a bit of a health spa, decided that the warm(ish) climes of southern England might do well for him. And actually they arrived there in a state of high excitement, and they enjoyed their time there at first. The weather was clement. He got through that winter and it was always a question of Robert Louis Stevenson getting through the winter. And he managed that first winter of ‘84 into ‘85 quite well. And they stayed on, encouraged, of course, by the fact that Stevenson’s parents, ever keen to see him stay in the British Isles, bought a house for them in Bournemouth. So that’s really what planted their feet on the ground.
TJ: Right, because that was one of the things I was going to ask. How did he afford this house? Because it wasn’t royalties from Treasure Island.
AOH: Interesting question, that. Because Stevenson was a best seller in his day. He sold a lot of books. One of the books that he wrote in Bournemouth that I talk about in the piece, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that sold 40,000 copies in Britain almost right away. And it was said to have sold two million black market ripoff copies in America during 1886. So he was a best-selling writer, but hopeless with money, had quite bad deals, and was always reliant on his parents for handouts, really right up to the point where his father died, which was again during the latter time they were in Bournemouth. So they bought a house for Stevenson and his wife. They actually officially bought it for the wife. It was owned by her, a gift to her that was intended to keep the Stevensons in England, if not in Scotland.
TJ: And how did Henry James come to be in Bournemouth? Was it because of Stevenson or was it coincidence that they both ended up there?
AOH: It was coincidence really, because poor Henry James, despite being relatively healthy himself and keen on repairing to his rooms in Mayfair to get on with his next novel – a great sort of monk-like exemplar of working practices was old Henry James – but he was always being dragged from his room, as it were, by the concerns of friends and family. And none more close and more pressing perhaps than his sister Alice James who came from Boston in that year, 1885, with a woman called Katharine Loring, a friend, some would say a lover, certainly an amanuensis, someone looking after her. I should say Alice James was constantly up for being looked after. She was at the very least neurasthenic. From her point of view she was constantly ill, constantly prone, found herself in bed most of the time. She had been ill in Boston a long time. And in fact, as I discuss in the piece, if you look closely at The Bostonians, that great American novel of Henry James’s, one that steps back from his famous international theme and is concentrated among characters in Boston, what you see there really is a sort of inflected depiction of his sister and her friends, I believe. In those characters in the book you see in their idealism and in their self-consciousness, a portrait of his sister and her circle. Anyway, Alice decided that for the sake of her mental and physical health, whatever status we should give to them, she would come to England where James was making a success of himself. She arrived in Mayfair and didn’t leave her room for nine weeks. Doctors would turn up and sponge her spine with salt water, while saying privately that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. Alice James was a victim, you might say, of the psychoanalytic naivety of the time. In later times, even within thirty or forty years, she would have been considered by Dr Freud and others an interesting case for study. But at that time she was quite harassed and I think put down by the great medical men. And the great men, of course, that were her two brothers, Henry James, the novelist, and William James, the philosopher. Her whole life, in a sense, was an attempt to escape or to inhabit or to somehow live beyond their greatness. And all of that comes up during her time in England. She seeks Bournemouth as a place of convalescence. Katharine Loring, who also had a sick sister, a genuinely sick sister, went to Bournemouth to seek a convalescence. And soon Alice James is down there too. So Henry James’s initial reason for going down there was to deal with the very real trouble with Alice.
TJ: But he and Stevenson were already corresponding by that point, weren’t they, because after James wrote his essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ Stevenson wrote a reply to that.
AOH: It was a very lovely meet cute, actually, the two of them meeting in the pages of Longman’s magazine, a magazine slightly like the London Review of Books, in its day, where conversations of arguably interesting kinds would occur! James, as you say, had written this essay in response to a lecture under a piece by Walter Besant on the nature of fiction. James’s was called ‘The Art of Fiction’. Quite a high level intervention, I think I would say about the art form we dearly love. And it got Stevenson, as he sat semi-recumbent in Bournemouth, it got his dander up, but also his interest. And he wrote a response called ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, which was run in the same magazine soon after, and a correspondence started up, a private correspondence between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, which led very quickly to a firm friendship. I’ve always been interested in literary friendships and in buildings disappearing, as well as people disappearing. And all of these things come together in this story, this new friendship. Henry James, having reason to make his way down in the train from Waterloo to Bournemouth to see his sister Alice, decided to take up residence there and get on with his new novel which would become The Princess Casamassima, and there he was sitting in Bournemouth. He found the town rather ugly, James, it wasn’t for him in many respects. But he would have these twenty-minute sessions with Alice, which she both demanded and endured, and then he would walk up the hill in the evening to see his new friend Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stevenson and James were firm co-admirers.
TJ: Tell the story of what happened with the first time James went and knocked on the door.
AOH: Oh, yes. There seems some poetic justice in this. The first time the very grand Henry James turned up at Skerryvore – the house is number 63 Alum Chine Road – he was met in the vestibule after ringing the bell by Valentine Roche, the French maid of the Stevensons, who mistook him immediately, this rather rotund bald-headed man, for a carpet fitter who had failed to turn up the week before with the bought and paid for carpet, as the Scots would say, which was missing. And so Valentine Roche scolded him and refused to let him in and then sent him round to the tradesmen’s entrance! If ever there was a great scene waiting to be dramatised, I would argue, it’s the scene of the great master at the door being mistaken for a carpet man. Henry James took it all in good part, and was shown into the main room, where he stood before the hearth and was able to address Stevenson and Fanny as himself. It would be hard to imagine, of course, James taking on the part of the tradesman for long. Not quite his style!
TJ: I think of them as such different kinds of writer, and you quote Janet Adam Smith who said critics and readers rarely couple the names of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. But I wonder if those differences made their mutual admiration and their friendship easier because they didn’t feel in direct competition with one another. Even if Thomas Hardy detected what you got a hint of, sibling rivalry.
AOH: Yes, indeed. Thomas Hardy thought that they were a couple of old women, as he put it, they were somehow gossips and too much in each other’s pockets. But I think that was an over-response, you might say, through their mutual dislike of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which they both thought vile as a novel. Quite harsh, that, I think. But you’re right, they weren’t in any sense similar as writers, although they had an absolutely shared dedication, if not obsession to the question of prose style. They’re great stylists, each of them. Robert Louis Stevenson I think is among the most felicitous and most engaging , most natural prose writers in the English language. The turns and the weights and measures of his prose are so particularly felicitous, so musical, so utterly spoken and characterful, that you can see immediately why James thought he was a terrific writer, albeit he wrote essentially boys’ adventure stories at that point. James loved Treasure Island, and thought that he wouldn’t have changed two words of it. Which you wouldn’t. Every sentence turns magically and pictorially, in a way that very few writers could imitate, never mind achieve first off. And likewise, Henry James, although he would be the great master, the man as Janet Adam Smith said whose many-volumed Collected Edition would sit on the shelves of the middle and upper classes, an admired if seldom read adornment to their sitting rooms. Whereas you’d find Robert Louis Stevenson’s books up in the infants’ room, much read, much thumbed, pages torn, argued over, spilt on. There’s the difference between them right there. But as far as they were concerned they were each ploughing the same field, that’s to say the field of literary style. You’re obsessed with the idea of what you could do with a sentence. And so each man homed in, if you like, on what was essential and very true in the other, and they sent each other letters both critical and admiring about each other’s work. It’s actually lovely reading their correspondence. I read all of it in preparation for this article, and you see that it was possible for writers rather beautifully to enter into the spirit of self-argument that writers are in all the time when it comes to their work. A true literary friend isn’t somebody who just tells you you’re great all the time. They’re somebody who will draw you out, make you better, sharpen you up, make you uncomfortable, press your weak points, somehow encourage you to go back again into the lists, work harder. And they were like that for each other. And although it may have irritated one or the other occasionally when he didn’t fully admire first time round something they produced, in the end they had a true hearer, a true listener, in the other writer.
TJ: And Stevenson had that in Fanny as well, didn’t he, because there’s the story of him burning the first manuscript of Jekyll and Hyde that he wrote in a fever in a night or however long it was. At what stage would James have read that book?
AOH: I think James read it early, but not as early as that, not in manuscript. Fanny was Stevenson’s first reader by that point in his life. She was actually a very gifted first reader too. Fanny was rather third-rate as a writer but rather first-rate as a reader, and she would spot weaknesses – and joys – in Stevenson’s work like nobody else could. When he first sat them down in the blue room at Skerryvore, herself and Lloyd Osbourne and Valentine the maid, to read them the first draft of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which he produced in three days – in fever, in torment, in a state of nightmare, waking up screaming with images of Mr Hyde’s face at the window, a tremendous sense of panic and night sweats about him, Stevenson writing this amazing fantasmagorical story – suddenly he sits down having finished and reads it to them. And Fanny is agitated at the end. She’s finding it difficult to speak. She says a few words of praise, but Lloyd in his description said she was holding back, which seems perverse given how horrific and amazing the story that they’d just heard was. And then she finally blurted out with it. You’ve messed it up, you’ve got it wrong, you’ve missed the allegory, she said. And of course Stevenson’s response was horrified. He knew that this work was going to be a central, crucial piece of work from him. And he went upstairs rampaging, raging, feeling enormously put out by what she’d said, and then came tearing down the stairs only minutes later saying, you’re right, I’ve missed the allegory. He’d made it just a story. He just told it as if it was just another narrative, when in fact the wonder of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tale that we have is that it has a mythic quality. It feels like a story about human nature, the duality that is essential to all of us. That’s the living allegory, the strong and powerful philosophical pull that exists in that story almost as if it were a Greek myth. It feels like a story that must have pre-existed its own writing. It’s so true to the psychology of human beings, I would argue. And that was her argument, and she made him rewrite it. Tearing down the stairs he admitted that he hadn’t got it perfect and stuffed the existing manuscript into the fire. And of course all of them were horrified at the idea of the lost work. And he sat down and in three days rewrote it! I should say wrote it from the beginning again, and then spent six weeks revising it. So an incredible gift for work that Stevenson had, along with Henry James.
TJ: Because we can’t compare those manuscripts. Did his stepson ever say what he thought about the differences between the two versions of that?
AOH: He didn’t give us a very good account. We have an account of this episode, but he just skips over the character, if you like, of the first manuscript enough to say that it lacked the allegory, that he just simply told the narrative straight, so we’re left to imagine just what that would have been like. I’m sure it was of enormously high quality, but Stevenson took Fanny’s advice, and, we imagine, went into the very beating heart of this nightmare story, gave her all the philosophical heft that it now wears so lightly. But I’m imagining that, of course. You’re quite right, we don’t have that first manuscript to compare.
TJ: You quote James describing Stevenson as his only social resource in Bournemouth. But that wasn’t quite true, was it. That wasn’t true of Stevenson in any case, because there were other people. There was this man Henry Taylor, who had this amazing link between the beginning of the 19th century and the end of it.
AOH: Yes. Taylor was old by then. He was a man of letters and a friend of Benjamin Jowett, of course, the famous master of Balliol College, Oxford. And as you say, he’d known both Wordsworth and Coleridge. And by this point he was a man of eminence living in Bournemouth. And he was also friends, they all were, with Sir Percy Shelley, not to be confused with his father, the poet Percy Shelley. Sir Percy Shelley and his wife were great amateur theatrical buffs who lived in Bournemouth, and were poetasters and people of enormous literary fandom, as only the child of Shelley could be. He had a little shrine at their house in Bournemouth that contained the heart of Shelley that was plucked allegedly from the funeral pyre in Italy, of course, where Shelley had drowned. And a shrine containing bits of his clothing and books that he’d had with him on that final trip to Italy.
TJ: And Stevenson felt a kind of affinity with Shelley, didn’t he? Also an anxiety that he was dying young, and people said they looked alike.
AOH: Yes, he did. He had a sense of that. People regularly told Stevenson that he looked like Shelley. He had the same thin, rather big-eyed, long-fingered appearance. And again, as you say, he was constantly anxious, Stevenson, that his illnesses would do for him and he would die young, which indeed he did. He had been ill for so long, on the verge of annihilation, as he saw it, since his earliest days. And so much of his work is written almost in a spirit of last gasp health, just a last attempt to pin the world down before he goes. It adds a very beautiful, I think, poetic and somewhat hair-raising quality to Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing. Everything feels like it could be his last observation.
TJ: And he was also friends with a young woman called Adelaide Boodle. You quote this wonderful writing advice that he gave to her, ‘don’t say that grass is green.’ How did they become friends? How did he come to know her?
AOH: It’s a lovely story, actually. I discovered something she’d written and then letters between them. And it had been too little documented, I think, the friendship that sprung up between this young twenty-something neighbour, Adelaide Boodle, who lived in the Poole Road, just one street away, and wanted to be a writer one day. And suddenly Robert Louis Stevenson moves into the area, and with her mother she goes and rather brazenly knocks on the door at Skerryvore to demand an audience with this famous writer. Of course she gets so nervous in the aforementioned vestibule, which had already seen the humiliation of the great Henry James, that she bursts into tears. Stevenson in his casual style then named the vestibule ‘The Pool of Tears’! But this woman came in, the families made friends. She soon was doing errands and helping Stevenson with making fair copies of his letters and his writing to send to magazines, and in return he gave her what we now think of as creative writing lessons. The mind boggles to imagine what a creative writing lesson would have been like from the great RLS! But there he was teaching this girl how to avoid clichés and the overuse of adjectives, and how to stop using obvious phrases to describe the green grass, and so on, and to try and write inflectively and rather more pictorially about the world around her. And she took it in good part, she was brave. He would shout at her sometimes and have her almost in tears. Fanny thought he was too tough. But there she was, Adelaide Boodle. She got her lessons. She did become a children’s writer, in fact. And when Stevenson and Fanny and their family had moved first to America and then to Samoa, she became, Adelaide Boodle, what they jokingly called the gamekeeper at Skerryvore. She was left back in Bournemouth looking after the hedgehogs, the doves, the visiting pigeons and all the garden creatures that they had come to know during their time as friends in Bournemouth.
TJ: You quote a passage of James on RLS in Samoa and say that the South Pacific ‘ushered in his completely full and rich period, the time in which his genius and his character most overflowed’. But one of the things that seems to come across from your piece is that that’s at least as true of his time in Bournemouth. That’s where he wrote Kidnapped, it’s where he wrote Jekyll and Hyde. And it’s evidence of that. Another wonderful line of James’s that you quote is that ‘the rarest works pop out of the dusk of the inscrutable, the untracked.’ And so one thing I wanted to ask is about that untracked Bournemouth, and how you came to track these stories down? Because you mentioned that you visited the ruins of Skerryvore (the house isn’t there any more) a few months ago, but did you go to Bournemouth to seek them out because you were curious about this period in Stevenson’s and in James’s life, or did you see the house first, and the piece came out of it?
AOH: No, I went to Bournemouth looking for the house, in fact. It’s so strange the way stories happen. It’s one of those endlessly fascinating things, not only for the likes of us but I’m sure for many listeners too. Stories do slightly just present themselves gradually out of the dark. I’ve lived with some knowledge about the friendship between Stevenson and Henry James for quite some time, and Bournemouth was always a place in my head. It was a place where members of my family in the distant past would go on holiday. And once I started to read the letters and read their works in relation to them having been composed in Bournemouth or in and around Bournemouth, I started to see, if you like, echoes and chimes between the lives and the work and the friendship. And I wanted in a sense, as I have tried to do before for the LRB, to become a private investigator of a literary experience and try to map it out, and to give a concordance of how those works came to be and how those friendships, how those people, how those characters came to be, in a sense. It was a golden period for each of these writers. For Stevenson and for Henry James, the period in Bournemouth produced masterpieces, some of the great living masterpieces that we still read today. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as you said. Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses. And for Henry James, Princess Casamassima, some of his great short stories, The Lesson of the Master. And I also think some of the concerns that he would take up in his later work were seeded there in Bournemouth, about literary reputation and friendship and, if you like, family secrets and marriage. The marriage between the Stevensons, Fanny and Robert Louis, was fascinating to Henry James. He admitted as much, and you see it finding its way into his work again and again later. So going about putting this together becomes months of investigative work, really, first. I saw it almost as a play and thought of it as a play when I first visited the house. I could hear the conversations in the rooms. I could hear the absences and the off stage whispers. That’s what made it a play in my head, and it might still become one. But I realised when I visited, and I stood in the ruins of Skerryvore – by the way, it was one of the only houses in Bournemouth to be destroyed in the second world war. As German bombers made their way across the coast having bombed the larger cities they sometimes just let the last of their payload go over some lighted, or supposedly blackouted, towns, and I’m afraid the one bomb that came down that night landed on Skerryvore, Stevenson’s old house. So it’s been in ruins since the 1940s. But when I was standing in those ruins and could still see the ivy that is described by Stevenson as having clad the building peeking out between the stones and the foundations of the house that’s still there, that’s very thrilling for literary journalists, I think, to find that you’re actually able to revive not only the word and the story of the word, but the story of the people who wrote those words and who lived with them, who spoke them aloud to each other, and who invested so much in their letters and in their relationships with each other. So I started, if you like, that strange pas-de-deux that seems to exist quite often in things I try to write between written evidence, paper evidence, archives, printed books and unpublished material. And, if you like, pavement pounding , going out there to look at buildings, to look at places where they had walked. I ended up surrounding myself – I still have them here from where I’m talking to you – I have the maps around me of Bournemouth in the 1840s, so that I could track the streets Henry James would have walked in to go on his visits to Alice, or go up the hill for his suppers with Robert Louis Stevenson. All of that, the shape of the landscape then, and the pine trees, and almost the geology of the whole thing becomes part of the swirl of what you’re trying to investigate, just trying to give the reader an experience that they haven’t had of these particular people in that particular time.
TJ: And did you find that you could still – I haven’t been to Bournemouth since summer holidays as a child – you could see what it was like in the 1880s, you could see their Bournemouth through or behind the modern town?
AOH: Lying there somewhere under the karaoke bars and the ice-cream parlours there were those streets. The graves of the Shelleys are still there. Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave was also moved by the aforementioned Sir Percy. He brought a grave from St Pancras’s old churchyard in London down to Bournemouth. Mary Shelley, of course, the writer of Frankenstein, his mother is buried there in St Mary’s church in Bournemouth, next to the remains of Percy Shelley too. So there are literary remains there, and the streets give out to other streets, and the names of those streets give out to the past too. So actually the Bournemouth of 1884 is still very walkable through once you know it. And part of the job, actually, is to try almost like laying down a piece of tracing paper on top of a current conurbation, and then walking through it as a piece of archaeology, actually, for the LRB, trying to find how these lives which are ghostly now can actually be animated in a real place where people are living their lives today. That’s always interested me. And actually, Tom, when I think about it, I realise that healthily or unhealthily, I’ve always been writing, either through or around buildings that are disappearing or have disappeared. All the buildings of my childhood had disappeared by the time I was thirty, more or less. My first book, The Missing, in a sense, although it was about missing persons, was about the missing places, the missing buildings that they had occupied. I’ll never forget standing in Gloucester, in the famous Cromwell Street where Frederick and Rosemary West had killed those women. And seeing the last of that building before it was taken away, and realising that there was a sort of echo of buildings. Even the school that I went to was pulled down when I was in my twenties. The building that I grew up in was taken down, and when I go there it’s like the Stevenson’s house. So it’s an empty space where grass and old bushes that I remember from childhood grow now in an empty spot. It can affect your imagination in quite a strange way, that, I feel. It means that you’re constantly arguing with time, you’re constantly trying to build something that was there once, and use language to do it. The bricks have gone, but the words are there.
TJ: Andrew O’Hagan, thank you very much.
AOH: Thanks, Tom.