Myself and the Other FellowA Life of Robert Louis Stevenson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Claire Harman
All right reserved.ISBN: 0066209846
Born 1850 at Edinburgh. Pure Scotch blood; descended from the Scotch Lighthouse Engineers, three generations. Himself educated for the family profession . . . But the marrow of the family was worked out, and he declined into the man of letters.
Robert Louis Stevenson, 'Autobiographical Note'1
In 1884 or thereabouts, Robert Louis Stevenson purchased a copy of a slim booklet by the scientist Francis Galton (grandson of Erasmus Darwin and inventor of the term 'eugenics'), that purported to help members of the public forecast the mental and physical faculties of their children by arranging in tabular form as much data as could be gathered about their ancestors. No clear way of making deductions from this process was indicated; Galton seemed merely to be suggesting that the Record of Family Faculties would serve as a sort of life album for future perusal. In fact his design was more 'to further the science of heredity' than to enlighten individuals about their genes, for Galton was offering a prize of £500 to whichever reader compiled 'the best extracts' from the point of view of 'completeness', 'character of evidence', 'cleanness' and 'conciseness', to be sent, with accompanying documentation if possible, to his London address.
Robert Louis Stevenson did not oblige the insatiable statistician by posting off his copy of the booklet, and only filled in two pages of information, one for each of his parents. Like so many of his own books, this was one he couldn't quite finish. But Galton's introductory remarks, full of provocative assumptions about race, personality, inherited and acquired behaviour, touched subjects of perennial fascination to the scientist-turned-literary man. 'We do not yet know whether any given group of different faculties which may converge by inheritance upon the same family will blend, neutralise, or intensify one another,' Galton had written, 'nor whether they will be metamorphosed and issue in some new form.' The year in which the project was advertised, 1883, was a time when Stevenson himself thought he was going to be a father, an eventuality he had tried to avoid on the grounds of his poor health. But whether or not Stevenson bought Galton's book in order to predict his expected child's chances in the lottery of family attributes, the author's words certainly resonated for himself.
Robert Louis Stevenson characterised his paternal ancestors as 'a family of engineers', which they were for the two generations preceding his own, but in the seventeenth century they had been farmers and maltsters near Glasgow, 'following honest trades [ . . . ], playing the character parts in the Waverley Novels with propriety, if without distinction', as Stevenson wrote satirically.2 In the mid-eighteenth century two Stevenson brothers, working in partnership as traders between Glasgow and the West Indies, both died suddenly from tropical fever within six weeks of each other while in pursuit of an agent who had cheated them. Jean, the twenty-three-year-old widow of the younger brother, was left almost destitute by his death, as her father also died in the same month and she had an infant son to support. Her second marriage, to a man called Hogg, produced two more sons but ended in desertion and divorce. By this time, Jean was living in Edinburgh and there met and married her third husband, a ship-owner, ironmonger and underwriter called Thomas Smith.
Smith was the founder of the 'family of engineers', or rather, the step-family, since it was his new wife's teenaged son Robert Stevenson, not his own son, James Smith, who was grafted onto his thriving enterprise as heir. Thomas Smith seems to have been a man of enormous industry and ingenuity, setting up a business in lamps and oils, running something called the Greenside Company's Works in Edinburgh (a kind of super-smithy) and inventing a new system of oil lamps for lighthouses to replace the old coal-lit beacons like that on the Isle of May. The lights of 'lights' remained a source of fascination in the step-branch of the family: Robert Stevenson experimented with revolving devices, his son Thomas developed both holophotal and condensing lights, and Robert Louis Stevenson's one and only contribution to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts was a paper on a proposed new device to make lighthouse lights flash. But there was another reminder of this heritage, closer to home. One of Thomas Smith's lamp-making projects was the design of the street lighting in Edinburgh's New Town at the end of the eighteenth century. His parabolic reflector system quadrupled the power of oil-lit lamps and focused their beams, a revolutionary innovation that must have made the elegant Georgian streets look even more modern and sleek, even more of a contrast to the dark, narrow closes and wynds of the Old Town. And it was the successor to one of these lamps, just outside 17 Heriot Row, that Robert Louis Stevenson celebrated many years later in his poem about Leerie the Lamp-Lighter from A Child's Garden of Verses:
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!3
But the original lighter of the lamps had been the poet's ingenious forebear.
Thomas Smith's involvement in lighthouse-building began in 1787, five years before marrying Jean Stevenson, when he was appointed engineer to the new Board of Northern Lighthouses, a post his stepson and three grandsons would hold after him. Until this time, the Scottish coastline had been one of the most dangerous in the world, so jagged and treacherous that mariners used to steer well clear of it, keeping north of Orkney and Shetland and west of the Hebrides. There were no maps or charts of the coastline before the late sixteenth century, and the first lighthouse, built in 1636 on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, was one of . . .