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Afternoon Tea at Heriot Row with Robert Louis Stevenson and Jorge Luis Borges

ByClaire Chan

Nov 23, 2017

We all know and love Robert Louis Stevenson for establishing  The Student newspaper way back in 1887, kickstarting 130 years of excellent journalism.

Ringing no bells? Perhaps, then, he is better known for the swashbuckling pirates of Treasure Island, or the horrifying eponymous character of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Stevenson’s popularity in literary circles has had its ups and downs, but he is now once again being recognised alongside Scotland’s greats. Amongst his many admirers over the years, one stands out: the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, separated from Stevenson by the Atlantic and half a century.

In the 1960s, Borges, together with close friend Bioy Casares, put together an anthology of what they regarded as Stevenson’s best work. Sadly, it was never published in their lifetimes.

Scottish author Kevin MacNeil has since recovered this anthology, which was brought into print for the first time this September – just in time for Stevenson’s 167th birthday.

Stevenson’s childhood home, excellently preserved 17 Heriot Row, is now home to the Macfies family. On November 13, in celebration of the 167th Stevenson Day, the Macfies graciously opened  their doors for a talk by MacNeil on this little-known connection between Scotland Argentina.

It would be hard to imagine a more fitting location for a talk on Stevenson. In the very drawing room where Stevenson must have spent his childhood years, among the book-lined shelves and the late afternoon light, a small group of Stevenson enthusiasts gathered to listen to a new take on the beloved author.

In his short story Borges and I – an enigmatic story of double identity reminiscent of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde – Borges writes matter-of-factly, “I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson.” Both writers, according to MacNeil, were fascinated by similar concepts: duality, circularity, infinity and the passage of time.

Though such ineffable themes are characteristic of Borges, a casual reader might hesitate to associate them with Stevenson. However, on reading Borges’ curated anthology, the likeness is clear; fables such as The Song of the Morrow and The House of Eld have a peculiar, faintly unsettling air which is distinctly Borgesian.

The talk left the listeners with much to think about, and a welcome repast awaited: the conversation continued in the splendid dining room over excellent tea, coffee and Mrs Macfie’s homemade cake. Amongst lively discussions, few missed out on the opportunity to buy a copy of the anthology from Golden Hare Books, one of Edinburgh’s independent bookshops.

As Borges wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors.” While Stevenson undoubtedly had a great influence on Borges, reading Borges may well shed light on new dimensions of Stevenson that were hitherto unsuspected, or else unexplored. And what better way to celebrate Stevenson than by re-examining his work through the lens of one who so much admired him?


Photo Credit Claire Chan.

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