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Interview with Jeremy Hodges – Robert Louis Stevenson biographer

ByLily Settari

Nov 12, 2017

Robert Burns Day has been celebrated every year without fail since 1801, so to some it was inconceivable that there has been no official day to celebrate the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who gave us the infamous rum-drinking and wooden-legged pirates.


This became the incentive for creating Robert Louis Stevenson Day, a project which came into fruition through the combined efforts of Professor Linda Dryden from Edinburgh Napier University and the UNESCO City of Literature Trust with support from the Edinburgh-based Robert Louis Stevenson Club.


The chosen day was Stevenson’s birthday, 13 November; this year, celebrations will run from the 9th-15th November, both in Stevenson’s hometown Edinburgh and further afield.


After being degraded by early twentieth century literati as a commercial author of children’s books and horror stories, Stevenson has recently become en vogue once more. And rightly so, says his biographer Jeremy Hodges. “He is certainly one of the greatest Scottish writers. He remains popular because he does not read like a stuffy Victorian, and because he was so versatile,” she told The Student.


Stevenson may, first and foremost, be remembered for his children’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and of course for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, however, equally important was his work as a poet, essayist, historical novelist, humourist and letter writer


He also excelled as a travel journalist. Hodges points out that Stevenson’s accounts of travels avoided the trap of becoming mere listings of actions – they tell a story of an inner journey, too. This is emblematic of his modern style where, despite a fast-paced narrative, every word is carefully chosen.


Of course, Stevenson must also be remembered for his contribution in establishing The Student, which also happens to be the UK’s oldest student newspaper and, certainly, is the finest of its kind.


Edinburgh’s weekly student newspaper was first published in 1887 and contained an editorial and a short biographical piece of a notable person, followed by articles from university societies, sports results, profiles of new lecturers and poetry and literary reviews: all for just two pence.


The planning of a new issue in those days was perhaps rather less rigorous than at present; more often than not, Stevenson and his friend James Walter Ferrier would plan the week’s content from a pub on Drummond Street.


Apart from a celebration of his writings, Robert Louis Stevenson Day is a way of commemorating the famous writer’s fascinating life. Stevenson’s life is just as intriguing as his work despite it being so short – Stevenson died at the age of forty-four.


Indeed, it was a study of the writer’s life that turned Jeremy Hodges into a Stevensonian, ‘In 1994, the centenary of his death,” he said, “I was working on a feature about Stevenson for the Sunday Times, and I realised that the more you learn about his life and his personality, the more you want to know.’


Stevenson was a fascinatingly multifaceted and contradictory man. A closer look at his younger years indicates that he was a rather rebellious character. He renounced his Christian faith and had to be pushed into degrees (engineering, then law) by his father. He also, in the interests of ‘sounding French and more interesting’, changed the spelling of his name from Lewis to Louis.


As often as he could, he escaped to France to live la vie bohème, dressing appropriately in velvet and spending time with groups of artists in Paris and at inns in the countryside.


“In terms of his appearance and lifestyle when in France,” notes Hodges, “he was a sixties hippie, only in the 1860s rather than the 1960s.”


It was in the French countryside that Stevenson fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, who was ten years his senior and married with three children. Despite the various and numerous obstacles and objections they faced, they married.  


Despite this, Hodges describes Stevenson as a fundamentally “good Victorian citizen” and a Tory but equally open-minded and outgoing, happy to talk to everyone. During his long walks through Edinburgh, he would stop at brothels in the daylight, and chat to the “fallen girls.”


Stevenson was a unionist, but enormously proud of Scottish culture. He had a complicated love-hate relationship with his hometown: “When he was here, he hated it, and when he was away, he was terribly homesick”, explains Hodges.


This might come as a surprise, considering how much time he spent in France, Switzerland, the United States, and the South Seas – most notably Samoa, where he died and was buried. Hodges holds that Stevenson “realised that there was a heart of darkness in colonialism”, even if he was not opposed to British imperial politics.


Thus, it is the aim of Robert Louis Stevenson Day to present this contradictory figure and his timeless work. Jeremy Hodges is also pursuing a more specific aim: to bring back a statue of Stevenson to Edinburgh. Previously, there was a statue exhibited at the National Library of Scotland, however, this has been removed. Hodges has been making efforts to overturn this unjust decision but they haven’t borne fruit – watch this space.

Find out more about RLS day events here.

Photo Credit Dant Melys via flikr.

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