Local History – September 2010

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine Local History September 2010

Rediscovering Robert Louis Stevenson
By Lauren Coodley

I have loved the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson since I grew up hearing them sung on an LP record. Decades later, I recited them with my own children. Thus, the brief intersection of Stevenson’s life with that of the Napa Valley is of great interest to me, and I finally had a chance to visit the exquisite museum about his life in St Helena. Robert Louis Stevenson was born in 1850. He had a Victorian childhood: in that era, boys played with tea sets and dolls, which are preserved at the museum, along with his lead soldiers. His nursemaid didn’t cut his hair until he was four and a half years old; that first haircut is also preserved at the museum, along with a curl of hair from that nursemaid, Alison Cunningham, to whom he would later dedicate A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Stevenson’s father, Thomas , was a civil engineer, specializing in the development of new light apparatuses for Scotland’s many lighthouses. Stevenson dedicated his Familiar Studies of Men and Books “To Thomas Stevenson, civil engineer, by whose devices the great sea lights in every quarter of the world now shine more brightly, this volume is in love and gratitude dedicated by his son the author.” His mother, Margaret Balfour Stevenson, kept a journal of her child’s doings, his games and toys. Elizabeth Waterston explains why:

The blocks and the toy boat, the storybooks and picture-books and the pretend tools, the chisel and hammer of “My Treasures,” all reflect modish “Froebelianism.” Friedrich Froebel had convinced mid-century parents that all children should be offered “gifts” in simple shapes, that they should be entertained with nursery rhymes, traditional folk songs, and taught crafts such as simple weaving, and digging and planting. “Kindergarten” is an innocuous word to us today. In 1850, when Stevenson was born, it was a term fraught with controversy. Froebel, a German educator, wrote that children should be treated like little flowers. Not as little beings born in sin, to be trained and directed with an unsparing rod toward adulthood: childhood should be a time of gentle growth toward happy and sociable maturity.

In l876, as a young man, Stevenson travelled to Paris and met a married American woman and mother of three, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Alhough they were ten years apart in age, the two became friends and, eventually, more. By 1877 they were romantically involved. In August 1879 Fanny returned to Oakland to obtain a divorce and Stevenson sailed from Scotland for America in hopes of persuading Fanny Osbourne to marry him. Though he considered the voyage a romantic adventure, Stevenson’s friends were opposed to it on the grounds that it would affect his fragile health and further alienate him from his parents. He travelled by steamship to New York, and on to California on an immigrant train, becoming more ill with each mile (he wrote Amateur Immigrant based on this experience). Robert and Fanny did marry—and when his family found out, they cut off his trust fund.

The couple travelled here in l880, for what writer MFK Fisher describes as a few “poignant and enchanted months in the Northern California valley named Napa by its vanished Indians.” In his memoir of their visit, Stevenson offers a rare picture of the Napa Valley in the late l9th century:

Bucks, bears and rattlesnakes and former mining operations, are the staple of men’s talk. Agriculture has only begun to mount above the valley and though in a few years from now the whole district may be smiling with farms, passing trains shaking the mountain to the heart, many windowed hotels lighting up the night like factories, and a prosperous city occupying the site of sleepy Calistoga; yet in the meantime, around the foot of that mountain the silence of nature reigns in a great measure unbroken.

To reach Mt St Helena from San Francisco, the traveller has twice to cross the Bay: once by the busy Oakland ferry, and again, after an hour or so of the railway, from Vallejo Junction to Vallejo. Thence he takes rail once more to mount the long green strath of Napa Valley….for some way beyond Vallejo the railway led us through bald green pastures but by and by these hills began to draw nearer on either hand, and first thicket and then wood began to clothe their sides; and soon we were away from all signs of the sea’s neighborhood, mounting an inland, irrigated valley. A great variety of oaks stood, now severally, now in a becoming grove, among the fields and vineyards. The towns were compact, in about equal proportions of bright new wooden houses and great and growing forest trees; and the chapel bell on the engine sounded most festally that sunny Sunday, as we drew up at one green town after another, with the townsfolk trooping in their Sunday’s best to see the strangers, with sun sparkling on the clean houses, and great domes of foliage humming overhead in the breeze…at Calistoga the railroad ceases, and the traveller who intends faring farther must cross the spurs of the mountain by stage.

With determination to overcome the daunting challenge of renovating an abandoned bunkhouse high up on Mt St Helena, they were delivered by that stagecoach to their new home on the mountain. Fanny mended the bunkhouse while he wrote. The parents relented, the Stevensons returned to the British Isles, and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote –first Treasure Island (1883) and then A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). About this book, Elizabeth Waterston writes:

It is a book for children too young to express an opinion of its charms; but many of us re-open it as adults to discover just how deeply it has sunk into our pores. Poem after poem chants itself: “I have a little shadow…,” “The friendly cow, all red and white…,” “The world is so full of a number of things….The treasures in A Child’s Garden of Verses, in their lyric clarity, their whimsy and rhythmic excitement, offer great pleasure to the very young child, and to the adult who must act as mediator for this preliterate being. The poems recall exactly the earliest responses to language: the delight in reiteration, the pleasure at new words “The Swing,” for instance, catches the child’s fondness for repetition: “Up in the air and over the wall up in, the air and down” — that last phrase adding the joy of antithesis and surprise.

Within this beautiful collection, we can sense glimpses of Stevenson’s travels to this valley. This poem calls forth visions of cherry trees (grown plentifully in the l9th century in this “foreign land”), along with a “dimpling river” that goes out to the sea:

Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad in foreign lands.
I saw the next door garden lie,
Adorned with flowers, before my eye,
And many pleasant places more
That I had never seen before.
I saw the dimpling river pass
And be the sky’s blue looking-glass;
The dusty roads go up and down
With people tramping in to town.
If I could find a higher tree
Farther and farther I should see
To where the grown-up river slips
Into the sea among the ships,
To where the road on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land,
Where all the children dine at five
And all the playthings come alive.

Citations: Introduction MFK Fisher, Napa Wine, chapter from Silverado Squatters, copyright James Beard, 1965. Robert Louis Stevenson, Silverado Squatters, first published in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, November-December 1883, published by Silverado Museum, St Helena, Lewis Osborne, l974. Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses, l885. Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Ed edition, 1994
Arthur Orton, Reconstructing the Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Squatters Cabin, 1980, is a fascinating brochure with illustrations by the author based on Stevenson’s memoir, and available at the museum. Transactions of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, Vol. VIII, 1870-71. Edinburgh, Neill and Company, 1871. Elizabeth Waterston, 1999: “Going for Eternity: A Child’s Garden of Verse,” Canadian Children’s Literature, 96: 25,4.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is located next door to the St Helena Library, call 963-3757 or http://www.silveradomuseum.org



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