Sunday, 17 November 2013

Travels with a Pen: In Search of Skerryvore


Sian Mackay founded Moubray House Publishing in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (1980-90) and wrote several non-fiction books (as ‘Sheila Mackay’). She contributed regularly to The Herald ‘Weekend’ and lived in Spain for thirteen years where she wrote fiction and was shortlisted for an Ian St. James award. These days she lives in Edinburgh and Morayshire and acts as a mentor for other writers. She describes her own writing practice as ‘a continual wrestle with fact and fiction - the one a mirror for the other’ that has influenced her recently published fictive biography The House on the Chine: Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore as well as The Blue File her work in progress due to be published next year.
Travels with a Pen: In Search of Skerryvore
This week Edinburgh ‘City of Literature’ celebrates the birth of one of its most treasured sons. Robert Louis Stevenson was born on the 13th of November 1850 at 8 Howard Place in ‘a comfortable ground floor bedroom overlooking the back garden’ in the Canonmills district of Edinburgh where I was born a century later. The address of Stevenson’s last home in the British Isles (before his odyssey to Samoa) was 61 Alum Chine Road, Bournemouth, England, to which Louis appended the name ‘Skerryvore’ after the mighty lighthouse the Stevenson family firm constructed in the Irish Sea. In 1885 he moved into the villa with his wife, Fanny, their French maid, Valentine, and Bogue their Skye terrier.
What led the Scottish author to settle in Bournemouth of all places, I wondered, and why did he set aside his work in progress that year (the ‘boys’ adventure story’ Kidnapped) to write Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? At Skerryvore Stevenson’s network included several Americans: his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, her son, Sam Lloyd Osbourne, the novelist, Henry James, the artist, John Singer Sargent, the illustrator, Edwin Austin Abbey and the entrepreneurial millionaire, Charles Fairchild. To what extent did they influence the author's decision to close up Skerryvore and emigrate to North America in 1887? And what did the house that fostered one of the most extraordinary transitions in literary history look like? The fact that Jekyll and Hyde had been written in the seaside town of Bournemouth amused and intrigued me to such an extent, I found myself travelling south one blustery November to see Skerryvore for myself.
As it turned out, the villa had been blown to smithereens in the second world war. In Bournemouth Library I found a photograph captioned 'Skerryvore After German Air Raid, November, 1940'. The lower half of the photo shows a monumental pile of bricks, lumber and debris. Above it, peeling wallpaper droops forlornly on gable walls rooflessly exposed to the elements: None who saw it can have forgotten the aspect of the gable: here it was plastered, there papered, according to the rooms; here the kettle still stood on the hob, high overhead; and there a cheap picture of the Queen was pasted over the chimney. Stevenson's description of a demolished tenement he saw in the High Street of Edinburgh serves for the extinction of Skerryvore. Like the Edinburgh tenement, Skerryvore was suddenly cut off from the revolving years and would have been forgotten altogether had Robert Louis Stevenson not written prodigiously there.
Skerryvore was the only building in Bournemouth to be hit by a Luftwaffe bomber before it swerved high and away over the English Channel. After the ruin had been cleared, the gap site was recreated as a memorial garden in the 1950s by Bournemouth Corporation. To find it, I took a bus from the city centre to the suburb of Westbourne, walked down Robert Louis Stevenson Avenue (Middle Road in Stevenson's day) and found myself on Alum Chine Road beside a signpost marked 'Skerryvore'. ‘Chine’, by the way, rhymes with ‘dine’. Nowadays, the original low wall fronting the street and the sturdy stone gateposts are all that remain of the built landscape Stevenson knew. Beyond the gateposts, bricks set into the ground delineate part of the original villa. The only other features on site are a wooden bench beside a bin for visitors' rubbish and a touching three-feet high stone replica of the Skerryvore lighthouse. In truth, there isn't much of a garden, and I blessed the fact that leaf-littered November day when I first set foot in Stevenson's domain and explored the space outlined by the bricks.
Soon I found myself re-inventing the villa: the dining room here, the living room next to it, the bedrooms upstairs, the kitchen with a door to the stable yard, the rubbish bins and the coal hole. And was there a bathroom? Where the line of bricks deviated from its oblong course, I guessed there must have been bay windows giving wide views of the garden and, not far from the gateposts, an entrance porch.
A thick carpet of copper beech leaves obliterated every distraction lurking underfoot the day I first stood at the edge of the long garden above the chalky ravine of Alum Chine where Stevenson liked to sunbathe while Fanny created 'labyrinthine paths' on the slopes below. I explored the deep, dank Alum Chine from its source below Skerrvore’s garden to the sea. On a bronze plaque set into a bridge spanning the rivulet of the chine, Stevenson's haunting likeness stared back at me above these evocative lines:
Robert Louis Stevenson
Lived at Skerryvore
Overlooking This Chine
My morning research continued in Bournemouth library and the bench in the memorial garden became my afternoon sanctuary. One day the archivist found a photograph of Skerryvore taken (by 'S. J. White') three years before the bombing. It was a sweet moment, staring at an image of the very house where Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had been written.
The villa was one of many put up in Westbourne in the 1860s by entrepreneurial builders with an eye to giving value for money: homes of English bricks, their tall chimney stacks proclaiming abundant fireplaces within. On the sunny day in 1937 when the villa was photographed the windows and their louvred shutters had been flung wide open and a game of croquet set out on the lawn. A second photograph showed the white-painted entrance porch, unusually situated at the side of the house, with light and dense shadows playing on the ivy-covered walls. Swerving wheel marks in the gravel hinted at comings and goings by bicycle or with wheelbarrow, a scene unaltered since the Stevenson family and their visitors had entered Skerryvore fifty years before S. J. White.
Wandering down Alum Chine Road and its neighbouring streets, I took a close look at extant villas built around the same time as Skerryvore. White's 1937 photographs helped me to identify identical bay windows, louvred shutters, gateposts and porches. I needed all the clues I could muster in my search for Skerryvore, but it was a drawing in the library that captured an atmosphere more telling than any photograph. In 1912, The Bookman sent a well-known caricaturist for magazines including Vanity Fair to Westbourne to make a drawing of Skerryvore: 'A good memory, an eye for detail, and a mind to appreciate and grasp the whole atmosphere and peculiarity of the 'subject' are of course essentials,' Leslie Ward wrote of his caricaturist's art. When Ward visited Skerryvore, eighteen years after Stevenson’s death, 'everyone' had read his ‘tale of terror’ and it must have influenced the artist’s perception of the place where the story was incubated.
Ward's Skerryvore is a house of secrets, its brooding 'atmosphere and peculiarity' palpable in his Arthur Rackham-like rendering of the elevation facing the garden and the chine. He depicted his imaginary Louis and Fanny Stevenson standing tête-à-tête under a cypress. Fanny wears a crinoline, Louis leans on his walking stick, and the Skye terrier lurks nearby. Three long shadows edge across the grass. Perhaps Ward went to Bournemouth in cold November as I did. The louvred shutters of the Skerryvore he captured with his pencil are firmly closed over an upstairs window. A belching chimney sends curlicues of smoke into threatening clouds. A flight of birds caws above the sharply delineated cypress. The cypress casts its shadow over the façade. The façade wavers, half in sunshine, half in shadow:
All the wicked shadows
Coming tramp, tramp, tramp,
With the black night overhead
In April 1885 the Stevensons were settling down and the atmosphere was cheerful, as their neighbour and friend, Adelaide Boodle, recorded in Flashlights from Skerryvore. The black autumn night has yet to come when the author will waken, startled by his nightmarish inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde. That summer, another eyewitness, John Singer Sargent, painted Fanny and Louis at home with the drawing room door open to reveal the dark hall and the staircase rising to the second floor in his enigmatic portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife.
The lineaments of the house were taking shape in my mind. Now my challenge was to bring to life its inhabitants and listen-in to conversations between Stevenson and Henry James, John Singer Sargent and all the other visitors to Skerryvore that year. When I felt ready to take the artist's cue, cautiously, I slipped behind my invented façade and stood in the silent hall. On my tremulous way through its rooms, I evoked Louis working at his desk and felt the soft sleeve of his velvet jacket, I smelled his delicious lunch roasting in the oven and heard the tick of the grandfather clock he named Old Faithful. Upstairs a door slammed: Fanny in one of her moods. Through careful reading of the many letters they wrote that year, I hoped to comprehend, at least a little, Stevenson's complex relationship with his magnificently eccentric wife (who rescued him from death’s door that summer) and with Fanny's son, Sam, whose over-identification with his stepfather verged on the pathological.
Eventually, the Robert Louis Stevenson of my imagination blurred the edges of fact and fiction and came to sit beside me on the bench in the memorial garden. It was the thirteenth of November 1885, his thirty-fifth birthday, and he had just signed the publishing contract for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Well-wrapped against a chilly breeze and threatening rain, he hummed the tune he intended to play on the piano during his birthday celebration: Träumerei - 'Dreaming' from Scenes from Childhood.
Stevenson was fond of Schumann. His otherworldly song transported me back to our childhood roots at Canonmills and a dream took shape that became a book about the momentous year when the 'doomed and dazzling' Scottish author took possession of the house on the chine.
The House on the Chine: Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore is published by Sancho Press and can be purchased at Blackwell’s, Edinburgh or ordered via The link to Sian Mackay’s Author Page on Amazon is

1 comment:

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