A Winter’s Tale


The cottage verandaa: Stevenson is on far right; next to him is his wife, Fanny, on her other side is her son, Lloyd Osbourne
The cottage veranda: Stevenson is on far right; next to him is his wife, Fanny, on her other side is her son, Lloyd Osbourne

By Stuart

On Dec. 24, 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter from the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where he was under the supervision of the celebrated tuberculosis expert, Edward Livingston Trudeau (great-grandfather of “Doonesbury” cartoonist Gary Trudeau). Addressed to Sidney Colvin, a friend in London, it described the author’s current project, which critics now consider his greatest work. Stevenson had, he said, “fallen head over heels into a new tale: ‘The Master of Ballantrae.’ http://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/results?fi%3Aitem_type=&query=master+of+ballantrae&qtype=title&locg=155 No thought have I now apart from it…It is to me a most seizing tale; there are some fantastic elements; the most is a dead genuine human problem—human tragedy, I should say rather.”

Subtitled “A Winter’s Tale” on publication, the plot revolves around two brothers, rivals in love and politics, and sons of Lord Durrisdeer, who resides on his remote estate near the sea in southwest Scotland. It begins during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s 1745 rebellion and moves from the Highlands, to France, India, the shores of North Carolina and finally ends up 20 years later in the Adirondack wilderness while including a fakir; the pirate Blackbeard; the colonial magnate and royal superintendent of Indian affairs, Sir William Johnson and his Mohawk retainers; buried treasure; sword fights; murder and a—temporary—bodily resurrection. As R.L. S. described in his Christmas Eve letter, it is told in the voices of the righteous busybody “Ephraim Mackellar, land steward at Durrisdeer and narrator of the most of the book [and also by] Francis Burke, Chevalier de St. Louis, one of Prince Charlie’s Irishmen and narrator of the rest.” The genial, brave-yet-naïve Burke is the polar opposite of Mackellar, and with the Master of Ballantrae (the courtesy honorific given to Lord Durrisdeer’s elder son) one of nature’s swashbucklers. Stevenson says of the title character, “the Master is all I know of the devil; I have known hints of him, in the world, but always cowards; he [Ballantrae] is as bold as a lion….”

Later, in an essay, Stevenson recalled “The Master”’s genesis:

“I was walking one night in the verandah of a small house in which I lived, outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter; the night was very dark; the air extraordinary clear and cold and sweet with the purity of forests. From a good way below the river was to be heard contending with ice and boulders; a few lights appeared, scattered unevenly among the darkness, but so far away as not to lessen the sense of isolation. For the making of a story here were fine conditions…’Come,’ said I to my engine, ‘let us make a tale, a story of many years and many countries, of the sea and the land, savagery and civilization.’”

"Secundra, absorbed in his toil, heard or heeded not at all"
“Secundra, absorbed in his toil, heard or heeded not at all”

The author of “Treasure Island” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” had travelled from New York City to Saranac Lake with his mother; his American wife, Fanny; her maid; and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. They rented half of a house and hoped the “cold and sweet” air would restore the writer’s delicate health: It was thought he suffered from tuberculosis (Stevenson may not have; he actually died of a brain aneurism in Samoa in 1894 when he was 44) and thanks to local Dr. Trudeau, Saranac Lake was becoming known as a sanitarium. But during Stevenson’s seven months here he did recover his strength: “This harsh, grey, glum, doleful climate has done me good,” he told one friend. Not only did Stevenson write most of “Ballantrae” while living in Saranac Lake, he also wrote a series of essays for Scribner’s Magazine.

I have visited Stevenson’s cottage (known as “Baker’s” when RLS was there) in the Adirondacks. In July of 2006 I attended a meeting of the International  Robert Louis Stevenson Society at Saranac Lake. Even though the temperature hovered in the unheard of 90s, still it was possible to get some idea of Stevenson’s experiences in upstate New York. That summer I joined more than 100 scholars, journalists and just-plain-fans from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy as we attended lectures, films, a play, and enjoyed a Scottish banquet (no haggis jokes, please). But the greatest day (and by then it was cooler!) was when we marched up the street behind the Elgin and District Pipe Band of Huntington, Quebec, to the outskirts of the village and toured the “small house” where Stevenson lived from October 1887 to April 1888.

It’s a jewel-box of a museum where the curator lives in the wing of the house that the Baker family occupied even while the Stevenson entourage lived on the other side of the kitchen, which both families shared. The rooms are filled to overflowing with information on his works and life. A shrine, yes, but not a tomb; it was more like walking into the midst of one of Stevenson’s adventures, where as he put it in his essay, “A Gossip on Romance,”: “Something happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy is realized in the story . . . Then we forget the characters; then we push the hero aside ; then we plunge into the tale in our own person .” The curator showed off artifact after artifact, including the author’s pennywhistle and the music he composed for it; his boots, sash and Yachting cap from the South Seas (Stevenson said the only good reasons to be rich were to have one’s own yacht and string quartet); the ice skates he used on nearby Moody Pond, his letters, bank checks and a manuscript page from his last, unfinished work, “The Weir of Hermiston.” The mantel piece still has scorch marks from where the chain-smoking Stevenson rested his lit cigarettes. (When Dr. Trudeau visited, he complained that the atmosphere was more conducive to curing a ham than his patient.)

Burn marks from RLS's cigarettes are on mantel
Burn marks from RLS’s cigarettes are on mantel

Stevenson’s health and its influence on his work was the topic of an entire series of lectures during the conference, but perhaps the most astonishing was “Stevenson’s Dentist – Unsung Hero,” given by Robert B. Stevenson, D.D.S., M.S. of Columbus, Ohio—no relation, he’s checked. It finally answered the question, “Who pulled Robert Louis Stevenson’s teeth?” According to “Bob” Stevenson’s exhaustive research that dentist was Russell H. Cool of East Oakland, Calif., during Stevenson’s first American sojourn in 1880, when he was in San Francisco courting Fanny. The genial, bearded Dr. Stevenson–dressed in his white medical coat and looking like something between a horror-film villain and Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin M. Stanton–used period dental tools, home-made sound effects, essence of cloves, and carburetor fluid (which contains ether), accompanied by cringe-inducing commentary such as “gently remove with a pair of pliers” to recreate the Scottish writer’s ordeal. Not only did Dr. Stevenson readily answer a score of questions from the enthusiastic audience regarding dentures, he also distributed pamphlets on dental hygiene—which we couldn’t take fast enough.

But there were other highlights during this gathering co-hosted by the Robert Louis Stevenson Society of America (visit their web site at http://www.robertlouisstevensonmemorialcottage.org/society.html). We learned that Stevenson understood the adventurous side of capitalism (see “The Wrecker,” the novel he wrote in collaboration with his stepson); that Lloyd himself was obsessed by technology and in his own, later adventure novels usually made the new-fangled automobile the real hero; that Stevenson is the second most translated British author in Italy (Shakespeare is number one); and that while Robert Louis Stevenson is the subject of more biographies than any other writer, for most of the 20th century he disappeared from the academic syllabus, though there were always those who appreciated his talent. The Argentine writer Borges declared, “I like hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, the roots of words, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson.”

Stevenson's desk in Saranac Lake cottage
Stevenson’s desk in Saranac Lake cottage

Ditto for Yours Truly. I only discovered the joys of Stevenson when I was in my late 20s, and my favorite great-aunt’s guest room had the 1895 first American or “thistle” edition (named for the Scottish plant decorating the spines) of his collected works along two whole shelves, the room’s only other reading material consisted of 18th-century sermons by the Connecticut clergy; “History of Luxemburg in the Middle Ages”; “Sea Chants of the Tahitians” (which RLS would probably have liked…) etc. So I started with the literally fabulous short stories and then moved on to the longer works, including the “Master of Ballantrae,” which I took along on a family trip to Maine, devouring in a seaside cottage as Bear Island lighthouse flashed in the distance off Mount Desert Island. I haven’t yet read all of Stevenson, because I dread having nothing left to surprise and delight me. Eventually I noted that all that my great aunt’s Stevenson tomes had the bookplates of her father, John Gade—my great grandfather—with his name and the name of the farmhouse where he grew up in Norway.

Frogner manor, on outskirts of Oslo, Norway, c. 1895, when John Gade received his RLS books
Frogner manor, on outskirts of Oslo, Norway, c. 1895, when John Gade received his RLS books

It seems my ancestor was also a fan of RLS. (Great grandfather’s mother was from Maine, and his Norwegian father was the American Consul in Oslo, so he spoke and read fluent English, as well as Norwegian.) Still later, upon coming across great grandpa’s 1907 wedding announcement (by then Gade was living in the U.S., where he worked in the firm of the famous, scandalous, Gilded Age architect, Stanford White) I read that his bride’s matron of honor was Dr. Trudeau’s wife! Did the groom quiz the doctor and Mrs. Trudeau on his favorite author? In 1916 Gade would purport to be the translator of the memoirs of one Karl Gustafson Klingspor, devoted follower and companion in arms of the great military genius, Swedish King Charles XII (1682-1718). In fact John Gade’s “Charles XII”

Title page of "Charles XII"
Title page of “Charles XII”

was historical fiction masquerading as a biography, and the narrator comes across as a Swedish version of Francis Burke, Chevalier de St. Louis, Stevenson’s character in “The Master of Ballantrae.”  You can sample it here, online:


And that is my winter’s tale.

One thought on “A Winter’s Tale

  1. Wow, Stuart, it looks like I’ll have to track down some Stevenson.

    I read his “Strange Case…” as a kid and it really, really scared me.

    Not as much as Victorian Dental Stories, though. I’m grateful I missed the Good Doctor’s presentation.


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