On the Road: Robert Louis Stevenson's Views on Nature

By Gray, William | New Formations, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

On the Road: Robert Louis Stevenson's Views on Nature


Gray, William, New Formations


Robert Louis Stevenson is not one of the literary 'names' generally associated with discussions of attitudes to 'Nature', as expressed or indeed problematised in literary texts. Doubtless Stevenson's relationship to the natural world could be fitted into some topography of various possible attitudes to nature; however, it might turn out be a rather uncomfortable fit. Stevenson is notoriously difficult to pigeonhole. As the creator of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he does have something of a monopoly on the idea of multiple identities. The present essay offers a kind of case study of Stevenson, who is interestingly positioned among a range of historical attitudes to science and the natural world. Heir to the achievements of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment and of nineteenth-century Scottish engineers, as well as to a strain of Calvinistic pessimism, he was also a kind of neo-Romantic who anticipated, and indeed helped to create, the neo-paganism and ruralism of the aesthetic 1890s. In addition, in the latter part of his short life, he extensively studied and wrote about the South Sea islands, where he settled at the height of the colonial period.

Robert Louis Stevenson's connection with 'the Lighthouse Stevensons' is well known, especially since the publication of Bella Bathurst's best-seller of that title. (1) The most celebrated of the Stevenson engineering dynasty was RLS's grandfather, Robert Stevenson, who built the Bell Rock lighthouse, and commissioned the famous picture by J.M.W. Turner to illustrate his account of its construction. Although Turner apparently never actually saw the Bell Rock, the picture he produced of the lighthouse during a storm is the epitome of the Romantic Sublime. Robert Louis Stevenson himself was capable of producing in words a similarly sublime picture of a storm at sea in his novel of 1892, The Wrecker. (2) This passage is based on a spectacularly dangerous voyage from Tahiti to Honolulu during the hurricane season. (3) That Robert Stevenson senior was not the only Stevenson famed for his engineering exploits is made clear by the title of RLS's unfinished biography of his famous grandfather, Records of a Family of Engineers. Engineering was the Stevenson family business: RLS's father, his uncles and cousins, as well as Professor Fleeming Jenkin, a great family friend and a powerful influence on the young RLS, were all at the forefront of new developments in Victorian engineering.

However, the Stevensons were also prominent figures in meteorological circles as well as in the world of engineering. RLS's father, Thomas Stevenson, was an early member of the Scottish Meteorological Society, founded in 1855, and the first volume of the Society's Journal in 1864 contained an article by Thomas Stevenson about his invention of the louvred thermometer screen. As well as giving a paper 'On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses', the young RLS also made contributions to the study of meteorology. In May 1873 he presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a paper 'On the Thermal Influence of Forests'. This paper discusses a pioneering proposal by David Milne Home, founder of the Scottish Meteorological Society, and a correspondent of Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, to use a plantation on Malta to research the impact of forests on the environment. The young Stevenson's interest in meteorological matters is further evidenced by the fact that the year before his paper 'On the Thermal Influence of Forests', when he was resident in Frankfurt-am-Main, he had written to his mother asking her to send money via Alexander Buchan, the secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society, to enable him to join Buchan at a meteorological congress in Leipzig. RLS's involvement in discussions of scientific and environmental questions was no doubt largely due to his having been born into a particular caste, that of the educated haute bourgeoisie of nineteenth-century Edinburgh. …

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