Dramatic letter tells of dramatic final hours of Robert Louis Stevenson
The final hours of the life of author Robert Louis Stevenson, author of books including Treasure Island, are detailed in an emotional letter written by his grieving widow, which has been obtained by National Library of Scotland. For all the latest history news, analysis and opinion, read History Scotland magazine.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was an Edinburgh-born author who wrote novels including Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. In 1890, four years before his death, he bought land in Samoa, in an attempt to settle in a place which would be beneficial to his poor health.
THE STEVENSON LETTER
The letter from Fanny Stevenson to a friend was written the day after her husband collapsed and died from what is thought to have been a brain haemorrhage at their home in Samoa on December 3, 1894. He was only 44.
“His life had been one long romance and he hoped to have a romantic end; the artist in him demanded that completeness,” writes Fanny in her tight script on small notepaper. “To grow old he could not bear. He has had his wish and, for that, I try to be thankful, though all the rest of my life will be empty and lonely. True, I have my children but I have not Louis. No one knows what that means but me.”
She says she had been crushed by a sense of impending disaster for days before Stevenson’s death and he had sought to lighten her mood by playing cards. Then, together, they began to make mayonnaise for dinner. “I began to mix the mayonnaise; he dropping the oil with a steady hand, drop by drop. Suddenly, he set down the bottle, knelt by the table, leaning his head against it. I cannot go on just now.
It was the hand of death that had stricken him down. In less than five minutes he was profoundly insensible and so remained till the end. It was about six when he knelt at the table and at ten minutes after eight, he passed away. In a very short time, we had two doctors and a medical missionary here but there was nothing to do.”
THE PURCHASE OF THE LETTERS
The letter is one of a series sent by Fanny and her husband to Anne Jenkin, the wife of Stevenson’s former Edinburgh University tutor and professor of engineering, Fleeming Jenkin. The letters, together with an incomplete manuscript of an essay, telegrams, photographs and newspaper cuttings, were bought by the Library at auction. They add to the Library’s existing rich collection of Stevenson material which includes important papers about his early life in Edinburgh, his development as a writer and his time in Samoa.
Details of the latest acquisition, which was bought with the support of the Soutar Trust and the Friends of the National Libraries, are being released as the anniversary of Stevenson’s death approaches. National Librarian Dr John Scally said: “It is pleasing that these letters relating to one of Scotland’s greatest ever writers are part of the collection in the city and the country of his birth. They are sure to be of interest to scholars and the wider public and we are delighted to have acquired them.”
STEVENSON'S FINAL WISH
Fanny’s letter also describes the devotion of native Samoans to her husband, who was known to them as Tusitala – storyteller. Stevenson’s wish was to be buried at the top of Mount Vaea which overlooked his home on Samoa. That involved 40 Samoans labouring for hours to cut a path through the bush to the ancient burial place of chiefs.
There, his grave was dug and a makeshift tinsel cross was placed at its head. “Nothing that money could buy would have pleased Louis more or more clearly touched his heart than that little tinsel cross,” she adds.
Stevenson had been dogged by ill health for most of his life and lived in many places to try to find a climate best suited to his health. He had no expectation of a long life. “I try to remember how he had hoped to go like this,” Fanny writes. “That very day he had said to me ‘the thought of dying in bed is horrible to me; I want to die like a clean human being on my feet. I want to die in my clothes, to fall just as I stand.’ He did. It was only at the very end, for the last few breaths, that we laid him down.”
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(Letter images copyright National Library of Scotland)