“I have done something! I have made a grand step! I have appeared before the public as an author, but…”
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Aged 13. Burlington Lodge Academy, Isleworth, Nov 1863
He was in every respect a true Scot, born in Scotland of Scottish parents, with an education in one of Scotland’s finest schools, Edinburgh Academy and a family lineage stretching back to the Balfour chiefs of Inchrye in Fife… but in 1863 13 year old Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, who was later to write “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped” and “Strange Case of Dr Jeykyll and Mr Hyde” came to live briefly in Isleworth.
His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, was not in good health, and early in 1863 his father, Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer, was advised to take her to Mentone in the south of France to spend the winter. In their absence their son, 13 year old Robert, known in the family as ‘Laurie’, was sent to Burlington Lodge Academy, in Spring Grove, Isleworth. His aunt, Jane Balfour, lived in the area and his cousins were already attending the school so it was a sensible arrangement. Laurie was also very fond of his aunt who he described as “the most amiable of women, and the family maid of all works.”
Chief of our aunts -- not only I, But all the dozen nurslings cry-- What did the other children do? And what was childhood, wanting you?
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON - “To Auntie”
During his time at Burlington Lodge Academy he wrote regularly to his parents in the south of France…
“My dearest Papa and Mama, I am getting on very well. I hope Papa’s cold is better and Mama is keeping well. Yesterday I was playing at football. I have never played at Cricket so Papa may comfort himself with that”
He also produced a ten page rag called “The Schoolboy’s Magazine” made up of the first parts of three serial stories, “The Adventures of Jan Van Steen”, “The Ghost Story” and “The Wreckers”. Unlike his later work which was written and then rewritten many times over until he was totally satisfied, the “Schoolboy’s Magazine” was full of erasures, suggesting that the stories were not initially drafted. Despite this young Laurie was confident enough to write to his parents…
“I have done something! I have made a grand step! I have appeared before the public as an author, but….” (The rest of the sentence was also rubbed out!)
For all his apparent enthusiasms Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was not a completely happy bunny. On November 12th 1863 he wrote to his mother… “Ma chere, Mama. J’ai recu votre letter…” A few sentences later he gave up the French and switched back to English, closing his letter, “My dear Papa, you told me to tell you whenever I was miserable. I do not feel well and I wish to get home. Do take me with you.”
Like any schoolboy, far from home and even further from his parents, Robert was homesick. Further letters to his parents asked about their life in Mentone and expressed his desire to be with them. In December 1863 he wrote that Burlington Lodge was closing on Friday the 18th and hoped that his father would come soon to collect him. “I am wearying very much you may be sure for the time when I am to come to Mentone.”
What he didn’t know was his father, Thomas, the lighthouse engineer, was already on his way to Isleworth to collect him and take him back to Mentone. He stayed in the south of France with his parents until May 1864 and never returned to Burlington Lodge Academy, although he did come back to visit that ‘most amiable of women’, his Aunt Jane.
Several of Stevenson’s biographers have suggested that he was deeply miserable at Burlington Lodge but others refute this idea. Our own local historian, G.E Bate, has written…
“He was not anymore unhappy than a great many other boys. He was a delicate, imaginative child and apt to be moody… The first term at school for any boy is always a time of trial and error, and it is the second term before he really finds his feet, so how could a boy of Stevenson’s temperament be expected to have time to settle down, when he was taken away at the end of the first term?”
G.E. BATE “And So Make a City Here” 1948
And when it comes to finding your feet, Robert put it rather nicely himself…
“It’s a pleasant thing to be young”, he wrote, “and have ten toes!”
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON ON SCHOOLBOYS, ENGLISH AND SCOTTISH
I have been at school in both countries and I found in the boys of the north something at once rougher and more tender, at once more reserved and more expansive, a greater habitual distance chequered by glimpses of a nearer intimacy, and on the whole wider extremes of temperament and sensibility. The boy of the south seems more wholesome, but less thoughtful, he gives himself to games as a business, striving to excel, but is not readily transported by imagination, the type remains with me as cleaner in mind and body, more active, fonder of eating, endowed with a lesser and less romantic sense of life and of the future, and more immersed in present circumstances. And certainly, for one thing, English boys are younger for their age.
– from Martyn Day