EdRLS

The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Archive for September 2017

Some College Memories’ and the view from 17 Heriot Row

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A post contributed by Richard Dury and John Macfie

‘Some College Memories’

In 1886 RLS, along with other illustrious former students, was asked to contribute to an anthology, the submitted manuscripts for which were then auctioned at a ‘Fancy Fair’ to raise funds for a Students’ Union house (Teviot Row House, opened in 1889).  His contribution, ‘Some College Memories’, was then included in The New Amphion, being the Book of the Edinburgh Union Fancy Fair published in November 1886, and later in Memories and Portraits (1887).

In the penultimate paragraph of this essay he warns present-day students about studying too hard by means of a moral tale about a student who studied hard for an exam, revising all night, and who then, as morning approached, looked out from his high room—inexplicably, the sight of the dawn filled him with nameless terror; he ran into the street but still had the memory and fear of his past fear. He was unable to write anything for the exam, and that night he had brain fever.

Here is how he describes the night of study and the coming of dawn:

It came to the eve of the trial and he watched all night in his high chamber, reviewing what he knew, and already secure of success. His window looked eastward, and being (as I said) high up, and the house itself standing on a hill, commanded a view over dwindling suburbs to a country horizon. At last my student drew up his blind, and still in quite a jocund humour, looked abroad. Day was breaking, the cast was tinging with strange fires, the clouds breaking up for the coming of the sun; and at the sight, nameless terror seized upon his mind.

This story is one of several thinly-disguised personal anecdotes in Stevenson’s essays which the reader knows must be about the writer, but which the writer continues to write in the third person, keeping a straight face all the time (the most unforgettable one is in ‘A Chapter on Dreams’). (I find the word ‘camp’ quite useful to describe such a situation where speaker and listener both know the joke but no-one is going to admit it.)

The many details of what was went on in the students mind are enough to show this is a personal anecdote, and the reference to ‘my student’ may (if you’re with me on this) be equivalent to a wink at the reader. But the point of the present post is not this: rather it is about the student’s house and the views from it—do they actually correspond to the views from Stevenson’s home at 17 Heriot Row?

The view from Stevenson’s window

This house has front windows looking approximately south from which the dawn could be seen, and back windows looking downhill over ‘dwindling suburbs’. Where was Stevenson’s room situated and with what view? and how can we square this with the view seen by the student? At this point we have the pleasure—and honour—to include a contribution from the present resident of the house, John Macfie, whose letter on the matter I here copy into the post.

Stevenson’s rooms, on the south

The front of the 17 Heriot Row faces southeast by south, the back northwest by north. Traditionally, the two rooms at the front of the second floor, the bottom two bedrooms on the plan below, were Louis’s rooms.

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These correspond to the top three windows in the following drawing:

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As I understand it, Thomas Stevenson raised what was originally an attic-and-dormer storey on the south front to full height, so Louis could have a proper pair of rooms. It is certain that the present frontage is an alteration, as it breaks the symmetrical pattern of the original facade. There is in fact a connecting door between to two rooms not shown on the plan.

The second-floor rooms

The arrangements for the other rooms on the top floor are a little speculative, but this is what seems likely to me, reading from the top left of the plan:

  • Top left bedroom: visitors or servants?
  • Between the top left and top right bedrooms, not on the plan, a w.c., there by at latest 1890.
  • Top right bedroom: this originally connected (the blocked door itself was there until a few years ago) to the room to the south, the present bathroom, to form a suite of sitting room and sleeping box that was quite a common pattern in houses like this until it was forbidden on safety grounds (fumes from gas lights in confined spaces being potentially lethal) on the early 1900’s. My guess is that this was Cummy’s room after she stopped sleeping in the same room with Louis.
  • Store: this has the feel of a sleeping box as well, with light borrowed from the skylight-lit bathroom via windows high in the wall, and ventilation slots in both the windows and the door. It may originally have been associated with the bottom right bedroom.
  • Bottom right bedroom: traditionally Louis’s night nursery then bedroom.
  • Bottom left bedroom: traditionally Louis’s day nursery then study.

Views from the windows

Though dawn’s early light would have been visible from the two front rooms, there would have been no dwindling suburbs or country horizons visible from here: allowing for the trees in the gardens being a century and a half smaller, the view would have been up the hill to the house-fronts of Queen Street.

The best candidate as the source of the country view described in ‘Some College Memories’ is the upper right bedroom, ‘Cummy’s room’. The photograph below was taken from that room and looks northwest by north down to Newhaven and Granton. The land falls away as described.

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If you look at the 1877 Ordnance Survey 6-inch to the mile map here, from the NLS map archive, you will see that while not exactly open country, much of the intervening space was green. In the photograph, the white arcaded buildings are in the Botanical Gardens.

As for the sunrise, an early summer sunrise (exam time) would certainly have been visible from the windows at the back. According to timeanddate.com, the sun rose in Edinburgh on 21st June at about 4:25 am and roughly in the NE, definitely within your field of view from up there.

And the window in the essay?

The view of the dwindling suburbs and the country horizon corresponds to the view from one of the  back rooms on the top floor of 17 Heriot Row. RLS could go into one or both of these back rooms if no-one else was there, and Cummy’s old room was possibly unoccupied after she left the family in 1871. It seems, then, that during his ‘all-nighter’ he stared out of the back window as well as the front, and it was from these he surveyed the distant countryside and saw the sun rise. So he description in the essay is not of what he saw from his rooms at the front, but what he saw from one of the back rooms, which he possibly also used or anyway had access to.

 

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