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

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The Dynamiter and Queen’s Square

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Prof. Penny Fielding is at present preparing a  critical edition of The Dynamiter for the New Edinburgh Edition. In this post I follow up at greater length some aspects of the text that will be covered in her notes.

After the publication of The Dynamiter by Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson, James Payn, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, wrote to RLS to say that his daughter had complained of recognizing ‘some features of her own house in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, in the description of that tenanted by the fair Cuban in the section of Stevenson’s Dynamiter which tells the story of the Brown Box’ (Tusitala 33: 72).

In reply, RLS wrote

Everything in the Dynamiter is not true; but the story of the Brown Box is, in almost every particular; I lay my hand on my heart, and swear to it. It took place in that house in 1884. (Letters 5: 173)

This is no doubt a teasing reply: instead of saying ‘your daughter can rest in peace as she hasn’t somehow shared a house with bizarre art-for-art’s-sake bomb-making terrorists, because it was all an invention’, he says: that particular part of the book was actually all true and took place in 1884 (the year of the peak in Fenian bombings in London).

But Stevenson is strangely insistent:  ‘I lay my hand on my heart, and swear’, he says, that it is true ‘in almost every particular’ and ‘took place in that house in 1884’. This insistence makes one think that there may indeed be some true elements in the story. And in fact, ‘Desborough’s Adventure: The Brown Box’ weaves in two moments of his own life: his meeting with his future wife Fanny Osbourne in 1876 (Section 3 below),and  his infatuation with Fanny Sitwell from 1873 to 1875 (Section 4).

1. The Story of the Brown Box

So what happens in the story of the Brown Box?

Desborough lives in a lodging house in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. His room looks onto the square but he has access to a terrace overlooked by the room a beautiful Cuban, Senorita Theresa Valdevia (Clara Luxmore in disguise). Desborough, immediately attracted to her, listens to her (again false) history. [Here follows the ‘Story of the Fair Cuban’.] Desborough, now obsessed with the woman, starts waiting for her in the square and following her. He notices the visits of a tall bearded man, who finally carries a brown trunk into the house. He confronts the Fair Cuban; she tells him that she is hiding from Cuban spies, and asks for Desborough’s help. He agrees to take the brown box, which she says contains everything connecting her to Cuba, from London to an Irish steamer at Holyhead. But when he arrives at the London rail terminus, Theresa catches up with him tells him to take the box back to their lodgings. Then she tells Desborough the  truth: she is Clara Luxmore, a dynamiter, and the box is a bomb. They hear a click of the timer; he flings her to the wall; but the explosion fails.

The fair Cuban is older than Desborough: ‘Her age, he durst not estimate; fearing to find her older than himself, and thinking sacrilege to couple that fair favour [=appearance] with the thought of mortal changes’.

The events that took place are therefore:

  1. A young man meets and falls in love with an alluring older woman in a house in Bloomsbury
  2. He waits for her in the square and follows her, frustrated and jealous
  3. She asks him to transport a trunk for her to Ireland
  4. She changes her mind and tells him to return the trunk to her house
  5. The trunk contains a bomb which fails to explode but which gives the two a fright.

Well, none of this happened in 1884, but the first two elements in the story have some connection with Stevenson’s own life.

2. The house in Queen’s Square

In Stevenson’s reply to Payn, he said that he only knew the houses on that side of the square from the street front and ʻfrom […] the back windows of Brunswick Rowʼ (Letters 5: 173-4). Brunswick row was where Fanny Sitwell had lodgings from 1874, and this comment shows that it must have been on the south side of this narrow street, overlooking the back gardens of the Queen Square houses, and that Stevenson must have been inside at least once (probably in spring 1874).

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Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827: Brunswick Pl[ace] is Brunswick Row in other maps of the period; this was where Fanny Sitwell had lodgings and from which you could see the back of houses on the W side of Queen Square

The house that the Brunswick Row house overlooked, and that in The Dynamiter  Desborough unwittingly shares with a group of dynamiters, is described by the Stevensons as follows:

It was in Queen Square that [Desborough] had pitched his tent, next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north: Queen Square, sacred to humane and liberal arts, whence homes were made beautiful, where the poor were taught, where the sparrows were plentiful and loud, and where groups of patient little ones would hover all day long before the hospital, if by chance they might kiss their hand or speak a word to their sick brother at the window. Desborough’s room was on the first floor and fronted to the square; but he enjoyed besides, a right by which he often profited, to sit and smoke upon a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 21.29.50

Ordnance Survey 1895: Brunswick Row has now become Queen Square Place

Notes on the description in The Dynamiter:

The Children’s Hospital: in 1867 a hospital—from 1870 called the Hospital for Hip Diseases in Children—was established to treat children suffering from tuberculous arthritis, at No. 19 Queen Square, on the Corner of Brunswick Row. By 1873 the institution, had expanded to the next two houses (Nos. 18 and 17), and in 1881 it was renamed the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Diseases.

So when Stevenson knew Queen Square the Hospital occupied the area as shown in the 1895 map, and ‘next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north’ would be No. 16 (the house still stands and is still No. 16), the back of which would indeed be visible from the last three properties in Brunswick Row, where Fanny Sitwell  had her lodgings.   Here is a photograph of Nos. 13-16 as they were in 1956—the ground floor of No. 16 corresponds to the door and the two windows beside it on the right of the photo and the floors above):

Screenshot 2017-10-09 16.01.04

13-16 Queen Square (LCC Photograph Library)

Queen Square, sacred to humane and liberal arts: refers to the medical, educational and philanthropic institutions around the square. In 1874 and the following years these included: the Alexandra Hospital on the W side, the National Hospital on the E; the Alexandra Institute for the Blind (at No. 6); the Society of St Vincent de Paul (No. 31); the hospital of Anglican order of the Sisters of St Margaret (No. 32); and the English Presbyterian College, which trained candidates for the ministry (in the NE corner). In 1874 the square should also have been home to a number of educational establishments aimed at the poor or women: the Ladies Charity School at No. 22; the College for Men and Women—where Frances Sitwell was Secretary—at the S end; the College of Preceptors—an institution organizing and evaluating teacher training—at No. 42; and the Female School of Art at No. 43.

Queen Square […] whence homes were made beautiful: a reference to the office and workshops of William Morris at No. 26 (more-or-less opposite No. 16), which operated there from 1856 to 1881.

3. A young man meets and falls in love with an alluring older woman

Desborough has a room on the first floor and the use of  ‘a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room’. This is probably the flat roof above a projecting part of the ground floor, accessed via a door by Desborough, but with the window of another room in the same house giving onto it, through which the occupant could step. Desborough is annoyed to see the other flat is occupied and his privacy gone and knocks his pipe on the terrace rail too hard and breaks it…

He threw himself savagely into the garden chair, pulled out the story-paper which he had brought with him to read, tore off a fragment of the last sheet, which contains only the answers to correspondents, and set himself to roll a cigarette. He was no master of the art; again and again, the paper broke between his fingers and the tobacco showered upon the ground; and he was already on the point of angry resignation, when the window swung slowly inward, the silken curtain was thrust aside, and a lady, somewhat strangely attired, stepped forth upon the terrace.

‘Senorito,’ said she, and there was a rich thrill in her voice, like an organ note, ‘Senorito, you are in difficulties. Suffer me to come to your assistance.’

With the words, she took the paper and tobacco from his unresisting hands; and with a facility that, in Desborough’s eyes, seemed magical, rolled and presented him a cigarette. He took it, still seated, still without a word; staring with all his eyes upon that apparition. Her face was warm and rich in colour; in shape, it was that piquant triangle, so innocently sly, so saucily attractive, so rare in our more northern climates; her eyes were large, starry, and visited by changing lights; her hair was partly covered by a lace mantilla, through which her arms, bare to the shoulder, gleamed white; her figure, full and soft in all the womanly contours, was yet alive and active, light with excess of life, and slender by grace of some divine proportion.

‘You do not like my cigarrito, Senor?’ she asked. ‘Yet it is better made than yours.’ At that she laughed, and her laughter trilled in his ear like music; but the next moment her face fell. ‘I see,’ she cried. ‘It is my manner that repels you. I am too constrained, too cold. I am not,’ she added, with a more engaging air, ‘I am not the simple English maiden I appear.’

‘Oh!’ murmured Harry, filled with inexpressible thoughts.

Robert Louis Stevenson (and we may suppose him to be the prime author of this passage) is clearly painting a picture of his wife and co-author and probably telling us something about their first meeting:

Her age, he durst not estimate; fearing to find her older than himself: Stevenson was ten years and nine months younger than Fanny Osbourne; when they met in September 1876 he was two months short of his twenty-sixth birthday, while she was already thirty-six.

there was a rich thrill in her voice, like an organ note: ‘Fanny Osbourne’s voice was low in tone, and she spoke with very little modulation’ and she would often recommend to her daughter: ‘A low sweet voice in a woman’ (Isobel Field, This Life I’ve Loved (1937), p. 106)

Her face was warm and rich in colour: ‘I was dark, like my mother’ (Nellie van de Grift Sanchez, The Life of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson (1920), p. 13), she had ‘clear olive skin’ (p. 14). In one poem (‘Dark Women’) Stevenson described Fanny as ‘Dark as a wayside gypsy’ (Roger C. Lewis (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh, 2003), 175), and in another (‘A California Girl’) he says ‘her skin’s a sort of orange brown’ (London 7 Apr 1877, p. 238).her eyes were large, starry, and visited by changing lights: ‘Her red-brown eyes are most unwinking / Deep-set, and with a dangerous light, / A feline gleam that sets you thinking’

her figure, full and soft in all the womanly contours: ‘Quite excellently small and slim, / Yet round and hard with exercise, / The contour of her every limb / At once excites and satisfies’ (‘A California Girl’)

rolled and presented him a cigarette: Living with her husband at a silver-mining camp in Nevada in 1864, ‘Fanny had mastered the masculine arts of rolling and smoking cigarettes’ (Margaret MacKay, The Violent Friend (1970), p. 7).

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 21.39.42Fanny Osbourne when Stevenson met her at Chevillon’s inn at Grez-sur-Loing in September 1876

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RLS rolling a cigarette, 1885

4. A young man in love frequents the places where his love will pass but annoys her with his insistence

Desborough finds himself infatuated with Theresa and he takes to stalking her:

What should he do, to be more worthy? by what devotion, call down the notice of these eyes to so terrene a being as himself?

He betook himself, thereupon, to the rural privacy of the square, where, being a lad of a kind heart, he had made himself a circle of acquaintances among its shy frequenters, the half-domestic cats and the visitors that hung before the windows of the Children’s Hospital. There he walked, considering the depth of his demerit and the height of the adored one’s super-excellence; now lighting upon earth to say a pleasant word to the brother of some infant invalid; now, with a great heave of breath, remembering the queen of women, and the sunshine of his life.

What was he to do? Teresa, he had observed, was in the habit of leaving the house towards afternoon: she might, perchance, run danger from some Cuban emissary, when the presence of a friend might turn the balance in her favour: how, then, if he should follow her? To offer his company would seem like an intrusion; to dog her openly were a manifest impertinence; he saw himself reduced to a more stealthy part, which, though in some ways distasteful to his mind, he did not doubt that he could practise with the skill of a detective.

The next day he proceeded to put his plan in action. At the corner of Tottenham Court Road, however, the Senorita suddenly turned back, and met him face to face, with every mark of pleasure and surprise.

‘Ah, Senor, I am sometimes fortunate!’ she cried. […]

Next day he resumed his labours, glowing with pity and courage, and determined to protect Teresa with his life. But a painful shock awaited him. In the narrow and silent Hanway Street, she turned suddenly about and addressed him with a manner and a light in her eyes that were new to the young man’s experience.

‘Do I understand that you follow me, Senor?’ she cried. ‘Are these the manners of the English gentleman?’

Harry confounded himself in the most abject apologies and prayers to be forgiven, vowed to offend no more, and was at length dismissed, crestfallen and heavy of heart. The check was final; he gave up that road to service; and began once more to hang about the square or on the terrace, filled with remorse and love, admirable and idiotic, a fit object for the scorn and envy of older men.

This painful episode seems to contain elements of Stevenson’s infatuation with Fanny Sitwell. She was married but estranged from her (possibly alcoholic) husband; she too was older than Stevenson (by eleven years); attractive too, but in a very different way from Fanny Osbourne: she was tender, understanding of others, freely expressive of her feelings and enthusiastic, ‘irradiating charm’. In the summer of 1873 something happened between her and Louis under the trees in Cockfield Rectory garden in Suffolk—a consoling caress, perhaps, an affectionate peck on the cheek, no more—yet something that knocked the paint off young Louis and was followed by two years of yearning and infatuation. Unrequited, as her affections were already engaged and with none other than Stevenson’s mentor, Sidney Colvin.

Fanny Sitwell, now finally separated from her husband, moved to 2 Brunswick Row in early July 1874 and RLS asked for her new address (L2: 29), but in early September still did not know it (47). On 22 September he wrote that he would be in London within a few days ‘and I think we shall pass a few happy days’; he arrived two days later and asked her to write to him with ‘orders’, adding ‘No fear. I shall be good’  (56-7). In October, still in London he writes with a poem about ‘this love of ours’ (58). In the same month, back on Edinburgh, he says ‘I wish to God I did not love you so much, but I do’ (69), and repeats this several times in November letters.

On 2 December 1874, apparently invited by Frances Sitwell—writing of it on 28 November he says ‘it takes my breath away to write it’ (85)—he went to London and stayed till 13 December. However the invitation must have been to clarify matters between them, as on his return he wrote ‘I will try to be what you would have me’; it is true he looks forward to a next visit (89-90), but closes this time with ‘a son’s kiss’ (94).

On 7 February he writes ‘But I love you, dear, and —O if I were with you!’ (115). In the same month he tells her that in Edinburgh he had seen a woman come out of a shop ‘and, dear, I thought it was you’ (118).

Then came another invitation to a meeting. On the 24 February 1875 he writes ‘God bless you for your letter. I will try and get down about 15th […] O how I long to see you’ (122). On 8 March he wrote ‘How, when, where would you like me. On Saturday evening or not till Sunday morning?’ and signs off ‘Yours from top to toe’ (124).  It seemed he travelled on Saturday 13 March. In an undated letter he said ‘I shall pay a visit to Brunswick Row, sometime in the course of Sunday’.

It seems, however, that once again Mrs Sitwell had asked to see him to face up to the reality of their situation, as the next surviving letter, from Barbizon c. 1 April, is much shorter than all his previous letters and very different in tone; it opens ‘My dear’ and finishes ‘Ever yours’ (126-7).

In that spring of 1875 which saw the end of his hopes of love he was staying in the Savile Club and, contrary to his high hopes, perhaps only saw her once or twice. The following year he gave some more information about this period:

I daresay you may fancy I had a curious time in London last spring; […] it was very odd, you may believe. I was several times near Queen’s Square, but went away again. I once went down Southampton Row, and felt in a fine flutter in case you should come out of Cosmo Place [a narrow street linking Southampton Row and Queen’s Square]. But you didn’t. (L2, 177; 7 July 1875)

There’s no indication that he waited for her in the Square and followed her as Desborough does, but it does seem that he deliberately walked nearby, hoping and wishing for a chance meeting.

In both episodes of the story of the Brown Box, Stevenson makes fun of the ingénu Desborough and his confusion at finding himself in love; and in both cases he seems to be laughing at himself and his own experiences. So it was that he could lay his hand on his heart and say the story was all true.

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Written by rdury

04/11/2017 at 7:11 pm

Posted in News