Last Friday I purchased a secondhand copy of an early work by Robert Louis Stevenson that I had not been aware of: Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878). On its very first page it addresses a topic on which my lips are sealed by an oath I took when I first moved from Santa Cruz to Edinburgh in September 2007.
My first Edinburgh home was at 5 Howe Street. I was awestruck to find that my kitchen window looked down into the garden of the house round the corner at 17 Heriot Row where Stevenson had played as a child of 6. (The present owners, tired of answering the doorbell to tourists in this much-visited city of literary giants, have had to put a small plaque outside explaining that their home is not a museum.) When I moved, I swore that I would never spend any of my time grousing about what Stevenson describes in the following wonderful piece of humorous hyperbole:
Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one of the vilest climates under heaven. She is liable to be beaten upon by all the winds that blow, to be drenched with rain, to be buried in cold sea fogs out of the east, and powdered with the snow as it comes flying southward from the Highland hills. The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring. The delicate die early, and I, as a survivor, among bleak winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate. For all who love shelter and the blessings of the sun, who hate dark weather and perpetual tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a more unhomely and harassing place of residence. Many such aspire angrily after that Somewhere-else of the imagination, where all troubles are supposed to end. They lean over the great bridge which joins the New Town with the Old — that windiest spot, or high altar, in this northern temple of the winds — and watch the trains smoking out from under them and vanishing into the tunnel on a voyage to brighter skies. Happy the passengers who shake off the dust of Edinburgh, and have heard for the last time the cry of the east wind among her chimney-tops!
Stevenson exaggerates: Edinburgh weather does not make the living envy the dead! But despite my vow that I will never waste time whining about its un-Santa-Cruziness, I can assure you, sotto voce, that there is some truth in what he says.
He had good cause in the year 1878 to stand on the parapet of North Bridge watching wistfully as the trains below chugged out of sight into the tunnel beside the castle. His American lover Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne had decided to return to America. One year later, Stevenson followed her. The trip nearly killed him. His bronchial health had always been frail, and he was desperately ill when he fetched up in Monterey in the fall of 1879. After a period of recuperation he spent the winter in San Francisco, and nearly died again (though luckily he had Fanny to look after him).
I love the weather of that area. But anyone who may have been puzzled when they first heard the line “Hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp” (in the Rodgers and Hart song The Lady is a Tramp) should note that California isn’t all Baywatch. The north often has cold, damp weather between November and March. Indeed, even in August, San Francisco’s sea fogs can make it feel much more like Edinburgh than you might imagine.
Stevenson ultimately moved on to Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific. He died in Samoa, where the lines of poetry he wanted carved into his tomb were mistranscribed: “Home is the sailor, home from sea” is what he wrote — “home from the sea” is a now-familiar misquotation. He wanted the noun to be anarthrous (lacking the definite article) — like, say, the title of Treasure Island (it wasn’t “The Treasure Island”). More surprisingly, he assigned an anarthrous title to the story he based on the wicked Deacon William Brodie’s double life: He called it Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Publishers recoiled at this grammatical oddity. Some prefixed “The"; others dropped the first three words (my edition is entitled Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). You can’t always get what you want from your publishers, especially after your death.
Still, definite article insertion would be small complaint, for a man who had seen in a single lifetime the beauty of Waikiki, San Francisco, and Edinburgh. “Sick and well,” he wrote in 1891, “I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little.”