Robert Stevenson and his «treasure island» in the south of France
Mysterious map, one-legged pirate, young Jim in search of treasure… You are not mistaken, we are talking about «Treasure Island», the famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The Scottish writer had a lot to do with the Côte d’Azur. One can say that he was destined to spend many years here. And Stevenson was not opposed to this idea, because in some way his life depended on the local climate…
First trip to the Côte d’Azur
1863. The health of 13-year-old Robert was weak, already at this age he was all skin and bones. He was the only child in the family of Thomas Stevenson, an engineer and beacon specialist.
From an early age, Robert’s lungs failed him, and all his doctors were united in their advice: the family should go to a country with a suitable climate. A friend suggested they should go to the south of France, to Menton. Thus began the story of the unbreakable bond between Robert and the French Riviera.
This trip became a source of inspiration for the future writer: the train journey from Paris to Marseille, then the carriage to get to Cannes. The boy was fascinated by the new place, the scenery, the mild climate and the atmosphere of the seaside cities. The family also visited Nice, staying at the hotel Chauvin. Then began their journey to Menton, where the Stevensons arrived in February and remained there until May. Young Robert decided for himself that he would certainly visit this place again.
10 years later
1873. 23-year-old Robert kept his word and returned to the south of France. Over the past years, the young man had studied law in Edinburgh and fell in love with Fanny Sitwell. This mother and wife was 12 years older than Robert and was going through a divorce. She introduced Robert to Sydney Colvin, a professor at Cambridge who would later join Robert in the south of France.
The two young men went to Menton, where they stayed in the hotel Mirabeau. In his letter to his father Robert writes:
«In this hotel, I have a room on the first floor! Luxury, however, is not altogether regardless of expense. We only pay 13 francs per day <…> We were very nearly homeless, the night we came».
In their free time, the young men explored the region. «All the people here are so sweet, kind and smart, that when I think that I will never see them again, I get an unpleasant feeling …» — Robert shares.
One of his walks definitely marked the writer’s journey and left a lasting impression. During his visit to Monaco, Robert wanted to visit the legendary Monte-Carlo Casino. However, due to their inappropriate clothes the young men were not allowed to come in the gambling house. Nevertheless, this did not prevent them from walking around the Principality. In his letter to Mrs. Sitwell, the writer narrates in detail about his trips:
«Colvin and I are sitting on a seat on the battlemented gardens of Old Monaco. The day is grey and clouded, with a little red light on the horizon, and the sea, hundreds of feet below us, is a sort of purple dove-colour. Shrub-geraniums, firs, and aloes cover all available shelves and terraces. <…> White gulls sail past below us every now and then, sometimes singly, sometimes by twos and threes, and sometimes in a great flight. The sharp perfume of the shrub-geraniums fills the air. I cannot write, in any sense of the word; but I am as happy as can be, and wish to notify the fact, before it passes. <…> Voices of children and occasional crying of gulls; the mechanical noise of a gardener somewhere behind us in the scented thicket; and the faint report and rustle of the waves on the precipice far below, only break in upon the quietness to render it more complete and perfect».
This is an image of the Principality left in the memory of the writer.
Stevenson stayed in Menton from November 1873 till April 1874.
20 years later
The novelist didn’t stop thinking about the south of France, and his health again necessitated a return to these lands. In 1883, Stevenson settled in Hyères, away from noisy Nice and Monaco. The Scottish writer did not come here all alone. Another Fanny came into his life. They met in Paris; Fanny Osborne was an American artist, bringing up two children, separately from her husband. They married in 1880, Robert first joined her in California, but health problems had resurfaced again. And so he, along with his beloved wife, set foot on French soil.
In Hyères Stevenson’s family settled in a chalet «La Solitude» (Loneliness) surrounded by a wonderful garden. The writer worked in the morning, and then he and Fanny took long walks. Robert confessed he was very happy there. «This little corner, our garden is so amazing. I seem to live in a paradise», he used to say. Along with more stable health, the financial situation also goes back to normal: a book comes out with a story about pirates (yes, «Treasure Island»), which Robert had written for Fanny’s son Lloyd. By the end of summer 1883 Stevenson finished another future bestseller, «The Black Arrow».
«I was only happy once…»
Silence and quietness, mild climate, life with a beloved woman, success in the field of literature… In Hyères Stevenson had everything he could ever dream about — as if he found his personal «treasure island». However, no matter how much the writer wanted to remain in his paradise in the south of France, fate decided otherwise…
In June 1884, a ship from Saigon moored in the port of Toulon. It would be the reason why the cholera epidemic would begin in the region. Robert and his family says ‘adieu’ to France, leaving the town which gave him inspiration and so many memories. By the end of July they arrived in Britain. Robert Stevenson would not return to the south of France. «I was only happy once: that was at Hyères», wrote Stevenson with bitterness to Sidney Colvin in 1891.
The writer suddenly died in December 1894 on Samoa at the age of 44. On his grave one can read one of his famous poems ‘Requiem’ written in Hyères in May 1883, during the happiest period of his life…
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
«Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill».