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A little bit in love – a love letter to reading and to Robert Louis Stevenson in particular

By Barbara Henderson

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‘Tis the time of soppy cards and candlelit dinners – and the perfect time to tell you about a love affair. Mine.

I remember it vividly: a newly arrived student at Edinburgh University, I was beginning to get the hang of this damp, foggy country. Scotland does atmosphere pretty well, doesn’t it?

Sitting upstairs in the red leather armchairs at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal Mile, I watched the mist crowd out the light of the streetlamps. The real Deacon Brodie inspired one of the books on my course reading list, I was told. That day, I had unearthed an old leather-bound copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in one of Edinburgh’s West Bow bookshops.

And that dark, rainy winter afternoon, I fell in love. Just like that.

The atmosphere! Robert Louis Stevenson was a master at evoking a sense of menace, a sense of threat. His Victorian Edinburgh did not seem so very far away from the cobbled streets I was looking down on.

Robert Louis Stevenson photographed by Henry Walter Barnett.
Robert Louis Stevenson photographed by Henry Walter Barnett.

The book is short, but utterly accomplished: Place (London) and characters (a range of Victorian gentlemen) blend into one another in a heady cocktail of story. And, in its own subtle way, there is magic: a scientific medical experiment turns the respectable and likeable Dr Jekyll into his evil alter-ego, Mr Hyde, a murderer and all-round despicable creature. How? Stevenson does not concern himself with that question one bit. Instead, he just gets on with the story, told from multiple viewpoints, revealing and resolving a plot that dances its way from beginning to end.

The power of the potion to transform is dealt with in a single sentence about the liquid changing colour. A single supernatural dimension, interspersed in a believable historical world. And then you have sentences like “she had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy” and “the fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city”. I was smitten.

Reading more Stevenson, I discovered The Master of Ballantrae and The Weir of Hermiston, both of which I loved, but the knockout blow came from a short story called Markheim. If you like your seasonal reading a bit creepy, there is nothing better than the mysterious visitor to the shopkeeper on Christmas Eve. Oh, he has a way with villains, Stevenson has!

Of course, the book which comes to everyone’s mind when Stevenson is mentioned is the ubiquitous Treasure Island. Who could forget young Jim and his adversary Long John Silver?

Strangely, I took to this one the least, and always wondered why. It had it all, really: a fantastic villain, a child at the mercy of adult greed who has to find his own way in the world, plenty of sailing in dangerous waters, treasure and gunfire. Then I realised – I loved the Scotland which Stevenson created!

I was much less fascinated with the South Seas – give me the atmospheric, foggy world of a damp Scottish day instead, preferably in winter!

When I came across the real-life 1792 incident which inspired my own smuggling novella Black Water, I drew heavily on the Stevenson school of adventure-writing. I really hope (in a sadly desperate way) that someday someone will say: “This story has echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson” – there would be no higher compliment.

In a pale imitation of the one who has gone before, I’m trying for atmospheric, foggy, tense – a world full of intrigue, bravery and recklessness, too.

Who knows? Maybe, one day in the future, a young person will fall a little bit in love with my book. It’s what we all dream of, isn’t it?

Whose writing have you fallen for, I wonder?

Look out for: Whoa, I Spy a Werewolf by Justin Davies. I have just finished this fantastic story with a memorable modern twist, perfect for seven to 11-year-olds who like their fantasy funny!

Whoa, I Spy a Werewolf by Justin Davies.
Whoa, I Spy a Werewolf by Justin Davies.

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