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Jekyll and Hyde were born in Bournemouth

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his famous story of transformation while living in Bournemouth in the 1880s. Tony Burton-Page looks at the links between a genteel health resort and a terrifying literary creation.

Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (Alwyn Ladell)

Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (Alwyn Ladell)

 

Bournemouth’s celebration of its bicentenary in 2010 was based on the fact that two hundred years earlier a retired army officer called Lewis Tregonwell bought some land west of the Bourne Stream, built a house on it, and thereby became Bournemouth’s first resident. But perhaps even more influential in Bournemouth’s development was Sir George William Tapps-Gervis. In 1841 he, as mayor, invited the physician and writer Augustus Granville to visit the town, which in fact was then still not much more than a village. As Tapps-Gervis had hoped, the new resort appealed to Granville and inspired him to add a chapter on Bournemouth to his book, The Spas of England, which described health resorts all over the country. His comments included the prediction that this resort had the potential to become ‘the very first invalid sea-watering place in England’.
Granville’s endorsement of Bournemouth brought about a considerable increase in visitors, attracted by the perceived health-giving benefits of bathing in sea-water, a recently discovered pastime which had become fashionable, and breathing the unpolluted air, whose life-enhancing properties had been boosted by the pines planted by Tregonwell and Tapps-Gervis’s father, Sir George Ivison Tapps, something they had done in anticipation of their intended promotion of the town as a health resort: these two visionaries had foreseen that Victorian city-dwellers would at some stage feel the need to escape from the increasingly foul air of London and other industrial cities. Bournemouth’s reputation as a health resort grew steadily through the second half of the 19th century, particularly with those who suffered from chronic respiratory issues such as tuberculosis.

The outline of Skerryvore in a public garden is all that remains

The outline of Skerryvore in a public garden is all that remains

One such sufferer was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Born in Edinburgh in 1850, he was a sickly child, and his health was a problem throughout his life. When he realised that the damp climate of his homeland was detrimental to his condition, he experimented with residences further south, ending up in the South Pacific, by which time it was too late: in 1894 he died in Samoa. But in 1884 he came to Bournemouth, which by then had become as much an invalids’ quarter as a holiday resort. Granville’s approval had been echoed by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, and other authoritative medical voices; the Royal National Sanatorium, a hospital specialising in chest ailments, had opened in 1855, and the Mont Dore Hotel (now part of Bournemouth Town Hall), like several others, welcomed patients wanting sea-water treatment. The bath-chair image was confirmed when the path through the Lower Gardens to the sea was named Invalids’ Walk.
Stevenson (always known to his family as ‘Louis’, pronounced ‘Lewis’) inherited his weak health from his mother, who herself inherited a chronic weakness of the lungs from her father. Little Louis – an only son because it was deemed too dangerous for his mother to attempt to give birth to another child – suffered from digestive upsets, feverish colds and frequent bronchial infections: in his brief Memoirs of Himself (an unfinished autobiography) he mentions ‘the long nights when I was kept awake by coughing’. At the age of seven he almost died of ‘gastric fever’, spending five weeks in bed, unable to sit up and barely able to sleep or eat. Aged ten, he spent the winter and spring of 1860-61 bedridden. Inevitably, he was often absent from school because of illness – although there was one positive consequence: he learnt to read while scanning pictures in the illustrated papers during one long recovery in bed.
Bournemouth was the final point in an inevitable drift southwards in an attempt to find a climate suitable for Stevenson’s health. But by the time his parents realised that the harsh Edinburgh winters were the exact opposite of what he needed and moved away, the damage had been done and the medical care necessary for their son’s weak lungs was beyond the capabilities of 19th-century doctors. In later life, however, his good response to vacations in the south of France persuaded Stevenson, by now married and with a stepson, to decamp to the nearest English equivalent, and the fact that Lloyd Osbourne, the 16-year-old son of Stevenson’s American wife Fanny, was attending a school in Bournemouth made it the ideal choice.

The rear of Skerryvore

The rear of Skerryvore

It was in 1884 that the family moved there, staying at first in rented accommodation in a house with the splendidly un-Bournemouthian name of ‘Wensleydale’. Lloyd Osbourne afterwards related how happy his stepfather was in those early days in Bournemouth – perhaps the pines reminded him of Scotland and the summertime seaside of the Mediterranean. The next year they moved into ‘Seaview’, a villa in Westbourne bought for them by Stevenson’s father, the lighthouse engineer Thomas Stevenson. They re-named the house ‘Skerryvore’, in commemoration of the lighthouse of that name which he had built.

The name Skerryvore came from the lighthouse built by RLS's father

The name Skerryvore came from the lighthouse built by RLS’s father

Unfortunately Louis’s health deteriorated from then on, and for the rest of his time in Bournemouth he was rarely able to leave the house. Stevenson’s loss was posterity’s gain, for he turned this period into one of enormous literary industry: from it came the poetry collection A Child’s Garden of Verses, Prince Otto, Kidnapped, the short story Markheim, and the novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Jekyll and Hyde, as it became known to millions of readers, was published in 1886 and in its first six months it sold 40,000 copies and was dramatised in three different versions; before the end of Stevenson’s life its title had become a commonplace phrase in the English language. The idea for the story came to him in a dream; this was not surprising for one who described himself as ‘from a child, an ardent and uncomfortable dreamer’, having spent many nights in his childhood unable to sleep, wracked by painful bouts of coughing but preferring to remain awake rather than drift off to sleep into a world of nightmares ‘which would wake me screaming and in the extremest frenzy of terror’. The nightmares continued into his adult life, but by the time of the Bournemouth period he positively looked forward to dreaming, in the hope that something usable would emerge.
On the occasion of this particular nightmare, Stevenson screamed so loudly and with such horror that Fanny woke him up – only to be reproached with ‘I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!’ In fact he had dreamed the first part of the Jekyll and Hyde story, up to Jekyll’s first transformation into Hyde. The next morning he began writing in bed, at a furious speed, emerging from his bedroom for meals silent and preoccupied. For three days the household was ‘in a tiptoeing silence’, as Lloyd Osbourne related: ‘passing Stevenson’s door I would see him sitting up in bed, filling page after page, and apparently never pausing for a moment.’ At the end of the three days, Stevenson came downstairs and triumphantly read the finished tale to Fanny and her son. Lloyd found it spine-chilling, but to his astonishment his mother was unusually reticent, until she finally blurted out that he had had missed the point of the whole story: he had written a piece of magnificent sensationalism instead of an allegorical masterpiece.
Stevenson was beside himself with anger, and there followed a row which drove Lloyd from the room. When he returned, his mother was alone, staring into the fire. There was an uncomfortable silence until Stevenson returned. Instead of resuming the quarrel, he announced that Fanny had been quite right and that he had missed the allegory, ‘the very essence of it’, and promptly threw the manuscript into the fire. ‘It was all wrong,’ he said. ‘In trying to save some of it, I should have got hopelessly off the track. The only way was to put temptation beyond my reach.’
There followed another three days of feverish writing in a once again hushed household, at the end of which he read the new version to Fanny and Lloyd. This time Fanny was delighted: the allegory was plain for all to see. Stevenson spent the next six weeks polishing and then sent it off to his publisher. The rest is literary history, even if the book itself is not as awe-inspiring to us as it was to Victorian readers: its very familiarity has diminished its power.
Stevenson’s health did not improve in the Bournemouth years. He saw little of the town except for his own small garden, and for most of the time he was a prisoner in his own home. His propensity for haemorrhages led to long periods of motionlessness on his bed lest the flow should restart. In the end, the doctors declared that he could no longer stay in Great Britain, and he left Bournemouth in August 1887. It was his last home in Europe.

The tale of the house that isn't there: Bournemouth Council's informative plaque

The tale of the house that isn’t there: Bournemouth Council’s informative plaque

‘Skerryvore’ survived until it was destroyed in a German air raid in November 1940. It was the only building to be hit. In the 1950s the site was cleared and a memorial garden was created by the Bournemouth Corporation, complete with a stone model of the lighthouse which gave his home its name. ◗

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