Last month, I wrote of lawyer-writers who successfully pursued simultaneous legal and literary careers. Robert Louis Stevenson was not one of them. Indeed, despite years of legal study at the University of Edinburgh, admittance as an advocate after passing his Scots Bar examinations “with credit,” and the above bewigged photograph (taken to please his mother), I don’t think that Stevenson can rightfully be claimed for the law at all.
Law wasn’t even his second choice after literature, but his second second choice. He came from a famous family of engineers, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, and he began in that field. But, according to biographer Claire Harman, after “four years studying at the university” and “three summers on the works,” including stints “in a carpenter’s shop, a foundry and a timberyard,” Stevenson “still couldn’t tell one kind of wood from another or make the most basic calculations.” Even his father Thomas, who so dearly wished it otherwise, had to concede that Stevenson wasn’t cut out for the family business. That is not to say, however, that he was prepared to endorse a literary career for his son.
Stevenson’s cousin Etta tells the story thus:
I happened to be in the house when Lou told his father he did not want to continue to be a civil engineer. This was a great blow and a terrible disappointment to Uncle Tom, as for generations the Stevensons had all been very clever civil engineers; and already Lou had gained medals for certain inventions of his in connection with lighthouses. And Uncle Tom was more disappointed still when Lou declared that he wanted to go in for a literary life, as Uncle Tom thought he would make nothing at that⎯in fact that it was just a sort of excuse for leading a lazy life! Eventually it was well talked over, and Uncle Tom said that if he agreed to read for the Bar in order to become an advocate, after passing the examination, if he still persisted in wishing to go in for literature, he would not prevent it, for then he would have a good sound profession at his back.
Alas, Stevenson was as indifferent a student of law as he had been of engineering. His friend Charles Guthrie (later Lord Guthrie) recalled, “we did not look for Louis at law lectures, except when the weather was bad.” Harman elaborates: “A notebook that survives from his law studies is peppered with caricatures and doodles, and the few notes there are on Roman citizenship segue with comical readiness into a much more engaging daydream containing lines of a later poem.” Andrew Murray (later Lord Dunedin), stated bluntly that, although he and Stevenson were “very good friends,” they “did not really see much of each other” even as fellow law students, for: “I was interested in my profession⎯a profession which he frankly cared nothing about.”
If, in the words of another friend, John Geddie, Stevenson paid only “desultory attention” in his law classes, he did buckle down to study for the Bar examinations. But this study awakened no new interest in the subject, and it interfered with the work that really mattered to him. In a letter to Fanny Sitwell (later his wife), dated April 1875, he lamented: “I had no time to write, and, as it is, am strangely incapable. [...] I have been reading such lots of law, and it seems to take away the power of writing from me. From morning to night, so often as I have a spare moment, I am in the embrace of a law book – barren embraces.”
Stevenson passed the examinations and was admitted to the Bar on July 14th, 1875. For a time thereafter, as was the custom, he “walk[ed] about the Parliament House five forenoons a week, in wig and gown,” seeking work from solicitors with cases before the Courts. He was not altogether unsuccessful in this endeavour. Guthrie recounted: “I do indeed remember one morning in the Parliament House, when he came dancing up to me waving a bundle of legal papers in great glee: ‘Guthrie, that simpleton So-and-so has actually sent me a case! Now I have tasted blood, idle fellows like you will see what I can do!’” But he was not offered many briefs, and he accepted even fewer. Guthrie made reference to only “four complimentary pieces of employment [Stevenson] is said to have received, the fees for which did not run into two figures.”
Stevenson wrote to Fanny that he found it “a great pleasure to sit and hear cases argued or advised,” but nevertheless bemoaned the fact that: “I lose all my forenoons at Court!” Before long, he gave up the charade and devoted himself full time to writing. The brass nameplate engraved “R.L. Stevenson, Advocate” that his parents had affixed to the door of their home at 17 Heriot Row remained, but Stevenson no longer walked the halls of Parliament House in wig and gown. In fact, he soon quitted Edinburgh, and Scotland, altogether.
Stevenson “had no natural taste for the law,” Guthrie concluded. Nor, it seems to have been generally agreed among his legal friends, did he have any particular talent for it. So Stevenson’s defection was no great loss to the law. But it was a great gain to literature. And his keen readers, among whom I count myself, can be grateful that, in the end, he chose a literary life.
Sidney Colvin, ed., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (1900).
Lord Guthrie, Robert Louis Stevenson: Some Personal Recollections (1920).
Claire Harman, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (2005).
Rosaline Massin, ed., I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson (1922).
* The photos of Robert Louis Stevenson as an advocate, and of his doodles in lieu of note-taking (albeit from his engineering rather than his law school days) are from the digital collection of the National Library of Scotland. The photo of 17 Heriot Row is one I took myself the last time I followed Stevenson’s footsteps round Edinburgh.