8. Rivers, freedom and constraint in some of Stevenson’s autobiographical writing
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124 8. Rivers, freedom and constraint in some of Stevenson’s autobiographical writing LESLEY GRAHAM This chapter examines the various ways in which Robert Louis Stevenson, in a selection of essays from the 1880s, expresses the idea of freedom and its contrary through the image of rivers and their flow. The freedoms in question are multiple – the freedom to move forward professionally, to travel unfettered, to explore the world. The constraints are just as varied – the feeling of being hemmed in geographically; of being locked into the logic of family heredity; of being condemned to long periods of convalescence and subject to the constraints of family life. Resentment about this lack of freedom is keenly expressed, for example, in the essays written during the time that he spent convalescing in Davos in the Swiss Alps; a period of enforced isolation, hemmed in on all sides by high mountains, surrounded by snow and condemned to follow the valetudinarian lifestyle. It seems that the essay form offered Stevenson a freedom of content and style that allowed him to explore the tensions between the extremes of freedom and dependence and this, very often, through images of flux, of flowing rivers, held in on both sides by river-banks but constantly moving forwards, bringing with them the traces of the places and times through which they have passed; of the tyranny of inheritance cascading down generations. When Stevenson set out to write an essay about his ideal house, his first requisite was that there should be water nearby. ‘The house must be within hail of either a little river or the sea’, he writes. His preference is specifically for a modest watercourse because ‘a lively burn gives us, in the space of a few yards, a greater variety of promontory and islet, of cascade, shallow goil, and boiling pool, with answerable changes both of song and colour, than a navigable stream in many hundred miles.’1 As we shall see, this flow of liveliness and of variety is deployed by Stevenson in several essays where he uses the river as an organising and pacing device especially in the opening 125 rivers, freedom and constraint in stevenson paragraphs: his fluctuating flow of ideas and words mimicking the river’s irregular course but occasionally drifting into calmer pools of reflection – an opening that reflects the irregular and unpredictable flow of ideas in the essay itself. This is the case in two essays that recall Stevenson’s Edinburgh childhood. These pieces illustrate both the importance of rivers in general for Stevenson and the influence that they had on his imagination, in particular the extent to which he identified his Edinburgh childhood with the Water of Leith, the title of one of the essays. ‘It is not possible to exaggerate the hold that is taken on the mind of men by a familiar river,’2 he writes. The river in question is a modest waterway but an interesting one, running down from the Pentland Hills through a varied urban and rural landscape: ‘Such as it was, […] it was the river whose streams made glad my childhood and for that reason ever memorable to me.’ It ‘skirted the outposts, vacant lots, and half-rural slums of a great city, and at last, running between the repose of a graveyard and the clatter of engine factory, lapsed, between dark gates and groves of masts and a long alley of weedy piers, into an islanded salt estuary’ (45). The Water of Leith is thus entrusted with Stevenson’s sense of his childhood identity and with the memory of the variety and industry of his native city: they are braided rivers. The Water of Leith is also celebrated in the essay ‘The Manse: A Fragment’. In the opening paragraph, Stevenson approaches Colinton Manse, the home of his maternal grandfather, by way of the river, describing the exact time and spot from which he dreams of the old manse. I have named, among many rivers that make music in my memory, that dirty Water of Leith. Often and often I desire to look upon it again; and the choice of a point of view is easy to me. It should be at a certain water-door, embowered in shrubbery. The river is there dammed back for the service of the flour-mill just below, so that it lies deep and darkling, and the sand slopes into brown obscurity with a glint of gold; and it has but newly been recruited by the borrowings...