Nov 132013


Today is the birthday (1850) of Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer.  In popular tradition he is chiefly remembered for the characters Long John Silver, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  But in his lifetime his writing on a wide range of issues including world travel were immensely popular.  I first encountered Stevenson as an 8 yr old boy when my teacher read us “The World of Counterpane” (counterpane = bedspread) and explained that Stevenson was very sickly as a boy and had to spend long periods in bed.  So he invented a world of his own where his knees were hills and the flat places were plains where soldiers could march. I was deeply touched by this. I had no idea at the time who Stevenson was except this poor sick boy who could not go out to play. In celebration, therefore, I am going to focus on Stevenson’s childhood and children’s verses.


Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh to Margaret Isabella Balfour and Thomas Stevenson, a leading lighthouse engineer. Lighthouse design was the family profession: Thomas’s own father (Robert’s grandfather) was the famous lighthouse designer Robert Stevenson, and Thomas’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Smith, and brothers Alan and David were also in the business. On Margaret’s side, the family were gentry, tracing their name back to an Alexander Balfour, who held the lands of Inchrye in Fife in the fifteenth century. Her father, Lewis Balfour, was a minister of the Church of Scotland at nearby Colinton, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his house. “Now I often wonder,” wrote Stevenson, “what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them.”

Lewis Balfour and his daughter both had weak chests, and often needed to stay in warmer climates for their health. Stevenson inherited a tendency to coughs and fevers, exacerbated when the family moved to a damp, chilly house at 1 Inverleith Terrace in 1851. The family moved again to the sunnier 17 Heriot Row when Stevenson was six years old, but the tendency to extreme sickness in winter remained with him until he was eleven. Illness would be a recurrent feature of his adult life and left him extraordinarily thin. Contemporary views were that he had tuberculosis (or consumption), but more recent views are that it was bronchiectasis, an obstructive lung disease.


Stevenson’s parents were both devout and serious Presbyterians, but the household was not strict in its adherence to Calvinist principles. His nurse, Alison Cunningham (known as Cummy), was more fervently religious. Her Calvinism and folk beliefs were an early source of nightmares for Stevenson, and he showed a precocious concern for religion. But she also cared for him tenderly in illness, reading to him from Bunyan and the Bible as he lay sick in bed, and telling tales of the Covenanters.

An only child, strange-looking and eccentric, Stevenson found it hard to fit in when he was sent to a nearby school at age six, a problem repeated at age eleven when he went on to the Edinburgh Academy; but he mixed well in lively games with his cousins in summer holidays at Colinton. In any case, his frequent illnesses often kept him away from his first school, and he was taught for long stretches by private tutors. He was a late reader, first learning at age seven or eight, but even before this he dictated stories to his mother and nurse. He compulsively wrote stories throughout his childhood. His father was proud of this interest; he had also written stories in his spare time until his own father found them and told him to “give up such nonsense and mind your business.” (“business” here means “studies”)

In September 1857, Stevenson went to Mr Henderson’s school in India Street, Edinburgh, but because of poor health stayed only a few weeks and did not return until October 1859. During his many absences he was taught by private tutors. In October 1861 he went to Edinburgh Academy, an independent school for boys, and stayed there sporadically for about fifteen months. In the autumn of 1863 he spent one term at an English boarding school at Spring Grove in Isleworth in Middlesex (now an urban area of West London). In October 1864, following an improvement to his health, he was sent to Robert Thomson’s private school in Frederick Street, Edinburgh, where he remained until he went to university.

I thought I would select a few favorites from A Child’s Garden of Verses, to give more personal insight into Stevenson’s childhood.  The collection was first published in 1885 under the title Penny Whistles.


First, the one that started it all for me:

Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

This is matched by a less well known and sadder one:

Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Then as testament to the fact that even when he was well enough to play, he was an only child:

Unseen Playmate

When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
‘T is he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
‘T is he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

‘T is he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
‘T is he will take care of your playthings himself!

And finally one that I love because it evokes an era when the speed of a train was pure magic in comparison with horse-drawn vehicles:

From a Railway Carriage

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

What better guide to cooking for Victorian invalids than my old standby Isabella Beeton?  Here’s some lovely tidbits from the chapter Invalid Cookery in Household Management:


1843. Always have something in readiness; a little beef tea, nicely made and nicely skimmed, a few spoonfuls of jelly, &c. &c., that it may be administered as soon almost as the invalid wishes for it. If obliged to wait a long time, the patient loses the desire to eat, and often turns against the food when brought to him or her.

1844. In sending dishes or preparations up to invalids, let everything look as tempting as possible. Have a clean tray-cloth laid smoothly over the tray; let the spoons, tumblers, cups and saucers, &c., be very clean and bright. Gruel served in a tumbler is more appetizing than when served in a basin or cup and saucer.

1847. Never leave food about a sick room; if the patient cannot eat it when brought to him, take it away, and bring it to him in an hour or two’s time. Miss Nightingale says, “To leave the patient’s untasted food by his side, from meal to meal, in hopes that he will eat it in the interval, is simply to prevent him from taking any food at all.” She says, “I have known patients literally incapacitated from taking one article of food after another by this piece of ignorance. Let the food come at the right time, and be taken away, eaten or uneaten, at the right time, but never let a patient have ‘something always standing’ by him, if you don’t wish to disgust him of everything.”

1849. Roast mutton, chickens, rabbits, calves’ feet or head, game, fish (simply dressed), and simple puddings, are all light food, and easily digested. Of course, these things are only partaken of, supposing the patient is recovering. [Yes, indeed, “light” food! Nothing quite so dainty as roast  mutton.]

1850. A mutton chop, nicely cut, trimmed, and broiled to a turn, is a dish to be recommended for invalids; but it must not be served with all the fat at the end, nor must it be too thickly cut. Let it be cooked over a fire free from smoke, and sent up with the gravy in it, between two very hot plates. Nothing is more disagreeable to an invalid than smoked food.

1852. In boiling eggs for invalids, let the white be just set; if boiled hard, they will be likely to disagree with the patient.

1853. In Miss Nightingale’s admirable “Notes on Nursing,” a book that no mother or nurse should be without, she says,—”You cannot be too careful as to quality in sick diet. A nurse should never put before a patient milk that is sour, meat or soup that is turned, an egg that is bad, or vegetables underdone.” Yet often, she says, she has seen these things brought in to the sick, in a state perfectly perceptible to every nose or eye except the nurse’s. It is here that the clever nurse appears,—she will not bring in the peccant article; but, not to disappoint the patient, she will whip up something else in a few minutes. Remember, that sick cookery should half do the work of your poor patient’s weak digestion.



1861. INGREDIENTS.—1 calf’s foot, 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of water, 1 blade of mace, the rind of 1/4 lemon, pepper and salt to taste.

Mode.—Well clean the foot, and either stew or bake it in the milk-and-water with the other ingredients from 3 to 4 hours. To enhance the flavour, an onion and a small quantity of celery may be added, if approved; 1/2 a teacupful of cream, stirred in just before serving, is also a great improvement to this dish.

Time.—3 to 4 hours. Average cost, in full season, 9d. each.

Sufficient for 1 person. Seasonable from March to October.


1864. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 oz. of ground coffee, 1 pint of milk.

Mode.—Let the coffee be freshly ground; put it into a saucepan, with the milk, which should be made nearly boiling before the coffee is put in, and boil both together for 3 minutes; clear it by pouring some of it into a cup, and then back again, and leave it on the hob for a few minutes to settle thoroughly. This coffee may be made still more nutritious by the addition of an egg well beaten, and put into the coffee-cup.

Time.—5 minutes to boil, 5 minutes to settle.

Sufficient to make 1 large breakfast-cupful of coffee.

Our great nurse Miss Nightingale remarks, that “a great deal too much against tea is said by wise people, and a great deal too much of tea is given to the sick by foolish people. When you see the natural and almost universal craving in English sick for their ‘tea,’ you cannot but feel that Nature knows what she is about. But a little tea or coffee restores them quite as much as a great deal; and a great deal of tea, and especially of coffee, impairs the little power of digestion they have. Yet a nurse, because she sees how one or two cups of tea or coffee restore her patient, thinks that three or four cups will do twice as much. This is not the case at all; it is, however, certain that there is nothing yet discovered which is a substitute to the English patient for his cup of tea; he can take it when he can take nothing else, and he often can’t take anything else, if he has it not. Coffee is a better restorative than tea, but a greater impairer of the digestion. In making coffee, it is absolutely necessary to buy it in the berry, and grind it at home; otherwise, you may reckon upon its containing a certain amount of chicory, at least. This is not a question of the taste, or of the wholesomeness of chicory; it is, that chicory has nothing at all of the properties for which you give coffee, and, therefore, you may as well not give it.”


1866. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of eels, a small bunch of sweet herbs, including parsley; 1/2 onion, 10 peppercorns, 3 pints of water, 2 cloves, salt and pepper to taste.

Mode.—After having cleaned and skinned the eel, cut it into small pieces, and put it into a stewpan, with the other ingredients; simmer gently until the liquid is reduced nearly half, carefully removing the scum as it rises. Strain it through a hair sieve; put it by in a cool place, and, when wanted, take off all the fat from the top, warm up as much as is required, and serve with sippets of toasted bread. This is a very nutritious broth, and easy of digestion.

Time.—To be simmered until the liquor is reduced to half.

Average cost, 6d.

Sufficient to make 1-1/2 pint of broth.

Seasonable from June to March.