Today marks 120 years since the passing of the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson in 1894. The author of such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was only 44 years old when he died in the Samoan Islands of a mysterious sudden illness. Though he lived a short life, Stevenson’s writings revived the Romantic movement in his time and continue to inspire wonder in readers today.
The Rare Book Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is fortunate to have a large number of works by and about Robert Louis Stevenson. Many of these fine and rare volumes were generously gifted by renowned doctor and book collector Carl W. Gottschalk and his wife Susan K. Fellner. Dr. Fellner is a research professor in UNC’s Department of Cell and Molecular Physiology. The late Dr. Gottschalk was Kenan professor and distinguished research professor of medicine and physiology at UNC and an eminent expert on the kidney. His stellar library of rare books on the human kidney came to the RBC following his death in 1997.
Stevenson is best known for his prose, but he also published several works of poetry. One highlight from the Gottschalk gift is an elegant edition of children’s poetry (below). A Child’s Garden of Verses was originally published in 1885 by Longmans of London after a trial book had appeared the same year with the title Penny Whistles. It was subsequently re-editoned many times due to the popularity of its over 60 short poems.
The RBC’s 1896 edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses was published by John Lane of London in a lovely green binding with gilt decoration to the spine and covers. It features 100 illustrations by the prolific English illustrator Charles Robinson. A Child’s Garden of Verses was the first full work that he illustrated. This edition was so popular that it demanded several additional printings.
Of all the poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses, one seems to capture the essence of Stevenson’s writing better than all the others: The Land of Story-books.
Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.
There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.
These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.
I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.
So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.
Whether young or old, one cannot help falling in love with Stevenson’s tales. Possibly what makes Stevenson’s writing so beloved is its timeless ability to tap into the imaginations of readers. Stevenson’s fiction comes alive in the minds of those who close their eyes with childlike wonder and allow themselves to be transported to the worlds where pirates bury treasure and monsters lurk in the night.