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‘AUNT MAGGIE’ IN THE SOUTH SEAS – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB


August 12, 2017 | by SRB

The sights which met Robert Louis Stevenson when the yacht Casco landed at Nukahiva in the Marquesas inspired one of the most delicate, lyrical passages which even he ever penned. ‘The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart, and touched a virginity of sense.’

Stevenson undertook the voyage in the Pacific, which would end with his settling permanently in Samoa, as part of his life-long quest for a climate which would be beneficial for his health, but his experiences and observations changed him as a man and as a writer. He was accompanied on the cruise by his wife, Fanny, her son, Lloyd Osbourne, and his widowed mother, known on the trip as Aunt Maggie. All were changed utterly by their experiences, his mother no less than the others, but perhaps she had a longer internal voyage to make.

The transformation of Mrs Stevenson, née Margaret Balfour, can be evidenced by an event on Nukahiva, simple in itself but dramatic and enigmatic in its implications. The scene was recorded by Fanny, who always had a keen eye for incongruity and paradox. In a letter to Henry James, she expressed her amazement at the sight of her mother-in-law ‘taking a moonlight promenade on the beach in the company of a gentleman dressed in a single handkerchief.’ The tall, regal gentleman was, in the traditions of the islanders, covered in tattoos, and his modesty, a concept which did not trouble the Polynesians, preserved only by a loin cloth.

Fanny fastened on to the fact that the woman was the elderly daughter of a minister of the Kirk, widow of the celebrated engineer Thomas Stevenson, one time resident of Edinburgh’s New Town and adherent of the Calvinist creed of the Church of Scotland. Earlier photographs show her in the garb of a conventional bourgeois wife and mother, attractive and at ease in her role. All accounts agree that her marriage was happy and her life fulfilled. Her son did once write that the ‘children of lovers are orphans’, a mild if intriguing complaint which could be overturned into a recognition of the warmth of his parents’ relationship. He had the compensation of being looked after by his adored Cummy, Alison Cunningham, the nanny the couple’s affluence allowed them to employ.

In Edinburgh, Aunt Maggie was no rebel against prevailing standards, so what was on her mind that evening in Nukahiva? Western missionaries and administrators were shocked by the libertine ways off the islanders, but what sort of transformation had she undergone as she travelled from Heriot Row to the islands of the South Seas? Was there ever such a fracturing of habits of mind and culture as in her case? Is puritanism an outer shell that can be shuffled off when circumstances change? Aunt Maggie’s life changed in 1887 when her husband died. She was 58 and both she and her son were left sufficiently well provided for to enjoy independence, if not great wealth. When subsequently Thomas’ name came up, she dutifully repeated her devotion to her ‘dear husband’, and always wore the widow’s cap. In posed photographs in Samoa, she had an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria, but she was free of any restrictions now called ‘Victorian’.

If she is never completely absent in the biographies, she has been left largely in the shadows. There have been biographies of Fanny, née Van de Grift, later Osbourne by her first marriage and finally Stevenson. Cummy has been examined for the psychological impact on her young charge of her inculcation of strict Calvinist teachings and Covenanting history. Analyses have been made of Fanny Sitwell, RLS’s earlier love, but the woman with whom a socially acceptable relationship was impossible because she was married, however unhappily, and was in any case promised to Sidney Colvin once her husband finally shuffled off his mortal coil, which he took too long to do. There has even been enlightened or prurient speculation about Kate Drummond, a lady of the streets who may have been the object of RLS’s affection during his bohemian, ‘Velvet Jacket’, days as a student, whom he may have wished to marry, whose relationship with him may have caused ructions at home in Heriot Row, who may have borne him a baby but then again who may never have existed.

It can hardly be surprising if of the various women who played a significant part in the life of Stevenson, most attention has been paid to his wife Fanny. Theirs was a singular relationship, as enigmatic and troubling as the marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle or even Leo and Sonya Tolstoy. Fanny undoubtedly kept him alive with her selfless care, but she was an imposing figure and it is hard to avoid the impression that in the last years of their life together in Samoa he was not so much in awe of her as intimidated. In life, she divided opinion. Alice James opined that she had the ‘build and character that somehow suggested Napoleon’. Aunt Maggie never moved in circles which left her exposed to such merciless scrutiny.
Although not given to introspection, Aunt Maggie seems to have relished her new freedom and the opportunities to alter her habits and style of life and thought widowhood implied. In the manner of the times, both mother and son assumed that she would live with him and his wife, and the much maligned Fanny raised no objection. Perhaps that had always been the plan. Graham Balfour, his cousin and first biographer, quotes a letter by RLS to his mother, who had reproached him for not writing. ‘You must not be vexed at my absences. You must understand that I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days are done’ … but he adds, ‘Just wait until I am in full swing, and you will see that I will pass more of my life with you than anywhere.’

It was agreed that Stevenson could not survive in the climate of Edinburgh so the family group moved first to the freezing conditions in Saranac, in up-State New York. She was then one of the company who cruised in the Pacific on the yacht, Casco, whose passengers were a highly literate lot and prolific correspondents and journal-keepers. In a letter home, Maggie wrote with the excitement of a school girl on her first trip: ‘Fanny and I are dressed like natives, in two garments … As we have to wade to and from the boat in landing and coming back, we discard stockings, & on the sands we usually go barefoot entirely.’ Going barefoot then and in Samoa was akin to pulling down the pillars of convention. The two garments were the oddly named Mother Hubbard dress with an accompanying chemise, a liberation for the two women after the constrictions of becoming female attire in Britain, but an imposition for native women, accustomed to going around bare-breasted, when the missionaries compelled them don it, as Western modesty required.
Aunt Maggie was never likely to totally kick over the traces, but she was remarkably open-minded and uncensorious when faced with the customs of the islanders. Westerners, including RLS himself, were so taken aback by the overtly sexual nature of the dances practised all over the Pacific that they were shocked into silence and none was able to leave any description. Margaret was no exception in verbal restraint, but she was not given to moralistic denunciation. Her responses to new ways which clashed with what is expected of Victorian matrons was business-like. After sitting through a sexy welcoming dance, she limited herself to the remark that she now understood the Indian custom of early marriage.

The cruise on the Casco ended at Hawaii, and while the rest of the party continued on the trading schooner, Equator, Margaret returned to Edinburgh. There are no worthwhile accounts of her life there at that moment, but it is reasonable to assume she resumed her habitual way of life. It did not last. Once her son had purchased the land at Vailima on Upolu where his house would be built, she communicated her intention to join the family, or clan, as it became. Lloyd was dispatched to Britain to sell off the previous Stevenson home in Bournemouth, and to assist Aunt Maggie in making preparations for the move from Edinburgh to Samoa. It was a real Scottish flitting, meaning that she took her furniture with her across the oceans. When it arrived in Samoa, her wardrobes, chests of drawers and armchairs had to be loaded onto carriages and transported up the long hill from the port of Apia to Vailima. Once again, one has to admire the pluck and energy of this woman, elderly by the standards of her time, as she uprooted from all that was familiar and set off for a life in a land of which she knew nothing.

Once they were settled in, all the inhabitants of Vailima had an allocated task, except Margaret, much to Fanny’s annoyance. She observed life and politics on the islands, and her correspondence shows she was as appalled as her son at the rapacious ways of the whites and their contempt for the Samoans. Unlike many contemporaries, she never regarded them as inferiors. At the same time, there is a tone of sheer joy as she describes the lively social life of Vailima. ‘I have been quite gay (for me) this week, having been to no less than two entertainments,’ the one being a reception on board a visiting warship and the other a picnic near the volcanic Papaloa pool, although she declined an invitation to dive in.

This vivacious sybaritism, so far at odds with the greyness of the life she had known, was not a sign of a crisis of faith. She retained her basic Calvinist outlook and was instrumental in organising the Sunday evening religious ceremony in Vailima, with its fixed ritual of summons by a conch, readings from the Bible, hymns in Samoan and a specially written prayer by RLS. Most of the servants were Catholics, known on the island as ‘popeys’, and if Aunt Maggie could not quite shake off a prejudice against Catholic idolatry, she behaved with kindness to all. Her insistence that the Catholic servants attend the services in Vailima upset Fanny, but Aunt Maggie had her way.

Stevenson felt passionately about the condition of women in contemporary society. Lloyd Osbourne believed he deserved to be viewed as a feminist, and recalled him denouncing ‘the chastity enforced on women under pain of starvation’, wondering if any man had the ‘courage of a woman of the streets’ and growing outraged at the ‘obligation for women to be attractive at any age’. It would be good to have RLS’s views of his mother. He wrote an obituary essay of his father, Thomas Stevenson, but never wrote about her, although this may be simply because his father predeceased him. His father was a man ‘with a blended sternness and softness that was wholly Scottish and somewhat bewildering’. Was he as bewildered by his mother as he saw her in her later years? Or did he see her as a new ideal? Did she see herself as having escaped from a doll’s house?

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