The Land of Counterpane

Above: Landscape, by Marilyn Harris

It’s just as well I had nothing in the diary for this weekend, as all I felt capable of doing was nestling under the duvet. My mind wandered to childhood coughs and colds, with a bottle of Lucozade in its golden cellophane wrapper, and reading matter scattered over the eiderdown. Robert Louis Stevenson describes the scene in his poem, named above:

“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.”

Stevenson’s life-long health difficulties were based in his lungs. He came from a family which had earned wealth from lighthouse engineering, and his Edinburgh childhood would have exposed him to industrial pollution. As a young man, Stevenson pursued legal studies to satisfy his father, and was admitted to the Bar by the age of twenty-five. He then embarked on a life of travel, adventure and writing for publication. In style, he was a Neo-Romantic, and at the height of his popularity was hugely successful.

Stevenson’s father died in 1887. By then, Stevenson had married an American woman ten years his senior. In 1890, Stevenson purchased a four hundred acre estate on the island of Upolu, Samoa, and lived there with his wife and her son. By 1894, Stevenson had become increasingly depressed, convinced the best of his work was behind him. He wrote that he wished his illnesses would kill him. In December of that year, while taking a glass of wine on the verandah of his mansion, Stevenson died at the age of forty four.

Representatives of the modernist aesthetic, including Virginia Woolf (author of “To the Lighthouse”, Stevenson’s father might have cared to know), came to criticise his style and to question its value as writing for adults. When Henry James learned of his death, however, he wrote:

“It makes me cold and sick – and with the absolute, almost alarmed, sense of the visible material quenching of an indispensable light….I’m not sure that it’s not for him a great and happy fate; but for us the loss of charm, of suspense, of “fun” is unutterable.”

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