I have these two books in a lovely Folio Society edition. I used to be a member but nowadays I tend to buy their books in second-hand shops. Again, they’re on my 2011 reading list. RLS is of course Robert Louis Stevenson but he tends to be shortened in Scotland. I read somewhere years ago that his middle name was pronounced Lewis – as he came from a very strict Presbyterian family which wouldn’t have had anything to do with French Catholic sounding names. It seems strange that they gave him such a name then.
Anyway, RLS wrote quite a lot of travel books and these are two of them. The Amateur Emigrant is about his journey from the Broomielaw Docks on the River Clyde in Glasgow to New York in 1879, on his way to San Francisco to be with the American married woman that he had fallen for. The voyage was grim and RLS had always been sickly so it must have been even worse for him but his descriptions of the types of people who have decided to seek a better life in America is well worth reading and he makes a lot of observations about their personalities. I had imagined that emigrants would have been ‘go-getting’ types but RLS describes them as people who had failed to do well in their home country and predicted that they would fare no better in the new one because of their attitudes. It seems that work was as hard to come by in New York as it was in Scotland and although in my family uncles opted to go to Australia in the 1960s I have to say that life wasn’t any better for them there than it would have been if they had just stayed at home, and was probably even worse for their kids, jobs wise anyway.
In The Silverado Squatters RLS is married to his beloved Fanny Osbourne who had managed to get a divorce. As you can imagine the Stevenson family were dead against Fanny who was years older than him and seems to have been ‘a bit of a gal’ but she made him happy. They spend their honeymoon near Calistoga in California in a wreck of a ‘house’ which had been inhabited by miners years before. It had no windows and holes in the roof so it’s just as well that the weather was good. I think RLS probably hoped that the dry heat would help with the consumption which he had suffered from for years. The place was infested with rattlesnakes which they didn’t realise were dangerous until the end of their month long stay there.
I enjoyed this book but I think that it might be of even more interest to Americans who might have travelled to the places that he mentions. He met Californian wine makers in the Napa Valley and saw the fancy mock French labels which they put on their bottles because then they could get people to buy it. RLS was impressed with the wine but Californian wine was in its infancy then and I can remember fairly recently that wine snobs were very sniffy about ‘New World’ wine. ‘The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.’ RLS.
He seems to have met quite a lot of Scotsmen around that area and they were always glad to hear another Scotsman and hear about the old country. They must have been homesick.
The Silverado Squatters ended very abruptly though which I thought was a bit strange, almost as if he had had to pack quickly and never added any more to his writing after he left the place.