Robert Louis Stevenson in Switzerland

“A mountain valley has, at the best, a certain prison-like effect on the imagination, but a mountain valley, an Alpine winter, and an invalid’s weakness make up among them a prison of the most effective kind”

(RLS, “Davos in Winter”, in Essays of Travel [London: Chatto and Windus, 1905], p. 207)

The Stevenson family (RLS, his wife Fanny and stepson Lloyd) stayed in Davos for the winters of 1880-1881 and 1881-1882 under advice from RLS’s doctor. The climate of the Alps was supposed to have a curative value for invalids, but RLS himself disliked Davos – he found it stifling and depressing.

He outlines these feelings clearly in the essays he published on Davos: “Davos in Winter”, “Health and Mountains”, “Alpine Diversions” and “The Stimulations of the Alps”. These essays were all published in 1881 and are included in the volume Essays of Travel (1905).

On this page you will find information about RLS’s first and second winters in Davos (including a visit to Berne), details about the Davos Press, and information about RLS’s time in Zurich.

First Winter in Davos

RLS, Fanny and Lloyd were in Davos for Stevenson’s health from 4 November 1880 to around mid-April 1881. During their visit they stayed at the Hotel Belvedere.

From 19 0ctober – 3 November 1880 the Stevensons travelled via London, Paris and Troyes to Davos. On 4 November, they landed by rail at Landquart. They then took a roughly eight hour drive up the Valley of Prattigau to Davos.

Although in his essays about Davos RLS complained about it, RLS and the other convalescents did amuse themselves: they played music, performed plays, skated and tobogganed. RLS was also getting some writing done during this stay. As well as the articles he published on Davos (see above) he also worked on the proofs for Virginibus Puerisque (1881), and wrote “The Morality of the Profession of Letters” (1881).

Tragically, Fanny Sitwell’s son Bertie died of tuberculosis on 3 April 1881. She and Bertie arrived in Davos in January, hoping that the Alpine air would help him.

The Stevensons left Davos shortly after Bertie’s death, arriving in Barbizon just after mid-April 1881.

Second Winter in Davos

RLS, Fanny and Lloyd arrived in Davos for their second winter on 18 October 1881 (via London, Paris, and Zurich). They stayed in the chalet Villa am Stein near Hotel Buol. RLS often visited Hotel Buol, writing many of his letters during the period from there.

RLS had an extraordinarily productive winter: he finished work on Treasure Island (1883), corrected proofs of Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), and worked on Silverado Squatters (1884). He also wrote “A Gossip on Romance” (1882) and finished “Talk and Talkers” (1882). In March he worked on collecting together the stories that would make up New Arabian Nights (1882).

On 18 December 1881 RLS left Davos to go to Berne to be with Fanny. She had fallen ill and was being treated by doctors there. He travelled between Zurich and Berne in late December (see below), trying to help Fanny through her illness. On Christmas day, RLS, Fanny and Lloyd returned to Davos via an open-air sleigh:


“Yesterday, Sunday and Christmas, we finished this eventful journey by a drive in an open sleigh – none others were to be had – seven hours on end through whole forests of Christmas trees. The cold was beyond belief. I have often suffered less at a dentist’s. It was a clear, sunny day, but the sun even at noon falls, at this season, only here and there into the Pratigau”

(Letter from RLS to his mother, 26 December 1881, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol iii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], pp. 269-60).

The Stevensons left Davos on 20 April 1882 and travelled to London.

Davos Press

The Davos Press was a hand-operated printing press belonging to Lloyd Stevenson. Lloyd was gifted the “toy-press” in California, where he used it before bringing it with him to Davos in Switzerland.

In Davos, Stevenson spent a great deal of time with the twelve year old Lloyd, writing verses and carving the illustrations that would accompany them for the Davos Press. Lloyd remembered these times fondly, writing:
“The abiding spirit of the child in Stevenson was seldom shown in more lively fashion than those days of exile at Davos, where he brought a boys eagerness, a man’s intellect, a novelist’s imagination into the varied business of my holiday hours; the printing press, the toy theatre, the tin soldiers all engaged his attention” (Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol i [London: Methuen, 1901], p. 197).

Lloyd used the press to print and sell invitation cards, programs and other materials as a means of supplementing the family income. He also wrote and printed the story “Black Canyon, or Wild Adventures in the Far West”.

Lloyd also used the Davos Press in 1882 to print Stevenson’s Moral Emblems (1898) and Moral Tales (1898). RLS’s The Graver and the Pen (1898) had to be printed in Kingussie when the Press broke down after it was brought back to Edinburgh.

Stevenson seemed to revel in writing the poetry and in particular, in creating the woodcuts for these texts. In a letter to his mother he wrote:

“Wood-engraving has suddenly drave between me and the sun. I dote on wood-engraving. I’m a made man for life. I’ve an amusement at last” (Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol i [London: Methuen, 1901], p. 199). He cut two dozen engravings, although his wife Fanny cut the engraving of the elephant for Moral Emblems.

His poem entitled “Proem”, which appeared in The Graver and the Pen, offers an insight into Stevenson’s creative process in using the Davos Press. The poem is as follows:

Unlike the common run of men,
I wield a double power to please,
And use the GRAVER and the PEN
With equal aptitude and ease.

I move with that illustrious crew
The ambidextrous Kings of Art;
And every mortal thing I do
Brings ringing money in the mart.

Hence in the morning hour, the mead,
The forest and the stream perceive
Me wandering as the muses lead ______
Or back returning in the eve.

Two muses like two maiden aunts,
The engraving and the singing muse,
Follow, through all my favorite haunts,
My devious traces in the dews.

To guide and cheer me each attends;
Each speeds my rapid task along;
One to my cuts her ardour lends,
One breathes her magic in my song.

(RLS, The Davos Press, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol xxii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 22).

You can see the Davos Press in the Stevenson collection at the Writers’ Museum (The Edinburgh Museums Service). You may also want to visit the Edinburgh City of Print Website: http://www.edinburghcityofprint.org/, which also discusses the Davos Press. Edinburgh City of Print is a joint project between the City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries and the Scottish Archive of Print and Publishing History Records (SAPPHIRE). The project aims to catalogue and make accessible the wealth of printing collections held by City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries.

Zurich

RLS gives an indication of what was happening in a letter he wrote to W.E. Henley on 22 December 1881:

RLS was in Zurich on 16 October 1881, en route to wintering in Davos for the second time. He stayed at the Hotel National.

Despite RLS’s fears, Fanny was well enough to return to Davos on Christmas Day. Her health was poor for the rest of the Stevensons’ stay in Davos. Critics have been less than sympathetic about Fanny’s health (not only in Davos, but throughout her relationship with Stevenson), suggesting that she may have been a hypochondriac or that she was attention-seeking (see for example Frank McLynn, Robert Louis Stevenson [London: Hutchinson, 1993]). Clearly, though, RLS himself was deeply concerned about and shaken by her condition.

“I left to go after Fanny. Got that night to Zurich, and next afternoon to Bern, tired but no cold: not a bit too soon. Sam [Lloyd], who is a perfect brick, had nearly slain himself sick-nursing and was in bed with cold. Doctor very glum; ulceration of bowels, he thought; if innocent, four or five months to cure; if malignant of course – . The next night violent returns of pain, bloody stool, the subsidence of swelling, stools of pure bile, bile in the urine; and on the whole every sign that a gall stone had been passed and that the whole trouble might come from these. That is our present hope. We got her last night to Zurich very tired of course; but still in wonderful good case; though, till we try stopping the laudanum again, we can never be very sure”

(From The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew vol iii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 267).

He was in Zurich and the Hotel National again in December 1881. On 18 December RLS left Davos to go to Berne to be with Fanny. She had fallen ill and was being treated by doctors there. He travelled between Zurich and Berne in late December. It is difficult to piece together an exact chronology of when he was here and in Berne. However, it is likely that he stayed the 19th in Zurich before proceeding to Berne, and that he and Fanny were in Zurich on the 21st and 22nd.

First image courtesy of the Writers’ Museum. Moral Emblems images courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina. Davos Press image courtesy of Edinburgh City of Print.