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Sacramental Liquid
January/February 2016

“Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife” (1885) by John Singer Sargent


Like many novelists, Robert Louis Stevenson occasionally dramatised character through drink. In Catriona, for instance, the lack of stable principle in the Jacobite exile, James More, is revealed by a conversation about breakfast drink. Asking David Balfour, “What is it you drink in the morning, whether ale or wine?”, and on being told that he took only water, More puts his young companion right:

“Tut-tut,” says he, “that is fair destruction to the stomach, take an old campaigner’s word for it. Our country spirit at home is perhaps the most entirely wholesome; but as that is not come-at-able, Rhenish or a white wine of Burgundy will be next best.”

More’s betrayal of Alan Breck is faintly foreshadowed in that touch of indifference about drink. As with rum in Treasure Island, drink for Stevenson is often what both reveals and debases — and the epitome of drink in this sense for Stevenson is the concoction which boils and smokes in the glass before it transforms Henry Jekyll into Edward Hyde.

But Stevenson used wine more positively in a novel about the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, which he began but then abandoned in May 1892, and which survives as only a fragment of a dozen or so pages.

The Young Chevalier derives from one of the anecdotes collected by the flamboyant Jacobite fantasists and frauds John Sobieski Holberg Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart (really, John and Charles Allen), and published in 1847 as Tales of the Century. This collection of short stories and tales of the hundred years from Culloden to the date of publication was concocted to support the Allen brothers’ pretence to being direct descendants of the royal Stuart line. A legitimate son had been secretly born to the Young Pretender and Louise von Stolberg; the infant had been brought up in secret for fear of assassination; and his two sons, who had fought for Napoleon at Dresden, Leipzig, and Waterloo, were none other than the brothers who had compiled Tales of the Century.

Stevenson’s attention was caught by one of the fragments that made up this crazy edifice of fantasy. After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Young Pretender (or Chevalier, to his supporters) took refuge in the papal city of Avignon, where he lived for some three months between December 1748 and February 1749: this much is well-attested fact. The Jacobite myth of his ensuing adventures is given in a fictitious letter from his equerry, Henry Goring; and it is this “document” which is printed in Tales of the Century. Scottish strangers arrive in Avignon. The Young Pretender absconds with Henry Goring to Lyons and Strasbourg. The Young Chevalier rescues from a fire a beautiful girl, but does not take advantage of her sudden passion for “Le Comte d’Espoir” (the Pretender’s incognito). He moves on to Germany, is attacked by assassins, and performs great feats of valour. He frequents foreign courts, including Berlin, and becomes attached to the Polish Princess Radziwill, whom he promises to marry once he is restored. In fact, on leaving Avignon the Young Pretender travelled to Dijon, then to Paris, and finally to Venice.

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