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Robert Louis Stevenson and La Solitude
The literary history of Hyères is written in its street names: rues Voltaire and Simenon; avenue Edith Wharton. But its most famous Hyères-ophile, Robert Louis Stevenson, remains streetless.
The author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped had discovered the Côte d’Azur in 1863, when, at the age of 12, he came with his parents. Consumptive from an early age, he returned at ten-year intervals. In 1872 he had stayed in Menton.
Between this visit and his next, ten more years later, he had met and fallen in love with a married Californian, Fanny Osbourne. In 1879, afraid that marriage would be incompatible with his writing career, he agonized over his choice on a gruelling mountain trek that inspired his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. The solitude of that bleak journey must also have inspired a decision: he returned to the Riviera in 1882, with his new wife, Fanny.
They settled in Hyères in Le Chalet de la Solitude. It was a pseudo-Swiss folly that Stevenson’s eccentric landlord had seen at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and liked so much that he had it shipped to Hyères. Stevenson wrote excitedly to his mother: ‘We have found a house up a hill, close to the town, an excellent place though very, very little’.
So little, in fact, that at first I could not find it – even with the help of the postman, but eventually I spotted a faded sign: La Solitude. It still stands, ‘clinging to a low cliff’, now much enlarged and with a garage and a satellite dish.
One wonders if Rudyard Kipling, on his 1920s stays in Hyères, recognized Stevenson’s little home near his hotel. As a 12-year-old, Kipling had been taken by his father to that same 1878 Paris Exhibition.
Having been built for show rather then habitation, it was minuscule, but Stevenson thought it ‘the loveliest house you ever saw, with a garden like a fairy story and a view like a classical landscape’.
The sixteen idyllic months at La Solitude were the most healthy and productive of his life, and his contentment there shouts from his writings of the time: ‘I live in a most sweet corner of the universe’. He finished The Silverado Squatters, wrote many stories and articles and a book of poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, which he dedicated to his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham (‘Cummy’) – to ‘lighten my burthen of ingratitude’.
He also started The Black Arrow, a nautical adventure story, and the more successful Kidnapped, and would certainly have stayed longer if Fanny had not read an article in The Lancet about a cholera outbreak. Not realizing that the annual cholera scare was as consistent a feature of the Azurien summer as the Battle of the Flowers, in June 1884 she whisked him off home. It was his last stay on the Riviera.
He was to travel extensively in the south Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, where he died ten years later. But, as he wrote from there: ‘I was only happy once. That was at Hyères.’