The sordid Jekyll and Hyde habits of Robert Louis Stevenson

EDINBURGH, he wrote, was not so much a city as the largest of small towns, not so much beautiful as interesting, and that, "in a word, and above all, she is a curiosity".

&#149 Robert Louis Stevenson was known to have visited the salacious underbelly of Edinburgh in the 19th century

And so too, it seems, was Robert Louis Stevenson.

For beneath his veneer of respectability and charm, his status as celebrated writer and his social rank as the son of a highly regarded god-fearing citizen of the New Town, Stevenson liked nothing better than to satisfy his own carnal curiosities among the city's seedy underbelly.

The forbidden fleshpots around Leith Street, where bawdy brothel girls flaunted disease-ridden wares and negotiated hurried sex for a few shillings and the illicit drinking shebeens where booze flowed regardless of the law, were where, according to a new biography, one of the Capital's most famous writers frequently spent his nights.

Just like his most famous character, Dr Jekyll, Stevenson had another dimension to his character - one which would have had his church-going father broken by shame.

For while the writer was busy making the short journey from the New Town to the sleazy brothels around Leith Walk, his own family were campaigning against the evils of prostitution and donating money to "save" the city's fallen women.

They were women who made their living selling sex to outwardly respectable men like Stevenson, who - thanks to biographer Jeremy Hodges' laborious research - now have names and ages, backgrounds and identities.

"Many of these girls would have been only around 19 to 24 years old," says Mr Hodges, who trawled through census papers from 1871 in a bid to uncover detail about the ladies of the night who so fascinated the Edinburgh writer.

"Some reports from the charitable institutions set up to try to help them suggest many were just 14.

"It would be quite possible that within ten years, they'd be dead. For many, it was a grim existence."

Stevenson's mother, a daughter of the manse, and his father, a brooding, religious character with strong Calvinistic convictions, were seemingly unsuspecting: they thought their only son was studying hard at university.

In fact, says Hodges, as d arkness fell and the city shed the strait-laced daytime outer shell to reveal its hedonistic and wanton streak, he had no qualms about joining in the "fun".

He certainly didn't need to travel far to find a seedy side to the city.

The High Street, says Hodges, thronged with "sixpenny whores", loose women who sold themselves for pennies which typically would be used almost immediately to buy booze.

The New Town, meanwhile, may have had a classier exterior, but behind the prim walls of some of its impressive properties, the same kinds of salacious acts and transactions were taking place.

"You can picture the scene of horse drawn carriages and gaslight," says Hodges.

"Stevenson lived in Heriot Row, he would have walked along Queen Street which would be perfectly respectable, but turn right to Elder Street and he'd have found a wicked place which decent people would not go near at night.

"St James Square was known for its large number of brothels, but Stevenson was most likely at Leith Street.

"The tobacconist shop at number nine was where he had his 'private' mail delivered - items that, presumably, he didn't want his parents to see. Below was a network of cellars, which, at night became a shebeen."

Stevenson, who was given just a small allowance by his prim father, couldn't have afforded a visit to Clara Johnson's Clyde Street brothel, the most posh in town.

"There, clients would pay 5, which was a fortune by today's standards," adds Hodges.

Clara's girls were far removed from the High Street's "streetwalkers", he says.

Instead, they were given the much less tawdry title of "gay ladies".

The 1871 census revealed them to be young women with previously respectable jobs such as milliner and dressmaker, whose 8 annual salaries would have been dwarfed by their earnings under Clara's roof.

Indeed, morally bankrupt as she was, Clara was eventually found to be worth around 14,000 - in the region of 2m by today's standards. And while she operated a high-class prostitution business, many brothels were far less salubrious.

"There were around 200 brothels known to the police in Victorian Edinburgh, and of course, there would have been a lot of "part-time" prostitution which doesn't show on police records of the time," adds Hodges.

"Some parts of the city would be barely recognisable by night.

"In Princes Street and Hanover Street, once the shops shut, it would be all prostitution. If you were respectable, you would not even go there after the shops closed.

"Prostitution was a massive problem for respectable people and they could be quite hysterical about it at the time."

Among them were Stevenson's own family.

"The girls whose company he enjoyed were the same 'fallen women' his father, a respected engineer, was trying to save at the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum," says Hodges.

"His uncle David, meanwhile, supported the Scottish National Association for the Suppression of Licentiousness in its campaign against vice, including the banning of nude models at the city's school of art."

It seems unlikely that the man known as "Velvet Coat" for his Bohemian style jacket and for his charming manner and consideration for the women he encountered, did not partake in some services.

"He mentioned one, Mary H, who worked in a factory in Leith but at times she apparently went on and off the game, sometimes a perfectly respectable woman who would not welcome advances at all, and then there'd be periods of prostitution," Hodges says.

"Stevenson seems to have known her very well."

In visiting these brothels Stevenson was, adds Hodges, dicing with danger. For those found to be dallying with women of loose morals often paid a very high price.

"It was a very claustrophobic society," adds Hodges. "Stevenson's parents actually thought they would have to leave Edinburgh when he married an American divorcee, such was their shame.

"Whether they were aware of his shenanigans, I don't know, but he certainly had a lot of upset with his parents which was usually put down to his opposing views on religion."

Worse though, Stevenson's dark side may even have been the death of him. For fraternising with Victorian prostitutes could be a deadly business.

"Stevenson had TB but he died from a stroke," says Hodges, who has delved into ageing census records and historic reports in a bid to unravel key elements of Stevenson's short but prolific life.

"And a stroke had nothing to do with TB.

"However, it could have been one of the things that happened to you in the later stages of syphilis."

It's not completely clear whether Stevenson visited the brothels for illicit sex or simply because of his fascination for Edinburgh's underbelly - eventually he'd drawn on its schizophrenic nature for one of his most famous works.

"What is known is that while he wasn't a great physical presence, he had enormous personal charm," adds Hodges.

"He would chat away with anyone. And that is one of the things that made him a great writer."

n Lamplit, Vicious Fairy Land by Jeremy Hodges, is being serialised on www.robert-louis-stevenson.org, which is hosted by Edinburgh Napier University's Centre for Literature and Writing (CLAW).

Colourful life of talented writer

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in November 1850, at Howard Place, Edinburgh, son of lighthouse engineer Thomas Stevenson, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of a Colinton minister. The family later lived at 17 Heriot Row.

Stevenson's childhood was plagued by illness which left him frail and thin. He studied engineering at Edinburgh University but his talent was writing. He eventually made his home in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands.

He died from a stroke aged 44 on December 3, 1894, leaving behind his works including Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped.

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