Archive begins new chapter on Stevenson’s life

IT began with a schoolboy’s delight in literature and flourished into a 50-year labour of love gathering together one of the world’s largest archives, which painstakingly catalogues the life of one of Edinburgh’s great literary figures – Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now the life’s work of Ernest Mehew and his wife Joyce – thousands of books, artefacts and papers, including letters, diaries and cuttings – is to be donated to the city and opened up to the public.

The reputation of Stevenson, dismissed for years as a minor writer unworthy of serious consideration by readers and critics, will receive a massive boost in the city when the Ernest and Joyce Mehew Archive comes to Edinburgh Napier University and the National Library of Scotland.

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Ernest Mehew gathered his encyclopedic knowledge of the author without the use of computers, assistants or any university affiliation. He started as a schoolboy and later used his hour-long commute on the London Underground to the Ministry of Food to read, not only everything written by Stevenson, but everything Stevenson had read and that had been written about him.

With his wife, he scoured second-hand bookshops, filling their house and attic with what is described as “an incomparable research archive” of “Stevensoniana”.

The two institutions plan to make the collection available to the public once thousands of books and papers have been documented and catalogued.

The books will be given to Edinburgh Napier University, which hopes to complete a specially designed meeting room next year for the purpose of housing the collection as part of a major redevelopment of its Merchiston campus.

The thousands of letters, notes and other papers, which unpacked would span nearly eight metres, will be housed within the National Library’s existing Robert Louis Stevenson archive and made available for view by the public within weeks.

Professor Linda Dryden, director of the Centre for Literature and Writing at Napier, said: “What we have in this collection is incredibly rare – certainly of national importance and quite likely of international importance.”

She added: “These sorts of collections are generally snapped up by big libraries in the United States but this one has been donated to us because the executor of the Mehew estate wanted to keep it in Edinburgh, where Stevenson was born.”

Robin Smith, head of collections and interpretation at the National Library of Scotland, said: “This is a unique and wonderful collection which will enrich our existing Stevenson archive.”

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Ali Bowden, director of the Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature Trust, said: “[Napier’s] creation of a Stevenson collection is an inspiration and we are looking forward to working with them on a range of events for November 13 to mark Stevenson’s birthday.”