I’ll be spending some time today in the Imaginary Writers’ Room, because it’s a unique occasion. Robert Louis Stevenson was born on Nov. 13, 1850. He didn’t celebrate every birthday before his death on Dec. 3, 1894 — and not (just) because of his poor health.
He legally gave away his birthday. The little daughter of a friend, born on Dec. 25, wanted a birthday of her own, so Louis wrote a legal document that signed over his own to her.
Last night, Nov. 12, I realized the date and looked at search engines to confirm the story I found years ago in a Scottish-American journal I enjoyed at the time. I found ample confirmation — the best of it here and here.
So it’s about time to even out the birthday celebrating, I thought. After all, I’ve spent decades celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns, and the fun of those occasions has led me to join in (usually in this space) birthday celebrations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
But the idea wasn’t a unanimous hit when I arrived in the Imaginary Writers’ Room.
“Mony happy returns of the day, Louis,” said Robert Burns.
Sir Arthur smiled indulgently, looking between me and Louis, who was resting in his usual spot on the sofa.
“Did you no read the document, lass?” Stevenson asked.
“Yes, Louis, of course I did,” I said. “It’s so clever, and such a sweet gift to Annie.”
“Yes, that’s it — I gave away my birthday,” said Louis.
“ I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description,” I quoted back to its author.
“A’richt, ye read it,” said Stevenson. “I had no further use for a birthday even back then — when was it, your time?” he added.
“You were 41 years old,” I reminded him. “So 1891, or ’92 if ye wrote it after your birthday.”
“So what makes you think I want it back?” he said.
“Oh, Louis,” I said. “It’s a special day to remember all the wonderful things you wrote — and why shouldn’t the deed to your birthday be counted among them?”
“Maybe ye could have parties as people do for me,” said Robert Burns, “and a little girl could win your birthday if she needs a different one!”
T.S. Eliot smiled. “Maybe we shouldn’t encourage Margaret — or anyone — to glorify this business of giving away a birthday,” he said calmly. “After all, look at how long Louis spent on earth after he gave away his birthday.”
“Three years,” said Agatha Christie sternly. “Should you really have done that, Mr. Stevenson?”
“I stand by what I wrote,” said Louis. “I had no further use for a birthday then.”
“Surely it wasn’t cause and effect,” said Daphne du Maurier. “Was it?”
“And now, Louis?” said Arthur. “Have ye no changed your mind? Even I don’t mind seeing readers enjoy celebrating my birthday… although how they figured out a character’s birthday seems a bit far-fetched.”
“The science of deduction,” I said.
Then I ducked out the door of the Imaginary Writers’ Room and closed the door, just before a pillow thudded against it.
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