Simanaitis Says

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ROSEMARY HILL ENCOURAGED another bit of my Internet sleuthing with her recent review of Veronica della Dora’s Where Light in Darkness Lies: The Story of the Lighthouse in London Review of Books, February 16, 2023. Here are tidbits gleaned from the review and added sleuthing about a famous author’s grandfather (with some confusion included).

A Soft Pan. Rosemary Hill’s review of the book is something of a soft pan: “The book is not, as she [Dora] explains, either a history of lighthouses or an anthology of lighthouse imagery and it is, as a result, a rather disappointing and inconsequent muddle. Surprisingly, given that she is a professor of human geography, Dora gives no indication of having ever been inside a lighthouse….”

Where Light in Darkness Lies: The Story of the Lighthouse, by Veronica della Dora, Reaktion Books, 2022.

“Nor,” says Hill, “is she much interested in the detail of lighthouse mechanisms, which are shunted off into an appendix, or the lighthouse builders’ and keepers’ milieu, so fruitfully explored in Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999), an account of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immediate ancestors and their pioneering contribution to lighthouse design around Britain and beyond.”

RLS’s Granddad the Civil Engineer. And wouldn’t this encourage research? According to Wikipedia, Robert Stevenson was a Scottish civil engineer and designer and builder of lighthouses.” What’s more, he was to sire son Thomas, destined to be the father of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Robert Stevenson, FRSE, FGS, FRAS, FSA Scot, MWS, 1772-1850. Bust by Samuel Joseph, commissioned in 1824 by the Northern Lighthouse Board, from Wikipedia.

By the way, don’t confuse him (as I did initially…) with Robert Stephenson, FRS, HFRSE, FRSA, DCL, 1803-1859, English civil engineer and designer of locomotives. This Robert was childless; he was the son of George Stephenson, known as the Father of Railways.

To the best of family tree tracing (and my careless spelling), it appears the two Roberts are not related.

RLS’s granddad designed and constructed scads of lighthouses throughout Scotland. Image from Wikipedia.

Granddad’s Education. “In the winter, when it was too chilly for construction work,” Wikipedia notes, “he attended lectures at the University of Edinburgh in philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, natural history, moral philosophy, logic, and agriculture. He was not granted a degree because he did not have the proficiency in Latin or Greek that was a requirement for a degree in those days.”

Rosemary Hill quotes RLS: “The joy of my grandfather in this career was strong as the love of woman. It lasted him through youth and manhood, it burned strong in age, and at the approach of death his last yearning was to renew these loved experiences.”

Lighthouses a Threat to Wreckers. Hill continues, “The experiences were physically and intellectually demanding. As well as having to ‘toss much in boats’ and scramble on windswept rocks, Stevenson encountered considerable hostility to the very idea of lighthouses. Wreckers saw them as a threat to a profitable and semi-legal trade, for while it was a criminal offence to lure ships onto the rocks, there was no incentive to aid a vessel in distress, and once it was stranded a rescue party could claim a percentage of the cargo. The obligation to prioritise saving lives was not always observed.”

Which Reminds Me…. I recall two old movies with this theme: Jamaica Inn, 1939, and Whisky Galore, 1949. I remember the latter vividly as part of my “Home Theater, Fifties Style.”

It’s always fun to see where LRB book reviews encourage me. Thanks, Rosemary, for this and others to follow (one of which involves a faux WWII harbor). ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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