Lesley Graham (Université Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Selfless: The Shifting Reputation of Alison Cunningham in Stevenson Biographies’

The origins of Stevenson’s imagination and his distinctive voice have regularly been located in the influence of Alison Cunningham during his formative years. She gave him an ear for Scots, sang him Scottish ballads, read to him from the Bible and told him stories of Covenanters and ghosts. It is hard to overestimate the impact that Alison Cunningham had on the writer’s formative years and indeed her influence on the development of her charge’s talent has certainly not gone unnoticed by his many biographers. This paper analyses the ways in which those biographers have assessed and represented the nurse’s influence on his life and work.

Alison Cunningham’s reputation has fluctuated over the years from “good and earnest woman” to “small-minded bigot” depending on the interpretive framework chosen by the biographer. In the early biographies, she is unanimously portrayed as the angel of Stevenson’s infant life: an exemplary nurse, and the paragon of surrogate-motherly love. In fact, the term used most often to describe her devotion is selfless – an interesting notion in the context of life-writing suggesting that perhaps only the subject of the biography has an identity worth nurturing textually. Other biographers have been equally selective, choosing to focus on her dark convictions and bigotry, blaming her even more than Stevenson’s bleakly religious father for the young boy’s “precocious grasp of sin”. Some have claimed that Cummy’s possessiveness of the child sometimes “verged on a desire to control” and that “[p]sychologically, it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that Cummy was inducing a state of mental tumult which only she could calm”. It is worth noting, however, that most biographers recognize that Stevenson himself did not hold her responsible in any way for the more negative aspects of his active imagination, protesting rather that it was she who gave him “a passion for the drama”.

Categorized as Abstracts

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