Princess Royal’s lighthouses

Posted by HC in Boats / Books / Monasticism / Travel on 14 July 2008

Great news that Princess Anne loves lighthouses, and even better to think that she is following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson.

I am a natural royalist. Monarchy, opera, hunting and monasticism are similarly irrational, even absurd. And well worth defending. It would be tempting to do so because they are ancient. But that might take one toward celebrating torture and wouldn’t help you to defend opera. No comfort there, then. The best defence of any of them is that they are glamorous.

Princess Anne is the patron of the organisation which looks after the lighthouses of Britain’s northern coasts. But she’ s said to be a collector: an acquisition pharologist. It seems a wonderfully batty thing to be, and wholly admirable. The Times says she’s going round, ticking them off like a bird twitcher. Some, she sails to with her Navy husband.

Lord knows how she gets to the others. Probably on some sort of service vessel, as Robert Louis Stevenson did when he was still trying to prove to his father that he wanted to be a lighthouse engineer. That was before RLS tried to persuade his father that he wanted to be a lawyer. The story is beautifully told (though there’s not enough on lighthouses) in Claire Harman’s RLS biography, which I’d say is destined to be a classic. RLS was not keen to be a lighthouse engineer in the way of his grandfather and father. But he did like any kind of sea voyage and even went diving (at one his father’s sea defences) when to do so must have seemed a very hazardous thing to do. Like Anne and her husband, he liked married yachting, renting a schooner for Pacific cruises before taming bits of a tropical rainforest. Always thought to be on the point of death, discomfort and adversity seemed to invigorate him.

By the way, the Harman biography notes that Stevenson’s religious father’s wrestles with Darwinism matched those of Edmund Gosse’s father (who had his own seaside obsessions, as a naturalist). That story is told in Ann Thwaite’s biography of Gosse, which well matches Harman’s for sympathy and vigour. Gosse met and liked RLS, but then so did everybody, including, eventually, Henry James who didn’t take to him at first. (The correspondence between James and RLS, an almost incredibly different pair, made a neat book of its own.)

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