What is an Unbirthday?
Stevenson’s Remarkable Gift to Annie Ide
Most people love getting presents on their birthday, but Robert Louis Stevenson made a present of his own birthday instead.
In June 1891 Stevenson drew up a mock legal document which transferred his birthday of 13 November to Annie Ide, the daughter of the American land commissioner in Samoa. She was born on Christmas Day and therefore did not have a ‘proper’ celebration of her own — so RLS gave her his 13th November ‘unbirthday’ instead.
Who was Annie Ide?
Annie Ide moved to the island of Samoa with her family in 1891, when her father became the American land commissioner in Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson and his family had settled in Samoa and invited Annie, her sisters and her father to the Stevenson home at Vailima. The Stevenson and Ide families became firm friends.
When Stevenson heard that Annie hated having to share her 25 December birthday with Christmas, he decided to do something about it. In June 1891 he drew up a document transferring his birthday to Annie, saying that the transfer would allow her a “proper birthday” and the “eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts”.
Annie later assumed the name Louisa in honour of RLS, and always celebrated the birthday on 13 November. As his ‘named daughter’, Stevenson kept writing her letters and sent poems he had written for her.
“I have now no further use for a birthday”
This is the full text of the letter by Robert Louis Stevenson that turned his birthday officially into an Unbirthday gift.
19 June 1891
Dear Mr Ide,
Herewith please find the DOCUMENT which I trust will prove sufficient in law. It seems to me very attractive in its eclecticism; Scots, English and Roman law phrases are all indifferently introduced and a quotation from the works of Haynes Bayly can hardly fail to attract the indulgence of the Bench.
Yours very truly,
Robert Louis Stevenson
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind and pretty well I thank you in body:
In consideration that Miss A. H. Ide, daughter of H. C. Ide, in the town of St Johnsbury, in the County of Caledonia, in the State of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore, out of all justice, denied the consolation and profit of a Proper Birthday;
And considering that 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;
And in consideration that I have met H. C. Ide, the father of the said A. H. Ide, and found him about as white a Land Commissioner as I require;
Have transferred, and do hereby transfer to the said A. H. Ide, All and Whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said A. H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts, compliments and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;
And I direct the said A. H. Ide to add to her said name of A. H. Ide the name Louisa – at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familiae, the said birthday not being so young as it once was and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;
And in case the said A. H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being.
In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this 19th day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Witness: Lloyd Osbourne
Witness: Harold Watts
There is a picture of a birthday feast for Stevenson at his home in Vailima, Samoa, which was taken in 1893, two years after he ‘signed it away’. It seems RLS did not renounce his birthday quite as thoroughly as he claimed he would.
A Gift that keeps on Giving
As Annie Ide had no children to inherit the day, she passed RLS’s birthday on to her niece Anita Leslie-King “so that a mortal date can be carried on immortally”.
Anita Leslie-King in turn passed that birthday on through her family: Heather Finn, the daughter of Anita’s own child Leonie Finn, was the next heir of Annie Ide’s special day.
Heather was still very young when her grandma died and for a while was blissfully unware that she had become the most recent recipient of Stevenson’s Unbirthday. In 2000, 150 years after the birth of RLS, the then 20-year old Heather was asked in an interview about the family’s remarkable heirloom. She confessed: “I would know Robert Louis Stevenson from Treasure Island and Kidnapped and I loved the books and the films. But I had no idea when reading the books that I had his birthday. Nobody tells me anything.”
Heather Finn has since kept alive the special tradition in her family of celebrating Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday as their own, and will also pass on the birthday if she has a daughter.
Who is Leonie Finn?
Leonie Finn is the mother of the current holder of Stevenson’s Unbirthday, Heather Finn, and nowadays runs Oranmore Castle in Oranmore, County Galway, in Ireland.
In honour of her family’s inheritance of the 13 November birthday, Leonie is Edinburgh’s special guest for RLS Day 2015. Leonie will be attending Edinburgh Napier’s ‘Stevenson on Stage and Screen’ at 6pm at the Faculty of Advocates on 13 November, as well as taking part in several other events at schools, libraries and universities across the city. She will be visiting the Flora Stevenson Primary to hand them the runner-up prize in the RLSDay 2015 Primary School Comeptition in person when the children throw their self-planned RLSDay Birthday Bash.
She will be staying at the Place Hotel, as the first person ever to stay in the Place Hotel’s newly created Robert Louis Stevenson suite.
What better way to celebrate the enduring legacy of RLS?
Related RLSDay 2015 Event:
Theme: Stage and Screen
Theme: Hidden RLS