Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Biography of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known as the author of the children’s classic Treasure Island (1882), and the adult horror story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Both of these novels have curious origins. A map of an imaginary island gave Stevenson the idea for the first story, and a nightmare supplied the premise of the second. In addition to memorable origins, these tales also share Stevenson’s key theme: the impossibility of identifying and separating good and evil. Treasure Island’s Long John Silver is simultaneously a courageous friend and a treacherous cutthroat, and Dr. Jekyll, who is not wholly good but a mixture of good and evil, is eventually ruled by Hyde because of his own moral weakness. With Silver, Jekyll, and others, Stevenson set standards for complex characterization that were adopted by later writers. His method of rendering ambiguous, enigmatic personalities was one of Stevenson’s greatest literary contributions.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stevenson was the only child of Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Balfour. Inheriting the weak lungs of his mother, he was an invalid from birth. Before he was two years old, a young woman named Alison Cunningham joined the household to act as his nurse. It was to her that Stevenson dedicated A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) over 30 years later. The sheltered, bedridden nature of his childhood is revealed in this collection through poems like “The Land of Counterpane.”

Not all of his childhood was spent in the sickroom, though. During the summer he lived in the country at Colinton Manse where he played outdoors with his many cousins. Most sources say Stevenson was six years old when, competing against his cousins, he won a prize from one of his Balfour uncles for a history of Moses. His next composition was “The Book of Joseph.” Stevenson’s first published work, The Pentland Rising (1866), was also on a religious theme, recounting an unsuccessful rebellion by Covenanters in 1666. Stevenson wrote the account when he was 16, and his father had the pamphlet published at his own expense. As these compositions show, young Stevenson was tremendously influenced by the strong religious convictions of his parents. During his college years, however, his beliefs underwent a sharp reversal.

He had attended school since he was seven, but his attendance was irregular because of poor health and because his father doubted the value of formal education. Later, however, Stevenson’s father was severely disappointed with his son’s performance at the University of Edinburgh. Stevenson entered the university when he was 16, planning to become a lighthouse engineer like his father. Instead of applying himself to his studies, he became known for his outrageous dress and behavior. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat and a boy’s velveteen coat, Stevenson was called “Velvet Jacket.” In the company of his cousin Bob, Stevenson smoked hashish and visited brothels while exploring the seamy side of Edinburgh. At age 22, he declared himself an agnostic, crowning his father’s disappointment in him.

In order to appease his father, Stevenson studied law. He was called to the bar in 1875, but never practiced. While at the university, Stevenson had trained himself to be a writer by imitating the styles of authors William Hazlitt and Daniel Defoe, among others. Before and after receiving his law degree, Stevenson’s essays were published in several periodicals. A constant traveler for most of his adult life, he based his first two books, An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), on his excursions in France. Many of his journeys were searches for climates that would ease his poor health, but he also had an innate wanderlust. His trip to America in 1879, however, was made to pursue a woman.

Three years earlier, Stevenson had met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman 11 years his senior, at an artist’s colony near Paris. At the time, she was separated from her husband and living abroad with her two children. Although Stevenson fell in love with her, Fanny returned to her California home and husband in 1878. But in August of the following year, Stevenson received a mysterious cable from her and responded by immediately leaving Scotland for America.

The journey almost killed him. On August 18, 1879, Stevenson landed in New York having traveled steerage across the Atlantic. Already ill, his health became worse as a result of crossing the American plains in an emigrant train. Impoverished, sick, and starving, he lived in Monterey and then San Francisco, nearly dying in both places. His suffering was rewarded, for Fanny obtained a divorce from her husband, and on May 19, 1880, she and Stevenson were married. For the honeymoon, the couple, Fanny’s son Lloyd, and the family dog went to Mount Saint Helena and lived in a rundown shack at Silverado. All of Stevenson’s American adventures became material for his writing. Silverado Squatters (1883) chronicles his honeymoon experiences, while Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays (1892) and The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook (1895) relate his trip to California. Only a year after he had left Scotland to pursue her, Stevenson brought Fanny back to his own country. He, Fanny, and Lloyd eventually settled in a Braemar cottage in the summer of 1881, where Stevenson began writing Treasure Island.

Lloyd, Stevenson’s 12-year-old stepson, was confined inside the cottage during a school holiday because of rain, so he amused himself by drawing pictures. Stevenson recalled in his Essays in the Art of Writing that he would sometimes “join the artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings. On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’”

Filling in the map with names like “Spye-Glass Hill” and marking the location of hidden treasure with crosses, Stevenson conceived the idea of a pirate adventure story to supplement the drawing: “the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.” He had completed a draft of chapter one by the next morning.

On October 1, 1881, Young Folks magazine began publishing the tale serially under the pseudonym of Captain George North. In this medium, the story received little notice. Fanny confessed that she didn’t like Treasure Island and was against it ever appearing in book form. Nevertheless, it was published as a book late in 1883 and became a bestseller. In Stevenson’s lifetime the number of copies sold reached the tens of thousands. Reviewers declared that this work of sheer entertainment had single-handedly liberated children’s literature from a constraining, didactic rut.

In 1882 Stevenson and Fanny moved to Hyeres in the South of France. There, Stevenson suffered a hemorrhage which confined him to bed, prevented him from speaking, and rendered him incapable of writing prose. Simple verse was within his capabilities, so while he recovered he wrote most of A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). Stevenson had followed up Treasure Island with another boy’s adventure story called The Black Arrow, which was published serially in Young Folks in 1883 and as a book in 1888. Although more popular with the juvenile readers of Young Folks than Treasure Island had been, The Black Arrow is far from being a classic. His next serial was a distinct improvement. Kidnapped ran in Young Folks in 1886 and was published as a book the same year. Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1751, the story relates the wanderings of young David Balfour in the company of the reckless Alan Breck. Kidnapped was an achievement on a level with Treasure Island, and its characters are in many ways superior. Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver of the earlier book are charming stereotypes, but Balfour and Breck are personalities with psychological depth. Seven years after Kidnapped, Stevenson wrote a sequel called Catriona (1893), but it did not measure up to the original work.

Kidnapped was written in Bournemouth, England, which had been the Stevensons’ home since 1884. Although the novel earned Stevenson some recognition, it was not his biggest success in 1886, for this year also marked the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This novel was sparked by a dream Stevenson had at Bournemouth in which he visualized a man changing into a monster by means of a concoction made with white powder. Stevenson was screaming in his sleep when Fanny woke him. He scolded her for interrupting the nightmare: “I was dreaming a fine bogey tale,” he said. He started writing furiously in bed the next morning. In three days he had a completed draft of almost 40,000 words. He read the story proudly to Fanny and Lloyd, but Fanny’s reaction was strangely reserved. Finally she declared that Stevenson should have written an allegory instead of a straight piece of sensationalism. A heated argument arose which drove Lloyd from the room. Even though Fanny’s instincts about Treasure Island had proven to be completely wrong, this time Stevenson heeded her advice. Throwing the first manuscript into the fire, he rewrote the tale as an allegory in another three days, and then polished it over six weeks. Although he would later claim that it was the worst thing he ever wrote, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sold 40,000 copies in Britain during the first six months, and brought Stevenson more attention than he had previously ever known.

After living temporarily at Saranac Lake, New York in 1887, Stevenson, Fanny, Lloyd, and Stevenson’s widowed mother began touring the South Pacific the following year. Eventually, the clan settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. At the foot of Mount Vaea, Stevenson had a house built which was called Vailima. Continuing to write, he also became an advocate for the Samoans who named him “Tusitala,” teller of tales. On December 3, 1894, at age 44, Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which promised to be his single greatest work. A path was cleared by nearly 60 Samoan men to the summit of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson was buried.

Immediately after his death, biographers and commentators praised Stevenson lavishly, but this idealized portrait was attacked in the 1920s and 1930s by critics who labeled his prose as imitative and pretentious and who made much of Stevenson’s college-day follies. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, his work was reconsidered and finally taken seriously by the academic community. Outside of academia, Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continue to be widely read over a century after they were first published, and show promise of remaining popular for centuries to come.

Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Stevenson by J. M. Barrie

Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. A Child's Garden Of Verses
  2. A Good Boy
  3. A Good Play
  4. A Thought
  5. A Valentine's Song
  6. About The Sheltered Garden Ground
  7. Ad Magistrum Ludi
  8. Ad Martialem
  9. Ad Nepotem
  10. Ad Olum
  11. Ad Piscatorem
  12. Ad Quintilianum
  13. Ad Se Ipsum
  14. After Reading "Antony And Cleopatra"
  15. Air Of Diabelli's
  16. An English Breeze
  17. Apologetic Postscript Of A Year Later
  18. Armies In The Fire
  19. As In Their Flight The Birds Of Song
  20. As One Who Having Wandered All Night Long
  21. At Last She Comes
  22. At The Sea-Side
  23. Auntie's Skirts
  24. Autumn Fires
  25. Away With Funeral Music
  26. Bed In Summer
  27. Before This Little Gift Was Come
  28. Behold, As Goblins Dark Of Mien
  29. Block City
  30. Christmas At Sea
  31. Come From The Daisied Meadows
  32. Come, Here Is Adieu To The City
  33. Come, My Beloved, Hear From Me
  34. Consolation
  35. De Coenatione Micae
  36. De Erotio Puella
  37. De Hortis Julii Martialis
  38. De Ligurra
  39. De M. Antonio
  40. Death, To The Dead For Evermore
  41. Dedication
  42. Dedicatory Poem For "Underwoods"
  43. Duddingstone
  44. Early In The Morning I Hear On Your Piano
  45. Envoy For "A Child's Garden Of Verses"
  46. Epitaphium Erotii
  47. Escape At Bedtime
  48. Fair Isle At Sea
  49. Fairy Bread
  50. Farewell
  51. Farewell To The Farm
  52. Fear Not, Dear Friend, But Freely Live Your Days
  53. Fifteen Men On The Dead Man's Chest
  54. Fixed Is The Doom
  55. Flower God, God Of The Spring
  56. For Richmond's Garden Wall
  57. Foreign Children
  58. Foreign Lands
  59. Frag1
  60. Frag2
  61. Fragments
  62. From A Railway Carriage
  63. Go, Little Book - The Ancient Phrase
  64. God Gave To Me A Child In Part
  65. Good And Bad Children
  66. Good-Night
  67. Had I The Power That Have The Will
  68. Hail, Guest, And Enter Freely!
  69. Hail! Childish Slave Of Social Rules
  70. Happy Thought
  71. Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend
  72. Henry James
  73. Historical Associations
  74. Home, My Little Children, Hear Are Songs For You
  75. I Am Like One That For Long Days Had Sate
  76. I Do Not Fear To Own Me Kin
  77. I Dreamed Of Forest Alleys Fair
  78. I Know Not How, But As I Count
  79. I Love To Be Warm By The Red Fireside
  80. I Now, O Friend, Whom Noiselessly The Snows
  81. I Who All The Winter Through
  82. I Will Make You Brooches
  83. I, Whom Apollo Somtime Visited
  84. If This Were Faith
  85. In Charidemum
  86. In Lupum
  87. In Maximum
  88. In Port
  89. In The Green And Gallant Spring
  90. In The Highlands
  91. In The States
  92. It Blows A Snowing Gale
  93. It's Forth Across The Roaring Foam
  94. Katherine
  95. Keepsake Mill
  96. Know You The River Near To Grez
  97. Late, O Miller
  98. Let Love Go, If Go She Will
  99. Light As The Linnet On My Way I Start
  100. Lo, Now, My Guest
  101. Lo! In Thine Honest Eyes I Read
  102. Long Time I Lay In Little Ease
  103. Looking Forward
  104. Looking-Glass River
  105. Loud And Low In The Chimney
  106. Love, What Is Love
  107. Love's Vicissitudes
  108. Man Sails The Deep Awhile
  109. Marching Song
  110. Men Are Heaven's Piers
  111. Mine Eyes Were Swift To Know Thee
  112. Music At The Villa Marina
  113. My Bed Is A Boat
  114. My Body, Which My Dungeon Is
  115. My Heart, When First The Black-Bird Sings
  116. My House, I Say
  117. My Kingdom
  118. My Love Was Warm
  119. My Shadow
  120. My Ship And I
  121. My Treasures
  122. My Wife
  123. Ne Sit Ancillae Tibi Amor Pudor
  124. Nest Eggs
  125. Night And Day
  126. Now Bare To The Beholder's Eye
  127. Now When The Number Of My Years
  128. O Dull Cold Northern Sky
  129. On Now, Although The Year Be Done
  130. Over The Land Is April
  131. Picture-Books In Winter
  132. Pirate Story
  133. Prayer
  134. Prelude
  135. Rain
  136. Requiem
  137. Romance
  138. Shadow March
  139. Since Thou Hast Given Me This Good Hope, O God
  140. Since Years Ago For Evermore
  141. Singing
  142. Small Is The Trust When Love Is Green
  143. So Live, So Love, So Use That Fragile Hour
  144. Sonet Vi
  145. Sonnet I
  146. Sonnet Ii
  147. Sonnet Iii
  148. Sonnet V
  149. Sonnet Vii
  150. Sonnet Viii
  151. Soon Our Friends Perish
  152. Spring Carol
  153. Spring Song
  154. St. Martin's Summer
  155. Still I Love To Rhyme
  156. Stout Marches Lead To Certain Ends
  157. Strange Are The Ways Of Men
  158. Summer Sun
  159. Swallows Travel To And Fro
  160. System
  161. Tales Of Arabia
  162. Tempest Tossed And Sore Afflicted
  163. The Angler Rose, He Took His Rod
  164. The Bour-Tree Den
  165. The Celestial Surgeon
  166. The Clock's Clear Voice Into The Clearer Air
  167. The Cow
  168. The Dumb Soldier
  169. The Far-Farers
  170. The Feast Of Famine
  171. The Flowers
  172. The Gardener
  173. The Hayloft
  174. The Lamplighter
  175. The Land Of Counterpane
  176. The Land Of Nod
  177. The Land Of Story-Books
  178. The Light Keeper
  179. The Little Land
  180. The Mirror Speaks
  181. The Moon
  182. The Old Chimaeras. Old Recipts
  183. The Piper
  184. The Relic Taken, What Avails The Shrine?
  185. The Sick Child
  186. The Spaewife
  187. The Summer Sun Shone Round Me
  188. The Sun Travels
  189. The Swing
  190. The Unseen Playmate
  191. The Vagabond
  192. The Vanquished Knight
  193. The Wind
  194. The Wind Blew Shrill And Smart
  195. The Wind Is Without There And Howls In The Trees
  196. There Was An Old Man Of The Cape
  197. This Gloomy Northern Day
  198. Thou Strainest Through The Mountain Fern
  199. Though Deep Indifference Should Drowse
  200. Time To Rise
  201. To Alison Cunningham, From Her Boy
  202. To All That Love The Far And Blue
  203. To Any Reader
  204. To Auntie
  205. To Charles Baxter
  206. To Friends At Home
  207. To Madame Garschine
  208. To Marcus
  209. To Mesdames Zassetsky And Garschine
  210. To Minnie
  211. To Miss Cornish
  212. To Mrs. Macmarland
  213. To Mrs. Will. H. Low.
  214. To My Mother
  215. To My Name-Child
  216. To N. V. De G. S.
  217. To Ottilie
  218. To Rosabelle
  219. To Sydney
  220. To The Commissioners Of Northern Lights
  221. To The Muse
  222. To What Shall I Compare Her?
  223. To Will H. Low
  224. To Willie And Henrietta
  225. Travel
  226. Underwoods: Epigram
  227. Variant Form Of The Preceding Poem
  228. Voluntary
  229. Wedding Prayer
  230. What Man May Learn, What Man May Do
  231. When The Sun Come After Rain
  232. Where Go The Boats?
  233. Whole Duty Of Children
  234. Windy Nights
  235. Winter-Time
  236. You Looked So Tempting In The Pew
  237. Young Night-Thought
  238. Youth And Love