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Robert Louis Stevenson
1850 - 1894

The Scottish novelist, essayist, and poet Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most popular and highly regarded British writers of the end of the 19th century. He played a significant part in the revival of the novel of romance.


During Robert Louis Stevenson's youth the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott and his followers had been eclipsed by the realism of William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Writing in conscious opposition to this trend, Stevenson formulated his theoretical position in his essays "A Gossip on Romance" (1882), "A Humble Remonstrance" (1884), and "The Lantern-bearers" (1888). Romance, he wrote, is not concerned with objective truth but rather with things as they appear to the subjective imagination, with the "poetry of circumstance." Romance, according to Stevenson, avoids complications of character and morality and dwells on action and adventure.

Stevenson was born on Nov. 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, the son of a noted lighthouse builder and harbour engineer. Though robust and healthy at birth, Stevenson soon became a victim of constant respiratory ailments that later developed into tuberculosis and made him skeletally thin and frail most of his life. By the time he entered Edinburgh University at the age of 16, ostensibly to study engineering, Stevenson had fallen under the spell of language and had begun to write. For several years he attended classes irregularly, cultivating a bohemian existence complete with long hair and velvet jackets and acquainting himself with Edinburgh's lower depths.

Early Works

When he was 21 years old, Stevenson openly declared his intention of becoming a writer against the strong opposition of his father. Agreeing to study law as a compromise, Stevenson was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1875. Having travelled to the Continent several times for health and pleasure, he now swung back and forth between Scotland and a growing circle of artistic and literary friends in London and Paris. Stevenson's first book, An Inland Voyage (1878), related his adventures during a canoe trip on the canals of Belgium and France.

In 1876 in France, Stevenson had met an American woman named Fanny Osbourne. Separated from her husband, she was 11 years older than Stevenson and had two children. Two years later Stevenson and Osbourne became lovers. In 1878 Osbourne returned to California to arrange a divorce, and a year later Stevenson followed her. After travelling across America in an emigrant train, Stevenson arrived in Monterey in poor health. After his marriage, a stay in an abandoned mining camp, later recounted in The Silverado Squatters (1883), restored his health. A year after setting out for the United States, Stevenson was back in Scotland. But the climate there proved impossible, and for the next 4 years he and his wife lived in Switzerland and in the south of France.

Despite ill health these years were productive. In his collections Virginibus puerisque (1881) and Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882) Stevenson arrived at maturity as an essayist. Addressing his readers with confidential ease, he reflected on the common beliefs and incidents of life with a mild iconoclasm, a middling disillusionment.

The stories Stevenson collected in The New Arabian Nights (1883) and The Merry Men (1887) range from detective stories to Scottish dialect tales. The evocation of mood and setting that he practiced in his travel essays was used to great effect here. Despite his theory of romance, he was unable entirely to keep away from moral issues in these stories, but he was rarely successful in integrating moral viewpoint with action and scene.

Early Novels

Treasure Island (1881, 1883), first published as a serial in a children's magazine, ranks as Stevenson's first popular book, and it established his fame. A perfect romance according to Stevenson's formula, the novel - riding over all the problems of morality and character that might have arisen - recounts a boy's involvement with murderous pirates. Kidnapped (1886), set in Scotland shortly after the abortive Jacobite rebellion of 1745, has the same charm. In its sequel, David Balfour (1893), Stevenson could not avoid psychological and moral problems without marked strain. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) he dealt directly with the nature of evil in man and the hideous effects of a hypocrisy that seeks to deny it. This work pointed the way toward Stevenson's more serious later novels. During this same period he published a very popular collection of poetry, A Child's Garden of Verses (1885).

After the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson again traveled to the United States, this time for his health. He lived for a year at Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. In 1889 Stevenson and his family set out on a cruise of the South Sea Islands. When it became clear that only there could he live in relative good health, he settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa. He bought a plantation (Vailima), built a house, and gained influence with the natives, who called him Tusifala ("teller of tales"). By the time of his death on Dec. 3, 1894, Stevenson had become a significant figure in island affairs. His observations on Samoan life were published in the collection In the South Seas (1896) and in A Footnote to History (1892). Of the stories written in these years, "The Beach of Falesá" in Island Nights' Entertainments (1893) remains particularly interesting as an exploration of the confrontation between European and native ways of life.

Later Novels

The Master of Ballantrae (1889), set in the same period as Kidnapped, showed a new sophistication in Stevenson's use of the elements of romance. Its basic theme involved complexities of character that his earlier romances had deliberately avoided. In the more advanced Weir of Hermiston, the legends of the romantic Scottish past saturate the setting and serve as a symbolic background for a tragic conflict between the primitive energies of a father and his sensitive, effete son. Left unfinished at his death, this novel would have ranked as Stevenson's greatest work. While living in the South Pacific, Stevenson also collaborated on three novels with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne.


Robert Louis (Balfour) Stevenson (November 13 1850 – December 3 1894), was a Scottish novelist, poet, and travel writer, and a leading representative of Neo-romanticism in English literature. He was greatly admired by many authors, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling and Vladimir Nabokov.

Most modernist writers dismissed him, however, because he was popular and did not write within their narrow definition of literature. It is only recently that critics have begun to look beyond Stevenson's popularity and allow him a place in the Western canon.

He prepared for a law career but never practiced. He travelled frequently, partly in search of better climates for his weak lungs (possibly due to tuberculosis), which would eventually contribute to his death at age 44.

Early life

Stevenson[2] was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson,[3] in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13 1850. His father was Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather was Robert Stevenson; both were distinguished lighthouse designers and engineers, as was his great-grandfather. It was from this side of the family that he inherited his love of adventure, joy of the sea and for the open road. Through his mother he was descended from Gilbert Elliott, 1st Baronet of Minto and the Reverend George Smith and was related to Arthur St. Clair. His maternal grandfather, Lewis Balfour, was a professor of moral philosophy and a minister, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his house. "Now I often wonder", says Stevenson, "what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them." From his mother, Margaret Balfour, he inherited weak lungs (perhaps due to tuberculosis), that kept him constantly in "the land of the counterpane" during the winter, where his nurse spent long hours by his bedside reading from the Bible, and lives of the old Covenanters. During the summer he was encouraged to play outside, where he proved to be a wild and carefree child, and by the age of eleven his health had improved so that his parents prepared him for the University of Edinburgh by attending Edinburgh Academy, planning for him to follow his father as a lighthouse engineer. During this period he read widely and especially enjoyed Shakespeare, Walter Scott, John Bunyan and The Arabian Nights.

He entered the University of Edinburgh at seventeen, but soon discovered he had neither the scientific mind nor physical endurance to succeed as an engineer. When his father took him for a voyage he found—instead of being interested in lighthouse construction—that his mind was teeming with wonderful romances about the coast and islands which they visited. Although his father was stern, he finally allowed him to decide upon a career in literature—but first he thought it was wise to finish a degree in law, so that he might have something to fall back upon. Stevenson followed this course and by the age of twenty-five passed the examinations for admission to the bar, though not until he had nearly ruined his health through work and worry. His father's lack of understanding led him to write the following protest:

   Say not of me that weakly I declined
   The labours of my sires, and fled the sea
   The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
   To play at home with paper like a child.

Marriage and travels

The next four years were spent mostly in travel, and in search of a climate that would be more beneficial for his health. He made long and frequent trips to Fontainebleau, Barbizon, Grez, and Nemours, becoming a member of the artists' colonies there. He made frequent trips to Paris visiting galleries and the theatres. It was during this period he made most of his lasting friendships and met his future wife Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, who was married at the time. Among these friendships are: Sidney Colvin, his biographer and literary agent; William Henley, a collaborator in dramatic composition; Mrs. Sitwell, who helped him through a religious crisis; Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, all writers and critics. He also made the journeys described in An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. In addition he wrote twenty or more articles and essays which appeared in various magazines. Although it seemed to his parents he was wasting his time and being idle, he was in reality constantly studying to perfect his style of writing and broaden his knowledge of life, emerging as a man of letters.

When Stevenson and Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne met in France in 1876 it was love at first sight. A few months later when she returned to her home in San Francisco, California, Stevenson was determined to follow when he learned that she was sick. His friends advised against the journey; knowing his father's temper, but he sailed without notifying his parents. He took steerage passage on the Devonian in part to save money but also to learn how others travelled, and to increase the adventure of the journey. From New York City he traveled overland by train to California. He later wrote about the experience in An Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains. Although it was good experience for his literature, it broke his health, and he was near death when he arrived in Monterey. He was nursed back to health by some ranchers there.

In December 1879 he had recovered his health enough to continue to San Francisco, where for several months he struggled "all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts,"[4] in an effort to support himself through his writing; but by the end of the winter his health was broken again, and he found himself at death's door. Vandegrift — now divorced and recovered from her own illness — came to Stevenson's bedside and nursed him to recovery. "After a while," he wrote, "my spirit got up again in divine frenzy, and has since kicked and spurred my vile body forward with great emphasis and success." When his father heard of his condition he cabled him money to help him through this period.

In May 1880 he married Fanny when, as he said, he was "a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom." With his new wife and her son, Lloyd, he traveled north of San Francisco to Napa Valley, and spent a summer honeymoon at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. This experience he published in The Silverado Squatters. He met Charles Warren Stoddard, co-editor of the Overland Monthly and author of South Sea Idylls, who urged Stevenson to travel to the south Pacific, an idea which would return to him many years later. In August 1880 he sailed from New York with his family back to Britain, and found his parents and his friend Sidney Colvin, on the wharf at Liverpool happy to see him return home. Gradually his new wife was able to patch up differences between father and son and make herself a part of the new family through her charm and wit.

Journey to the Pacific

For the next seven years between 1880 and 1887 Stevenson searched in vain for a place of residence suitable to his state of health. He spent his summers at various places in Scotland and England, including Westbourne, Dorset; for his winters, he escaped to sunny France, and lived at Davos-Platz and the Chalet de Solitude at Hyeres, where, for a time, he enjoyed almost complete happiness. "I have so many things to make life sweet for me," he wrote, "it seems a pity I cannot have that other one thing — health. But though you will be angry to hear it, I believe for myself, at least, that is best. I believed it all through my worst days, and I am not ashamed to profess it now." In spite of the blood on his handkerchief and the medicine bottle at his elbow, his optimistic spirit kept him going, and he produced the bulk of his best known work: Treasure Island, his first widely popular book; Kidnapped; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story which established his wider reputation; and two volumes of verse, A Child's Garden of Verses and Underwoods.

On the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson felt free to follow the advice of his physician to try a complete change of climate. He started with his mother and family for Colorado; but after landing in New York they decided to spend the winter at Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. During the intensely cold winter Stevenson wrote a number of his best essays, including Pulvis et Umbra, he began The Master of Ballantrae, and lightheartedly planned, for the following summer, a cruise to the southern Pacific Ocean. "The proudest moments of my life," he wrote, "have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat with that romantic garment over my shoulders."

In June 1888, Stevenson chartered the yacht Casco and set sail with his family from San Francisco. The vessel "ploughed her path of snow across the empty deep, far from any hand of help." The salt sea air and thrill of adventure for a time restored his health; and for nearly three years he wandered the eastern and central Pacific, visiting important island groups, stopping for extended stays at the Hawaiian Islands where he became a good friend of King David Kalakaua, with whom Stevenson spent much time. Furthermore, Stevenson befriended the king's niece Princess Victoria Kaiulani, who was of Scottish heritage. He also spent time at the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti and the Samoan Islands. During this period he completed The Master of Ballantrae, composed two ballads based on the legends of the islanders, and wrote The Bottle Imp. The experience of these years is preserved in his various letters and in The South Seas.

Last years

In 1890 he purchased four hundred acres (about 1.6 square kilometres) of land in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. Here, after two aborted attempts to visit Scotland, he established himself, after much work, upon his estate, which he named Vailima ("Five Rivers"). His influence spread to the natives who consulted him for advice, and he soon became involved in local politics. He was convinced the European officials appointed to rule the natives were incompetent, and after many futile attempts to resolve the matter, he published A Footnote to History. This was such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson feared for a time it would result in his own deportation. When things had finally blown over he wrote a friend, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but now he shines beside the politician."

In addition to building his house and clearing his land and helping the natives in many ways, he found time to work at his writing. In his enthusiasm, he felt that "there was never any man had so many irons in the fire." He wrote The Beach of Falesa, David Balfour, and Ebb Tide, as well as the Vailima Letters, during this period.

For a time during 1894 Stevenson felt depressed; he wondered if he had exhausted his creative vein and completely worked himself out. He wrote that he had "overworked bitterly". He felt more clearly that, with each fresh attempt, the best he could write was "ditch water". He even feared that he might again become a helpless invalid. He rebelled against this idea: "I wish to die in my boots; no more land of counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged rather than pass again through that slow dissolution." He then suddenly had a return of his old energy and he began work on Weir of Hermiston. "It's so good that it frightens me," he is reported to have exclaimed. He felt that this was the best work he had done. He was convinced, "sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, I would hardly change with any man of my time."

Without knowing it, he was to have his wish fulfilled. During the morning of December 3 1894, he had worked hard as usual on Weir of Hermiston. During the evening, while conversing with his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly fell to the ground, asking "What's the matter with me? What is this strangeness? Has my face changed?" He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 44. The natives insisted on surrounding his body with a watch-guard during the night, and on bearing their Tusitala (Samoan for "Story Writer") upon their shoulders to nearby Mt Vaea and buried him on a spot overlooking the sea. A tablet was placed there, which bore the inscription of his 'Requiem', the piece he always had intended as his epitaph:

   Under the wide and starry sky,
   Dig the grave and let me lie.
   Glad did I live and gladly die,
   And I laid me down with a will.
   This be the verse you grave for me:
   Here he lies where he longed to be;
   Home is the sailor, home from sea,
   And the hunter home from the hill.

Modern reception

Stevenson was a celebrity in his own time, but with the rise of modern literature after World War I, he was seen for much of the 20th century as a writer of the second class, relegated to children's literature and horror genres. Condemned by authors such as Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, he was gradually excluded from the canon of literature taught in schools. His exclusion reached a height when in the 1973 2,000-page Oxford Anthology of English Literature Stevenson was entirely unmentioned, and the Norton Anthology of English Literature excluded him from 1968 to 2000 (1st–7th editions), including him only in the 8th edition (2006). The late 20th century saw the start of a re-evaluation of Stevenson as an artist of great range and insight, a literary theorist, an essayist and social critic, a witness to the colonial history of the South Pacific, and a humanist. He is now being re-evaluated as a peer with authors such as Joseph Conrad (whom Stevenson influenced with his South Seas fiction) and Henry James, with new scholarly studies and organizations devoted to Stevenson.[5] No matter what the scholarly reception, Stevenson remains very popular. According to the Index Translationum, Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008