Robert Louis Stevenson Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111201588-Stevenson.jpg Robert Louis Stevenson. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: The author of thirty-two books during his brief lifetime, Stevenson created various classics in the field of children’s literature as well as several popular adult works, including The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has exerted a powerful influence on Western cultural imagination.

Early Life

Scotland was not only the country of Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s birth, but it was also the history-laden nation he later often revisited in both his nomadic life and his adventure romances. As the son and only child of Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer in Edinburgh, Robert was expected to adopt his father’s profession. However, he was more interested in the sea and travel in general than in the coast. In fact, from his teenage years until his death, Stevenson’s travels were so extensive that no biographer has been able to give a full account of them. His journeys began when his mother took him, as a young man, on periodic visits to the European continent for the sake of his health, which was compromised throughout his life by lingering pulmonary disorders. Despite a lackluster performance as a student and numerous interruptions in his education caused by illness, Stevenson eventually completed a law degree at the University of Edinburgh in 1875. Nevertheless, his heart was set on travel and writing. Although Stevenson was sincere in these avocations, they also expressed resistance to his Scottish family’s expectations in particular and to Victorian respectability in general.

This implicit rebellion against convention informed his early substitution of “Louis” for his baptismal name “Lewis,” his agnosticism, his profligate behavior as a university student, and his flamboyant adult public image. To his disapproving parents and friends, rebelliousness seemed at first to account for Stevenson’s sudden departure for California, where on May 19, 1880, he married Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a divorcée ten years his senior who had two children. This sensational marriage was a good match for Stevenson, who subsequently created his most enduring work. Up to this point he had published various discursive travelogues such as An Inland Voyage (1878), a record of a canoe journey in Belgium and France; Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878), a book of prose and pictorial sketches of his quaint birthplace; and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), an account of a ten-day French mountain walking tour taken with a donkey named Modestine. These books attracted some interest when they first appeared, but none of them could have established Stevenson’s reputation.

Life’s Work

Treasure Island (1881-1882) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are Stevenson’s most enduring books. Treasure Island, based on a watercolor map created to amuse Stevenson’s stepson Lloyd Osbourne, was not an immediate success when it was serialized in Young Folks between July, 1881, and June, 1882. It became a best-seller as a book one year later. This morally ambiguous, dreamlike romance, with its larger-than-life villain Long John Silver as observed by young Jim Hawkins, was popular with juvenile and adult readers alike, including Stevenson’s father. As a classic of children’s literature, Treasure Island has not been out of print since its publication and has often been exploited in sequels by later authors as well as retold in stage, film, radio, comic-book, and television versions.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has likewise remained in print for more than one century and has been similarly adapted to various media. A morally ambiguous, nightmarish romance of a dual personality divided against itself between base desires and noble ideals, this book was at first undertaken by Stevenson as a shilling shocker, a sensational type of fiction to be marketed cheaply for mass readership. With his wife’s advice, however, Stevenson reshaped the work into a stunning Hawthornian allegory of good and evil that became an instant best-seller in Britain and the United States (where pirated editions were prevalent). That the two main character types in this romance have made an indelible impression on Western cultural imagination is evident in the frequency of allusions to Jekyll and Hyde in both ordinary and professional speech.

These two books of absent or equivocated moral message reflect the psychological terrain established during Stevenson’s early life, during which he personally challenged familial and social expectations. If Treasure Island is a boy’s daydream and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a man’s nightmare,...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those intriguing writers, like Oscar Wilde, whose life often competes with his works for the critics’ attention. He was born Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. He was the only child of Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Isabella (née Balfour) Stevenson. His father, grandfather, and two uncles were harbor and lighthouse engineers who had hopes that Stevenson would follow in their profession. Stevenson, however, was a sickly child whose interest in lighthouses was of the romantic, rather than the structural, sort. Although he studied engineering, and then law, to please his family, it was apparent early that he was destined to become a writer.

Stevenson chose his companions from among the writers and artists of his day, such as William Ernest Henley, Sidney Colvin, and Charles Baxter. One friend, Leslie Stephen, editor of Cornhill magazine, published some of his early essays. His first book, An Inland Voyage (1878), was not published until he was twenty-eight years old.

While studying art in France, Stevenson fell in love with Fanny Van de Grift Osborne, who returned reluctantly to her San Franciscan husband, Samuel C. Osborne, in 1878. Stevenson pursued her to the United States, and after her divorce in 1880, they were married. Unfortunately, Stevenson’s tubercular condition was a constant difficulty for him; thus, the couple spent the first ten years of their...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The only child of a prosperous civil engineer and his wife, Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly youth, causing his formal education to be haphazard. He reacted early against his parents’ orthodox Presbyterianism, donning the mask of a liberated Bohemian who abhorred the hypocrisies of bourgeois respectability. As a compromise with his father, Stevenson did study law at Edinburgh University in lieu of the traditional family vocation of lighthouse engineer. In 1873, however, he suffered a severe respiratory illness, and, although he completed his studies and was admitted to the Scottish bar in July, 1875, he never practiced. In May, 1880, Stevenson married Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a divorcée from San Francisco and ten years his senior. The new couple spent most of the next decade in health resorts for Stevenson’s tuberculosis: Davos in the Swiss Alps, Hyéres on the French Riviera, and Bournemouth in England. After his father’s death, Stevenson felt able to go farther from Scotland and so went to Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where treatment arrested his disease. In June, 1888, Stevenson, his wife, mother, and stepson sailed for the South Seas. During the next eighteen months they saw the Marquesas, Tahiti, Australia, the Gilberts, Hawaii, and Samoa. In late 1889, Stevenson decided to settle and bought “Vailima,” three miles from the town of Apia, Upolu, Samoa, and his home until his death. His vigorous crusading there against the white exploitation of native Samoans almost led to expulsion by both German and English authorities. Stevenson’s tuberculosis remained quiescent, but he suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, while working on the novel Weir of Hermiston (1896), a fragment which many modern readers think to be his best writing. Known to the natives as “Tusitala,” the Storyteller, Stevenson was buried on the summit of Mount Vaea.

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The only child of Thomas and Margaret (Balfour) Stevenson, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was in poor health even as a child, and he suffered throughout his life from a tubercular condition. Thomas, a civil engineer and lighthouse keeper, had hopes that Stevenson would eventually follow in his footsteps, and the youngster was sent to Anstruther and then to Edinburgh University. His fragile health, however, precluded a career in engineering, and he shifted his efforts to the study of law, passing the bar in Edinburgh in 1875.

Even during his preparation for law, Stevenson was more interested in literature, and, reading widely in the essays of Michel Eyquem de...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born to Thomas and Margaret Isabella (Balfour) Stevenson in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850, the midpoint of the Victorian era. Thomas Stevenson, destined to be the last of a line of illustrious Scottish engineers, had hopes that his only child would take up that profession. His hopes proved to be unrealized when Stevenson switched from a sporadic study of engineering to a sporadic study of the law at Edinburgh University. Never a strong child, Stevenson spent much of his childhood and, indeed, much of his adulthood, either undergoing or convalescing from long and serious bouts of illness, chiefly respiratory disorders. His early life and education were overshadowed by illness, confinement, and...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850, the only son of Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Balfour. His mother’s family and ancestors were primarily clergymen and physicians; his father’s family and ancestors were engineers. On both sides of his large extended family (both his mother and father were the youngest of thirteen children) were successful, wealthy, socially prominent professionals. His father’s family, in fact, was famous in Scotland. The family firm designed and built lighthouses that had become famous landmarks, and “Stevenson” was a name to reckon with: Robert Louis’s father, Thomas, and grandfather, Robert, both appear in Scotland’s national portrait gallery. He was born...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s life is a study in contrasts, if not contradictions: His parents were wealthy, but he spent the first half of his adulthood one step ahead of genteel poverty. His ancestors for three generations were pillars of the community, but he was a perpetual tourist. His family was very religious, but he became an iconoclast and an agnostic. His family made its living building lighthouses; he was to make his building imaginary worlds. In these contradictions; he rivaled the best of his complex characters. His life was an attempt to contain, and, in a sense, to live up to his own complexity. In time, however, the craftsman, the iconoclast, and the moralist became reconciled and unified, and Stevenson was still...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, achieved fame because of his romantic life nearly as much as because of his romantic fiction. His life displays the same split between romantic adventure and grim reality that the discerning reader finds in much of his writing. Stevenson’s brief life was a nearly constant journey in search of adventure and relief from the agonies of tuberculosis, with which he was afflicted from early childhood. His father, Thomas Stevenson, a successful Edinburgh lighthouse engineer, hoped for a law career for his only son. Robert did study to be a barrister, but he soon commenced a life of traveling that took him to Switzerland, France, the United States, and, finally, the South Seas....

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of Margaret Balfour Stevenson and Thomas...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of a prosperous, middle-class family. His father...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. He was dearly fond of his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Novels for Students)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850, to Thomas, a civil engineer, and Margaret Isabella (Balfour)...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Novels for Students)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only son of a famed engineer and inventor. Stevenson’s grandfather was...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Robert Louis Stevenson Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. A semi-invalid as a child, he suffered from tuberculosis for...

(The entire section is 620 words.)