Robert Louis Stevenson Biography

At a Glance

Robert Louis Stevenson is best known today for a single work: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This story of a scientist who developed a potion splitting his identity so that he could indulge his darker cravings spoke to the Victorian reading public. And though we cannot know what Stevenson's heart was like, the book does address the kind of fundamental divisions that defined his life. On one hand, he was raised to be a lighthouse engineer; on the other, he loved stories and travel. On one hand, his health was terrible; on the other, he loved adventure. Such divisions run throughout Stevenson's short life and through the critical history of his work.

Facts and Trivia

  • Stevenson’s mother kept him inside through the damp Scottish winters because of his tuberculosis. Stevenson’s nurse read to him from the Bible and the history of Scotland while he watched other boys playing in the streets of Edinburgh and made up stories about them.
  • His father had planned for Stevenson to become a lighthouse engineer like himself and so sent him to Edinburgh Academy, where he enjoyed reading books that had nothing at all do with engineering, such as The Arabian Nights.
  • Stevenson was good friends with David Kalākaua, King of Hawaii.
  • In 1890, Stevenson bought four hundred acres on the Samoan island of Upolu, where he established an estate named Vailima.
  • Stevenson wrote the first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days. After he let his wife read it, he burned the manuscript—and then wrote the whole thing again from scratch!


(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.)