Robert Louis Stevenson Biography

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 throughout 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!

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957

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.

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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, both share a rebellious fantasy of gratifying the self’s desires without guilt. Jim Hawkin’s flight to a pirate world of vicious self-indulgence is related to Hyde’s relish for wanton dissipation and violence. Such an observation provides a glimpse into an underground motive behind Stevenson’s creativity, not his conscious intention. Concerning intention, Stevenson’s expressed primary goal was to entertain and, on occasion, to instruct. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it could be reasonably argued in terms of Stevenson’s intentional allegorical design, therapeutically urges its readers to embrace community as the cornerstone of a healthy personal identity.

Stevenson’s physical health lapsed in the interval between these two books. Confined to bed in a dark room as a result of a bronchial hemorrhage, he wrote most of A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), an enormously popular work of poetry that satisfied his immediate financial exigencies. Stevenson, who uncomfortably depended upon the largess of his father, always felt harassed by the need for money. As a result and in spite of being an invalid, Stevenson maintained an extraordinary productivity even from his sickbed. While ill, he wrote, among other books, Kidnapped (1886), a historical romance featuring an adolescent Scottish Lowlander; The Black Arrow (1888), a juvenile novel set during the War of the Roses; and The Master of Ballantrae (1889), a psychological tale of a fatal rivalry between two Scottish brothers.

Concern for his relentlessly precarious health led Stevenson to accept an offer by Scribners, his American publisher, to write a book about the Pacific islands. Setting sail in June, 1888, he and his family visited, among other places, Tahiti, Oahu, and the Hawaiian Islands. Within the next two years, they voyaged to Australia, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, and Samoa, where he built a home on a four-hundred-acre estate he named Vailima. The welfare of the Samoans, particularly a concern over their economic exploitation by colonists, became a fervid cause for Stevenson, who in turn was fondly nicknamed Tusitala (storyteller) by the islanders.

Stevenson delighted in narrating original tales to his admiring Samoan audience, such as the clever “The Isle of Voices.” This tale, with a moral about living life as if it were a work of art, is included with the well-known “The Bottle Imp” and the critically acclaimed “The Beach of Falesá” in Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893). Stevenson also rapidly completed Catriona (1893), also known as David Balfour, as a sequel to Kidnapped, which some readers thought needed such a conclusion. Catriona contains Stevenson’s most ambitious attempt to depict female characters, and he spoke of it as his best book. It was, however, never as popular as several of his earlier writings, and later critics preferred two nonjuvenile works (written in collaboration with his Lloyd Osbourne) composed during this late period of his brief career: The Wrecker (1892), a suspenseful tale involving a shipwreck, massacre, and treasure; and The Ebb-Tide (1894), a dark account of three island outcasts that anticipated Joseph Conrad’s early fiction.

Weir of Hermiston (1896), a posthumously published work left as an incomplete manuscript when Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, at the age of forty-four, was soon acclaimed as Stevenson’s potential masterpiece. The novel, dictated to his stepdaughter Isabel Osbourne Strong, combines Stevenson’s most effective characterization and his inveterate affection for Scottish history. Whether Stevenson had finally matched or surpassed the achievement of his predecessor Sir Walter Scott, the writer to whom he had been compared throughout his career, did not matter to his friends in Samoa. In honor of their beloved Tusitala, grieving Samoans cut, with extreme difficulty, a steep pathway to the summit of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson was buried as he had requested.

Summary

Since his death, as during his lifetime, Stevenson’s reputation as a writer has been as divided in sentiment as his books are divided between an insistence on disciplined conscience and a celebration of uninhibited imagination—in other words, between Victorian mores and amoral aesthetics, austere realism and carefree romance. Whereas his poetry, travelogues, and essays have little currency, Stevenson’s fiction endures among a wide audience. His contemporary reviewers, anticipating later literary critics, may have found much to fault in his fiction, but for over one century, general readers, young and old, have found much to admire.

The romance form of the novel preferred by Stevenson and other writers of his time has fallen into disfavor and is often regarded as escapist literature suitable for children. Treasure Island and Kidnapped indeed remain classics of children’s literature despite their lack of a clear moral center. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde endures as a widely recognized fixture in Western culture despite Stevenson’s low estimation of it. The Ebb Tide and “The Beach of Falesá” have been favored with increased attention in literary studies, whereas “The Suicide Club” (from The New Arabian Nights, 1882), “The Body Snatcher” and “Markheim” (from The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, 1887), and “The Bottle Imp” prevail as perennial choices for anthologies marketed to a general audience. The compass of Stevenson’s influence on other writers is as extensive as were his many travels. To observe the impact of Treasure Island on H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), and of Kidnapped on John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (1915) is merely to single out three phenomenal best-sellers indebted to Stevenson’s work. That Stevenson’s fiction continues to entertain countless readers is ample testimony to his achievement.

Bibliography

Bell, Ian. Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of Exile. Edinburgh: Mainstream Press, 1992. Interprets Stevenson’s life as an ongoing effort to reconcile various opposite inclinations, including his ambivalent attitude toward Scotland.

Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. A profusely illustrated overview of Stevenson’s life and work that is especially suitable for young adults.

Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Romantic Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. A reliable, accessible discussion of the sources and implications of the Romantic features of Stevenson’s writings.

Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Faber and Faber, 1952. Presents a highly readable and authentic account of Stevenson’s life with particular sensitivity to the positive role of his wife in his career.

Hennessy, James Pope. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974. A dramatic retelling of Stevenson’s life with particular attention devoted to details of human interest.

Maixner, Paul, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. A valuable collection of reviews of Stevenson’s books published between 1878 and 1894.

Nollen, Scott Allen. Robert Louis Stevenson: Life, Literature and the Silver Screen. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1994. Documents and analyzes the history of radio, film, and television adaptations of Stevenson’s stories.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994-1995. 8 vols. Offers a treasure trove of Stevenson’s opinions that in general tell the story of Stevenson’s life better than any biographer.

Swearingen, Roger G. The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. A remarkable resource for data pertaining to the biographical, publication, and source histories of Stevenson’s prose works.

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