cottish essayist, poet, playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is noted for his travel books and adventure novels, which were best-sellers in their day. Stevenson was born on 13 November 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was Thomas Stevenson, joint-engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses, and his grandfather Robert Stevenson, a gifted engineer remembered in his native Scotland as the designer of twenty-three lighthouses and the inventor of intermittent or flashing lights for such navigational aids. From childhood R. L. Stevenson's health was extremely delicate owing to a chronic bronchial condition (possibly tuberculosis).
Although his family felt that he was destined for the engineering profession, he studied in that field only briefly at Edinburgh University in 1867. Having neither the interest nor physical stamina necessary for an engineering career, Stevenson in 1871 switched to the study of law. Even "as an adult, there were times when he could not even wear a jacket for fear of bringing on a haemorrhage of the lungs" (Cambridge Guide 905). Although called to the Bar as advocate in 1875, Stevenson never practised, perhaps because of ill-health (although this never prevented him from travelling), and perhaps because, as Chambers Biographical Dictionary contends, "his true inclination was for writing" (1440). During his years at university, beginning in 1871, he published his first works in The Edinburgh University Magazine and The Portfolio (1873).
Robert L. Stevenson in velvet jacket with smoking cap. Photograph by Charles L. Ritzmann. From the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (image id no. 484059). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
A tour in a canoe in 1876 led to the publication of his first book, An Inland Voyage (1878). In the same year, The New Arabian Nights, afterwards separately published, appeared serially in magazines. In 1879 he published Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, in which he describes travelling for his health through Belgium and northern France. In the latter part of that journey he met a separated American lady, Fanny Osbourne, née Vandegrift (1840-1914), whom he followed to America. He recorded his impressions of travelling to California by train and ship in The Amateur Emigrant (posthumously published in 1895). Immediately upon Fanny's divorce in San Francisco, Stevenson married her in 1880. After the couple's brief residence in Calistoga, impressions of which Stevenson recorded in The Silverado Squatters (1883), they returned to Europe, first to Scotland, and then to the Mediterranean in search of a more healthful climate, with Stevenson "determined to stand or fall by his ability to earn a living by writing" (Cambridge Guide 905).
Despite his unsuccessful application in 1881 for the Chair of Constitutional Law and History at Edinburgh University, Stevenson continued to publish prolifically, lesser known works including three volumes of essays — Virginibus Puerisque (1881), Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), and Memories and Portraits (1887) — New Arabian Nights (1882), Prince Otto (1885), Underwoods (a volume of verse), The Merry Men, a collection of short stories (1887), Across the Plains (1892), and Island Nights' Entertainments (1893). Stevenson's name became a household word throughout Europe and America when in 1883 he published the best-selling adventure/bildungsroman The Sea Cook: or, Treasure Island by 'Captain George North' (serialised in Young Folks from October 1881 through January 1882), which he had originally intended for the entertainment of Fanny's son, Lloyd.
He followed up Treasure Island (published as a volume in 1883) with a volume of poetry intended for children, The Child's Garden of Verse (1885), and another romance in the same vein, Kidnapped (1886). The novella The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1886) gave him considerable trouble in composition, but also proved a best-seller, as did the historical novel The Black Arrow (serialized in Young Folks between June and October 1883, and published in volume form in 1888). His final historical/adventure novel, The Master Of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale (1889), was less successful commercially. "The list of his novels mixes glib popular romances and works of steadily developing psychological intensity" (Cambridge Guide 905). He also contributed to various periodicals, including The Cornhill Magazine and Longman's Magazine, in which he published the article "A Humble Remonstrance" in 1884 as a reply to Henry James's "The Art of Fiction." The consequence was a lifelong friendship between the two writers.
In 1887, prompted by continuing health problems, he left England, never to return. He and Fanny went to America, and in the following year visited the South Sea Islands where, after visiting a leper colony in Samoa, they settled in 1890. He and his wife spent the remaining five years of his life on their estate at Vailima, the name which he applied to a series of letters he wrote to his friend Sidney Calvin. In 1892 he published Across the Plains, in 1893 Island Nights' Entertainments and Catriona . By this time his health had severely deteriorated, so that he failed to complete both St. Ives and Weir of Hermiston, both of which were published after his death, the former (completed by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch) in 1897, the latter in 1896. With his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, he wrote The Wong Box (1889), The Wrecker (1892), and Ebb-Tide (1894), which condemned European colonial exploitation, as did his own The Beach of Falesá (1893; its full text not published until 1984), and his letters to the London Times on behalf of native Samoans. Upon his death from a cerebral haemorrhage, the people of his adopted island accorded him the title "Tusitala" (The Teller of Tales).
Bathurst, Bella. The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestirs of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Perennial/HarperCollins, 2000.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Una McGovern. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003. Page 1440.
"Fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson." Bibliomania. http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/46/frameset.html 8/10/04
"Robert Louis Stevenson, Biography and Works." Literature Network. http://www.online-literature.com/stevenson/ 8/10/04
Smith, Janet Adam, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson Collected Poems. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1950. Pages 130, 477-79.
"Stevenson, Robert Louis." The Cambridge Guide to English Literature, ed. Ian Ousby. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1993. Pages 905-6.
Last modified 5 January 2004