Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894
The best loved literary figure of his time as much for his personality as for his authorship of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was born today in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. He described his childhood in detail in his autobiographical essays and vividly recalled its emotions and pleasures in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). Kidnapped was chosen by the Edinburgh City of Literature as their first “One City, One Book” title.
He had an ambition at an early age to become a writer; he compromised to study Law (instead of engineering at University of Edinburgh). He was admitted advocate in 1875 but never practiced. During these years he rebelled against the conventions of respectable Edinburgh society and there were bitter quarrels with his father (a devout Presbyterian) about religion.
In 1873 he met the critic Prof. Sidney Colvin who became his lifelong friend and literary mentor. With Colvin’s help he began to achieve a reputation with his essays and short stories (collected in Virginibus Puerisque, 1881 and New Arabian Nights, 1882). Another close friendship was formed with poet and critic WE Henley, writing 4 unsuccessful plays (including Deacon Brodie, 1880).
The closest friend of his youth was his painter cousin RAM (Bob) Stevenson, and he spent much time with him in France. His early travels were undertaken so that he could write books about them. A Wand Voyage (1878) described a canoe journey, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878; a classic account of the city whose climate he hated but which always haunted his imagination).
In the art colony of Grez (1876) he fell in love with Fanny Vandegrift Osboume, an American 10 years older than himself who was estranged from her husband. She returned to California in 1878 for divorce. In 1879 Stevenson followed, travelling cheaply by immigrant ship, then by train across America, recording his experiences in Amateur Emigrant (1895) and Across the Plans (1892). The hardships of the journey and the poverty wrecked his health and he suffered the first of the haemorrhages which plagued the rest of his life.
Stevenson and Fanny were married in May 1880, following a telegram from his father assuring them of financial support. They returned to Edinburgh. Stevenson’s illness, diagnosed as tuberculosis, meant that he spent much time in bed, his life undoubtedly prolonged by Fanny’s nursing. The next 7 years were spent in the vain search for health: two summer in Scotland, 2 winters in Davos, Switzerland, 18 months in the South of France, then Bournemouth for 3 years One rainy summer afternoon, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson, and in a single month, he wrote his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883). He wrote it in Braemar (1882), one of the best children’s stories. It’s been in print for over 125 years.
He’s also the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal. Wider recognition came with this allegorical thriller on the dual nature of man, and then Kidnapped (1886) a skilful evocation of 18th century Scotland. He then produced The Black Arrow (1888), an historical potboiler for children. Stevenson made no claim to be a major poet, but Underwoods (1897) showed him to be graceful and original in both English and Scots. He developed a warm and lasting friendship with Henry James.
At the death of his father, the family traveled to America, spending the winter 1887/8 at Saranac Lake, Adirondacks. He wrote a series of essays and began his tragic novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889) set in 18P century Scotland and America. In June 1888 they chartered a yacht and sailed from San Francisco to the South Seas, describing the journeys in South Seas (1896), and The Wrecker (1892). The climate suited, he regained some health for outdoor activity so they settled in Samoa in 1890. However, Fanny had mental health issues and he overworked himself to earn money needed to maintain the estate.
Catriona (1894), the sequel to Kidnapped, was followed by work on the unfinished St Ives (1897) both set largely in Edinburgh during the Napoleonic wars. He was working at the height of his mature powers on his unfinished masterpiece Weir of Hermiston (1896), set in early 19th century Edinburgh and the Lammermuirs, its main character based on Robert MacQueen, Lord Braxfield, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly of cerebral haemorrhage on 3 December 1894.
The romantic legend created by sentimental admirers has helped obscure the recognition of Stevenson as a serious writer, and academic critics have largely ignored or patronized him. Those readers exploring beyond the popular works that made him famous will find a wealth of ‘good things’.
The Works: Tusitala Edition, 3 5 vols. 1923 –4; Collected Poems, ed JA Smith, 1971.
Life. G Balfour, 1901; Voyage to Windward JC Furnas, 1952; RLS A Life Study, J. Calder, 1980.
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