Robert Louis Stevenson Biography


Personal Background

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in November 1850, the only child of a prosperous middle-class family. His father, Thomas, was a civil engineer who specialized in the design and construction of lighthouses, and his mother, Margaret, was the daughter of a well-known clergyman. Probably the two most important influences on Stevenson's childhood were his family's strict (although not for the time fanatical) Presbyterian religion and his own ill health. During his frequent illnesses, his loving nurse, Alison Cunningham, like to entertain him with stories of bloody doings, hellfire, and damnation, and this made him a frightened, guilt-ridden child and also apparently something of a little prude — a characteristic he certainly outgrew, however, by the time he reached his late teens. His illnesses, which seem to have been the result of a weak or damaged immune system, making him susceptible to regular and debilitating bouts of respiratory infection and eventually to tuberculosis, encouraged his parents to spoil him. His mother, too, was often ill, and given the family's frequent winter trips from cold, wet Edinburgh to southern Europe, his father's scorn of schoolteachers, and Stevenson's own disinclination to go to school, his early education was spotty at best. He read widely if unsystematically, picked up languages with relative ease, and was occasionally tutored, but by the time he entered Edinburgh University at the age of sixteen, his background was anything but standard.

He did not suddenly become a model university student. His family expected that he would study engineering and join his father and uncle in the lighthouse business, and apparently Stevenson accepted this plan without protest. But he was not interested in construction or optics, and he studied as little as possible, skipped lectures, and was in general a lackluster student. He did, however, make the first real friends of his life, and he also joined a popular literary and debating society by invitation, which probably had more to do with his quirky but genuine personal attractiveness and his family name than with anyone's perception of his academic brilliance.

He eventually confessed to his father that he did not hope to become an engineer, at which his father swallowed his disappointment and suggested that he study law; Stevenson obediently did so, but was no more interested in this than in engineering, and although he was admitted to the bar at the age of 24, he never practiced. Still, his late teens and early twenties were a period of great and solid growth. He continued to read voluminously, if seldom in accordance with what he had been assigned. He roamed the streets of Edinburgh, alone and with friends, and although he apparently frequented his share of taverns and brothels, he also became a close observer of human behavior and a close listener to human language. Stevenson's youthful "dissipation" became much exaggerated in legend, after his fame and death; he was during these years on a strict allowance from his father and could not have afforded the wild life that gossip later attributed to him. He continued to travel, alone or with his parents, or sometimes with his cousin and good friend, Bob Stevenson. And always, from childhood on, he wrote — essays, poetry, descriptive sketches, and narrative accounts of historical events. His goal seems not to have been to make a living as a writer (which his family would not have considered a worthwhile profession) so much as to learn to write well. And learn he did.

Writing and Publishing

Still living at home when not with friends or at relatively inexpensive lodgings on his travels, Stevenson gradually began to publish in periodicals. Many of his friends were writers and artists, and much of this early publication seems to have come through such association. Still, Stevenson was a good and stylish writer, disciplined and dependable, and he began to attract readers and reviewers, although not in anything like the numbers that would come later. There may also have been a nagging suspicion on his part that, at this point in his life, he ought to be making his own way in the world, instead of relying on his father for financial assistance.

In 1876, when he was twenty-five, Stevenson met Frances Vandegrift Osbourne, an American woman nearly ten years his senior, at an art colony in France, where he was staying with his cousin Bob. Fanny had come to Europe, bringing her two children, to escape from a bad marriage and to study art. She and Stevenson fell in love and began an affair, but some time later she returned to California to attempt reconciliation with her husband. When the attempt failed, in 1879, Stevenson went to the United States to join her, and after her divorce, they married. By then, he had published two travel journals, An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879); his American journey produced two more books, Across the Plains and The Amateur Emigrant, which were not published until 1892 and 1895. He returned to Scotland in 1880 with Fanny and her young son, Lloyd (her older daughter, Belle, stayed in the United States), but the three moved several times in the next few years, seeking a cure for Stevenson's tuberculosis.

Stevenson's first novel was begun as an entertainment for his twelve-year-old stepson. Its initial publication was as a serial in Young Folks' Magazine; its original title, The Sea-Cook; or, Treasure Island, was shortened to Treasure Island for its publication in book form in 1882. The novel became a bestseller, bringing Stevenson fame and, increasingly, financial security. A book of poems for young people, A Child's Garden of Verses, was published in 1885, two more novels, Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in 1886, and The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses in 1888.

The family returned to the United States for several months in the late 1880s and then, from California, leased a yacht and began several more months of travel among the islands of the South Pacific. After a sojourn in Honolulu, they went on to Samoa, where they purchased and renovated a house. The islands and their people were very appealing to both Stevenson and Fanny, and they made many friends. Stevenson was dismayed at the European and American exploitation of the area and wrote two non-fiction books on this and related subjects, A Footnote to History (1892) and In the South Seas (1896). He also finished another adventure novel (The Master of Ballantrae, 1889) and wrote two more, The Beach of Falesá (1892) and The Weir of Hermiston (1896). The second of these, unfinished at his death, is considered by many to be Stevenson's masterpiece.

During these years, Stevenson's tuberculosis did not improve, but he remained active and, despite periods of being bedridden and very ill, kept to his usual disciplined writing schedule. Fanny's son remained with them, and her daughter, Belle, joined them frequently as well. In addition, Stevenson's mother, widowed in 1886, had traveled to the islands with the family and remained there for the rest of her son's life. Although Louis was often in grave danger of death, he always seemed able to throw off the worst of his illness and achieve at least partial recovery. But in early December of 1894, less than a month after his forty-fourth birthday, he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died within a few hours.

Almost all of Stevenson's writings, including his novels, short stories and essays, and two books written in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, remained in publication for years after his death, and his excellence as a writer was undisputed for the next quarter-century or so. But he fell out of critical favor with the rise of realism and naturalism in the years after World War I, and although his reputation fluctuated during the rest of the twentieth century, many of his works remain out of print. Still, he continues to be read and admired by people who value his versatility and range, his gripping narrative ability, and his fluent and concise style.

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