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Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis StevensonRobert Louis Stevenson (né Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850, to Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Isabella Balfour. His father, Thomas, was a lighthouse engineer who was also the son and grandson of lighthouse engineers. Engineering was, not surprisingly, a career path his family presumed for him. But, from an early age, Robert found himself drawn to storytelling. At the age of six, he dictated "A History of Moses" to his mother, Margaret, and later a story called "The Book of Joseph," which he touted as "by RLS, the author of 'A History of Moses.'"

Also from an early age, Robert was frequently struck by ill health, a more or less ongoing state of affairs that would follow him throughout his life. Despite his sickliness and gaunt adolescent frame, he enrolled in Edinburgh University at the age of seventeen to study engineering. Constrained to an allowance of twelve pounds a year, Stevenson later wrote of his university days, "My acquaintance was of what would be called a very low order...I was the companion of seamen, chimney sweeps, and thieves." His years at Edinburgh University proved to be fertile ground for the developing writer, though not for nurturing a love of engineering. He made lifelong friends, performed in amateur theater, caroused, reveled in practical jokes, and discovered atheism and prostitutes (not necessarily in that order). It was his irreligiosity that would strain his relationship with his devout Scots Presbyterian father, as did his decision at the age of twenty to give up his engineering studies.

At this point in Stevenson's life, he had dedicated himself to becoming a writer, but did, however, begin reading for the law to mollify his parents. Though Thomas was wounded by his son's abandonment of his career and his faith, he loved his son dearly and would go on to support Robert through many years of struggle as a writer. Studying for the English bar took Robert to London, where he once again fell ill. The doctor prescribed southern France as a cure for what ailed young Stevenson, and so he went. There he fell in with a group of artists and writers whose influence helped steer and nurture his early writing. His first published piece was an essay titled "Roads," published in the journal The Portfolio. He continued to publish essays, living in London for a time and traveling throughout the British Isles, France, and Low Countries. Back in Edinburgh in 1875, he met William E. Henley, a poet and playwright with a wooden leg. The two would go on to collaborate on a number of unsuccessful plays during the 1880s and would later suffer a falling out. Perhaps the most fruitful aspect of their friendship came in the possible inspiration for the one-legged character in Treasure Island, Long John Silver.

Also in 1875 Stevenson passed the bar, although he never seriously practiced law, all of his energies being now devoted to writing and travel. And it was a canoe trip in 1876 with his friend, Sir Walter Simpson, along the Oise, Sambre, and Seine rivers in Belgium and France that gave Stevenson material for his first book, An Inland Voyage, and brought him into contact with the woman who would become his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. He met Fanny, a married American woman ten years his senior with a grown daughter and eight-year-old son, in the town of Grez in northern France. A year later they became lovers, and the two spent much of the next year living together with her children in France. In 1878 Fanny returned with her children to San Francisco, either to get a divorce from her philandering husband or create some distance from Stevenson and their illicit affair. But Stevenson, having received a telegram from Fanny the next year, set out on a voyage to America, travelling second-class by steamship to New York and then by fourteen-day train trip to San Francisco. The locomotive journey nearly killed him, and the reception from Fanny once he arrived was less than jubilant. His presence was "not convenient."

From then on he was in a state of emotional turmoil aggravated by his extremely poor health. He left San Francisco on horseback for the Carmel Valley but collapsed en route and had to be taken in and cared for by a goat rancher who'd discovered him unconscious in the Coast Range mountains. It was at Stevenson's lowest point that a cable from his father arrived, promising generous and much-needed financial assistance. At the same time, Fanny, having obtained a divorce from her husband, returned to help nurse him back to health. They married in Oakland, California, on May 8, 1879, and honeymooned in an abandoned mining camp in Napa Valley.

Upon his return to Europe with his new wife and her eleven-year-old son, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson began the most prolific period of his career. Although struggling to find a place to settle that would be conducive to his near-constant ill health, he managed to publish New Arabian Nights (1882), a collection of short stories; Treasure Island (1883); A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), a book of children's poems; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886); and Kidnapped (1886). Treasure Island became his first popular success, but it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that vaulted him to fame and wealth as an author.

When his father died in 1887, Stevenson no longer felt tied to his native Scotland and decided to pursue his doctor's advice of a change of climate. Accompanied by his mother, wife Fanny, and stepson Lloyd, Stevenson sailed for America, spending a breathtakingly cold (and ironic) winter in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where he began his novel, The Master of Ballantrae, and planned a voyage to the South Seas. In June 1888 the Stevensons embarked from San Francisco on the yacht Casco and set sail for the South Pacific, stopping in the Hawaiian Islands, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, and New Zealand before finally settling in Samoa in 1890.

Stevenson purchased a tract of land of more than three hundred acres on the island of Upolu in Samoa and made a home there, which he called Vailima ("five waters"). He soon took on a Samoan name himself and became known there as Tusitala, or "teller of tales." He wrote Catriona (1893, known in the U.S. as David Balfour), a sequel to Kidnapped; South Sea Tales (1893), a collection of three long stories; and worked on Weir of Hermiston (one of his most critically acclaimed, but sadly never finished, novels) while in Samoa. He also coauthored The Wrecker (1892) and The Ebb-Tide (1894) with his grown stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who would go on to become an author in his own right. Stevenson also involved himself in local politics, publishing a scathing critique of the colonial administration titled A Footnote to History, which caused quite a stir, including instigating the recall of two European officials.

The frail health that dogged him throughout his life continued in his island home. On December 3, 1894, while trying to open a bottle of wine at home with his wife, he fell suddenly to the floor, asking, "What's the matter with me? What is this strangeness? Has my face changed?" He lost consciousness and died a few hours later, the cause likely a cerebral hemorrhage. Just forty-four years old at the time of his death, Robert Louis Stevenson left a literary legacy matched by few of his contemporaries. After his passing, the Samoans insisted on placing a guard around his body before bearing their beloved Tusitala up to Mount Vaea, where Stevenson was buried overlooking the sea. Following his wishes, his poem, "Requiem," is inscribed on his tombstone:

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

  • Novels

    • Treasure Island (1883)
    • Prince Otto (1885)
    • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
    • Kidnapped (1886)
    • The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888)
    • The Master of Ballantrae (1889)
    • The Wrong Box (1889), coauthored with Lloyd Osbourne
    • The Wrecker (1892), coauthored with Lloyd Osbourne
    • Catriona (1893, also known as David Balfour)
    • The Ebb-Tide (1894), coauthored with Lloyd Osbourne
    • Weir of Hermiston (1896, unfinished)
  • Short Story Collections

    • New Arabian Nights (1882)
    • More New Arabian Nights (1885), coauthored with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson
    • The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887)
    • South Sea Tales (1893, also known as Island Nights' Entertainments)
    • Fables (1896)
  • Poetry

    • A Child's Garden of Verses (1885)
    • Underwoods (1887)
    • Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (1887)
    • Ballads (1891)
    • Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)
  • Nonfiction

    • An Inland Voyage (1878)
    • Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes (1879)
    • The Silverado Squatters (1883)
    • Across the Plains (1892)
    • A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892)
    • The Amateur Emigrant (1895)
    • In the South Seas (1896)
    • Essays of Travel (1905)