Robert Louis Stevenson

The Scottish novelist, essayist, and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was one of the most popular and highly regarded British writers of the end of the 19th century. He played a significant part in the revival of the novel of romance.

During Robert Louis Stevenson's youth the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott and his followers had been eclipsed by the realism of William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Writing in conscious opposition to this trend, Stevenson formulated his theoretical position in his essays "A Gossip on Romance" (1882), "A Humble Remonstrance" (1884), and "The Lantern-bearers" (1888). Romance, he wrote, is not concerned with objective truth but rather with things as they appear to the subjective imagination, with the "poetry of circumstance." Romance, according to Stevenson, avoids complications of character and morality and dwells on action and adventure.

Stevenson was born on Nov. 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, the son of a noted lighthouse builder and harbor engineer. Though robust and healthy at birth, Stevenson soon became a victim of constant respiratory ailments that later developed into tuberculosis and made him skeletally thin and frail most of his life. By the time he entered Edinburgh University at the age of 16, ostensibly to study engineering, Stevenson had fallen under the spell of language and had begun to write. For several years he attended classes irregularly, cultivating a bohemian existence complete with long hair and velvet jackets and acquainting himself with Edinburgh's lower depths.


Early Works

When he was 21 years old, Stevenson openly declared his intention of becoming a writer against the strong opposition of his father. Agreeing to study law as a compromise, Stevenson was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1875. Having traveled to the Continent several times for health and pleasure, he now swung back and forth between Scotland and a growing circle of artistic and literary friends in London and Paris. Stevenson's first book, An Inland Voyage (1878), related his adventures during a canoe trip on the canals of Belgium and France.

In 1876 in France, Stevenson had met an American woman named Fanny Osbourne. Separated from her husband, she was 11 years older than Stevenson and had two children. Two years later Stevenson and Osbourne became lovers. In 1878 Osbourne returned to California to arrange a divorce, and a year later Stevenson followed her. After traveling across America in an emigrant train, Stevenson arrived in Monterey in poor health. After his marriage, a stay in an abandoned mining camp, later recounted in The Silverado Squatters (1883), restored his health. A year after setting out for the United States, Stevenson was back in Scotland. But the climate there proved impossible, and for the next 4 years he and his wife lived in Switzerland and in the south of France.

Despite ill health these years were productive. In his collections Virginibus puerisque (1881) and Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882) Stevenson arrived at maturity as an essayist. Addressing his readers with confidential ease, he reflected on the common beliefs and incidents of life with a mild iconoclasm, a middling disillusionment.

The stories Stevenson collected in The New Arabian Nights (1883) and The Merry Men (1887) range from detective stories to Scottish dialect tales. The evocation of mood and setting that he practiced in his travel essays was used to great effect here. Despite his theory of romance, he was unable entirely to keep away from moral issues in these stories, but he was rarely successful in integrating moral viewpoint with action and scene.


Early Novels

Treasure Island (1881, 1883), first published as a serial in a children's magazine, ranks as Stevenson's first popular book, and it established his fame. A perfect romance according to Stevenson's formula, the novel—riding over all the problems of morality and character that might have arisen—recounts a boy's involvement with murderous pirates. Kidnapped (1886), set in Scotland shortly after the abortive Jacobite rebellion of 1745, has the same charm. In its sequel, David Balfour (1893), Stevenson could not avoid psychological and moral problems without marked strain. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) he dealt directly with the nature of evil in man and the hideous effects of a hypocrisy that seeks to deny it. This work pointed the way toward Stevenson's more serious later novels. During this same period he published a very popular collection of poetry, A Child's Garden of Verses (1885).

After the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson again traveled to the United States, this time for his health. He lived for a year at Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. In 1889 Stevenson and his family set out on a cruise of the South Sea Islands. When it became clear that only there could he live in relative good health, he settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa. He bought a plantation (Vailima), built a house, and gained influence with the natives, who called him Tusifala ("teller of tales"). By the time of his death on Dec. 3, 1894, Stevenson had become a significant figure in island affairs. His observations on Samoan life were published in the collection In the South Seas (1896) and in A Footnote to History (1892). Of the stories written in these years, "The Beach of Falesá" in Island Nights' Entertainments (1893) remains particularly interesting as an exploration of the confrontation between European and native ways of life.


Later Novels

The Master of Ballantrae (1889), set in the same period as Kidnapped, showed a new sophistication in Stevenson's use of the elements of romance. Its basic theme involved complexities of character that his earlier romances had deliberately avoided. In the more advanced Weir of Hermiston, the legends of the romantic Scottish past saturate the setting and serve as a symbolic background for a tragic conflict between the primitive energies of a father and his sensitive, effete son. Left unfinished at his death, this novel would have ranked as Stevenson's greatest work. While living in the South Pacific, Stevenson also collaborated on three novels with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne.

Further Reading on Robert Louis Stevenson

The best biographies of Stevenson are David Daiches, Robert Louis Stevenson (1947), and Joseph C. Furnas, Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1951). Recommended critical studies include David Daiches, Stevenson and the Art of Fiction (1951); Robert Kiely, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (1964), and Edwin M. Eigner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition (1966).


Additional Biography Sources

Bell, Ian, Dreams of exile: Robert Louis Stevenson, a biography, New York: H. Holt, 1993.

Hammond, J. R. (John R.), A Robert Louis Stevenson chronology, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

McLynn, F. J., Robert Louis Stevenson: a biography, New York:Random House, 1994.