Stevenson, Robert Louis
BORN: 1850, Edinburgh, Scotland
DIED: 1894, Vailima, Samoa
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
New Arabian Nights (1882)
Treasure Island (1883)
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
In the South Seas (1896)
The life of Robert Louis Stevenson was regarded by his public, his friends, and his biographers to be as thrilling as the adventures in the stories he wrote. Stevenson began his career primarily as an essayist and travel writer, though he soon moved on to short fiction, and after the publication of Treasure Island in 1883, the novel was his preferred form. He wrote memorable poetry and forgettable plays, but it was short fiction, particularly his famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), that gained him a large adult readership.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Sickly Childhood in Edinburgh Robert Louis Stevenson was born to Thomas and Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850. From birth he was sickly, and throughout much of his childhood he was attended by his faithful nurse, Alison Cunningham, known as Cummy in the family circle. She told him morbid stories, read aloud to him Victorian penny-serial novels, Bible stories, and the Psalms, and drilled the catechism into him—all with his parents' approval. Robert's father Thomas Stevenson was quite a storyteller himself, and his wife doted on their only child, sitting in admiration while her precocious son expounded on religious doctrine. Stevenson later reacted against the morbidity of his religious education and to the stiffness of his family's middle-class values, but that rebellion would come only after he entered Edinburgh University.
An Indifferent Student Sets Out to Write In November 1867 Stevenson entered Edinburgh University, where he pursued his studies indifferently until 1872. Instead of concentrating on academic work, he busied himself in learning how to write, imitating the styles of William Hazlitt, Sir Thomas Browne, Daniel Defoe, Charles Lamp, and Michel de Montaigne. By the time he was twenty-one, he had contributed several papers to the short-lived Edinburgh University Magazine, the best of which was a fanciful bit of fluff entitled “The Philosophy of Umbrellas.” Edinburgh University was a place for him to play the truant more than the student. His only consistent course of study seemed to have been of bohemia: Stevenson adopted a wide-brimmed hat, a cravat, and a boy's coat that earned him the nickname of Velvet Jacket, while he indulged a taste for haunting the byways of Old Town and becoming acquainted with its denizens.
On a trip to a French artists' colony in July 1876 with his cousin Bob, Stevenson met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married woman, an American, and ten years Stevenson's senior. The two were taken with one another, and Osbourne said she would be getting a divorce from her husband.
Impetuous Transatlantic Pursuit of a Married Woman In August 1879, Stevenson received a cable-gram from Fanny Osbourne, who by that time had rejoined her husband in California. With the impetuosity of one of his own fictional characters, Stevenson set off for America to find her. On August 18, he landed, sick, nearly penniless, in New York. He was most likely suffering from tuberculosis (the disease was commonly called “consumption” at the time, and it was often misdiag-nosed), which was incurable. From there he took an overland train journey in miserable conditions to California, where he nearly died. After meeting with Fanny Osbourne in Monterey, and no doubt depressed at the uncertainty of her divorce, he went camping in the Santa Lucia mountains, where he lay sick for two nights until two frontiersmen found him and nursed him back to health. Still unwell, Stevenson moved to Monterey in December 1879 and thence to San Francisco, where he was ever near to death, continually fighting off his illness (people with tuberculosis often had periods of relative wellness interspersed with bouts of sickness). When Stevenson had left Scotland so abruptly, this had temporarily estranged him from his parents. They were also upset about his relationship with a married woman. However, hearing of their son's dire circumstances, they cabled him enough money to save him from poverty. Fanny Osbourne obtained her divorce from her husband, and she and Stevenson were married on May 19, 1880, in San Francisco.
Tuberculosis, Travel, and Writing While in Bed In the next seven years, 1880 to 1887, Stevenson did not flourish as far as his health was concerned, but his literary output was prodigious. Writing was one of the few activities he could do while confined to bed because of hemorrhaging lungs (a common tuberculosis symptom). During this period, he wrote some of his most enduring fiction, notably Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Black Arrow (1888). He was also busy writing essays and collaborating on plays with W. E. Henley, the poet, essayist, and editor who championed Stevenson in London literary circles and who became the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
This was also a period of much traveling. His and Fanny's various temporary residences in England, Switzerland, and southern France had more to do with his probable tuberculosis than with his love for travel. The main accepted treatment for tuberculosis at the time was the seeking of “healthy air,” although doctors disagreed about what made air healthy. Switzerland was a popular destination for tuberculosis patients because of its clear mountain air. It was at Braemar in Scotland that Treasure Island was begun, sparked by a map that Stevenson had drawn for the entertainment of his twelve-year-old stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson had quickly imagined a pirate adventure story to accompany the drawing, and a friend arranged for it to be serialized in the boys' magazine Young Folks, where it appeared from October 1881 to January 1882. By the end of the 1880s, it had become one of the most popular and widely read books of the period.
Bound for the South Seas In 1888, Stevenson made a drastic decision. In a letter to his friend Baxter in May of 1888, he wrote that he would be taking a South Seas cruise, one that he expected to heal him emotionally as well as physically: “I have found a yacht, and we are going the full pitch for seven months. If I cannot get my health back … 'tis madness; but of course, there is the hope, and I will play big.” Sea air was also considered beneficial to people suffering from tuberculosis.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Stevenson's famous contemporaries include:
Queen Victoria (1819–1901): The ruler of the United Kingdom (1837–1901) and the first Empress of India; the period of her reign is known as the Victorian era.
Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890): An English explorer and writer, Burton was best known for his travels in Asia and Africa, especially his expedition to find the source of the Nile River.
Mark Twain (1835–1910): An American humorist and satirist born Samuel Clemens, Twain is best known for his novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Henry James (1843–1916): An American novelist who eventually took a British passport, James was one of the founders of realism in fiction.
Sigmund Freud (1858–1939): The Austrian psychologist who founded the school of psychoanalysis, Freud pioneered the concept of the division of human consciousness into an id, ego, and superego.
South Pacific Journey and a Home in Samoa The Stevenson party—including Stevenson, his wife, his stepson, and his mother—chartered the yacht Casco and sailed southwest from San Francisco to the Marquesas Islands, the Paumotus, and the Society Islands, and thence northward from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands by December of 1888. They camped awhile in Honolulu, giving Stevenson time to visit the Molokai leper settlement and to finish his novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889). In June 1889 they set out southwest from Honolulu for the Gilbert Islands aboard the schooner Equator. From there in December 1889 the Stevensons traveled to the island of Upolu in Samoa. By that time Stevenson realized that he was too ill to return to Scotland, despite his friends' urgings and his own homesickness; each time that he ventured far from the equator he fell sick. In October of 1890, the Stevenson party returned to Samoa to settle, after a third cruise that had taken them to Australia, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and some of the more remote islands in the South Seas. The Samoan islands had been claimed by Great Britain, Germany, and the United States, by this time, and Stevenson developed a lively disdain for their colonial presences—in many cases taking much more the part of the Samoans, whom he saw as unjustly governed in slapdash fashion by slovenly rulers.
Death at the Height of His Power While he lived in the Pacific, Stevenson kept up his usual impressive literary output, but in the last two years of his life his letters to his friends in Great Britain increasingly revealed a longing for Scotland and the frustration he felt at the thought of never seeing his homeland again. To S. R. Crockett he wrote, “I shall never see Auld Reekie. I shall never set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried. The word is out and the doom written.” It may have been this preoccupation with Scotland and its history that made Weir of Hermiston so powerful a tale. With its theme of filial rebellion, and its evocation of Scotland's topography, language, and legends, it is a masterly fragment and the most Scottish of all his works. Records of a Family of Engineers, a biographical work that recounts his grandfather's engineering feats, reveals, too, that Stevenson was trying to find a bridge back to his own family and finally coming to terms with his earlier rejection of the engineering profession. In Records of a Family of Engineers he depicts his grandfather as a scientist-artist, linking his own growing objectivity in his style of writing to the technical yet imaginative work of his forebears. Increasingly Stevenson's art embraced more of the everyday world and drew on his experiences in the South Seas for its strength. When he died of a stroke on December 3, 1894, in his house at Vailima, Samoa, he was at the height of his creative powers.
Works in Literary Context
In “A Penny Plain and Two-pence Coloured” (1884), Stevenson recounts how the seeds of his own craft were sown in childhood when he purchased Skelt's Juvenile Drama—a toy set of uncolored or crudely colored cardboard characters (hence the title of Stevenson's essay) who were the principal actors in a usually melodramatic adventure. Stevenson maintained that his art, his life, and his mode of creation were all in some part derived from the highly exaggerated and romantic world he had inherited from Skelt. Indeed, he saw himself as the literary descendant of British Romantic author Sir Walter Scott. The best storytelling, he felt, had the ability to whisk readers away from themselves and their circumstances.
Daydreams and Nightmares, but Without Escapism Although much of Stevenson's fiction was aimed at entertainment, his later novels and stories cannot be easily categorized as escapist. In one sense, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be taken as a satire of the times in which a respectable and educated man is forced so to repress his animal nature as to turn it into an uncontrollably violent beast. Yet there is much in the tale that does not allow such an interpretation to go unqualified. There is a wildness in Hyde that does not really lend itself to possible accommodations to a moral world, even one more liberal and permissive than that of the 1880s. Furthermore, as it progresses the story seems preoccupied less with social and moral alternatives than with the inevitable progress into vice. Part of the appeal of the tale is, as the title suggests, its strangeness. It has its own obsessive logic and momentum that sweep the reader along. Thus, though various morals can be drawn from it (warnings against intellectual pride, hypocrisy, and indifference to the power of the evil within), the continuing attraction of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps the exact reverse of that of Treasure Island: One is an almost perfect literary rendition of a child's daydream of endless possibilities, the other of an adult's nightmare of disintegration. In both cases, whether gleefully or frightfully ensconced in the realm of the fantastic, Stevenson's work is if not precisely escapist then at least elsewhere-directed.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Stevenson's later novels and stories examine moral dilemmas presented in an atmosphere imbued with mystery and horror. They include certain recurring themes, such as those of the divided self and the nature of evil. Here are some other works that deal with the theme of the divided self:
The Invisible Man (1897), a novel by H. G. Wells. This novel centers around a scientist who discovers a formula for invisibility but becomes mentally unstable as he copes with the problems of his condition while attempting to become visible again.
Seize the Day (1956), a novella by Saul Bellow. This novella chronicles a day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, born Wilky Adler, a character who embodies the notion of the divided self.
Psycho (1960), a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This suspense/horror film explores the moral dimensions of crime and murder.
Works in Critical Context
Pinnacle to Nadir, and Back: A Treasure Not Just for Children At the time of his death in Samoa in 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson was regarded by many critics and a large reading public as the most important writer in the English-speaking world. “Surely another age will wonder over this curiosity of letters,” wrote Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch at the time, “that for five years the needle of literary endeavor in Great Britain has quivered toward a little island in the South Pacific, as to its magnetic pole.” Critics as demanding as Henry James and Gerard Manley Hopkins agreed on Stevenson's importance. This idealized portrait was attacked in the 1920s and 1930s by modernist writers who labeled his prose as imitative and pretentious and who made much of Stevenson's college-day follies. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, his work was reconsidered and finally taken seriously by the academic community. Outside of academia, Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continue to be widely read over a century after they were first published, and show promise of remaining popular for centuries to come. As such, they have influenced generations of writers, including Ernest Hemingway, who noted that Stevenson's Treasure Island was one of his favorite books as a child. In this vein, R. H. W. Dillard has remarked, “When future scholars manage to see past their blind spot concerning the influence of children's books on adult literature and come to look for (apart from the usual suspects) the sources of the best twentieth-century prose, they may well find to be more important than they currently imagine.”
Responses to Literature
- Treasure Island tops the list of children's classics, and many famous authors have noted that the book was one of their favorites in their youth. It has been adapted for film numerous times, and its characters are generally familiar even to those who have never read the book. Read Treasure Island, then write a paper examining whether or not the youth of today would find the story and the style as gripping as readers of the past. Why or why not?
- Stevenson's life was given nearly as much attention as his writings. Do you think a writer's life should be a focus of the audience's attention, or should readers and critics look only at the words and stories instead? Have you found that learning about authors' lives adds to or takes away from your understanding and appreciation of their works?
- Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll character has been used in many movies since the book was published. What is the attraction of this character? Is it simply an entertaining notion, or does Dr. Jekyll have an enduring appeal because his story tells us something deeper about our modern selves?
- Many of Stevenson's writings chronicled his travels and personal adventures. Today, blogging is a widely used forum for this same kind of writing, and bloggers have the advantage of being able to publish their works instantly, often from faraway places. Does the immediacy of blogging add to or take away from this form of writing? Do blogs today have the same quality of writing and insight as the travel writings of authors like Stevenson?
Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Scribners, 1901.
Calder, Jenni. RLS: A Life Study. London: Hamilton, 1980.
Chesterton, G. K. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927.
Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1947.
Dillard, R. H. W. “Introduction,” in Treasure Island. New York: Signet Classics, 1998.
Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Sloane, 1951.
Hammerton, J. A., ed. Stevensoniana. Edinburgh: Grant, 1910.
Kiely, Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Prideaux, W. F. A Bibliography of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, revised edition, ed. and supp. Mrs. Luther S. Livingston. London: Hollings, 1918.
Smith, Janet Adam, ed. Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record of Friendship and Criticism. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1948.
———. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Duckworth, 1947.
Swearingen, Roger G. The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1980.
Stevenson, Robert Louis
STEVENSON, Robert Louis
Nationality: Scottish. Born: Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson in Edinburgh, 13 November 1850. Education: Mr. Henderson's school, Edinburgh, 1855-61; Edinburgh Academy; a school in Isleworth; Mr. Thompson's school, Edinburgh; University of Edinburgh, 1867-72; studied law in the office of Skene Edwards and Gordon, Edinburgh: called to the Scottish bar, 1875. Family: Married Fanny Osbourne in 1880; two stepchildren, including the writer Lloyd Osbourne. Career: Lived in Europe, mainly in France, 1875-80; contributor, Cornhill Magazine, London, 1876-82; lived in the U.S., 1879-80 and 1887-88, Scotland, 1881-82, Hyères, France, 1882-84, and Bournemouth, 1884-87; made three cruises in the Pacific, 1888-89; settled at Vailima, Samoa, 1890. Died: 3 December 1894.
Works (Vailima Edition), edited by Lloyd Osbourne and FannyStevenson. 26 vols., 1922-23.
Selected Writings, edited by Saxe Commins. 1947.
Collected Poems, edited by Janet Adam Smith. 1950.
Essays, edited by Malcolm Elwin. 1950.
The Collected Shorter Fiction, edited by Peter Stoneley. 1991.
New Arabian Nights. 1882.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, with Fanny Stevenson. 1885.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1886; edited by EmmaLetley, with Weir of Hermiston, 1987.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables. 1887.
Island Nights' Entertainments, Consisting of The Beach of Falesá, The Bottle Imp, The Isle of Voices. 1893.
The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette, with Lloyd Osbourne. 1894.
The Body-Snatcher. 1895.
The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook. 1895.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Other Fables. 1896.
The Waif Woman. 1916.
When the Devil Was Well, edited by William P. Trent. 1921.
The Suicide Club and Other Stories, edited by J. KennethWhite. 1970.
An Old Song: A Newly Discovered Long Story; and a Previously Unpublished Short Story, Edifying Letters of the Rutherford Family, edited by Roger G. Swearingen. 1982.
The Scottish Stories and Essays, edited by Kenneth Gelder. 1989.
Treasure Island. 1883; edited by Emma Letley, 1985.
Prince Otto: A Romance. 1885.
Kidnapped, Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751. 1886; edited by Emma Letley, with Catriona, 1986.
The Misadventures of John Nicholson: A Christmas Story. 1887.
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses. 1888.
The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale. 1889; edited by EmmaLetley, 1983.
The Wrong Box, with Lloyd Osbourne. 1889; edited by ErnestMehew, 1989.
The Bottle Imp, with American Notes, by Rudyard Kipling. 1891.
The Wrecker, with Lloyd Osbourne. 1892.
Catriona: A Sequel to Kidnapped. 1893; as David Balfour, 1893; edited by Emma Letley, with Kidnapped, 1986.
Weir of Hermiston: An Unfinished Romance. 1896; edited by Emma Letley, with Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1987.
St. Ives, Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England, completed by Arthur Quiller-Couch. 1897.
Deacon Brodie; or, The Double Life, with W.E. Henley (produced1882). 1880; revised edition, 1888.
Admiral Guinea, with W.E. Henley (produced 1897). 1884.
Beau Austin, with W.E. Henley (produced 1890). 1884.
Macaire, with W.E. Henley (produced 1900). 1885.
The Hanging Judge, with Fanny Stevenson. 1887.
Monmouth, edited by Charles Vale. 1928.
Penny Whistles (for children). 1883.
A Child's Garden of Verses. 1885.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses. 1896.
Poems Hitherto Unpublished, edited by George S. Hellman. 2 vols., 1916; as New Poems and Variant Readings, 1918; additional volume, edited by Hellman and William P. Trent, 1921.
The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666. 1866.
The Charity Bazaar: An Allegorical Dialogue. n.d.
An Appeal to the Clergy. 1875.
An Inland Voyage. 1878.
Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes. 1879.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. 1879.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers. 1881.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books. 1882.
The Silverado Squatters: Sketches from a Californian Mountain. 1883.
Memoirs and Portraits. 1887.
Thomas Stevenson, Civil Engineer. 1887.
Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin. 1887.
Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu. 1890.
The South Seas: A Record of Three Cruises. 1890.
Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays, edited by Sidney Colvin. 1892.
A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. 1892.
The Works (Edinburgh Edition), edited by Sidney Colvin. 28 vols., 1894-98.
In the South Seas. 1896.
A Mountain Town in France: A Fragment. 1896.
The Morality of the Profession of Letters. 1899.
Letters to His Family and Friends, edited by Sidney Colvin. 2 vols., 1899; revised edition, 4 vols., 1911.
Essays and Criticisms. 1903.
Prayers Written at Vailima. 1905.
Essays of Travel. 1905.
Essays in the Art of Writing. 1905.
Lay Morals and Other Papers. 1911.
Records of a Family of Engineers. 1912; unfinished chapters edited by J. Christian Bat, 1930.
Memoirs of Himself. 1912.
Some Letters, edited by Lloyd Osbourne. 1914.
On the Choice of a Profession. 1916.
Diogenes in London. 1920.
Hitherto Unpublished Prose Writings, edited by Henry H. Harper. 1921.
Stevenson's Workshop, with Twenty-Nine MS. Facsimiles, edited by William P. Trent. 1921.
Confessions of a Unionist: An Unpublished Talk on Things Current, Written in 1888, edited by F.V. Livingston. 1921.
The Best Thing in Edinburgh, edited by Katharine D. Osbourne. 1923.
The Castaways of Soledad, edited by George S. Hellman. 1928.
Henry James and Stevenson: A Record of Friendship and Criticism, edited by Janet Adam Smith. 1948.
Silverado Journal, edited by J.E. Jordan. 1954.
RLS: Stevenson's Letters to Charles Baxter, edited by De LanceyFerguson and Marshall Waingrow. 1956.
From Scotland to Silverado, edited by J.D. Hart. 1966.
Travels in Hawaii, edited by A. Grove Day. 1973.
The Amateur Emigrant, with Some First Impressions of America, edited by Roger G. Swearingen. 2 vols., 1976-77.
The Cévennes Journal: Notes on a Journey Through the French Highlands, edited by Gordon Golding. 1978.
From the Clyde to California: Stevenson's Emigrant Journey, edited by Andrew Noble. 1985.
The Lantern Bearers and Other Essays, edited by JeremyTreglown. 1988.
Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by ErnestMehew . 1997.*
The Stevenson Library of E. J. Beinecke by G. L. McKay, 6 vols., 1951-64; Three Victorian Travel Writers: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism on Mrs. Frances Milton Trollope, Samuel Butler, and Stevenson by F. J. Bethke, 1977.
Stevenson the Dramatist by Arthur Wing Pinero, 1903, edited by C. Hamilton, 1914; Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton, 1927; Stevenson by Janet Adam Smith, 1937; Stevenson, 1947, and Stevenson and His World, 1973, both by David Daiches; Voyage to Windward: The Life of Stevenson by J. C. Furnas, 1951; Portrait of a Rebel: The Life and Work of Stevenson by Richard Aldington, 1957; Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure by Robert Kiely, 1964; Stevenson and the Romantic Tradition by Edwin M. Eigner, 1966; Stevenson by Compton Mackenzie, 1968; Stevenson by James Pope-Hennessy, 1974; Stevenson by Paul M. Binding, 1974; The Henley-Stevenson Quarrel edited by Edward H. Cohen, 1974; Journey to Upolu: Stevenson, Victorian Rebel by Edward Rice, 1974; Stevenson by Irving S. Saposnik, 1974; Stevenson in Hawaii by Martha Mary McGaw, 1978; RLS: A Life Story by Jenni Calder, 1980, and Stevenson and Victorian Scotland edited by Calder, 1981; The Prose Writings of Stevenson: A Guide by Roger G. Swearingen, 1980; Stevenson: The Critical Heritage edited by Paul Maixner, 1981; Stevenson in California: A Remarkable Courtship by Roy Nickerson, 1982; Stevenson edited by Andrew Noble, 1983; Stevenson and The Beach of Falesá: A Study of Victorian Publishing with the Original Text by Barry Menikoff, 1984; A Stevenson Companion by J. R. Hammond, 1984; RLS in the South Seas: An Intimate Photographic Record edited by Alanna Knight, 1986; Dead Man's Chest: Travels after Stevenson by Nicholas Rankin, 1987; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after One Hundred Years edited by William Veeder and Gordon Hirsch, 1988; Robert Louis Stevenson: Poet and Teller of Tales by Bryan Beven, 1993; The Teller of Tales: In Search of Robert Louis Stevenson by Hunter Davies, 1994; Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism: A Future Feeling by Alan Sandison, 1996.* * *
Robert Louis Stevenson was a deliberate and painstaking stylist. In one of his essays he says that he was busy from his earliest years in learning to write by playing the "sedulous ape" to a large variety of writers. In his short life he achieved an international reputation for his essays, travel books, poetry, and novels, including one of the best-known of all children's books, Treasure Island. Throughout his whole career he was also a notable writer of short fiction.
It is misleading to regard Stevenson as an English writer, as does, for instance, an editor of some of his short fiction. He is very much part of the Scottish tradition. He once proposed to write a book, Four Great Scotsmen, on Knox, Hume, Burns, and Scott, to show the "strong current" of Scottish life "making itself felt underneath and throughout." The same is true of Stevenson, even if his poor health drove him to live in warmer climes. In his day the influence of Walter Scott was at its height. He, like Stevenson, was an Edinburgh man, and he was one of the originators of short fiction as well as a powerful force in the development of the novel. Stevenson himself said that he felt a particular kinship with Robert Fergusson, a poet of the eighteenth century who wrote in Scots about the convivial and boisterous side of Edinburgh life.
This is another clue to Stevenson. As the son of a prosperous and distinguished Edinburgh family, who had been lighthouse builders for several generations, he was part of respectable society. But Edinburgh has long been a city of contrasts, and Stevenson was drawn to the more Bohemian side of its life. This led to a break with his father, afterwards reflected in his great unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston. Scottish literature is often said to be marked by a combination of opposites between the rational and the fantastic. Stevenson is no exception. Indeed his short novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the classic parable of the split personality, set in Edinburgh.
The imagination of Stevenson, like that of Scott and many other Scottish writers to this day, was nourished on the Border ballads. These are narrative poems, which have been passed on in oral tradition, telling of love, battle, and the supernatural. They are direct, economical in words, and strongly evocative of mood and place. As a child Stevenson had a nurse, Alison Cunningham, of Presbyterian and Covenanting convictions, who told him stories in good Scots, often involving moral dilemmas and encounters with the devil. All of these influences were to appear later in Steven-son's fiction.
Walter Allen in The Short Story in English (1981) dates the beginning of the modern short story to one that Stevenson first published in October 1877 and that afterwards appeared in his first collection, New Arabian Nights, in 1882. This was "A Lodging for the Night," an imaginary episode in the life of the French poet François Villon. Nothing very much happens. Villon witnesses a murder; then, cold and penniless, he is taken in for the night by a man alone in a richly furnished house. Villon contemplates theft, but desists. That, in a sense, is all; but the atmosphere of the place and time and the suspense are striking.
Some of Stevenson's plots are ingenious and full of surprise, but he is a master of the story that depends for its effect more on its atmosphere and the tension of not knowing what might happen next than on the events or even character. He said in a letter from Samoa in 1891 about one of his last and finest stories, "The Beach at Falesa": "Now I have got the smell, and the look of the thing a good deal." That was evidently his chief aim and he very often succeeded.
Stevenson's short fiction varies in length. He made something of a speciality of the novella or short novel, divided into chapters and amounting to about 50 or 80 pages. In his first collection "The Pavilion on the Links" is of this kind and so is the title piece of a later collection, The Merry Men. Both of these draw on his knowledge of the force of the sea and its tides and rocks, derived from his travels round the lighthouses with his father. Both also deal with mysterious events for which natural causes are eventually revealed. The same might be said of "The Beach at Falesa." It is written throughout in the first person as if by a trader of limited intelligence and unfortunate attitudes. He reveals more than he realizes of the racist attitudes of the white settlers in the Pacific islands, a technique of self-revelation that Stevenson may have learned from the Scottish novelist John Galt, who was a past master in the art.
Stevenson's particular skills, and the influences from his childhood, appear very strongly in his tales of the supernatural. Naturally enough, two of the best of them, "Thrawn Janet" and "Tod Lapraik" (inserted in the novel Catriona) are in Scots. "Markheim," another chilling tale of the devil, is in English and so is "The Body-Snatcher," although it deals with a notorious episode in the life of Edinburgh.
An impressive story, "Olalla," fits into none of these categories. It tells of the hopeless love of a convalescing officer for a mysterious girl in a sinister household in Spain. It is a fine example of Stevenson's ability to create the feel of a place and to write in the language and personality of the assumed narrator.
—Paul H. Scott
Stevenson, Robert Louis
STEVENSON, ROBERT LOUIS
STEVENSON, ROBERT LOUIS (1850–1894), Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, travel writer.
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh into a well-known family of lighthouse engineers. However, he did not follow the family tradition and, at the age of twenty-one, he began to write travel tales and essays. He quickly established himself as a writer of promise.
Troubled by ill health from early childhood, Stevenson sought a climate that would be conducive to the treatment of his respiratory ailment. He traveled in France and in 1876 he met the American Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with two children. She made a strong impression on Stevenson and, despite his poor health, he followed her to the United States when she returned there. His account of that life-threatening journey appeared as The Amateur Emigrant (1879) and Across the Plains (1892). Following Fanny's divorce, she and Stevenson married in San Francisco in May 1880. The couple spent some time after the marriage in the abandoned mining camp of Silverado. This period is detailed in The Silver-ado Squatters (1884). The Stevensons arrived in England in August 1880 and Stevenson's father bought Fanny a house in Bournemouth as a wedding present. Persistent health problems necessitated the couple spending the successive winters of 1881 and 1882 in the Swiss Alps at Davos.
Stevenson embarked on a spell of prolific output. "Thrawn Janet," "The Merry Men," the essays published in Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1881), Virginibus Puerisque (1881), and the tales collected in New Arabian Nights (1882) ensured his growing status as a writer. Treasure Island was serialized in Young Folks during 1881–1882 but it did not bring Stevenson immediate popular acclaim. That came in 1886 with Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These works established Stevenson's reputation alongside Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard as a writer of adventure fiction.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde concerns the strange fate of the well-respected Dr. Henry Jekyll, a man of scientific curiosity who releases his terrible alter ego, Edward Hyde, by a chemical process. Hyde, a troglodytic figure, is the polar opposite of the genteel and refined Jekyll. Hyde commits two violent crimes against innocent citizens, a young girl and an elderly man. Dr. Jekyll's transformation releases him from the obligations of profession and social class but it also compromises his close relationship with his exclusively male companions. In order to resist the temptation to become Hyde, Henry Jekyll commits suicide in his laboratory.
The novella was well received by its late-Victorian audience and was considered to be a moral tale. Publication of the novella coincided with a growing interest in the sciences and with the pioneering work of Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud in their exploration of human personality and identity. It also chronicled the late-nineteenth-century obsession with regression and atavism (the recurrence in an organism of a trait typical of an ancestral form) that was linked to Charles Darwin's conclusions in Origin of Species (1859). The text has continued to generate critical comment and is frequently compared to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). "Jekyll and Hyde" has entered into common usage to describe an individual of split personality.
Following the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson, his mother, Fanny, and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne set off for the United States. They stayed at Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Stevenson conceived the outline of The Master of Ballantrae, subtitled "A Winter's Tale," while at Saranac. The novel conveys the bleak wilderness of the physical landscape in a metaphorical wasteland. There are striking resemblances to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), which also deals with the politico-religious division of Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. The Master of Ballantrae was completed in Samoa and published in 1889.
Stevenson's American publishers, Scribner's, commissioned a book on the South Seas and the family sailed from San Francisco and visited the islands of the Marquesas, the Paumotus, Tahiti, and finally Hawaii. They sailed on a further voyage to the Gilbert Islands and on to Samoa, where Stevenson settled on the island of Upolu in 1889. He built the house at Vailima where he resided and wrote until his death.
Stevenson soon became embroiled in the local politics of Samoa, and his writing developed an aggressive rejection of the values of the Victorian imperial project. "The Beach of Falesá" (1892) and The Ebb Tide (1893) together constitute a critique of imperialism that stands comparison with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899). In this regard Stevenson offers his readers an alternative to the views of empire expressed by both Kipling and John Buchan.
Catriona, or David Balfour, as the novel was marketed in the United States, is the sequel to Kidnapped and was published in 1893. The novel explores the same theme of duality that fascinated Stevenson throughout his life and intertwines the often antagonistic cultural traditions of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands.
Stevenson was working on Weir of Hermiston when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at Vailima on 3 December 1894. This unfinished novel examines the issues of ancestry and heredity, seduction, murder, and injustice and bears close similarity to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891).
Since the 1980s, Stevenson has been reevaluated as a late-nineteenth-century writer. He is one of a very few writers to have succeeded in all of his chosen genres. In addition, he contributed essays that establish him as an intellectual, a deep-thinking theoretician on writing and on art in the broader sense.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.
McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. London, 1993.
Menikoff, Barry. Robert Louis Stevenson and "The Beach of Falesá": A Study in Victorian Publishing. Edinburgh, 1984.
Robert Louis Stevenson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. □
Stevenson, Robert Louis
The Scottish novelist, essayist, and poet Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most popular and highly praised British writers during the last part of the nineteenth century.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of a noted lighthouse builder and harbor engineer. Though healthy at birth, Stevenson soon became a victim of constant breathing problems that later developed into tuberculosis, a sometimes fatal disease that attacks the lungs and bones. These persistent health problems made him extremely thin and weak most of his life.
By the time Stevenson entered Edinburgh University at the age of sixteen to study engineering, he had fallen under the spell of language and had begun to write. For several years he attended classes irregularly, developing a bohemian existence (an artistic lifestyle different than that of mainstream society), complete with long hair and velvet jackets. He also associated himself with Edinburgh's seedy and dangerous neighborhoods.
When Stevenson was twenty-one years old, he openly declared his intention of becoming a writer, against the strong opposition of his father. Agreeing to study law as a compromise, in 1875 Stevenson was admitted to the Scottish bar, an organization for lawyers. Having traveled to the European mainland 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, England, and Paris, France. Stevenson's first book, An Inland Voyage (1878), related his adventures during a canoe trip on Belgium and France's canals.
In France in 1876 Stevenson met an American woman named Fanny Osbourne. Separated from her husband, she was eleven years older than Stevenson and had two children. Three years later Stevenson and Osbourne were married. After accompanying his wife to America, Stevenson stayed in an abandoned mining camp, later recounted in The Silverado Squatters (1883). A year after setting out for the United States, Stevenson was back in Scotland. But the climate there proved to be a severe hardship on his health, and for the next four years he and his wife lived in Switzerland and in the south of France. Despite his health, these years proved to be productive. The stories Stevenson collected in The New Arabian Nights (1883) and The Merry Men (1887) range from detective stories to Scottish dialect tales, or tales of the region.
Treasure Island (1881, 1883), first published as a series 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 tells the story of a boy's involvement with murderous pirates. Kidnapped (1886), set in Scotland during a time of great civil unrest, 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. Jekylland Mr. Hyde (1886) he dealt directly with the nature of evil in man and the hideous effects that occur when man 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 Stevenson's father in 1887, he again traveled to the United States, this time for his health. He lived for a year at Saranac Lake, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains. 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 relatively 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 December 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.
For More Information
Furnas, Joseph C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Sloane, 1951.
Woodhead, Richard. The Strange Case of R. L. Stevenson. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath, 2001.
Stevenson, Robert Louis
A. S. Hargreaves
Stevenson, Robert Louis