Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish essayist, poet, letter-writer and author of fiction and travel books. He is known particularly for his adventure novels, peopled with larger-than-life characters and exotic locations.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850, the only son of Thomas Stevenson, who was a well-to-do joint-engineer with the Board of Northern Lighthouses1. He suffered from tuberculosis from an early age and spent much of his childhood in bed, where he made up stories even before he learnt to read. At the age of 16, he wrote his first short historical story, 'The Pentland Rising: A Page of History'.
In 1867, Stevenson entered Edinburgh University to study engineering, but due to his continued ill-health he had to abandon his ambition to follow his father's and grandfather's footsteps and he moved on to study law. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1875. By this time he was an established writer of short stories, essays and travel tales; his first articles had been published in The Edinburgh University Magazine in 1871 and The Portfolio in 1873.
Constantly under threat of full-blown tuberculosis, Stevenson spent much of his spare time travelling in attempts to find a climate that would ease his symptoms. He travelled extensively in the Scottish Highlands, the Continent and the Caribbean. As a result he developed an abiding love of travel2 and this provided him with much material for all of his writing. In Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes he wrote:
I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.
Love and Fame
When travelling in France in the mid-1870s, Stevenson met and fell in love with Fanny Vandengrift Osbourne, a married American woman with two children, Belle and Lloyd. In 1879 he joined her in California. She obtained a divorce and they were married in 1880.
Stevenson's name first became known with the publication of Treasure Island which initially appeared in serial form in the magazine Young Folks in 1881 - 1882. The book (with slightly revised text) was published in 1883. To this day, the characters of Jim Hawkins, Captain Flint and Long John Silver are a part of many people's childhood.
The colourful locations and the threatening nature of some of Stevenson's characters are synonymous with his writing. He railed against realism, which was the norm in literature at the time. He was more interested in providing satisfaction for the nameless longing of the reader, or the desire to read about experiences beyond the everyday. All of his novels reflect this: most notably Kidnapped! and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Stevenson wrote prolifically and was inspired by many things in addition to his travels. A Child's Garden of Verse (1885) was dedicated to his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham. Kidnapped! (1886) was set in Scotland and told the story of David Balfour. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) was based upon a dream and written and published within ten weeks.
South Pacific Odyssey
The Black Arrow (1888) and The Master of Ballantrae (1889) were published around the time that Stevenson and his family left on what was perhaps their greatest travel adventure, into the South Pacific. The popularity of Stevenson's continued literary publications enabled the family to go further afield in a continued attempt to find a climate that suited his health, as well as for the simple enjoyment of travel.
In 1888, Stevenson chartered a schooner, the Casco, in San Francisco and set sail for the south seas, where he was to spend the rest of his life. His family sailed first to the Marquesa Islands, then to Fakarava Atoll, Tahiti and Honolulu, where they stayed for almost six months. In June 1889 they reached the Gilbert Islands before sailing for Samoa, where they spent six weeks, then heading for Sydney. During this time, Stevenson kept detailed accounts of his encounters with the native peoples, their cultures and the landscapes in which they lived. The resulting travel book is perhaps one of his most eloquent: The South Seas, published in 1896.
In October 1890, the family returned to Samoa because Stevenson's tuberculosis had flared up in Sydney. Once back in Samoa he bought a patch of land at Vailima, a few miles inland from the capital, Apia. He built a colonial-style house there and developed a garden with stunning views out over the ocean. The climate suited Stevenson and he led an active and busy life. He employed many locals to help him run the house and garden. From them he learnt of the Samoan desire for home rule and he became a vociferous defender of their rights, reflected in The Ebb Tide (1894) which condemns European colonial exploitation. He was named Tusitala by the Samoans: Teller of Tales. Other work published during these years in Samoa included Catriona, The Wrong Box and his unfinished, and potentially greatest, work The Weir of Hermiston.
The Hunter Home from the Hill
On 3 December, 1894, aged just 44, Robert Louis Stevenson died suddenly at home in Vailima from a cerebral haemorrhage, not from the tuberculosis which had haunted his life. The Samoan chief Tu'imaleali'ifano said after his death:
Talofa e i lo matou Tusitala. Ua tagi le fatu ma le 'ele'ele.
Our beloved Tusitala. The stones and the earth weep.
Stevenson had asked to be buried at the top of Mount Vaea, on the Vailima estate. Local people hand-dug a road to enable the funeral procession to reach the top. He wrote his own epitaph, inscribed upon his tomb:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longs to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Fanny, his wife, died 20 years later in California. Her ashes were taken to Mount Vaea as she had requested, to be buried beside her husband's body. Her epitaph too was written by Stevenson3 :
Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow farer, true through life,
Heart whole and soul free,
The august father gave to me.
The literary reputation of Robert Louis Stevenson declined after his death. For many years he was considered only a writer of children's books, but the release in 1949 of all of his letters to Fanny Sitwell resulted in a re-examination of his legacy. He began to be recognised as a writer of great originality and power; an author and poet who appealed to adults as well as to children. This assessment lives on and few of us have reached adulthood without being influenced by the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson.