Authors: Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Scottish novelist, short-story writer, poet, and essayist

November 13, 1850

Edinburgh, Scotland

December 3, 1894

Vailima, near Apia, Samoa


Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1850, achieved fame because of his romantic life nearly as much as because of his romantic fiction. His life displays the same split between romantic adventure and grim reality that the discerning reader finds in much of his writing. Stevenson’s brief life was a nearly constant journey in search of adventure and relief from the agonies of tuberculosis, with which he was afflicted from early childhood. His father, Thomas Stevenson, a successful Edinburgh lighthouse engineer, hoped for a law career for his only son. Robert did study to be a barrister, but he soon commenced a life of traveling that took him to Switzerland, France, the United States, and, finally, the South Seas. In each place Stevenson found adventure; when he did not find it ready-made, he created it for himself out of his teeming imagination. {$I[AN]9810001434} {$I[A]Stevenson, Robert Louis} {$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Stevenson, Robert Louis} {$I[tim]1850;Stevenson, Robert Louis}

Robert Louis Stevenson

(Library of Congress)

Although Stevenson is best known for his fiction, he was a prodigious essayist. The vivid impressions made by the places he visited are recorded in such brilliant travel sketches and essays as An Inland Voyage, which tells of a canoeing trip through Belgium and France, and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, which records his journeys in southern France. In these books Stevenson shows the sharp eye and sensitivity that were to add so much to the popularity of his fiction.

He had always been ambitious to write and had prepared himself laboriously for a literary career. His famous statements about how he copied the style of great writers such as Charles Lamb (1775–1834), William Hazlitt (1778–1830), Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and about how he was always writing, polishing, and correcting are evidence of this ambition. So, too, is the delicate, precise, but rich style that his fiction achieves.

In France, Stevenson fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married woman. He went to California in 1879 to marry her after she had secured a divorce from her husband. This trip caused a break with Stevenson’s family, who were opposed to the match, and he suffered many hardships until he acquired a measure of fame and prosperity with the publication of his first major work, Treasure Island, written chiefly for the entertainment of his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. This most famous of adventure stories demonstrated Stevenson’s colorful narration and his technique of using a relatively minor character as observer and narrator. Kidnapped was immediately popular, but it never attained the following of Treasure Island. A striking contrast to these tales of romantic adventure is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, perhaps the most famous of all Stevenson’s fiction; this grim story of dual personality is filled with Stevenson’s concern with ethical problems.

Again in search of improved health, Stevenson left California and traveled in the United States, his longest stay being at Saranac Lake, a health resort in the Adirondacks. He lived there in 1887 and 1888, writing The Master of Ballantrae, a tale of the Jacobite struggle, the same subject dealt with in the earlier Kidnapped. In The Black Arrow, he went further back in time to the Wars of the Roses; this book contains a lively picture of late medieval times.

In a final desperate effort to regain his health, Stevenson moved to the South Seas and settled on the island of Samoa. There he found a serenity that encouraged his literary efforts. He was considered a great man by the islanders, and he took an active interest in Samoan politics. In his last years, Stevenson was very productive, turning out The Wrecker with Lloyd Osbourne and Catriona, a sequel to Kidnapped but a more able literary performance.

Stevenson died suddenly on December 3, 1894, leaving unfinished his Weir of Hermiston, the work that is generally regarded as his masterpiece. In this fragment Stevenson displays again his conviction that the romance of life is, to the individual, more real than what critics and other materialistic novelists of his period were praising as detached objectivity. Criticism has been sharply divided over his work, but he holds a firm place in the favor of all children and adults who believe that adventure is—or at least should be—a part of life.

Author Works Long Fiction: Treasure Island, 1881–2 (serial), 1883 (book) Prince Otto, 1885 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886 Kidnapped, 1886 The Black Arrow, 1888 The Master of Ballantrae, 1889 The Wrong Box, 1889 The Wrecker, 1892 (with Lloyd Osbourne) Catriona, 1893 The Ebb-Tide, 1894 (with Osbourne) Weir of Hermiston, 1896 (unfinished) St. Ives, 1897 (completed by Arthur Quiller-Couch) Short Fiction: The New Arabian Nights, 1882 More New Arabian Nights, 1885 The Merry Men, and Other Tales and Fables, 1887 Island Nights’ Entertainments, 1893 Drama: Deacon Brodie, pb. 1880 (with William Ernest Henley) Admiral Guinea, pb. 1884 (with Henley) Beau Austin, pb. 1884 (with Henley) Macaire, pb. 1885 (with Henley) The Hanging Judge, pb. 1887 (with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson) Poetry: Moral Emblems, 1882 A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1885 Underwoods, 1887 Ballads, 1890 Songs of Travel, and Other Verses, 1896 Nonfiction: An Inland Voyage, 1878 Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, 1878 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879 Virginibus Puerisque, 1881 Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882 The Silverado Squatters, Sketches from a Californian Mountain, 1883 Memories and Portraits, 1887 The South Seas: A Record of Three Cruises, 1890 Across the Plains, 1892 A Footnote to History, 1892 Amateur Emigrant, 1895 Vailima Letters, 1895 In the South Seas, 1896 The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, 1899 (2 volumes), 1911 (4 volumes) The Lantern-Bearers, and Other Essays, 1988 The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1994–1995 (8 volumes) R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays, 1999 (Glenda Norquay, editor) Bibliography Ambrosini, Richard, and Richard Dury, eds. Robert Louis Stevenson: Writer of Boundaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. A collection of essays reflecting a trend in Stevenson studies that can readily be appreciated by a twenty-first century reader. Arata, Stephen D. “The Sedulous Ape: Atavism, Professionalism, and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.” Criticism 37 (Spring, 1995): 233–259. Discusses the story as a self-conscious exploration of the relation between professional interpretation and the construction of criminal deviance; argues that it is also a displaced meditation on what Stevenson considered the decline of authorship into “professionalism.” Bathurst, Bella. The Lighthouse Stevensons. New York: HarperPerennial, 2000. A history of Stevenson’s family, who built fourteen lighthouses along the Scottish coast during the nineteenth century. A fascinating insight into Stevenson’s family background. Bell, Ian. Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. Bell, a journalist rather than an academic, writes evocatively of Stevenson the dreamer and exile. This brief study of Stevenson’s brief but dramatic life does a fine job of evoking the man and the places he inhabited. It is less accomplished in its approach to the work. Bevan, Bryan. “The Versatility of Robert Louis Stevenson.” Contemporary Review 264 (June, 1994): 316–319. A general discussion of Stevenson’s work, focusing on his versatility in a number of genres; discusses early influences on his writing, and comments on his essays and his fiction. Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Louis Stevenson. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2005. Compilation of critical essays on Stevenson’s fiction, ranging in focus from the dialectic between realism and romance to Stevenson’s attitude toward professionalism in authorship. Buckton, Oliver S. Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative, and the Colonial Body. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007. This volume looks at much of Stevenson’s nonfiction and his major fictional works to examine the importance of travel in his life and his writing. Buckton shares enlightening views on the energies and desires that were released by Stevenson through travel. Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. This excellent study, by the daughter of literary historian David Daiches, is richly documented with Stevenson’s letters. Less a biography than a study of the writer’s mind, it focuses on the personal values and attitudes informing Stevenson’s work. Callow, Philip. Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. An engaging biography that draws on the work of other biographers to present for the general reader a cohesive life of the novelist. Chesterton, G. K. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927. An older but distinguished critical study of Stevenson that is still highly regarded for its insights, as well as for its wit and lucidity. Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson. Norwalk, Conn.: New Directions, 1947. Along with J. C. Furnas, Daiches is credited with pioneering a positive reappraisal of Stevenson. His study is urbane and penetrating in the tradition of G. K. Chesterton. Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward. New York: William Sloane, 1951. Furnas, who briefly lived in Stevenson’s home in Samoa, traced the author’s steps backward to his native Scotland. The work is a popular and sympathetic biography documented with unpublished letters. It contains an elaborate works-consulted bibliography. Hammond, J. R. A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays, and Short Stories. London: Macmillan, 1984. The first three sections cover the life and literary achievements of Stevenson and contain a brief bibliography that lists and describes his short stories, essays, and smaller works. The fourth section critiques his novels and romances, and the fifth is a key to the people and places of Stevenson’s novels and stories. Harman, Claire. Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. A substantial biography, covering the writer’s early family life, his writing and travels and his curious but successful marriage. Includes bibliography and index. McLaughlin, Kevin. “The Financial Imp: Ethics and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Novel 29 (Winter, 1996): 165–183. Examines the key issue of finance that can be found at the center of some works of British fiction during this time, focusing particularly on Stevenson’s treatment of these issues in his short story “The Bottle Imp.” McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1993. The author traces Robert Louis Stevenson’s career, noting the malignant influence of his wife and stepson and concluding that Stevenson “is Scotland’s greatest writer of English prose.” Reid, Julia. Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Study of the role of science, especially the theory of evolution, both in Stevenson’s works and in the fin-de-siècle culture that produced them. Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Twayne, 1974. A useful critical survey of Stevenson’s major works. Saposnik’s volume is the best starting point for serious study of Stevenson’s fiction. Supplemented by a helpful annotated bibliography. Wright, Daniel L. “’The Prisonhouse of My Disposition’: A Study of the Psychology of Addiction in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Studies in the Novel 26 (Fall, 1994): 254–267. Argues that the story is a portrait of a subject whose aggregate pre-addictive personality disorders reveal a substantial number of risk factors associated with high receptivity to addictive behavior; claims that the story is not just a quaint experiment in gothic terror but Victorian literature’s premiere revelation, intended or not, of the etiology, character, and effects of chronic chemical addiction.

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