Last reviewed: June 2018
Scottish novelist, short-story writer, poet, and essayist
November 13, 1850
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. Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson
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.