Robert Louis Stevenson

Full Name Robert Louis Stevenson Original Name Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson
Born 13 November 1850, Edinburgh, Scotland Died 3 December 1894, Vailima, Samoan Islands
Spouses Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson (1840-1914)
Children Stepdaughter Isobel “Belle” Osbourne Strong Field (1858-1953)
Stepson Samuel Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947)
Relatives Father Thomas Stevenson
Mother Margaret Isabella Balfour

Robert Louis Stevenson was born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on 13 November 1850, the only son of Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer, and his wife, Margaret Isabella Balfour, who was the daughter of Lewis Balfour, a minister of the Church of Scotland. He was named Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson, but changed the spelling of his second given name to Louis when he was around 18, and dropped the third name in 1873. To his family and close friend he was always knowns as Louis.1

Stevenson suffered chronic health problems during his childhood and these illnesses persisted throughout his adult life as well, taking the form of fevers, insomnia, bronchitis, pneumonia, and a haemorrhage from the lungs. His devoted nurse Alison Cunningham, to whom Stevenson dedicated the book A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), played an important role in this period, not only taking care of his health, but also regularly reading him religious stories during his sleepless nights.2 Her introduction of writings by and about the Covenanters left an influence on Stevenson’s later writings. Despite his frequent illness which kept him away from schools and lacking a community of peers, he enjoyed holiday time with his cousins when he was at his maternal grandfather’s home in Colinton.3

Stevenson enjoyed having stories read to him, though he did not learn to read for himself until he was eight, at Mr Henderson’s school in India Street, Edinburgh.4 He was only taught there for a few weeks and had to take significant time off due to his ill health. He was taught by a private tutor in the interim period. Later, Stevenson went to Edinburgh Academy in 1861 for fifteen months, spent one term at an English boarding school, and studied at Robert Thomson’s private school in Frederick Street in Edinburgh until he entered the University of Edinburgh in November 1867.5

Stevenson enrolled at the University as an engineering student, and it was understood that he would join the family business as a civil engineer, inheriting their lighthouse building firm one day. He had talent for engineering, but showed more interest in literature. He neglected formal education, and instead spent time on reading literature and history books, imitating the authors he admired. He enjoyed the travels to different family engineering works more as source material for his literary writings than for practical experience. His voyage to the islet of Earraid in 1870 later became the settings for David Balfour’s misadventures in Kidnapped (1886).6 When he told his father that he wanted to pursue writing rather than engineering in April 1871, his father was upset. Nonetheless, they soon reached an agreement that Stevenson should study law so that if his literary ambition failed, he would still be trained for a respectable profession.

At university, Stevenson made friends in the Speculative Society, a literary and debating society, which included Charles Baxter (who later became a lawyer, Stevenson’s financial agent, and lifelong correspondent), James Walter Ferrier,7 and Sir Walter Simpson, with whom he travelled to Belgium and France in 1876. During this period the most important friend was probably his cousin Robert “Bob” Alan Mowbray Stevenson, who rejected the family engineering business and chose to dedicate himself to art. Also under his influence, Stevenson was moving away from his upbringing by growing his hair long, wearing velvet jackets, and visiting cheap pubs and brothels within his limited allowance.8 In the summer of 1873 in his cousin’s home, Stevenson met Professor Sidney Colvin and his friend Mrs Fanny (Frances Jane) Sitwell who were to be of great importance to him. Colvin soon became Stevenson’s literary mentor and closest friend, and placed his first paid contribution “Roads” in The Portfolio.9 Stevenson was soon active in London and made friends with many editors and writers of the time including Edmund Gosse and Leslie Stephen.

R L Stevenson

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. Public Domain.

During this period, Stevenson enjoyed outdoor life, yachting off the west coast of Scotland in August 1874, visiting the artists’ colonies in the forest of Fontainebleau in 1875 and spending the next three years at Barbizon and Grez. After time in Menton on the French Riviera, in April 1874 Stevenson resumed his law study and earned a law degree on 14 July 1875. Never planning to practice, Stevenson soon devoted himself to literary work.

Seeking inspiration, Stevenson started a canoe trip from Antwerp to northern France with Walter Simpson in 1876. Afterwards, he went to the town of Grez-sur-Loing to meet his cousin Bob and their artistic circle of friends. It was there he first met his future wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, and her two children. Regardless of their ten-year age gap, they fell in love in 1877, and spent most of the following year together.10 After Fanny returned to San Francisco in August 1878, Stevenson continued his walking trip in the south of France, which became his second book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879).

A letter from Fanny in 1879 encouraged Stevenson to set off to California to join her despite protests from his friends and family. The steamship Devonia brought him to New York, and the railroad took him overland to San Francisco. This experience was recorded in his work The Amateur Emigrant (1895). After Fanny divorced her philandering husband Samuel Osbourne in December 1879, she and Robert Louis were married on 19 May 1880. Fanny, her son Lloyd, and Robert Louis spent nine weeks in Napa Valley on their honeymoon. It was there he met Charles Warren Stoddard, co-editor of Overland Monthly, who urged Stevenson to travel to the South Pacific. In August 1880, Robert Louis went back to Britain with Fanny and Lloyd and repaired his relationship with his father.11

From 1880 to 1887, Robert Louis and Fanny travelled various places in Scotland, England and the south of France in order to find the best climate for Robert Louis’s fragile lungs. In spite of his poor health, he produced his best-known works during this period including Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

After his father’s death in 1887, Robert Louis left London for New York. In order to improve his health, the Stevensons spent that winter at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. In those months, Robert Louis established contact with Charles Scribner, who would become his American publisher, and E. L. Burlingame, editor of Scribner’s Magazine, the magazine for which he wrote some of his best essays, and also started the tragic story The Master of Ballantrae. In April 1888, Robert Louis left Saranac and went with his mother and stepson to Manasquan. During his time at Manasquan, Robert Louis quarrelled with W. E. Henley. The latter accused Fanny of plagiarising “The Nixie”, which he claimed was based on one written by Robert Louis’s cousin Katharine de Mattos. This quarrel ended a twelve-year-long friendship between Robert Louis and Henley.12

NPG x4630,Robert Louis Stevenson and family,by J. Davis

Photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson and family on the island of Upolu in Samoa. Public Domain.

In June 1888, Robert Louis and his family chartered the yacht Casco and started their cruise in the South Seas. They spent time in the Marquesas Islands, the Paumotu archipelago, and Tahiti before they finally reached Honolulu on January 24, 1889. Robert Louis stayed in Honolulu for 5 months and became friends with King Kalakaua. He visited the leper settlement on the island of Molokai, which was the basis for Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Reverend Dr Hyde. Robert Louis’s health improved in the climate of the South Seas, so in June 1889, he again set off on another journey, voyaging through the Gilbert Islands towards Samoa where he arrived in December. On the island of Upolu in Samoa, Robert Louis bought an estate of three hundred acres where he built his home, and named it Vailima. In February, 1890, he left for Sydney. In Sydney, he was seriously ill and was convinced he would not be able to travel to Britain because of the harsh weather and his poor health. He, with Fanny and his stepson, went on a voyage on the Janet Nicoll from April to July in the same year, on which they visited remote places including Penrhyn, the Ellice Islands, the Marshall Islands and New Caledonia.

Robert Louis spent most time of his last four years in Vailima, gathering his family around him and treating a wide range of visitors generously. As a result of his improved health, he was able to enjoy outdoor life and riding became his favourite exercise. The South Seas brought new themes to Robert Louis’s writings and among a great deal of works from this period, he wrote two novels, The Wrecker (1892) and Catriona (1893), and completed two of his finest short stories, The Ebb Tide (1894) and The Beach of Falesa (1892) which was collected with “The Bottle Imp” and “The Isle of Voices” in Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893).

On December 3 1894, Robert Louis suffered from a pain in his head, and after two hours of unconsciousness, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. He was buried on the summit of Mount Vaea with his “Requiem” (Under the Wide and Starry Sky).13

Cleared2

Burial and grave of writer Robert Louis Stevenson on Mt Vaea in Samoa, 1894. By Thomas Andrew (1855 – 1939). Public Domain.

SOURCES

Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Methuen, 1901. Print.

Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Faber and Faber, 1952. Print.

Harman, Claire. Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005. Print.

Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850-1894).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850 – 1894).Robert Louis Stevenson Museum Website. Web. 02 April 2015.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Life.The RLS Website. Web. 01 April 2015.

WORK BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Novels

The Hair Trunk or The Ideal Commonwealth (Unpublished, 1877)

Treasure Island (Cassell, 1883)

Prince Otto (Chatto & Windus, 1885)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Longmans, Green, 1886)

Kidnapped (Cassell, 1886)

Black Arrow (Cassell, 1888)

Master of Ballantrae (Cassell, 1889)

The Wrong Box (Longman’s, 1889)

The Wrecker (Cassell, 1892)

Catriona (Cassell, 1893)

The Ebb-Tide (Heineman, 1894)

Weir of Hermiston (Chatto & Windus, 1896)

St. Ives (Heineman, 1898)

Short Stories (Collections and Standalones)

“The Story of a Lie” (New Quarterly Magazine, 1879)

New Arabian Nights,  (Chatto & Windus, 1882)

“The Body Snatcher” (Pall Mall Christmas Extra, 1884)

“The Misadventures of John Nicholson: A Christmas Story” (Yule Tide, 1887)

The Merry Men (Chatto & Windus, 1887)

Island Nights’ Entertainments (Cassell, 1893)

Fables (Longman’s, 1896)

Poetry

A Child’s Garden of Verses (Longman’s, 1885)

Underwoods (Chatto & Windus, 1887)

Ballads (Chatto & Windus, 1890)

Songs of Travel and Other Verses (Chatto & Windus, 1895)

Drama

Three Plays (Nutt, 1892)

Travel Writing

An Inland Voyage (Kegan Paul, 1876)

Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (Seeley, Jackson, 1878)

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (Kegan Paul, 1879)

The Silverado Squatters (Chatto & Windus, 1884)

Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays (Chatto & Windus, 1892)

The Amateur Emigrant (Edinburgh, 1895)

In the South Seas (Chatto & Windus, 1896)

Essays

Virginibus Puerisque (Kegan Paul, 1881)

Familiar Studies of Men and Books (Chatto & Windus, 1882)

Memories and Portraits (Chatto & Windus, 1887)

Other Works

Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin (Longman’s, 1888)

“Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson” (The Presbyterian, 1890)

A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (Cassell, 1892)

Records of a Family of Engineers (Edinburgh, 1896)

  1. Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850-1894).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.
  2. Furnas, J. C. Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Faber and Faber, 1952. Print. 28-32.
  3. Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Methuen, 1901. Print. 10-12.
  4. Mehew, “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850-1894)”.
  5. Mehew, “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850-1894)”.
  6. Mehew, “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850-1894)”.
  7. Furnas, Voyage to Windward, 51-4.
  8. Furnas, Voyage to Windward, 53-7.
  9. Furnas, Voyage to Windward, 84-5.
  10. Furnas, Voyage to Windward, 130-6.
  11. Mehew, “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1840-1894)”.
  12. Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 123-4.
  13. Requiem“. Robert Louis Stevenson (1840-1894). National Library of Scotland. Web. 02 April 2015.