Robert Louis (originally Lewis) Stevenson was born in November 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was an engineer, and his mother was from a family of lawyers and ministers. Like many other parents of their time, the Stevensons imparted to their son the Victorian values of piety, industry, and practical success. Robert was somewhat fearful of his strict, no-nonsense father, a fact that would later be evident in the numerous antagonistic or spiritless father-son relationships depicted in his novels. Robert was a solid student, obeying his father’s wishes by enrolling in Edinburgh University’s engineering department with the eventual aim of joining his father’s firm, which specialized in the construction of deep-sea lighthouses. Stevenson soon rebelled against this plan and reached a compromise with his father by pursuing legal studies. He frequently passed his summer vacations in France with his friends, who were mainly bohemians and artists. At the age of twenty-five, Stevenson passed the bar, but he knew he was not a lawyer at heart and never practiced. Around that time, he published his first essay, a travel piece, and his literary career began.
Stevenson’s dissatisfaction with his father’s practical career advice was characteristic of his broader disillusionment with the ideals of Victorian society. To Stevenson, it seemed that the entire nation considered working hard its highest duty. However, the young Stevenson frequently dreamed of escape from engineering, from Scotland, and from Victorian responsibility in general. Not surprisingly, many of his works demonstrate a sharp tension between upstanding duty and reckless abandon. Perhaps the most notable instance of this tension is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), in which these two opposing impulses are at war within one man, eventually tearing him apart. A later, less famous work, The Master of Ballantrae (1889), showcases two Scottish brothers who represent duty and recklessness, and good and evil. Treasure Island also features a conflict between respectful gentlemen and carefree pirates. Perhaps because of Stevenson’s commitment to both duty and art, his works never clearly separate the opposing moral forces. The good and the bad are always inextricably bound to each other. As we see in Treasure Island, the dastardly pirate Long John Silver remarks how similar he is to the novel’s upstanding young hero, Jim Hawkins.
The idea of escape was equally important in Stevenson’s life and work. In 1876, on one of his visits to France, Stevenson met an American woman named Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. At thirty-six, she was more than ten years older than he, and, furthermore, she had also been previously married and had two small children. In a most un-Victorian fashion, Stevenson fell deeply in love with Osbourne. Two years later, he followed her as she returned to California to finalize her divorce, a journey he described in The Amateur Emigrant (1879). Stevenson and Osbourne married in California and spent their honeymoon at an abandoned silver mine.
Stevenson got along well with Osbourne’s children. It was while drawing a map with her son Lloyd that Stevenson came up with the idea of writing Treasure Island. The novel’s focus on voyaging became even more important in Stevenson’s life when his doctors advised him to seek a better climate for his health. In 1888, Stevenson and his family set sail for the South Seas, arriving in Samoa and taking up residence there in 1889. When he died in 1894, Stevenson was buried on top of Mount Vaea, an unconventional burial site that symbolizes the spirit of moral nonconformity and independent thought that he strove to convey in his works.
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