Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was often sick as a child, and respiratory troubles plagued him throughout his life. His father, Thomas Stevenson, 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 is hinted at in the numerous antagonistic or spiritless father-son relationships depicted in his novels.

A solid student, Robert obeyed his father’s wishes by enrolling in Edinburgh University to study engineering, with the eventual aim of joining his father’s firm, which specialized in the construction of lighthouses. Before long, however, he pushed back against this plan and reached a compromise with his father by pursuing legal studies. Robert frequently passed his summer vacations in France with his friends, who were mainly bohemians and artists. At the age of twenty-five, he 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. Stevenson frequently dreamed of escape from engineering or law, from Scotland, and from strict Victorian responsibility in general. Not surprisingly, many of Stevenson’s works demonstrate a sharp tension between upstanding duty and reckless abandon. Perhaps the most notable instance of this tension is his best-known work, 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 (1883) 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.

Stevenson wrote during the late Victorian period, but his works share more in common with his fellow Scotsman Sir Walter Scott, the author of the famous adventure novels such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy in the early 1800s—than they do with British novelists of Stevenson’s time, such as Charles Dickens or George Eliot. By the late 1880s as Stevenson’s health issues continued, he had become one of the leading figures of English literature due to the success of Treasure Island, many short stories such as “The Body Snatcher” (1884), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped (1886), and other works.

Advised by doctors to seek a climate that would be more amenable to the tuberculosis that haunted his later days, in 1888 Stevenson and his family set sail for the South Seas, arriving in Samoa, where he took up residence in 1889 and lived until his death at 44 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.