Scottish author Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on the 13th day of November in the year 1850. He was the only child of Margaret Isabella Balfour and Thomas Stevenson. His father was a well-known lighthouse engineer, which was the family business for several generations. His mother descended from gentry and could trace her lineage back to a man named Alexander Balfour, who in the fifteenth century held the lands of Inchrye in Fife.
As a boy, young Robert spent most of his holidays in his maternal grandfather’s house in nearby Colinton. His grandfather, Lewis Balfour, was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Stevenson once wrote “Now I often wonder what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us love to hear them.”
Unfortunately, Stevenson inherited his grandfather’s, and his mother’s, weak respiratory system and tendency toward illness. This inherited poor health called for a warmer, dryer climate so when his family relocated in 1851 to a cold damp home at 1 Inverleith Terrace young Robert’s illness worsened. When Robert was six years old the Stevenson’s moved again, this time to a sunnier home at 17 Heriot Row. The boy’s illnesses in the cold winters stayed with him however until he reached the age of eleven. At the time it was believed that Robert suffered from tuberculosis, but more recent opinions are that he in actuality had either brochiectasis *1 or sarcoidosis *2. Whatever disease Stevenson suffered from, he was left extraordinarily thin as a result.
Robert Louis Stevenson was brought up in the Presbyterian faith and although his parents were devoted to their religion the house¬hold in general did not strictly ad¬here to the Calvinist teachings. The boy’s nurse, Alison Cunningham, who he called Cummy, and who lovingly cared for him during his illnesses, was much more zealous in her religion. Her strict adherence to the Calvinist Church along with her folk beliefs gave the young boy nightmares. During his ill-nesses Cummy would read to him from the Bible and from John Bunyan’s writings. Later, in his book A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) he called this time in his life “The land of Counterpane” and dedicated the book to his nurse. Her presence in his young life left gave him a “precocious concern for religion.”
Stevenson’s education began much like the children of today, when he was six years old. He was sent to the nearby school but had problems there and had difficulty fitting into the new environment. This problem was repeated at age eleven when Robert entered the Edinburgh Academy. This could be attributed to his strange emaciated appearance and frequent illnesses. He spent long periods at home being tutored by private teachers. Childhood wasn’t completely dismal for Master Stevenson though; he got along well with his cousins and played outdoor games with them during the summer holidays at Colinton.
Reading came late to the boy, at age seven or eight, although this does not reflect on his intelligence. Even before he could read Robert would dictate stories to his mother and Cummy and wrote stories throughout his childhood. Thomas Stevenson had written stories, too, in his youth until being discouraged by his own father who instructed Thomas to “give up such nonsense and mind your business.” Nonetheless, Mr. Stevenson was proud of his son’s interest in writing and paid for the printing of Robert's first publication when the boy was but sixteen years old. The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666 (1866).
Following this publication, in 1867, Stevenson registered at the University of Edinburgh in order to study engineering. Success in this avenue of study proved elusive for Stevenson though, he simply was not enthusiastic about the subject and purposely was absent from many lectures. Instead, he spent much of his time with his newfound friends in the Speculative Society, which was an exclusive debating club. One man in particular became a close friend and would become Stevenson's financial advisor as well. He also spent time with Professor Fleeming Jenkin with whom he participated in amateur drama and later would write a biography about.
Early in the year 1871 the twenty year old Stevenson informed his father of his decision to “pursue a life of letters” instead of following the elder into the family business. Though Robert’s father was disappointed in his son’s decision, the man accepted it and convinced the younger to read the law and join the Scot¬tish bar in order to have an income. The boy had nonetheless declared his independence.
Much like the youth of today, and I suppose, each generation, Robert Louis Stevenson rebelled against the accepted lifestyle of the day. Along with his already long hair, he started dressing in the Bohemian fashion and even went so far as to wear a velveteen jacket. Shocking! He rejected Christianity and visited drinking establishment and certain ladies... Along with his favorite cousin Bob, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, Robert Louis Stevenson joined the LJR (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) Club. The opening lines of the club’s constitution read “Disregard everything our parents have taught us..” Robert’s membership in this club, along with his new lifestyle led to a period of bitter dissension with his parents. He wrote: “What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said ‘You have rendered my whole life a failure.’ As my mother said 'This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me.’ O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.”
On a trip to England in the summer of 1873, Stevenson met and befriended one Sidney Colvin. Colvin became the young, and as yet commercially unpublished, author’s literary advisor. Shortly after their meeting Colvin was able to place one of Stevenson’s essays Roads in The Portfolio. It was Stevenson's first paid pub¬lication. Colvin would become the first to edit Stevenson's letters following the latter’s death.
Fanny (Frances Jane Sitwell) was another person of importance to Stevenson. On the aforementioned trip to England, Robert met the 34 year old woman. He was attracted to her even though she was separated from her husband and had a son. The two corresponded for several years with Stevenson vacillating between pseudo son and paramour, eventually calling her Madonna. In 1901, however, he married Colvin.
It wasn’t long after these meetings that Robert became active in the literary life of London. He met many of his contemporaries during this time. Some of these writers were: Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine. Stephen introduced Robert to William Ernest Henley who became a close friend and sometime literary collaborator. In 1888 that friendship ended after an argument. Henley, who had a wooden leg is often thought of as the model for Long John Silver of Treasure Island fame.
Unfortunately, Stevenson’s health was still weak from child-hood. He became ill once again in November of 1873 and traveled to Menton on the French Riviera for recuperation. After five months in the warmth of Menton he returned to Scotland and his studies at the University of Edinburgh. Much of his future time was spend in France, though he often visited the area around the Forest of Fontainebleau where he joined artist colonies. He also went to Paris to see the galleries and visit the theaters.
In 1875 Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson passed the Scottish bar, but even though his father proudly attached the brass plate reading “R. L. Stevenson, Advocate” to the house on Heriot Row, Robert never practiced law. Instead, although his education in law influenced his later work, the young man put his energy into his writing and exploring his world. His first "real" book An Island Voyage (1878) was based on a canoe trip which he took in 1876 with Sir Walter Simpson through Belgium and France.
It was while on the above trip, the young Mr. Stevenson first met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Osbourne was an American who had married at seventeen, borne three children and separated from her philandering husband. She was in France with her children studying art at the time of her meeting with Stevenson. He returned home but she remained in his mind and apparently in his heart; he wrote an essay, “On falling in love,” for the Cornhill Magazine. The following year (1877) Steven¬son and Osbourne came together again and this time spent most of a year together as lovers. She left Europe in August of 1878, returning to America, specifically, San Francisco.
Stevenson stayed in Europe for a time, walking and gathering information that would be the basis for Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). He finally followed his lover to America in 1879 and nearly died along the way. Though his friends advised against the trip, Stevenson was determined and left Europe without informing his parents and journeyed to the United States. As a way to learn how the other half travel and to conserve funds, the writer booked second class passage on the steamship Devonia. Traveling by rail to California, Stevenson arrived in Monterey near death. Fortunately for him some local ranchers took him in and nursed him back to health. By De¬cember 1879 the author was recovered sufficiently to continue his journey to San Francisco where he struggled to survive on nearly nothing for several months while trying to support his writing. Once again death hovered over him as the cold San Francisco winter passed into spring. This time it was the now divorced Fanny that came to his aid and nursed him back to health. Ironically, Fanny herself had just recovered from a life threatening illness.
The couple, now healthy, married in the spring of 1880 and spent the summer honeymooning at an old mining camp of Mt St Helena in the Napa Valley. This trip provided background for The Silverado Squatters. While in the Napa Valley Stevenson met Charles Warren Stoddard, author of South Sea Idylls and co-editor of Overland Monthly. Stoddard planted within Stevenson the idea of traveling to the South Pacific. They went to England instead where Fanny successfully negotiated peace between Robert and his father.
The years from 1880 and 1887, the Stevenson's tried to find a home in a climate that would be compatible with Robert’s health needs. Summers were spent on Britain and winters passed in France near Hyeres on the Mediterranean Coast. It was during this period in spite of his poor health that Stevenson wrote most of his best known work including; Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and two books of poetry.
After his father’s death in 1887, Robert was able to follow his doctor’s advice to move to a place where the climate would be more conducive to his health issues. With his mother and family in tow he set out for Colorado. They made is as far as New York before plans changed. They decided to winter at a “cure cottage” at Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Here Robert wrote his essay Pulvis et Umbra, and started work on The Master of Ballantrae. He also thought about the South Pacific and started planning a trip for the following summer.
The following June found the Stevenson’s ocean bound on the chartered yacht Casco. They set out from San Francisco headed for the South Seas with a great sense of adventure. Stevenson wrote about the yacht that she; “plowed her path of snow across the empty deep, far from all track of commerce, far from any hand of help.” The sea agreed with Robert, he regained his health and the next three years were spent exploring the islands of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. The author became close friends with King Kalakaua of Hawaii where the family spend a great deal of time.
Other islands were visited as well; Tahiti, New Zealand, the Gilbert Islands and Samoa were just a few of his stops. It was during this period that The Master of Ballantrae was completed, along with The Bottle Imp, two ballads various letters and other essay’s. He also witnessed the Samoan Crisis of 1889. Robert’s thoughts and feelings during this time were expressed in the many letters he wrote and in In the South Seas (which was published posthumously).
The Stevenson's finally planted their roots in 1890 when they purchased approximately 400 acres (1.6 km2) in Upolu, an is¬land in Samoa. Here Robert Louis Stevenson cleared his land, built his house and settled down to rest at last. The name Tusitala (Samoan for Teller of Tales) was bestowed upon him here. He frequently consulted with the Samoan people, offering them his advice and earning their adoration. He also became involved in the local politics of his adopted home. After numerous, fruitless, attempts to deal with the European appointed government, which he considered incompetent, Stevenson published A Footnote to History. The results of this harsh report were that two of these officials were recalled and Stevenson himself feared deportation. He was not deported and the situation passed. The Stevenson’s were on cordial if not friendly terms with some of the colonial leaders and their families. Robert went so far and to legally donate his birthday to the daughter of the American Land Commissioner Henry Clay Ide, her birthday being on December 25th. While accomplishing all of this, Stevenson managed to keep writing and turned out The Beach of Falesa, Catriona (titled David Balfour in the US, The Ebb-Tide, and the Vailima Letters.
Depression stuck our hero, he felt as though he might have used up his precious talent. He stated that he had “overworked bitterly” and that every new start of writing was, at best, mere “ditch water.” He feared, too, that he may become a “helpless invalid.” Robert fought back, stated: “I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution:” Recovery was soon achieved, however, and Robert returned to his writing with a passion. Weir of Hermiston was begun, a work that Mr. Stevenson considered his best work. He proclaimed; “sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time.” It was a prophetic statement.
Monday morning, December 3, 1894, as usual the man is hard at work on his current book Weir of Hermiston. Things are progressing well now that the melancholy has passed. The book should be finished soon, maybe before Christmas. The day passes, the man is done for the day. He goes to the kitchen, greets his wife, selects a bottle of wine for them to enjoy before the evening meal. He has trouble uncorking it. He stops, looks at his wife and asks “What’s that?” then “Does my face look strange?”, and collapses. Within a few hours Robert Louis Bal¬four Stevenson is dead at forty-four, most likely of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The Samoans, ever faithful to their friend, set a watch-guard around his body that night then carried him to his resting place on Mount Vaea overlooking the sea. On his tomb is the requiem that he had always wished place there.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Stevenson truly was a legend in his own time, but alas, modern times overcame the man’s popularity with advent of modern literature along with the influx of the new generation of novel¬ists. Following the Great War, with the new writers pouring out new up-to-date literature, Ste-venson was relegated to second class status where he remained for much of the twentieth century, a writer of horror novels and children’s stories. He was excluded from school curriculum and dismissed by literary icons of the day. In 1973, this condemnation reached its pinnacle with the publication of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature in which of 2,000 pages his name did not appear once. The first to seventh editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature he was ignored for thirty two years. Except for the people of Samoa, he was largely forgotten by the world. It wasn’t until 2006 that he was included in the anthology. Now, in 2012, Robert Louis Stevenson is recognized for the world treasure that he was: author, composer, politician, and diplomat. He is once again beloved among the story tellers of the human race. He is one of the 26 most translated authors worldwide.
1. Bronchiectasis is a disease state defined by localized, irreversible dilation of part of the bronchial tree caused by destruction of the muscle and elastic tissue.
2. [Sarcoidosis is a disease in which inflammation occurs in the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, eyes, skin, or other tissues.
3. John Bunyan (28 November 1628 – 31 August 1688) was an English Christian writer and preacher, who is well known for his book The Pilgrim’s Progress.
4. The Samoan Crisis was a confrontation between the United States, Germany and Great Britain from 1887–1889 over control of the Samoan Islands during the Samoan Civil War.