Biography of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was born November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only son of respectable middle-class parents. Throughout his childhood, he suffered chronic health problems that confined him to bed. In his youth, his strongest influence was that of his nurse, Allison Cunningham, who often read Pilgrim's Progress and The Old Testament to him. In 1867, Stevenson entered Edinburgh University as a science student, where it was tacitly understood that he would follow his father's footsteps and become a civil engineer. However, Robert was at heart a romantic, and while ostensibly working towards a science degree, he spent much of his time studying French Literature, Scottish history, and the works of Darwin and Spencer. When he confided to his father that he did not want to become an engineer and instead wished to pursue writing, his father was quite upset. They settled on a compromise, where Robert would study for the Bar exam and if his literary ambitions failed, he would have a respectable profession to fall back on.

In order to fully comprehend the world in which Stevenson was raised, it is necessary to understand that there were two Edinburghs, both of which helped mold his personality and life outlook. On the one hand, there was the respectable, conventional, deeply religious, and polite New Town. On the other hand was a much more bohemian Edinburgh, with brothels, shady characters and underhanded dealings. The juxtaposition of these starkly different parts of town made a deep impression on Stevenson and strengthened his fascination with the duality of human nature, later providing the theme for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the fall of 1873, Stevenson fell ill, suffering from nervous exhaustion and a severe chest condition. His doctor ordered him to take an extended period of rest abroad. For the next six months, he convalesced in the South of France, and worked on essays. On his return to Edinburgh, he spent much of his time writing book reviews and articles and experimenting with short stories. Slowly but surely, he earned a name for himself in journalism and his pieces began appearing in distinguished journals such as The Fortnightly Review. While establishing his name as a writer, Stevenson met an American married woman, Fanny Vandergrift Osbourne, who was ten years his senior. Osbourne had traveled to Europe in an attempt to escape her estranged husband's influence. For three years, Stevenson, who was still in ill health, continued his relationship with her and eventually followed her to San Francisco, where she divorced her husband and married Stevenson in May 1880.

In 1878, Stevenson published An Inland Voyage, which recounts a canoeing holiday in Belgium. In August 1880, the Stevensons returned to England. He and his wife wintered in the South of France and lived in England from 1880-1887, a period of time was marked by great literary achievement. Stevenson's first novel, Treasure Island, was published in 1883, followed by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). Stevenson's work was highly popular and he received great critical acclaim.

Upon his father's death in 1887, Stevenson chose to leave England and sailed for America, where he stayed for a year. In May 1888, accompanied by his wife, stepson, and mother, he set sail for the South Seas. Stevenson grew so enchanted by the life of the South Seas that in December 1889 he bought an estate in Apia, Samoa, convinced that he could never again endure the harsh winters of his native Scotland or England. Apia was a perfect location because the climate was tropical but not wild, the people were friendly and hard working, and there was good postal service in the country.

Stevenson lived at his 300-acre estate, Vailima, in the hills of Apia until his death in 1894. While in Vailima, Stevenson wrote a great deal, completing two of his finest novellas, "The Beach of Falesa" and "The Ebb Tide", two novels, The Wrecker and Catriona, the short stories "The Bottle Imp," "The Isle of voices," and "The Waif Woman." He also published short works under the title Fables. Stevenson left a significant amount of work unfinished, including St. Ives, The Young Chevalier, Heathercat, and Weir of Hermiston, which he worked on enthusiastically until the day of his death. On December 3, 1894 he dictated another installment of the novel, seemed in excellent spirits, and was speaking with his wife in the evening when he felt a violent pain in his head and lost consciousness. Stevenson had suffered a brain hemorrhage and died a few hours later at the age of forty-four.


Study Guides on Works by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson began writing Kidnapped in March of 1885. In February, he had finished writing The Black Arrow and was working on The Great North Road when he read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A month later, he put...