Robert Louis Stevenson


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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Scottish poet, essayist, and author wrote Treasure Island (1883);

I brooded by the hour together over the map, .... I climbed a thousand times to that tall hill they call the Spy-glass, and from the top enjoyed the most wonderful and changing prospects. Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought, sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us, but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange and tragic as our actual adventures.--Ch. 7

What was to be one of the world's most enduring stories of pirates sailing to exotic islands, singing "Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!", one-legged sailors with parrots as pets, black spots signifying the fate of a man, dead-men's chests, and hidden treasure maps, Stevenson's Treasure Island was an immediate success and affirmed his passions for story telling and writing. It and numerous other of Stevenson's works populated by such memorable characters as Long John Silver, Captain Alexander Smollet, Billy Bones, and Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, have been adapted to the stage and screen and continue to be read today. ".... he avoids most of the snares and pitfalls of genius with noble and unconscious skill.--from "Robert Louis Stevenson" (1895) by Sir Walter Raleigh. An avid reader of the works of Walt Whitman, Victor Hugo, Francois Villon, William Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, and fellow Scots Robert Burns and John Knox, Stevenson himself inspired many other authors including Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, and Peter Pan author James M. Barrie. Despite a weak constitution and frequent bouts of ill-health throughout his life, Stevenson led a life of adventure and embraced the unconventional. "A sincere and faithful man, .... though with a touch of sudden, bright, quiet humour and fancy, ...."--from Robert Louis Stevenson: a Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial (1905) by Alexander H. Japp. Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote of Stevenson

".... he had to make one story as rich as a ruby sunset, another as grey as a hoary monolith: for the story was the soul, or rather the meaning, of the bodily vision. It is quite inappropriate to judge 'The Teller of Tales' (as the Samoans called him) by the particular novels he wrote, .... These novels were only the two or three of his soul's adventures that he happened to tell. But he died with a thousand stories in his heart."--from Twelve Types: A Collection of Biographies (1902)

Stevenson's life, itself the subject of many a scholar, is also mirrored in many of his works; he left a treasure trove of essays, diaries, poetry, letters, short stories, and unfinished manuscripts at the time of his death at age forty-four, including Weir of Hermiston (1896). Other popular novels include his Scottish historical tales of David Balfour in Kidnapped (1886) and its sequel Catriona (1893), and his study of split-personality, good versus evil in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886);

Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was, and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature.--Ch. 10

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 13 November 1850, the only child born to Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829-1897) and Thomas Stevenson (1818-1887), a civil engineer and pioneering designer of lighthouses. He would later change "Lewis" to "Louis", pronounced "Lewis". When young Louis was not bed-ridden suffering from a fever or cold exacerbated by the damp and chilly Scottish weather, he was often in the company of his father and the fishermen and lighthouse keepers he worked closely with. These times would provide much fodder for his own stories as a child and adult. Louis' devoted nurse Allison Cunningham "Cummy" read to him and encouraged him at an early age to write his own stories including "History of Moses"; he dedicated A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) to her.

Louis attended Edinburgh Academy before entering the University of Edinburgh with the intent of following in his father and grandfather's footsteps, but it was an occupation he was physically ill-suited for. He next studied law but decided ultimately to become a writer. Illness often curtailed his studies and throughout his life he travelled to warmer climes for respite. Whether in the south of France or the South Seas, Stevenson wrote numerous novels, stories, and collections of essays based on his travels including Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), travels in Belgium and France via canoe inspiring An Inland Voyage (1878), and In the South Seas (1893). While on one of his many forays in France, Stevenson met American artist Fanny Osbourne (1840-1914) who was there without her husband but with son Lloyd and daughter Isobel in tow. The children were dazzled by Stevenson's outgoing personality and pirate stories, and Louis and Fanny fell in love.

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father
Gave to me.--"My Wife"

In August of 1879 he sailed for New York from Glasgow, much to the distress of his father Thomas who was concerned for his health and well-being. After making the arduous cross-country journey to San Francisco which inspired The Amateur Emigrant (1895), Across The Plains (1892), and The Silverado Squatters (1883) Louis and Fanny were re-united, Osbourne having been newly granted a divorce. In May 1880 they were married.

".... the nature of Stevenson was buoyed up, spiritualized, encouraged and given strength by his marriage,.... He loved her children as his own, and they reciprocated the affection in a way that embalms their names in amber forevermore."--from Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys: Great Lovers (1916)

Stevenson took up a number of positions writing for various newspapers and magazines including The Cornhill Magazine. In 1880 the Stevensons travelled back to Europe, living for a time in Bournemouth, England where Stevenson met fellow author Henry James. However the climate was still too much for him and he spent winters travelling. In 1888 he set sail for the South Seas, and by the end of 1889 was familiar with the island of Samoa, the place where he and Fanny would soon call home.

I was now escaped out of the shadow of the Roman empire, under whose toppling monuments we were all cradled, whose laws and letters are on every hand of us, constraining and preventing. I was now to see what men might be whose fathers had never studied Virgil, had never been conquered by Caesar, and never been ruled by the wisdom of Gaius or Papinian. In the South Seas--Ch. 1

Having been enamoured of the locals who bestowed the name "Tusitala" or "Teller of Tales" on him, Stevenson purchased four hundred acres that would be the setting for his mansion "Vailima" (Five Rivers) in the village of same name. Stevenson immersed himself in the local culture and politics of his new home, and continued his prodigious output of novels and letters. Robert Louis Stevenson died at home of a stroke on 3 December 1894, his beloved Fanny by his side. His tomb at Mount Vaea is inscribed thus;

"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 the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Other titles by Stevenson include;

The Story of a Lie (1879)
New Arabian Nights (1882)
The Black Arrow (1883)
The Merry Men (1887)
The Master of Ballantrae (1889)
The Misadventures of John Nicholson (1894)
The Ebb-Tide (1894)
St. Ives (1897)
Island Nights' Entertainments (1905)
Prince Otto: A Romance (1905)

Non-Fiction

Edinburgh Picturesque Notes (1879)
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers (1881)
Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin (1887)
Memories and Portraits (1887)
A Footnote to History (1892)
Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1892)
Familiar Studies of Men & Books (1894)
Lay Morals and Other Papers (1911)
Records of a Family of Engineers (1916)

Poetry Books

Underwoods (1887)
Ballads (1891)
Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)
Prayers Written At Vailima (1904)
New Poems (1918)

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.


The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on Robert Louis Stevenson

The Far-Farers

There is something about this poem of which I found to be quite moving, and strikingly beautiful. In but a few lines I think it does capture so much and paints a vivid picture, as well as expressing a depth of emotion. I love the contrast within the first and second verses. The first verse captures an adventuresome spirit, and speaks to the nautical theme of which I tend to enjoy. The language used is very upbeat. It presents a positive image that inspires a burst or energy and excitement fo...


Will 'o the Mill

I found an old book by Stevenson in my grandparents barn, and in spite of the poor choice of storage it's still in fair condition. I searched for this story, Will O' The Mill , but it returned no results. The book itself was printed in 1901, at the Roycroft Shop in East Aurora, NY. Can anyone give me any info on this? Thanks....


Villion and R.L.S.

Dear guys I'm reading "USA" by John Dos Passos. In "1919" (the 2nd part of the trilogy), there's biography of Jack Reed, the famous brave American writer and journalist. In part of this biography, there's a reference to "Villon" (and I'm not sure if it's referring to "Francoi Villon", the French poet of 16 century, or "Jacque Villon", the cubist painer of 19 century) and also a reference to "R.L.S." At the same time, I know that Stevensen has written "A Lodging For the Night" but I can't link i...


A Lodging for the Night

I finished reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde yesterday and went on to the shorter stories also included in the volume. Among them was "A Lodging for the Night." I was wondering if anyone has read this story and would care to discuss it, I was left feeling like the story was a little vague. So I am just curious if anyone else has read it and cares to discuss. :D...


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