The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are among the top stories of the 19th century. After selling hundreds of thousands of copies since their first publication, the name Robert Louis Stevenson is recognised by a significant number of people. Despite being a popular author, Stevenson’s novels are better known than his own life, which proves just as interesting for those who take the time to read about him.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13th November 1850 to Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) and Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829-97). On reaching 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of Lewis to Louis, then in 1873 dropped Balfour from his name. Thomas Stevenson worked as a lighthouse engineer, and his father, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), after whom Robert Louis Stevenson was named, built several lighthouses around Scotland. The Stevenson family had a long history of lighthouse work, but the young Robert Stevenson chose not to follow that profession.

As an only childhood, Stevenson grew up under the protection of his nurse, Alison Cunningham “Cummy”. Stevenson inherited weak lungs from his mother’s side, and Cummy nursed him through several childhood illnesses, telling him stories from the Bible. Stevenson dedicated one of his future stories to Cummy, calling her “My second mother, my first wife. The angel of my infant life.”

Stevenson found it difficult to fit in at the local school, and because of his many illnesses, he did not learn to read until he was seven years old. Nonetheless, he loved to hear stories and frequently dictated his own to his nurse or parents. As soon as he could write, Stevenson compulsively composed stories throughout his childhood, an activity his father encouraged. At 16, Stevenson’s father helped him publish his first work, The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666, which gave an account of the Covenanters’ rebellion. This was a tale recounted by his nurse many times during his bouts of ill health.

In 1867, Stevenson began studying engineering at Edinburgh University. Despite his love of writing, Stevenson’s father expected him to join the family business, but Stevenson showed no enthusiasm and avoided attending lectures. Instead, Stevenson joined The Speculative Society with other students at the university. The society predominantly focused on debates and public speaking, and Stevenson made friends with several people who encouraged his passion for storytelling.

To encourage his son to take his studies seriously, Thomas Stevenson took him on trips to various lighthouses during the summer months. This backfired when Stevenson enjoyed the experience because it gave him more writing opportunities, rather than evoking an interest in the engineering work. Although disappointed, Stevenson’s father agreed he could pursue a life of letters but insisted his son earn a degree in Law to provide some security.

As well as turning his back on engineering, Stevenson rejected religion, declaring himself an atheist. This decision appalled his parents, causing his father to proclaim, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” Stevenson shocked them further by choosing to wear Bohemian clothing and grow his hair long.

In 1873, Stevenson visited his cousin in France, where he met Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), an art critic who became Stevenson’s literary adviser. Colvin set Stevenson on the path to fame by posting his article Roads in The Portfolio, a British art magazine. After returning to Great Britain, Stevenson spent time getting to know writers in London, including poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who had an amputated left leg. Henley inspired Stevenson’s most famous character, Long John Silver (Treasure Island).

Toward the end of 1873, Stevenson returned to France to recuperate from an illness in Menton on the French Riviera. While in France, he spent time in artists colonies and visited many galleries and theatres. Back in Scotland, Stevenson qualified for the Scottish bar in 1875 but never practised law. Instead, he continued writing and travelling.

In 1876, Stevenson took a canoe voyage through Belgium and France with Walter Simpson, who he met at The Speculative Society in Edinburgh. The trip finished in Grez, North France, where he made the acquaintance of the American magazine writer, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840-1914). She had recently moved to France with her children, Isobel and Lloyd, after separating from her husband. When Stevenson returned home, he could not stop thinking about Fanny, so went back to France the following year.

Fanny returned to America in 1878. That year, Stevenson conducted a lengthy walking trip, which he wrote about in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Over twelve days, Stevenson walked 120 miles in the barren Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Several hikers have retraced Stevenson’s route, beginning in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille and finishing at Saint-Jean-du-Gard. The journey, which Stevenson completed alone, cost him his health, although this did not prevent him from travelling on the steamship Devonia, to join Fanny in California.

Stevenson’s health deteriorated during the crossing of the Atlantic. Approaching death, local ranchers in Monterey, California, nursed him back to health until he felt fit enough to make his way to San Francisco, where Fanny lived. Unfortunately, Stevenson did not have much money and lived “all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts.” When he eventually reached the city, Stevenson was once again at death’s door. This time, the newly-divorced Fanny nursed him back to health.

In May 1880, Stevenson married Fanny. Whilst he had regained some of his health, he declared he felt like “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For their honeymoon, the couple spent the summer at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. Today, the area is known as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Stevenson’s parents were not overly pleased about the marriage, but after several trips to Britain, Fanny helped patch up the relationship between mother, father and son.

In 1884, Stevenson and his wife settled in Bournemouth, Dorset, where they purchased a cottage called Skerryvore. Still poorly, Stevenson spent a lot of time confined to his bed but enjoyed regular visits from the neighbouring author, Henry James (1843-1916). Despite his physical health, Stevenson felt able to write and produced many of his well-known works during his three years of bed rest.

Before settling in Dorset, Stevenson wrote, serialised and published one of his popular stories, Treasure Island. It is a story about pirates and a treasure hunt on a tropical isle. The story begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Bristol. Stevenson also mentioned other Bristol buildings, including Spyglass Tavern, which may be the present-day Hole in the Wall pub, and the Llandoger Trow, an historic public house dating from 1664. Stevenson aimed Treasure Island at children and started publishing chapters in the Young Folks magazine. Once all the chapters were written, it was printed as a book in 1883 by Cassell & Co. To date, it remains one of the most dramatised and adapted novels in history.

Also published in the Young Folks magazine from May to July 1886 was Kidnapped, a novel set during the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The full title of the story is Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; His Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson, yet that is a bit of a mouthful. Critics suspect Stevenson loosely based the story on James Annesley (1715-60), who was kidnapped by his uncle Richard and shipped from Dublin to America.

Another work written during Stevenson’s period of bed rest was the Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Aimed this time at adults, it is a short story about a lawyer investigating the strange occurrences surrounding his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and a sinister man called Edward Hyde. The book led to the turn of phrase, “Jekyll and Hyde”, to refer to someone with a dual nature: good and evil.

Critics continue to speculate the meaning behind Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Some interpret it as the examples of humanity versus animal or civilisation versus barbarism. Others suggest it demonstrates the difference between God and the Devil, or even the debate between Scottish nationalism and the union with England and Wales. The story also deals with the evils of addiction or substance abuse, which can corrupt a man. Stevenson left much of this up to the readers’ interpretation but said he had always been intrigued by how human personalities reflect both good and evil. He named one of the titular characters after his friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll (1849-1929), the younger brother of the renowned gardener, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Following his father’s death in 1887, Stevenson took his doctor’s advice and moved to a different climate. Taking his mother and family with him, Stevenson headed for the United States, where he spent the winter in the Adirondacks, New York. The Stevensons resided in a “cure cottage” intended for sufferers of tuberculosis. Now serving as a museum called Stevenson Cottage, Stevenson wrote some of his best essays while residing there on the Saranac Lake.

After not showing much sign of improvement, Stevenson decided to try a warmer climate. He set sail from New York in 1888, stopping first in Hawaii, where he befriended King Kalākaua (1836-91). Kalākaua, sometimes referred to as “The Merrie Monarch”, ran a choir called Kalākaua’s Singing Boys, who enjoyed performing for Stevenson and his family. Kalākaua also played the ukulele and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 1997.

Stevenson returned to Hawaii several times while sailing around the Pacific on his hired yacht, Casco. When not in Hawaii, he visited the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. Stevenson recorded his experiences in letters, which were published after his death. He also spent time completing a novel, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, and a short story, The Bottle Imp. The latter is set in the Pacific, but the novel contains themes of piracy and the Jacobite rising of 1745.

During his voyages, Stevenson met several notable people, including Tembinok’ (1878-91), the High Chief of Abemama in the Gilbert Islands. The tyrannical chief allowed Stevenson and his family to stay on the island on the condition that they did not give or sell money, liquor or tobacco to his subjects. In his letters, Stevenson described Tembinok’ as “greedy of things new and foreign. House after house, chest after chest, in the palace precinct, is already crammed with clocks, musical boxes, blue spectacles, umbrellas, knitted waistcoats, bolts of stuff, tools, rifles, fowling-pieces, medicines, European foods, sewing-machines, and, what is more extraordinary, stoves.”

On Stevenson’s final trip from Australia to Samoa, he met “Tin Jack” Buckland (1864-97), a trader in the South Pacific. He told the family all about his adventures and almost set fire to the ship after some fireworks in his luggage accidentally went off. Stevenson used Tin Jack as the basis of a character in his novel The Wrecker (1892), which he wrote with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947).

In December 1889, the Stevensons arrived in Samoa, where they purchased 314¼ acres of land in the village of Vailima. They built the first two-storey building on the island and invited their extended family to live with them. Stevenson immediately immersed himself in the country’s culture, renaming himself Tusitala, which meant “Teller of Tales”. He collected stories from the locals in exchange for his own, which were translated into Samoan.

The more Stevenson learned about the Samoans, the more he understood the risk of colonisation by foreigners and higher powers, such as Britain, Germany and the United States. Putting his storytelling to one side, Stevenson used his knowledge of the law to write letters to The Times about European and American misconduct. He expressed his concern for the Polynesians, who feared the loss of their culture to foreign influences. For most of his life, Stevenson avoided politics, but after experiencing the situation in Samoa, he openly allied himself with chief Mata’afa Iosefo (1832-1912), whose rival Susuga Malietoa Laupepa (1841-1898) was supported by the Germans.

During his time in Samoa, Stevenson wrote over 700,000 words, completing several short stories and novels, including The Beach of Falesá (1892); Catriona (1893), the sequel to Kidnapped; and The Ebb-Tide (1894). Many of his works from this period reflect life in the South Pacific, although critics find many parallels with his earlier works. In 1894, he began working on Weir of Hermiston, about which Stevenson exclaimed, “It’s so good that it frightens me.” Whilst the story is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, Stevenson incorporated examples of Samoan culture. Although he felt it was his best work, Stevenson never had the chance to finish it.

On 3rd December 1894, Stevenson turned to his wife and exclaimed, “What’s that? Does my face look strange?” and promptly collapsed. Within a few hours, he passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 44. The Samoans insisted on guarding his body through the night and carrying him on their shoulders to Mount Vaea for his burial the following day.

As per Stevenson’s request, his tombstone was inscribed with his own words:

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.

The epigraph was translated into Samoan and sung as a song of grief.

Stevenson was a celebrity of his time and admired by many authors, including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie and Ernest Hemingway. G. K. Chesterton, the creator of the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, declared that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.” Spillikins is another name for the game Pick-up Sticks. Unfortunately, as time passed, a lot of Stevenson’s work was forgotten, with only Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remaining popular. He was excluded from the first seven editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature until his name was resurrected in 2006.

Since its publication, Treasure Island has been labelled a children’s book, yet American film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1996, “I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Neither have I … But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously …The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.” After reevaluating Stevenson’s work in the late 20th century as adult literature, critics declared his writing superb, ranking him the 26th-most-translated author in the world, coming just below Charles Dickens in 25th place.

Robert Louis Stevenson is commemorated across the world for his contribution to literature and his insight into Samoan politics. The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh devotes an entire room to the author, which is filled with some of his possessions. Other memorabilia is located at Stevenson House in California and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, located in his former home in Samoa.

In 2013, the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin unveiled a statue of Stevenson as a child with his dog outside Colinton Parish Church. There is also a bronze relief memorial to Stevenson in St Giles’ cathedral. Another statue is located in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, and six US schools bear his name. To mark the 100th anniversary of Stevenson’s death in 1994, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a series of commemorative £1 notes.

Robert Louis Stevenson is no longer forgotten, at least in name, and his books are widely read across the globe. Yet, as is the case with many well-known names, Stevenson’s life proves just as interesting as his stories. He touched many lives in his relatively short life and achieved more than the average person despite his many illnesses. For that, he should receive as many accolades as his written work.


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3 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. After reading Hazel’s excellent article I feel RL Stevenson could be my specialist subject on mastermind! Compelling story and with so much illness it’s amazing he was able to write so much quality work. Hazel you also write quality work and I thank you for sharing your talents.

  2. What a full and interesting life he led even if it wasn’t a very long one. Thank you for giving him the attention he deserves. Hopefully it will inspire more people to read his lesser known work as well as the more famous. It’s always amazing reading about someone who manages to cram so much into a relatively short life. Well done once again Hazel.

  3. As Hazel says, “Stevenson’s life proves just as interesting as his stories. He touched many lives in his relatively short life and achieved more than the average person despite his many illnesses.” Hazel’s blog provides an insightful look into his short life but amazing literary achievements. It is both well-researched and well-written. Thank you Hazel for introducing me to the man behind the pen in such an interesting manner.

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