Kidnapped: Biography: Robert Louis
The novelist, poet, essayist, and writer of travel books Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 13, 1850. His father Thomas, his grandfather Robert, and his uncle Alan Stevenson were all famous lighthouse engineers. His mother was Margaret Balfour Stevenson, and Robert was their only child.
Stevenson was a sickly child whose weak lungs already showed signs of the tuberculosis that plagued him all his life. Before he was two years old, his parents employed a nurse called Alison Cunningham to look after him. She told him stories of Bible figures, heroes of Scottish history, and fairy tales. Over thirty years later, he was to acknowledge her importance to him by dedicating his poetry collection, A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), to her, and she remained a close friend of the family until her death.
Stevenson spent much of his childhood in bed composing stories and historical accounts, an activity that his parents encouraged. His early writings show the influence of his parents’ strong Presbyterian religious beliefs and Cunningham’s Calvinist convictions, but by the time he went to university he declared himself an agnostic, only to regain Christian belief in his later years. Though Stevenson attended school from the age of seven, his attendance was poor because of ill health. In 1863 he toured France, Italy, and Switzerland with his family. The trip set a lifetime pattern for Stevenson of frequent travel in search of warmer and healthier climates. He suffered repeated hemorrhages from the lungs throughout his life.
In 1867 Stevenson enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, with a mind to follow the family profession of lighthouse engineer. However, he found that he lacked the necessary robust health as well as the scientific mind: on visits to lighthouses, he was more interested in the romantic stories about the coast than in lighthouse construction. A desire to placate his father prompted him to change his studies to law. During his university years he developed a reputation for outrageous dress and behavior. He wore a velvet jacket and broad-brimmed hat, and, with his cousin Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, smoked hashish and visited brothels. Stevenson was called to the Scottish bar in 1875, but never practiced because he was already committed to becoming a writer, having had essays published in Scottish periodicals. He based his first two books, the travelogues An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), on his experiences in France.
In 1876 Stevenson met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman eleven years older than him, at an artist’s colony near Paris. She was separated from her husband and living with her two children, the nearly grown up Isobel and young son Lloyd. Stevenson fell in love with Fanny, but she returned to her husband in 1878. The following year, Stevenson received a cable from her and immediately left Scotland to join her in California. He became dangerously ill on the journey across the American plains in an emigrant train, but was nursed back to health by ranchers in Monterey.
Fanny divorced her husband and married Stevenson in 1880. The couple spent their honeymoon with Lloyd in an abandoned mining camp at Mount Saint Helena, California. He wrote about his American adventures in the travelogues The Silverado Squatters (1883) and Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays (1892). In 1881 Stevenson brought Fanny and Lloyd to Scotland to live. The family settled in a cottage in Braemar, a village in the mountains in Aberdeenshire.
Stevenson rose to fame with his romantic children’s adventure story Treasure Island (1883), which became a bestseller and helped his financial situation. Reviewers commented that this entertaining book liberated children’s literature from the convention of didactic moralizing. Kidnapped followed in 1886. Stevenson named his protagonist David Balfour after his Balfour ancestors on his mother’s side. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in the same year and met with popular success, although Stevenson later became convinced it was the worst work he ever wrote. Inspired by a nightmare of Stevenson’s, the novel was written and printed in ten weeks. Other notable works included the adventure story The Black Arrow (1888), set in the era of the War of the Roses in fifteenth-century England, and the novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889). He also wrote articles and essays in various periodicals. His best-known article, “A Humble Remonstrance,” published in 1884 in Longman’s magazine, was a response to the American author Henry James’ article, “The Art of Fiction,” published in Longman’s earlier that year. The article led to a lifelong friendship between the two authors. In 1893 Stevenson published an inferior sequel to Kidnapped called Catriona.
Between 1880 and 1887 Stevenson and Fanny lived in Bournemouth, England, spending the winters in the healthier climates of Davos-Platz in Switzerland and Hyeres in southern France. After a brief period living at Saranac Lake, New York in 1887, Stevenson, Fanny, Lloyd, and Stevenson’s widowed mother toured the South Pacific the following year. The family finally settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. Stevenson’s health improved. He had nearly twenty servants and was known as “Tusitala” or “Teller of the Tales.” He became politically active, writing letters and articles in support of the Samoans and denouncing European and American imperialism. These attitudes are reflected in his writings of this period: a novel, The Wrecker (1892), about murder and a treasure hunt to Midway Island, Hawaii; Island Nights' Entertainments (1893), a collection of short stories including “The Bottle Imp”; and The Ebb-Tide (1894), a story of outcasts who arrive on an island where an expatriate English community has been established.
In 1894 Stevenson felt exhausted and worried that he had drained his creative energies by overwork. Determined never to return to the invalid state of his childhood, he wrote in a letter to a friend, Sidney Colvin, “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.” His energy suddenly returned and he began his final novel, The Weir of Hermiston. Stevenson felt it was his best work, but he never finished it. On December 3, 1894, at the age of forty-four, Stevenson collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Nearly sixty Samoan men cleared a path to the top of Mount Vaea, where Stevenson was buried. The Weir of Hermiston was published posthumously in its unfinished state in 1896.
While Stevenson’s books were always popular with the public, he only achieved critical respectability in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of his novels have been made into films and television series.