Robert Louis Stevenson
About the Author
Scottish essayist, poet and author of fiction and travel books, known especially for his novels of adventure. Characteristic for Stevenson's novels is skillful use of horror and supernatural elements. Often his stories are set in colorful locations, where his characters can forget the restrictions of Victorian social manners. Arguing against realism, Stevenson underlined the "nameless longings of the reader", the desire for experience.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh as the son of Thomas Stevenson, a prosperous joint-engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses. He invented, among others, the marine dynamometer, which measures the force of waves. Stevenson's grandfather was Britain's greatest builder of lighthouses. Since his childhood Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis. He spent much of his time in bed during his early years, composing stories before he can read. At the age of sixteen he produced a short historical tale. As an adult there were times when Stevenson could not wear a jacket for fear of bringing on a haemorrhage of the lung. In 1867 he entered Edinburgh University to study engineering. Due to his ill health he had to abandon his plans to follow in his father's footsteps. Stevenson changed to law and in 1875 he was called to the Scottish bar. During these years his first texts were published in The Edinburgh University Magazine (1871) and The Portofolio (1873). In a attempt to improve his health, Stevenson travelled to warmer counries. These experiences provided much material for his writings.
Among Stevenson's own early favorite books, which influenced his imagination and thinking, were Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dumas's adventure tale of the elderly D'Artagan, Vicomte de Bragelone, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, "a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues." (from Reading in Bed, ed. by Steven Gilbar, 1995) Also Montaigne's Essais and the Gospel according to St. Matthew were very important for him.
Instead of practicing law, Stevenson devoted himself into writing travel sketches, essays, and short stories for magazines. An account of his canoe tour of France and Belgium was published in 1878 as An Inland Voyage, and Travels With a Donkey in the Cervennes appeared next year. "I travel for travel's sake," Stevenson wrote. "The great affair is to move." While in France Stevenson met Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, a married woman with two children, Belle and Lloyd. She returned to the United States to get a divorce. In 1879 Stevenson followed her to California where they married in 1880. After a brief stay at Calistoga, which was recorded in The Silverado Squatters (1883), they returned to Scotland, and then moved often in search of better climates.
Stevenson gained first fame with the romantic adventure story Treasure Island, which appeared in 1883. It also helped his financial situation. A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) was devoted to Alison Cunningham, who was his nurse in his childhood. The book was a success and its verses have become popular as songs. Among Stevenson's other works from the 1880s are Kidnapped (1886), the story of David Balfour, his distant ancestor, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), based on a dream and written and printed in 10 weeks, The Black Arrow (1888), set in the era of the War of the Roses, and Master of Ballantrae (1889). He also contributed to various periodicals, including The Cornhill Magazine and Longman's Magazine, where his best-known article 'A Humble Remonstrance' was published in 1884. It was a replay to Henry James's 'The Art of Fiction' and started a lifelong friendship between the two authors. Stevenson saw that the novel is a selection of and reorganization of certain aspects of life - "life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate."
From the late 1880s Stevenson lived with his family in the South Seas, in Samoa - his father died in 1887. Stevenson enjoyed a period of comparative good health. He had nearly 20 servants and was known as 'Tusitala' or 'Teller of the Tales'. The writer himself translated it 'Chief White Information.' Fanny was called 'Flying Cloud' - perhaps referring to her restlessness. She had also suffered a mental breakdown.
In his short story 'The Bottle Imp', set on the island of Hawaii, Stevenson asked the question, does a sudden luck of fortune wipe out one's problems. Keawe, a poor man, buy's a bottle, tempered in the flames of hell. An imp lives inside it and is at the buyer's command fulfilling all desires. "'Here am I now upon my high place,' he said to himself. 'Life may be no better; this is the mountain top; and all shelves about me toward the worse. For the first time I will light up the chambers, and bathe in my fine bath with the hot water and the cold, and sleep above in the bed of my bridal chamber.'" Fascinated by the Polynesian culture, Stevenson wrote several letters to The Times on the islanders' behalf and published novels The Beach of Falesá (1893) and The Ebb-Tide (1894), which condemned the European colonial exploitation.
Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Vailima, Samoa. His last work, WEIR OF HERMISTON (1896), was left unfinished, but is considered his masterpiece. Stevenson's best-known work of horror, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has since his death inspired several sequels by other hands, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estelman (1979), Jekyll, Alias Hyde: A Variation by Donald Thomas (1988), The Jekyll Legacy by Robert Bloch and Andre Norton (1990) and Mary Reilly by Valrie Matin (1990).
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