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Robert Louis Stevenson
Edinburgh 13 Nov. 1850 - Opolu, West-Samoa, 3 Dec. 1894 • Scottish prose writer

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Robert Louis Stevenson was at the height of his powers when he died suddenly in Samoa in 1894. For a long period he was thought of mainly as the writer of adventure stories for children, but now there is growing recognition of his subtle and surprisingly modern explorations of dilemmas of character and action.

Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh, and this profoundly shaped his writing. He was born on 13th November 1850 and from earliest childhood he was frequently ill, which influenced a fertile imagination. It was assumed that Stevenson would follow the profession of his father, Thomas Stevenson, a distinguished lighthouse and harbour engineer, and he studied engineering at Edinburgh University. However, in his twenty-first year he announced his intention of becoming a writer.

He began with essays and travel writing and within a few years was recognised as a writer of great promise. His first commercially published book, An Inland Voyage, (1878) described a canoe trip in Belgium and France. He followed this in 1879 with Edinburgh, picturesque notes and an account of a walking tour in the Cevennes, Travels With a Donkey. Although he began writing fiction as a teenager, it was not until 1877 that his first short story was published, and 1882 before he began to publish longer fiction. Treasure Island, serialised in that year, was published in volume form in 1883. He did not become popular until 1886, with the publication of Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the first gaining critical esteem, the second a best-seller which made his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Stevenson was absorbed by Scottish history and Scottish character, and this fascination is an essential aspect of his writing. He also examined, in Jekyll and Hyde and elsewhere, what he considered to be the hypocrisy of Victorian values. His own bohemianism flouted convention, and his marriage to Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee ten years his senior, caused some distress to friends and family.

From his early twenties, ill-health kept him away from Scotland for long periods. But he continued to write about Scotland, and some of his most powerful short stories, "Thrawn Janet" and "The Merry Men" for example, have Scottish themes. In these stories, as well as in Kidnapped and later fiction such as The Master of Ballantrae (1888), he examined some of the extreme and contrary currents of Scotland's past, often projecting a dualism of both personality and belief. This dualism is most famous in Jekyll and Hyde and Kidnapped, whose two central characters are David Balfour, a Lowland Whig, and Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland Jacobite. The novel revolves around their friendship and their differences, suggesting a metaphor for Scotland itself.

Stevenson lived for several years in Switzerland, France and the south of England. In 1887, after the death of his father, he went to America. From there he continued west, embarking on a voyage through the South Pacific, accompanied by Fanny and his widowed mother. He wrote about his Pacific voyages in numerous articles which were published in volume form as In the South Seas (1892). He never returned to Scotland. He had at last found a climate that suited his health, and decided to settle on
the island of Upolu in Samoa. It was there in his house Vailima that he spent the last years of his life.

The South Pacific opened new subjects for his writing. He responded to island culture with sympathetic understanding, comparing the erosion of traditions to the experience of Highland culture in Scotland. He was critical of the exploitative impact of Europeans and Americans, and in Samoa adopted the cause of a Polynesian chief who was defeated in a brief episode of civil war. He described this in A Footnote to History (1892). His South Sea experiences also produced fiction, and for almost the first time he turned his attention to the contemporary scene. He drew directly on Polynesian tradition to write The Bottle Imp and The Isle of Voices and the epic poem "Rahero", but his story The Beach of Falesa is rather different. It explores the clash of cultures between white traders and islanders and is one of Stevenson's best pieces of fiction. His novel The Ebb Tide (1894) is a remarkable study of morality and individual responsibility, themes that had absorbed him earlier. The mature stylist, combining precision and complexity, is seen at his most challenging.

Stevenson collaborated with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne to write The Wrong Box (1889), a rather heavy-handed comedy, and The Wrecker[/i (1892), a Pacific adventure story. The immediacy and creative stimulus of the Pacific was strong, but Scotland continued to inspire both fiction and poetry. It was at Vailima that he wrote Catriona (1893), a sequel to Kidnapped, St Ives (unfinished and published after his death in 1897) and Weir of Hermiston (1896, also unfinished). It was Weir he was working at on the day he died. Pivoting on the bitterly fraught relationship between a father and son, the novel employs both Scottish tradition and the Scots language with memorable force.

In these last years Stevenson wrote vividly about his native land and some of his most effective poems owe much to the pain of absence. As a poet Stevenson tends to be best remembered as the author of A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), poems which communicate the fears as well as the pleasures of childhood, but he also wrote lyric, comic and narrative poems in both Scots and English, published in Underwoods (1887) and Ballads (1890). His Collected Poems (1971) were edited by Janet Adam Smith.

Stevenson was one of the greatest letter writers in the English language, and the complete collection is now available in eight volumes, edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, 1994-5. These are the best possible introduction to Stevenson's life and work. Biographies include Voyage to Windward by J.C. Furnas, 1950; RLS: a life study by Jenni Calder, 1980; and Dreams of Exile by Ian Bell, 1994. The pioneering critical work was Robert Louis Stevenson by David Daiches, 1947. This has been followed by a slowly growing critical interest in Europe and North America as well as in Scotland. (from: www.slainte.org.uk)

(be sure to visit The Islands and read this bio)
bookweb  
BOOKS BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON:

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
1886
In seeking to discover his inner self, the brilliant Dr Jekyll discovers a monster.
READ ON...

Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, 1818

American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis, 1991

ON ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S BOOKSHELF

The Bible
40 different authors, ca. 1450 B.C. - ca. 95 A.D.

Hamlet
William Shakespeare, 1602

Rob Roy
Sir Walter Scott, 1817

Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, 1818

Treasure Island
1883
While going through the possessions of a deceased guest who owed them money, the mistress of the inn and her son find a treasure map that leads them to a pirate's fortune.
WHAT TO READ AFTER TREASURE ISLAND?

ADVENTURE STORIES FOR YOUNG AND OLD
Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton, 1991

THE DUALITY OF HUMAN NATURE
Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad, 1898

The Assault
Harry Mulisch, 1982

WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF CHILDREN...
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885

Lord of the Flies
William Golding, 1954

The Tin Drum
Günter Grass, 1959

The Little Friend
Donna Tartt, 2002

YO HO HO AND A BOTTLE OF RUM!
A High Wind in Jamaica
Richard Hughes, 1929

Rum Island
S. Vestdijk, 1940

Kidnapped
1886
Set in Scotland in 1751, Kidnapped tells of how young David Balfour, orphaned, and betrayed by his uncle Ebenezer who should have been his guardian, falls in with Alan Breck, the unscrupulous but heroic champion of the Jacobite cause.
The Master of Ballantrae
1889
James Durie, Master of Ballantrae, abandons his ancestral home to support the Scottish rebellion - leaving his younger brother Henry, who is faithful to the English crown, to inherit the title of Lord Durrisdeer. But he is to return years later, embittered by battles and a savage life of piracy on the high seas, to demand his inheritance.
The Weir of Hermiston
1896
In this unfinished novel, the battle between good and evil is played out between father and son.

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