Biographical Note- Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850 at Edinburgh, Scotland. A Scottish writer; essayist, novelist and poet, Stevenson is one of the most popular and highly renowned writers of the late 19th century. Born as the son of an acclaimed lighthouse builder and harbor engineer Thomas Stevenson, and Margaret Balfour, Stevenson had a sickly childhood of constant breathing problems which later turned into tuberculosis. With persistent health problems he remained extremely weak and thin throughout his life.
When Stevenson joined the Edinburgh University at the age of sixteen to study engineering, he had already become a writer. He was irregular in his classes and had a bohemian existence, with his long hair and velvet jackets, associating himself with the ignoble and dangerous neighborhoods in Edinburgh. His parents were both very religious; but Stevenson gave up the religion of his parents while studying at the University and took up a branch of Christianity called Calvinism as his new religion in college. At the age of eighteen, he dropped the name Balfour and changed his middle name from Lewis to Louis and began styling himself as RLS. At twenty one, Stevenson overtly declared his intention to become a writer, against the strong opposition of his father. Instead he joined the Scottish bar, an organization for lawyers, in 1875 to study law. He also sauntered on a number of journeys for health and pleasure to the European mainland and had a flourishing circle of artistic and literary friends in London, England and Paris. In 1878 Stevenson wrote his first book, An Inland Voyage relating to his adventures during a canoe trip on Belgium and France’s canals.
In 1876 Stevenson met an American woman, Fanny Osbourne, who was separated from her husband and had three children. Osbourne was eleven years older than him and three years later they got married. Accompanying his wife, Stevenson went to America and stayed in an abandoned mining camp which is recounted in his 1883 work, The Silverado Squatters. Later they moved to Switzerland due to his adverse health conditions in Scotland and these years proved to be very productive in his literary career. The stories he collected in The Merry Men (1887) and The New Arabian Nights (1883), all range from detective stories to Scottish dialect tales and tales of the region. Treasure Island (1881, 1883), a tale of piracy, buried treasure and adventure, was first published as a series in a children’s magazine and remains to be Stevenson’s most popular book. It was originally titled The Sea-Cook. Kidnapped (1886) which is a historical novel also has the same charm. In 1893 Stevenson even wrote a sequel for it titled David Balfour. In 1886 he also wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which pointed a way towards his more serious works. He had also published a very popular collection of poetry, A Child’s Garden of Verses in 1885. The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1883), The Body Snatcher (1885), The Wrong Box (1892), The Master of Ballantrae (1888), Weir of Hermiston (1896) are all fiction included in Stevenson’s works. Travels With a Donkey (1879), The Amateur Emigrant (1879-80) and Across the Plains (1879-80), all belong to his travel writings.
In 1889 Stevenson and his family moved to and settled in the South Sea Islands, on the island of Upolu in Samoa. He bought a plantation there and was popular among the natives who called him Tusifala, which meant ‘teller of the tales’. By the time of his death on December 3rd 1894, Stevenson had become a significant figure on the island. His observations on the island and the Samoan life are mentioned in the collection, In the South Seas (1896), Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893) and A Footnote to History (1892). He died of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of forty four in Vailima in Samoa. 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.”
Stevenson’s fiction, particularly his novels of adventure, romance and horror, are of considerable psychological depth. These works had dwelled into those worlds and realms that had remained far away from the reach of human fabrication. With a rare comingling of crime and guilt, morality and sin, evil and good, and science and fiction, these works have continued in popularity, stilly long after his death, on stage, screen and in print.