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date: 27 September 2023

Stevenson, Robert Louisfree


Stevenson, Robert Louisfree

  • Ernest Mehew

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)

by John Singer Sargent, 1887

Bequest of Charles Phelps and Anna Sinton Taft, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894), writer, was born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on 13 November 1850, the only son of Thomas Stevenson (1818–1887), civil engineer, and his wife, Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829–1897). He was given the names Robert Lewis Balfour but changed the spelling (although not the pronunciation) of the second to Louis when he was about eighteen, and dropped the third in 1873; to his family and close friends he was always known as Louis. Thomas Stevenson was the youngest surviving son of Robert Stevenson, builder of the Bell Rock lighthouse; his wife was the youngest daughter of the Revd Lewis Balfour (1777–1860), Church of Scotland minister at Colinton, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, grandson of James Balfour (1705–1795), professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. In 1853 the family moved to 1 Inverleith Terrace, and in 1857 to 17 Heriot Row.

Childhood and schooling

Stevenson liked to recall his childhood as a golden age; in reality it was also, as he later admitted, 'full of fever, nightmare, insomnia, painful days and interminable nights' (Letters, 5.97). Until he was about eleven the winter months were dominated by illness: bronchitis, pneumonia, and feverish colds. The devoted care of his nurse, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), during his sleepless nights is celebrated by the dedication to her of A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). She was narrower in her religious views than his parents and it was to her bigotry that he owed the nightmares and 'high-strung religious ecstasies and terrors', including 'an extreme terror of Hell' (ibid., 1.84), that disfigured his early years. In his recollections of his childhood all these morbid fears disappeared in his memories of the delights of convalescence at his maternal grandfather's manse at Colinton. His later writings, particularly A Child's Garden of Verses and his essay 'Child's play', show that he had a highly imaginative love of games. Because of his ill health many of these were solitary pleasures, but when he was well there was no shortage of young cousins as playmates.

Though he delighted in having stories read to him Stevenson did not learn to read for himself until he was eight. In September 1857 he went to Mr Henderson's school in India Street, Edinburgh, but because of poor health stayed only a few weeks and did not return until October 1859. During his many absences he was taught by private tutors. In October 1861 he went to Edinburgh Academy and stayed there (with interruptions) for about fifteen months. In the autumn of 1863 he spent one term at an English boarding-school at Spring Grove, Isleworth, Middlesex. In October 1864, following considerable improvement in his health, he was sent to Robert Thomson's private school in Frederick Street, Edinburgh; he continued there until he went to university.

Largely because of his mother's state of health (she had a weak chest) Stevenson's summers were spent at Scottish holiday places such as Bridge of Allan, North Berwick (commemorated in the essay 'The lantern bearers'), and Peebles, and there were two visits to Torquay. In 1862 the Stevensons were at Homburg. The first five months of 1863 were passed in Nice and Menton, followed by an extensive tour of Italy and Germany; there was another visit to Menton in 1864. From 1867 to 1880 Thomas Stevenson leased Swanston Cottage, at the foot of the Pentland Hills, and this became a much-loved country home. The scenery and its associations figure in a number of Stevenson's essays, including 'Pastoral', and the cottage became the home of the heroine of St Ives.

At university: learning to write

Stevenson became a student at Edinburgh University from November 1867 and began half-heartedly to prepare himself for the engineering profession. He gained practical experience in 1868 by visiting the harbour works being undertaken by the family firm at Anstruther and Wick, and the following year he accompanied his father on his official tour of the lighthouses in the Orkney and Shetland islands. In 1870 he spent three weeks on the islet of Earraid, off the isle of Mull, the base for the building of the Dhu Heartach lighthouse. It later became the setting for 'The Merry Men' and for David Balfour's misadventures in Kidnapped. He showed some aptitude for engineering in his paper 'On a new form of intermittent light for lighthouses', which was read before the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and awarded a silver medal. Stevenson loved the outdoor and seafaring aspects of the profession but hated the drudgery of office work. In April 1871 he finally told his father that he had no interest in engineering and cared for nothing but literature. Thomas Stevenson agreed that as a compromise his son should read law and be called to the bar.

Even before he could write Stevenson was dictating stories to his mother and his nurse. When he was six he won a prize, given by an uncle, for his 'History of Moses' (dictated to his mother), and a number of manuscript magazines and other childish efforts survive. As a child he was introduced by his nurse to writings by and about the covenanters, and their influence remained with him all his life. His first published work was a historical essay (derived from a romance on the same subject), The Pentland Rising: a Page of History, 1666. It was published anonymously in 1866, at his father's expense.

All through his university years, when he was looked upon as an idler neglecting his formal education, Stevenson was in fact reading widely and conscientiously learning how to write by composing descriptions of what he saw and, above all, by setting himself, as he described in his essay 'A college magazine', to imitate the style of an author whom he admired. He thus 'played the sedulous ape', as he put it, to a wide range of authors. Only one of these efforts, a verse drama, Monmouth: a Tragedy (1868), in the style of Swinburne, has survived (privately printed, 1928). Six essays appeared in the short-lived Edinburgh University Magazine (1871), of which Stevenson was one of the editors.

At university Stevenson made some special friends. Chief among them was Charles Baxter, who became a lawyer, Stevenson's financial agent, and his lifelong correspondent. In their letters they created the characters of Thomson and Johnstone, dissolute church elders who wrote to each other in broad Scots. The other friends were James Walter Ferrier and Sir Walter Simpson; all were members of the Speculative Society, the famous university literary and debating society that Stevenson joined in March 1869. Valuable older friends were Fleeming Jenkin, the professor of engineering, and his wife, Anne; Stevenson enjoyed taking part in their annual amateur theatrical productions. His closest friend and confidant from boyhood was his cousin Robert Alan Mowbray (Bob) Stevenson, who returned to Edinburgh from Cambridge in 1871. Together they indulged in elaborate practical jokes and other fooleries, but more importantly Bob played a major part in helping Stevenson to break away from the conventions of polite Edinburgh society. He affected a bohemian exhibitionism of long hair and velvet jacket. Because he was kept short of money by his parents he had his dissipation in the lowest possible surroundings—in cheap public houses (where Baxter was a regular drinking crony) and brothels, 'the companion of seamen, chimney sweeps and thieves' (Letters, 1.210). The extent of this was exaggerated by biographers in the 1920s and there is no foundation for the story that he was in love with a prostitute called Claire whom his father forbade him to marry.

Stevenson's major conflict with his father was over religion. Under the influence of his reading he rejected the harsh doctrines of the Calvinistic Christianity that his father passionately espoused. Stevenson's letters show the bitterness of the arguments between father and son, and his own unhappiness at the distress that he was causing his parents. Although he rejected its dogmas (including a belief in personal immortality) his Presbyterian upbringing deeply influenced him and he was always concerned about the moral principles upon which man should conduct his life.

New friends: Colvin, Mrs Sitwell, and Henley

A turning point in Stevenson's life came in the summer of 1873 at Cockfield rectory, in Suffolk, the home of Professor Churchill Babington, whose wife was Stevenson's cousin Maud. There he met Professor Sidney Colvin and his friend Mrs Frances Sitwell, a beautiful woman of thirty-four (living apart from her clergyman husband), whom Colvin would much later marry. They recognized his potential and did all they could to help him. Colvin became Stevenson's literary mentor and closest friend. Stevenson fell in love with Mrs Sitwell, and for the next two years poured out long diary-letters to her; they constitute a touching record of his emotional dependence on her and of his slow growth to maturity. Mrs Sitwell began as ‘Claire’ (the name wrongly applied to the imaginary Edinburgh prostitute) and progressed to being his ‘Madonna’—a goddess and mother figure.

Suffering from nervous exhaustion and threatened by lung trouble, on medical advice Stevenson spent the winter of 1873–4 at Menton, where Colvin joined him for part of the time and where he had his first meeting with Andrew Lang. Having returned home in April 1874 Stevenson established a modus vivendi with his father over religion and resumed his law studies. On 14 July 1875 he passed his final examination and two days later was called to the Scottish bar. He made a few perfunctory efforts to practise as an advocate but soon gave up the pretence and devoted himself to literary work. While still a student he had made brief visits to London to see Colvin and Mrs Sitwell, and in June 1874 was elected to the Savile Club (a favourite haunt). There he made friends with Edmund Gosse and met leading editors.

In February 1875 Stevenson was taken by Leslie Stephen to visit W. E. Henley, then a patient in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. For the next twelve years, until their quarrel, the two enjoyed a warm, emotional friendship and helped each other in their literary work.

During this period Stevenson enjoyed life out of doors. In August 1874 he was yachting with Simpson off the west coast of Scotland, and he went on a number of walking tours in England, Scotland, and France. In 1875 he paid his first visit to the artists' colonies in the forest of Fontainebleau frequented by Bob Stevenson, and for the next three years spent much time first at Barbizon and then at Grez. He wrote of his impressions in 'Forest notes' (1876) and 'Fontainebleau' (1884). He was always at ease in France; he spoke the language fluently and loved French literature.

Early literary work

Through Colvin's influence Stevenson's work had begun to appear in periodicals. His first paid contribution was the essay 'Roads', published in November 1873 under the pseudonym L. S. Stoneven in The Portfolio. It was followed by 'Ordered south', reflecting his experiences in Menton (Macmillan's Magazine, May 1874), and by his first contribution to the Cornhill Magazine, 'Victor Hugo's romances', in August 1874. It was in Cornhill, under the initials R. L. S., that he began to write from 1876 the series of essays later collected (with others published elsewhere) in Virginibus puerisque (1881). These early essays, containing light-hearted and slightly cynical observations on life, in which the style is sometimes more important than the matter, became very popular. Alongside them Stevenson was writing more solid and less mannered essays—the fruit of his wide reading—on John Knox, Charles d'Orléans, François Villon, Walt Whitman (an important early influence), and others, later collected in Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882). The volume also included an essay on Robert Burns (1879) containing the substance of an earlier article rejected by the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1876 as too critical.

During these years Stevenson did some book reviews for The Academy and Vanity Fair but the greatest outlet for his journalism came with the founding in 1877 by an Edinburgh friend, Robert Glasgow Brown, of the short-lived magazine London. Stevenson and Henley were closely involved and Henley soon took over as editor. As well as reviews and essays Stevenson contributed to it, anonymously and unacknowledged, his first published short story, 'An Old Song', as a serial in February–March 1877; it was first identified and reprinted in 1982. The first story that he acknowledged was 'A Lodging for the Night', a by-product of his essay on Villon, in Temple Bar (October 1877), and this was followed by 'The Sire de Maletroit's Door' in the same journal and by 'Will o' the Mill' in Cornhill, both in January 1878. In London in 1878 he published the series of fantasies of modern life that was later collected (with other stories) as New Arabian Nights (1882), as well as the story 'Providence and the Guitar'. In May 1878 he published his first book, An Inland Voyage, describing a canoe journey in Belgium and France made with Simpson in 1876. Its combination of descriptive writing and slightly self-conscious personal observations won favourable reviews.

Fanny Osbourne: America and marriage

At Grez in September 1876, at the end of the canoe journey, Stevenson met and fell in love with the American Frances Matilda (Fanny) Van de Grift Osbourne (1840–1914). She had left her unsatisfactory husband, Samuel Osbourne, and come to Europe from San Francisco to study with her daughter, Isobel (Belle; 1858–1953), at art schools first in Antwerp and then in Paris. Her young son, (Samuel) Lloyd Osbourne (1868–1947), was also with her and she was recovering from the recent death of her five-year-old son, Hervey. After their brief meeting Stevenson spent the winter in Edinburgh, recording his feelings in the essay 'On falling in love' (Cornhill Magazine, February 1877). He joined Fanny in Paris in January 1877 and they became lovers later that year; he spent much of the next eighteen months with her and her children in Paris and Grez. In August 1878 Fanny returned to America and Stevenson set off on his famous walking tour, with a donkey, across the Cévennes. From his journal he quarried what was to be his third book, Travels with a Donkey (June 1879), one of the best known of his early works. His second book, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, appeared in December 1878. It is the classic account of the city whose climate he hated but that always haunted his imagination. In the spring of 1879 he drafted the first four chapters of 'Lay morals', a fragment on ethics (posthumously published), a subject that he referred to as his 'veiled mistress' (Letters, 5.213).

In August 1879, in response to a cable from Fanny, Stevenson—without consulting his parents and in the face of opposition from his friends—made a reckless journey to California to join her. For the sake of economy and to collect material for a book he sailed from Glasgow to New York by the emigrant ship Devonia, describing his experiences in The Amateur Emigrant, part 1 (abridged, 1895; unabridged, 1966). He made a nightmare journey by emigrant train across America to San Francisco and then down the coast to Monterey, where Fanny was living with her children; it is described in part 2 (published in Across the Plains, 1892). Thomas Stevenson reacted violently to what he called his son's sinful behaviour and tried in vain to get him to return; the two were estranged for several months. In late December, Stevenson moved from Monterey to a cheap lodging-house in San Francisco to be near Fanny, who had already returned to her home in Oakland. He was determined to live within his own resources and worked hard at his writing, half-starving himself to save money. On board ship he had completed his short story 'The Story of a Lie' and in Monterey he finished 'The Pavilion on the Links'—a powerful, melodramatic tale published in the Cornhill Magazine (September–October 1880). His other work included an abandoned novel, A Vendetta in the West, two essays for Cornhill (on Thoreau and Yoshida-Torajiro, a Japanese hero), and a fragment of autobiography, Memoirs of Himself.

The hardships of the journey and the poverty that he endured wrecked Stevenson's health, and he was ill for much of the time. He broke down completely in March 1880 and came very near death, having the first of the haemorrhages from the lung that plagued the rest of his life. Fanny, who had obtained a divorce from Osbourne in December, took him into her home and nursed him devotedly. By this time his parents had accepted the situation and sent him a cable: 'Count on 250 pounds annually' (Letters, 3.75). Stevenson and Fanny were married in San Francisco on 19 May 1880. They spent their honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp on the slopes of Mount St Helena, overlooking the Napa valley, experiences later described in The Silverado Squatters (1883).

Scotland and Switzerland, 1880–1882

Stevenson, accompanied by his wife and twelve-year-old stepson, Lloyd, returned to Scotland in August 1880 and went on holiday with his parents (with whom there was a full reconciliation) to Strathpeffer, in the highlands. Thenceforward Stevenson's life was that of an invalid suffering from chronic lung disease and at risk from haemorrhages and prostrating coughs and fevers. The disease was thought to be tuberculosis but some modern experts suggest it may have been bronchiectasis. His life was undoubtedly prolonged by the devoted care of his wife, who was herself much of an invalid. Small and dark-complexioned, she was a formidable personality, outspoken and passionate in her views and determined to safeguard her husband's health. Stevenson in his turn was fiercely protective of her and showed his love in the poems that he wrote, culminating in the dedication of his unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston. Fanny established warm and affectionate relations with Stevenson's parents but his friends were slower to accept her, and Henley never really got over his dislike.

Two winters were spent, on medical advice, at Davos, a dismal health resort in the Swiss Alps, where the only high spot was friendship with John Addington Symonds. In the first winter, of 1880–81, Stevenson read widely for a projected history of the highlands that was never written, and saw the volume of collected essays Virginibus puerisque through the press. Having returned to Scotland in late May 1881 he and Fanny spent the summer with his parents at rented cottages in the highlands, first at Pitlochry and then at Braemar. At Pitlochry, Stevenson wrote, in Scots, 'Thrawn Janet', a grim and widely praised tale of satanic possession, and most of 'The Merry Men', which he called 'a fantastic sonata about the sea and wrecks' (Letters, 3.206); both were accepted for Cornhill. While at Pitlochry, with the encouragement of his father and carefully worded testimonials from his friends, Stevenson applied without success for the vacant chair of history and constitutional law at Edinburgh University. At Braemar in August 1881 he began Treasure Island (originally called The Sea Cook), the book always associated with his name. The inspiration came from the drawing of the map of an island to amuse his stepson (to whom the book is dedicated), and his father gave enthusiastic support. He finished it during the second winter at Davos and it was serialized, under the pseudonym Captain George North, in Young Folks, a boys' magazine, between October 1881 and January 1882. It attracted little attention. It appeared, to a chorus of praise, in book form in November 1883 and has never since been out of print. It has been translated into many languages and there have been plays, films, television and radio adaptations, sequels, and even musicals, as well as notable illustrated editions.

While at Davos, Stevenson also prepared for press Familiar Studies of Men and Books, wrote The Silverado Squatters, and projected but abandoned a biography of Hazlitt. Henley was made editor of the Magazine of Art in October 1881 and Stevenson contributed a number of essays to it, beginning with 'Byways of book illustration: Bagster's Pilgrim's Progress' in February 1882. Henley acted as unpaid agent for Stevenson in negotiating publishing deals, and the friendship was at its closest over the next few years. Other essays written at Davos included 'Talk and talkers' and its sequel for Cornhill, and 'A gossip on romance' for the first issue of Longman's Magazine (November 1882). A major amusement was the writing of comic verses and the making of crude woodcuts for the small booklets produced by his stepson on his printing press, including Not I and two collections of Moral Emblems.

Stevenson and his wife left Davos for good in April 1882. The following month there was a brief visit (with his parents) to Box Hill, where Stevenson renewed his friendship with George Meredith, whom he had first met in 1878. In June he made his last journey with his father to Lochearnhead, Ballachulish, and Oban, in search of local colour for a projected article on the Appin murder (1752), later to provide the background for Kidnapped. The next two months were spent first at Stobo manse, near Peebles, and then at Kingussie, on Speyside. The weather was bad and Stevenson was frequently ill. At Kingussie he wrote most of 'The Treasure of Franchard'. In August 1882 his collection of short stories New Arabian Nights was published in two volumes.

The south of France, 1882–1884

The Stevensons next tried the south of France. In October 1882 they rented the Campagne Defli at St Marcel, near Marseilles. The place was unhealthy and Stevenson became seriously ill. In February 1883, after a brief stay in Nice, they moved to the health resort of Hyères and the next month set up home in the Chalet la Solitude, a tiny Swiss chalet on a hillside described by Stevenson as 'the loveliest house you ever saw, with a garden like a fairy story and a view like a classical landscape' (Letters, 4.102). Looking back in 1891 he declared, 'I was only happy once: that was at Hyères' (ibid., 7.93). A French girl, Valentine Roch, joined them as maidservant and stayed for the next six years, accompanying them on their first Pacific cruise. During 1883 Stevenson wrote two very different novels. He lavished great care on Prince Otto (published 1885), an artificial comedy set in an imaginary German principality and written in a mannered style reminiscent of Meredith. The book has never been popular but in Colvin's opinion (DNB) is very characteristic of Stevenson's mind. The Black Arrow is an adventure story for boys set at the time of the Wars of the Roses and founded on the style of the Paston Letters. It was written hurriedly on commission for Young Folks, where it was serialized with great success, under the Captain George North pseudonym, from June to October 1883. Stevenson dismissed it as 'Tushery' (Letters, 4.128) and it did not appear in book form until 1888.

At Hyères, Stevenson continued to write poems for children that he had begun at Braemar in 1881; they were privately printed in a trial version called Penny Whistles (1883). After revision and the addition of further poems they were published in 1885 as A Child's Garden of Verses. These vivid glimpses into his childhood, written from the standpoint of the child, are unique of their kind; in spite of their familiarity they continue to give pleasure and there have been many illustrated editions. Several essays by Stevenson were written for the Magazine of Art, among them 'A penny plain and twopence coloured', on the delights of the toy theatre of his childhood, and 'A note on realism'—one of several on the art of writing. In July and August 1883 Stevenson and his wife spent a holiday with his parents at the spa town of Royat, Puy-de-Dôme. On his return to Hyères in September he was greatly distressed to learn of the death of his old friend Walter Ferrier and paid tribute to him in his essay 'Old mortality'.

Stevenson's health took a dangerous turn for the worse in 1884. He was seriously ill at Nice in January with fever and congestion of the lungs. In the following months at Hyères he was almost continuously ill with haemorrhages, suffering from sciatica, nearly blind because of eyestrain, and forbidden to speak. He came near to death in early May, when he suffered his worst ever haemorrhage. He recovered slowly and, after a brief convalescence in Royat, travelled to England at the end of June to consult doctors.

Bournemouth, 1884–1887

In July 1884 Stevenson and his wife went to Bournemouth, where Lloyd Osbourne was at school, and finally decided to settle there. After staying in various lodgings and boarding-houses they rented a furnished house for the winter called Bonallie Tower, in Branksome Park. The following year Thomas Stevenson bought his daughter-in-law a house in nearby Alum Chine, which they renamed Skerryvore (in honour of the lighthouse built by Stevenson's uncle Alan), and they moved there in April. For most of his years in Bournemouth, Stevenson lived the life of an invalid plagued by colds and haemorrhages—a life later remembered as that of 'the pallid brute that lived in Skerryvore like a weevil in a biscuit' (Letters, 7.280). There were occasional visits to stay with Colvin in his official residence as keeper of the prints and drawings at the British Museum, a visit to Thomas Hardy in Dorchester, and one to Meredith, and a fortnight in Paris in August 1886, staying with his American artist friend Will H. Low, during which he met the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Stevenson and Henley had collaborated in 1879 on the play Deacon Brodie. Convinced that the theatre would make their fortunes they spent most of August and September 1884 writing Beau Austin and Admiral Guinea; early in 1885, at the invitation of Herbert Beerbohm Tree, they wrote a new adaptation of the French farce Macaire. Although all the plays were eventually performed they met with no success. While at Bournemouth, Stevenson wrote a play, The Hanging Judge, in collaboration with his wife; a version was privately printed in 1887 but never performed. Another collaboration with Fanny was More New Arabian Nights: the Dynamiter (1885), inspired by the Fenian bomb outrages in London. Stevenson was responsible for only one of the stories but these witty fantasies all bear the mark of his revising pen. He wrote a number of short stories for the Christmas numbers of magazines: 'The Body Snatcher', originally drafted at Pitlochry in 1881, in the Pall Mall Gazette (1884); 'Olalla' in the Court and Society Review (1885); 'Markheim', a powerful story foreshadowing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in Unwin's Annual, 1886; and 'The Misadventures of John Nicholson' in Yule Tide (1887). He began and abandoned in 1884–5 a romance about highwaymen called The Great North Road. He wrote a memoir of his friend Fleeming Jenkin (published 1887) and projected, but did not write, a biography of the duke of Wellington.

An essay by Henry James, 'The art of fiction', in Longman's Magazine in September 1884 led to a reply by Stevenson, 'A humble remonstrance', in the same publication in December. A close friendship resulted; James became a welcome visitor at Skerryvore and the two corresponded on affectionate terms for the rest of Stevenson's life.

In his fiction Stevenson is seen exploring moral ambiguity and duality in human nature; a recurring theme is the contrast and conflict between good and evil. He achieved world-wide success with his ‘shilling shocker’ Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), a moral allegory about the divided self and the problem of evil, the main incidents of which came to him in a dream. The characters of Jekyll and Hyde have become proverbial and the story has been widely translated, reprinted in countless editions, and dramatized (if often distorted) in plays and films. Stevenson's reputation was further enhanced later in 1886 by the publication of Kidnapped, after serialization under his own name in Young Folks' Paper. It is far more than the adventure story for boys that it purports to be. Making skilful use of Scots it brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Scotland in the period following the 1745 Jacobite rising and explores the differences between lowland and highland mentality in the contrasting characters of David Balfour and Alan Breck. It remains one of Stevenson's most popular books, and there have been many film and television versions. A collection of short stories (previously appearing in periodicals) was published as The Merry Men in 1887.

For several years Thomas Stevenson's health had been failing, and he and his wife spent much time in Bournemouth to be near their son. Thomas died in Edinburgh on 8 May 1887. Stevenson's Memories and Portraits (1887) collected a number of his mainly autobiographical essays, including one commemorating his father's life and character. Another essay, 'The character of dogs', celebrates the liking for dogs that he shared with his father and commemorates in particular the Skye terrier Woggs (later called Bogue).

Second visit to America, 1887–1888

His father's death freed Stevenson to visit America. Accompanied by his mother, wife, stepson, and maidservant he sailed from London on board the cattle boat Ludgate Hill and was given an enthusiastic reception as a famous author on arrival in New York on 7 September 1887. The winter (October–April) was spent at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, not far from the Canadian border. Here, in bitterly cold weather, his health improved. He established friendly relations with his American publisher, Charles Scribner, and E. L. Burlingame, editor of Scribner's Magazine. For the magazine he wrote a series of twelve essays (published January–December 1888 and partly reprinted in Across the Plains, 1892). They include the biographical essays 'A chapter on dreams' (giving the genesis of Jekyll and Hyde), 'The lantern bearers', and two 'Random memories': 'The coast of Fife' and 'The education of an engineer'. Two famous essays, 'A Christmas sermon' and 'Pulvis et umbra', give his views on religion and ethics.

In December he began with enthusiasm his most complex and profound study of evil, the tragic story The Master of Ballantrae. It relates with great power and subtlety the bitter antagonism between two brothers in the period after the 1745 rising and the destructive effects of their hatred. In spite of its flawed ending it is generally regarded as a masterpiece. Stevenson continued the novel in Tahiti and finished it after much effort in Hawaii in April 1889, after it had already begun serialization in Scribner's.

A very different side of Stevenson's genius is shown in The Wrong Box—the black comedy written in collaboration with his stepson. Some contemporary reviewers and later critics saw no merit in it but its admirers (including Kipling, Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, and V. S. Pritchett) regarded it as a comic masterpiece; E. F. Benson called it 'perhaps the most superb extravaganza in the language' (London Mercury, August 1928, 378). Osbourne wrote the first version at Saranac in 1887; Stevenson took it over and rewrote it, completing it at Honolulu in 1889. The form and manner of the book are entirely Stevenson's. A more accurate version from the manuscript and corrected proofsheets appeared in 1989. Stevenson left Saranac in April 1888 and, after a brief stay in New York (where he met Mark Twain), went with his mother and stepson to Manasquan, on the New Jersey coast; Fanny had gone to San Francisco to visit relatives.

During the last weeks at Saranac, and while he was at Manasquan, Stevenson was agonizing over a quarrel with Henley. Henley had accused Fanny of plagiarism in publishing under her own name a short story, 'The Nixie', based on one written earlier (and abandoned) by Stevenson's cousin Katharine de Mattos (to whom Jekyll and Hyde was dedicated). Stevenson reacted furiously; the main issue for him was that Henley had been disloyal as a friend in making such an accusation, and he saw it as the latest example of Henley's penchant for stirring up trouble behind his back and speaking ill of him to his friends. Stevenson wrote long letters to their mutual friend Charles Baxter and made himself ill with distress and bitterness. Henley apologized but the old, cordial relations were never restored. The last straw for Stevenson came in December 1890, when he learned that Henley, living in Edinburgh, had failed to call on Stevenson's widowed mother; a few more letters were exchanged but the friendship was over.

Pacific voyages, 1888–1890

In another bid for improved health Stevenson decided on a cruise in the South Seas. The American editor and publisher S. S. McClure (the original of Pinkerton in The Wrecker) offered to sell through his newspaper syndicate a series of letters describing Stevenson's experiences. Stevenson chartered the schooner yacht Casco (under Captain A. H. Otis) and the family party embarked in San Francisco on 28 June 1888. They spent six weeks in the Marquesas Islands and two weeks in the Paumotu (or Tuamotu) archipelago before reaching Tahiti at the end of September. Stevenson became seriously ill and convalesced in the village of Tautira as the guest of the local chief, Ori a Ori. There he wrote two ballads based on Polynesian legends, 'The Feast of Famine' and 'The Song of Rahero'; they were published, to no great success, with 'Ticonderoga' (printed in Scribner's, 1887) and others, in Ballads (1890). The cruise ended with the Stevensons' arrival in Honolulu on 24 January 1889, and the Casco was sent back to San Francisco.

The family party was joined by Fanny's daughter, Belle, her ne'er-do-well, drunken husband, the painter Joseph (Joe) Dwight Strong, and their eight-year-old son, Austin, who had been living in Honolulu since 1882. Stevenson stayed in Honolulu for five months, becoming friendly with Kalakaua, the last of the Hawaiian kings. He visited the leper settlement on the island of Molokai, where Father Damien, the Roman Catholic missionary, had recently died. He was deeply moved by what he saw. In February 1890 in Sydney, in a white heat of indignation, he wrote his powerful piece of invective Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Reverend Dr Hyde in defence of the priest's reputation against attack by an American protestant missionary in Honolulu.

The climate of the South Seas and life on board ship suited Stevenson, and he delighted in his experiences. Though he was still subject to colds his health improved wonderfully. Accordingly in June 1889 he set off on another cruise with his wife, stepson, and Joe Strong (his mother having returned to Edinburgh) on the trading schooner Equator (under Captain Dennis Reid). The next six months were spent voyaging through the Gilbert Islands southwards towards Samoa, which was reached in early December. En route they stayed for two months at Apemama as guests of the formidable tyrant King Tembinoka, about whom Stevenson wrote a memorable account. In Samoa, on the island of Upolu, about 3 miles outside Apia, Stevenson bought (on the advice of the American trader H. J. Moors) an estate of 300 acres, which he called Vailima (Five Waters). After arranging for part of the area to be cleared he left for Sydney in February 1890. In Sydney he again became seriously ill, and abandoning plans for a visit to Britain, he went (with his wife and stepson) on a voyage, lasting from April to July, on a trading steamer, the Janet Nicoll. This took him to many remote places, including Penrhyn, the Ellice Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Gilbert Islands (again), and New Caledonia.

Vailima, Samoa, 1890–1894

For the last four years of his life Stevenson made his home on his plantation of Vailima, beautifully situated 600 feet above sea-level, on the mountainside among thick woods, with fine views of the Pacific. His main absences were two brief visits to Sydney, in the spring of 1891 and again in 1893, and a visit to Honolulu in the autumn of 1893; he returned from all of these in worse health. On their arrival in Samoa from Sydney in September 1890 Stevenson and Fanny lived at Vailima in a rough cabin in the most primitive conditions while work proceeded on clearing the estate and building a suitable house. They moved into the new house in April 1891 (it was enlarged in 1893) and the family furniture was brought from Bournemouth and, later, from Edinburgh. Stevenson gathered his family around him and lived in patriarchal style, like a clan chieftain, with a number of Samoan servants in both house and plantation, in whose welfare he took the greatest interest. He dispensed hospitality (often on a grand scale) to a wide range of visitors, including missionaries, white officials, officers from British warships, traders, and Samoan chiefs and their retainers. The household comprised his wife, his mother (who went back to Scotland in 1893 but rejoined them in 1894), his stepson, Lloyd, his stepdaughter, Belle, and her husband (whom she divorced in 1892), and their son, Austin. Stevenson's cousin Graham Balfour (later his biographer) paid three visits and became a close friend. Though he was still at risk Stevenson's health improved and he delighted in being able to enjoy outdoor life again; his favourite exercise was riding. For a period he became obsessed with weeding and clearing the bush (celebrated in his poem 'The Woodman'). Fanny Stevenson worked indefatigably in the garden and much of the planning of the plantation (which never paid its way) fell on her. Stevenson's monthly journal-letters to Colvin (published as Vailima Letters, 1895) give a vivid picture of their life.

Samoan politics

Stevenson's sympathy with the Samoans (he studied their language) and his desire to defend their interests meant that he was drawn (to the dismay of Colvin and other friends) into Samoan politics. He wrote A Footnote to History (1892), telling the story of German intervention in Samoan affairs, the involvement of Britain and America, and the rivalries over the kingship between rival chiefs. A notable chapter is his account of the hurricane of March 1889. Following a conference in Berlin (1889) the great powers established tripartite control of the government of Samoa; they recognized Malietoa Laupepa as king and rejected the equally valid claims of Mataafa Iosefu. Stevenson championed the cause of Mataafa, for whom he developed a great affection. Stevenson, whose object was to bring about reconciliation between the two rivals and thus prevent bloodshed, paid several visits to Mataafa's rebel camp, a few miles from Apia. He turned into a romantic adventure a visit to Mataafa with Lady Jersey (wife of the governor of New South Wales) in August 1892. Two European officials—a Swedish chief justice, Conrad Cedercrantz, and Baron Senfft von Pilsach, German president of the municipal council of Apia—appointed under the Berlin Act proved disastrously unfitted for their tasks. Stevenson wrote a series of letters to The Times drawing attention to their incompetence and the impropriety of some of the administrative and legal decisions; they were both replaced in 1893. He believed himself threatened with deportation because of his activities. He was certainly at risk of fine or imprisonment under the terms of the sedition (Samoa) regulation of 1892 made by Sir John Thurston, British high commissioner for the Western Pacific; the Colonial Office promptly amended the regulation, taking Stevenson out of its purview.

In July 1893 fighting finally broke out between Mataafa and Laupepa. Mataafa's resistance was quickly crushed with aid from the three powers, and he was deported with his leading chiefs to the Marshall Islands. Stevenson sent him gifts and tried in vain to secure a pardon. Stevenson and his family visited and helped a number of minor Mataafa chiefs imprisoned in gaol in Apia, following their uprising. He was deeply touched when, on their release, they built in October 1894 what they called the Road of Gratitude, joining Vailima to the main highway.

Stevenson's literary work in Samoa

In spite of his other interests Stevenson, who was given the Samoan name Tusitala (Writer of Tales), continued with a punishing schedule of writing, starting at 6 a.m. and usually working for many hours each day. Much effort was spent in preparing for McClure's syndicate—from the journals he had kept at the time—the series of letters called The South Seas, describing his voyages. They were serialized in 1891 in The Sun (New York), partly in Black and White (London), and in Australian and New Zealand papers. Stevenson's attempt at an objective anthropological and historical work displeased the newspaper editors as well as Colvin and Fanny, who wanted an entertaining personal narrative, and the series was abandoned, as was the idea of using them as raw material for a book. A selection was posthumously published as In the South Seas (1896) and others appeared in later collected editions. In spite of its imperfections it is now seen as a valuable record of a vanished world. Stevenson next turned, in 1891, to the project of a history of the Stevenson family. He continued it at intervals, delighting in the details of the life of his grandfather Robert Stevenson. The first three chapters were posthumously published as Records of a Family of Engineers (1896).

The South Seas furnished Stevenson with fresh themes for his fiction. Two novels written in collaboration with his stepson are set there. The Wrecker (1892) is a long, diffuse mystery story with fine descriptions of life at sea and recollections of Edinburgh, San Francisco, and artists' life in Paris and Barbizon; it is Stevenson in relaxed mood, providing entertainment rather than great literature. The Ebb-Tide (1894) had its origins in a much longer novel, The Pearl Fisher, planned in 1889; it is a grim and powerful story of moral depravity and evil whose four main characters Stevenson himself called 'such a troop of swine' (Letters, 8.107). There are parallels between The Ebb-Tide and 'The Beach of Falesá', regarded as one of his finest short stories. He described it as 'the first realistic South Sea story; I mean with real South Sea character and details of life' (ibid., 7.161). It was collected in Island Nights' Entertainments (1893) with two other tales, 'The Bottle Imp', a German folk story given a Hawaiian setting (which was published in translation in a Samoan missionary magazine), and 'The Isle of Voices', a Polynesian fable. The first full, unbowdlerized version of 'Falesá' did not appear until 1984.

Scotland continued to haunt Stevenson's imagination. In 1892 he wrote Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped (published in America under Stevenson's original title, David Balfour). Though it never achieved the popularity of Kidnapped it was notable for his successful portrayal of women characters, long regarded one of his failings as a novelist. He called the interpolated 'Tale of Tod Lapraik' 'a piece of living Scots' (Letters, 8.38).

When he suffered from writer's cramp in June 1892 Stevenson's stepdaughter became his amanuensis, and many of his letters and his two last unfinished novels were dictated (in whole or part) to her. St Ives, a lightweight potboiler, begun in 1893, featuring the adventures of a French prisoner-of-war in Napoleonic times following his escape from Edinburgh Castle, was completed by Arthur Quiller-Couch (1897). In September 1894 he dropped St Ives and took up Weir of Hermiston (also called The Justice-Clerk), first begun in 1892, and worked on it with enthusiasm until his death. This fragment (published 1896) is recognized as Stevenson's masterpiece for its evocation of the background of Edinburgh and the border country as the setting for the conflict between father and son and a tragic love story, and above all for its strong characterization (including the women characters) and its powerful use of Scots dialogue. Lord Hermiston is based on the notorious eighteenth-century Scottish judge Lord Braxfield, about whom Stevenson had written in his early essay 'Some portraits by Raeburn'. Fragments of three other novels with a Scottish theme survive: Heathercat, a story of the covenanters, The Young Chevalier (from ideas suggested by Andrew Lang), and The Go-Between. He also projected Sophia Scarlet, set in a plantation in the South Seas. A collection of Fables, some written in the 1870s, was posthumously published in 1896. In his fiction Stevenson's aim was 'to get out the facts of life as clean and naked and sharp as I could manage it' (Letters, 7.344). He achieved a wonderfully lucid style, notable for its concision and felicitous use of words. As Chesterton wrote, he possessed 'a quite exceptional power of putting what he really means into the words that really convey it' (Chesterton, 150).

Stevenson wrote poetry all his life (often when he was ill), experimenting with virtuosity in a wide range of forms and techniques, and some of his finest poems were written in Scots. His first collection—apart from his poems for children—was Underwoods (1887). He continued to write poetry in the South Seas, including poems looking back nostalgically to Scotland and his youth, and these appeared as Songs of Travel in 1896. Though he made no claim to be a great poet he achieved work of freshness and originality with memorable phrases. He had a lifelong interest in music, and a number of the poems have musical settings. As a young man he regularly went to concerts in Edinburgh. At Bournemouth he tried to write music and became obsessed with playing the piano. In Saranac he took up the penny whistle, and in the South Seas the flageolet. He enjoyed making music with amateur musicians drawn from his family and friends.

Appearance and personality

Stevenson was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and abnormally thin. His head was small and he had a long, oval-shaped face with large, very wide-set, dark hazel eyes. His hair, lightish-brown in youth, grew darker with the years, and until he reached the tropics was usually worn long; he had a moustache and the merest hint of an imperial. His friends were bowled over by the power and charm of his personality and the brilliance of his conversation, his gaiety, eagerness, and vitality. They described him restlessly pacing to and fro as he talked, holding a lit cigarette (he smoked incessantly), as in John Singer Sargent's portrait. Colvin says that his sympathetic power of inspiring others was the special distinguishing note of his conversation and that in the best of his letters there is a far-away echo of his talk.

Fanny Stevenson's illness and Stevenson's death

In his last years at Vailima, Stevenson was under considerable strain. Fanny, who had a background of emotional instability, suffered a serious mental breakdown in April 1893, which was the culmination of eighteen months of trouble. All that is known of it lies in a few guarded references in Stevenson's letters, and Fanny appears to have made a good recovery. Stevenson had moods of depression over his writing, and overworked himself in order to earn the large sums necessary to maintain the estate and their style of life. It was to help ease the burden that Baxter, in co-operation with Colvin, put forward the plan for a limited, ‘Edinburgh Edition’ of his collected works. Stevenson welcomed the idea but did not live to see even the first volumes.

Stevenson spent the morning of 3 December 1894 happily dictating Weir of Hermiston to his stepdaughter. At sunset he joined his wife on the verandah and collapsed while helping her to prepare a mayonnaise for dinner: two hours later, without regaining consciousness, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. The following day forty Samoans cut a steep path up the mountainside and he was buried (by his own wish) on the summit of Mount Vaea. By 1897 a tomb had been built from large blocks of cement bearing two bronze panels; one carries Stevenson's own 'Requiem' ('Under the wide and starry sky'), written when he was ill in San Francisco. In 1915, the year after her death, Fanny Stevenson's ashes were interred there.

Posthumous reputation

The romantic circumstances of Stevenson's exile in Samoa and the manner of his death helped to create a legendary figure. He was sentimentalized by extreme admirers as a near-saintly optimist and heroic invalid—the 'Seraph in Chocolate' of Henley's famous phrase (Pall Mall Magazine, December 1901, 508), although Henley's gibe was not really true of the portrait presented in the official biography by Graham Balfour (1901), despite the obvious reticences inevitable at the time that it was written. In reaction to this canonization the debunking biographers of the 1920s (led by G. S. Hellman and J. A. Steuart) created another unreal person: the sensualist and poseur dominated by his wife. The standard biography, Voyage to Windward (1952) by J. C. Furnas, swept away the legends and provided a balanced picture of the man. The process was completed by the publication in 1994–5 of a major edition of Stevenson's Letters. Even in the expurgated selections edited by Colvin (the latest in 1924) the quality of the letters had been apparent; Stevenson is now recognized as one of the great letter-writers of the nineteenth century.

Stevenson is the most autobiographical of writers, and inevitably his personality is part of the pleasure that readers derive from his work, but in the years since his death interest in his life has obscured the literary artist. He was overpraised in his lifetime and immediately after his death, and has been considerably undervalued since. A series of collected editions bore witness to the popularity of his books with the general reader, but from the 1930s onwards he was ignored or patronized by academic critics as merely a writer for children. Slowly the tide has turned. He has been praised by modern writers—among them Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov—and the critics (following pioneer work by David Daiches and Janet Adam Smith) are beginning to take him seriously again. There have been a number of critical editions of individual works and a new collected edition is in progress.


  • The letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. B. A. Booth and E. Mehew, 8 vols. (1994–5)
  • G. Balfour, The life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 2 vols. (1901)
  • J. C. Furnas, Voyage to windward: the life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1952)
  • D. Daiches, Robert Louis Stevenson and his world (1973)
  • J. Pope Hennessy, Robert Louis Stevenson (1974)
  • S. Colvin, introduction, in Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. S. Colvin, 5 vols. (1924)
  • R. G. Swearingen, The prose writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: a guide (1980)
  • D. Daiches, Robert Louis Stevenson (1947)
  • J. A. Smith, R. L. Stevenson (1937)
  • R. L. Stevenson, ‘A college magazine’, Memories and portraits (1887)
  • P. Maixner, ed., Robert Louis Stevenson: the critical heritage (1981) [contemporary reviews]
  • G. K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson (1927)
  • G. L. McKay, ed., A Stevenson library, 6 vols. (1951–64) [catalogue of Beinecke Collection, Yale]



  • J. Moffat, photograph, 1872, Yale U.
  • J. Moffat, photograph, 1872, NPG
  • photograph, 1874, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1875, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1876–7, Yale U.
  • F. Osbourne (later Stevenson), charcoal drawing, 1877, Stevenson House, Monterey, California
  • photograph, 1877, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • P. S. Kroyer, pencil drawing, 1879, Hirschprung Museum, Copenhagen
  • Bradley and Rulofson, San Francisco, photograph, 1880, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, NL Scot.
  • photograph, 1880–84, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • Richard Friedel, Davos, photograph, 1882, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • P. Shelley, photograph, 1884/5, repro. in U. Taylor, Guests and memories (1924), facing p. 365
  • P. Shelley, photograph, 1884/5, repro. in The Bookman Extra Number (1913), 57
  • P. Shelley, photograph, 1884/5, repro. in McClure's Magazine (Feb 1894), 238
  • P. Shelley, photograph, 1884/5, NYPL, Berg collection
  • A. G. Dew-Smith, photograph, 1885, NPG
  • A. G. Dew-Smith, photograph, 1885, U. Texas, Gernsheim collection
  • L. Osbourne, photograph, 1885, Yale U.
  • J. S. Sargent, charcoal drawing, 1885, Yale U.
  • J. S. Sargent, double portrait, oils, 1885 (with Fanny Stevenson), priv. coll.
  • J. W. Alexander, drawing, 1886, repro. in Century Magazine (April 1888)
  • W. B. Richmond, oils, 1886, NPG
  • W. J. Hawker, photograph, 1887, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • W. J. Hawker, photograph, 1887, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • J. S. Sargent, oils, 1887, Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio [see illus.]
  • W. Strang, drawing, 1887, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
  • W. Notman, photograph, 1887–8, Stevenson House, Monterey, California; Silverado Museum, St Helena
  • W. Notman, photograph, 1887–8, NPG; Silverado Museum, St Helena
  • W. Notman, photograph, 1887–8, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • A. Saint-Gaudens, bas-relief, 1887–9; electrotype reduction, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire
  • A. Saint-Gaudens, bronze medallion portrait relief, 1887–9, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, New Hampshire; copies, NPG, Tate collection
  • W. Eaton, pen-and-ink drawing, 1888 (after photograph by P. Shelley, 1884/5), Silverado Museum, St Helena
  • group portrait, photograph, 1889 (with King Kalakaua), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1889 (with King Kalakaua), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1889 (with crown princess of Hawaii), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1889, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U.
  • photograph, 1889–90 (with Fanny Stevenson), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • J. Davis, group photographs, 1892 (with his family), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • G. P. Nerli, charcoal drawing, 1892, Yale U.
  • G. P. Nerli, oils, 1892, Scot. NPG; replicas, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh and Yale U.
  • G. P. Nerli, pastel drawing, 1892, Princeton University, New Jersey; replica, Scot. NPG
  • G. P. Nerli, watercolour sketch, 1892, Edinburgh Academy
  • photograph, 1892, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • H. W. Barnett, two photographs, 1893, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • H. W. Barnett, two photographs, 1893, Mitchell L., NSW
  • H. W. Barnett, two photographs, 1893, repro. in McClure's Magazine (Aug 1893), 292–3
  • H. W. Barnett, 1893, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • Freeman & Co. Sydney, group photograph, 1893 (with his family), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • A. Hutchinson, bronze bust, 1893, Stevenson Cottage, Saranac; replicas, NPG, Yale U., Hunt. L., and Academy of Arts, Honolulu
  • P. F. S. Spence, pencil drawing, 1893, NPG
  • W. Strang, etching, 1893 (after drawing), BM
  • group portrait, photograph, 1894 (with Lloyd Osbourne, Samoan chief, and Count Wurmbrandt), Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, Yale U., NPG
  • photograph, 1894, Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, NPG
  • D. W. Stevenson, marble bust, 1895, Scot. NPG
  • A. Saint-Gaudens, bronze plaque, 1899–1902, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
  • G. P. Nerli, pencil drawings, 1910 (after G. P. Nerli, 1892), Mitchell L., NSW; Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
  • H. Furniss, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG
  • J. Tweed, bronze statuette, Silverado Museum, St Helena, Yale U.
  • T. B. Wirgman, drawing (after F. Osbourne), repro. in Balfour, Life, 1 (1901), frontispiece
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