The author of such classics as Treasure Island (1883), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Kidnapped (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850. He was the only child of doting parents Thomas and Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, and was cared for by a beloved nurse, Alison Cunningham (called Cummy).
Though he described his childhood as golden, Stevenson was sickly and did not learn to read until he was eight. Cummy spent many hours telling him stories or reading aloud to him from Victorian penny-serial novels and the Bible. She also taught him her narrow religious views, which sometimes caused Stevenson nightmares. His father was something of a storyteller, too, and until he learned to read, Robert dictated his own stories to his mother and his nurse. Too ill to attend school regularly, Stevenson was frequently taught by private tutors. At age sixteen he published his first work, a historical essay about a Scottish uprising in 1666.
In 1867 Stevenson entered Edinburgh University to study engineering, but felt drawn to literature. He and his father eventually compromised on a shift to studying law. Stevenson was at times considered a lazy student, though in actuality he spent a great amount of time reading and training himself to write. This training included composing careful descriptions and studying the style of authors he admired, such as William Hazlitt, Sir Thomas Browne, Walt Whitman, and Daniel Defoe. Still, Stevenson joined with his friends as they explored the wild side of university life. At this period he rebelled against his father's harsh Calvinistic beliefs. Yet he always believed a man should live a life of moral principles.
Stevenson gained his law degree in 1875. In France in 1876 he met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married American woman with marital problems who was ten years older. The two fell deeply in love. Fanny returned to California in 1878; Stevenson followed her in 1879, crossing the ocean, joining an emigrant train across the Great Plains, and arriving in California so sick that he nearly died. Stevenson later used all his experiences in his writing. Finally after Fanny obtained a divorce, he married her in 1880.
For the next seven years Stevenson traveled with his family and wrote, often performing the latter while ill in bed. It was a period of prolific writing, including essays, travelogues, poetry, plays, and his best-known novels. In one of his essays he explains that his art, his life, and his mode of creation were all in some part owing to a toy in his childhood, "Skelt's Juvenile Drama," a set of cardboard characters he used to tell melodramatic stories.
In an attempt to improve his health, Stevenson and his family traveled to the islands of the Pacific on a schooner yacht. Again, he wrote of his experiences, which had given him great pleasure and made him feel somewhat better. Eventually the family settled on a plantation in Samoa, where Stevenson lived the last four years of his life. He continued to write prodigiously about his experiences in the Pacific. When writer's cramp threatened to stop his pen in 1892, Stevenson dictated to his stepdaughter, Isobel Osbourne. Stevenson died in Vailima, Samoa, in 1894 of a cerebral hemorrhage after suffering much of his life from what experts now say was probably tuberculosis.