Author Profile

Robert Louis Stevenson

Selected Works

  • Kidnapped (1886)
  • "The Pavilion on the Links" (1880)
  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
  • Treasure Island (1883)

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.


Holograph letter to Margaret Stevenson, October 1878.

Stevenson wrote this letter to his mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson. He tells of visiting P. G. Hamerton, an author and art critic, and of planning with him to negotiate bargains with publishers. "P.G." also promised to read and critique An Inland Voyage, Stevenson's travel book about boating on European rivers.

Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) was an English artist and essayist who became a prominent art critic in France. As friends, he and Stevenson exchanged letters over a period of years. Hamerton once told Stevenson that he had "the story teller's natural gift and I see with pleasure that you preserve the lightness and elegance of your style even in incident narrative, which must be very difficult."

Other's shared Hamerton's opinion. After reading Stevenson's short story, "The Pavilion on the Links" (1880), Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Stevenson, "Shall I ever forget the enthusiasm with which I read [it]? I look on it as the first story in the world."

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An Inland Voyage. London: C. Kegan Paul, 1878.

Stevenson composed An Inland Voyage from a journal he kept during a boat trip down the Oisé River in France. He and his friend Walter Simpson traveled through France, experiencing hardship and adventure (at one time being suspected as spies) and pleasure in doing so. The travelogue was Stevenson's first full-length book.

Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson (1843-1898), aka the "Cigarette," was a close friend of Stevenson, having met while both studied law at Edinburgh University. They traveled together on several other trips before and after An Inland Voyage.

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Treasure Island. London: Cassell & Company, 1883.

First edition of one of Stevenson's most famous adventure novels. Stevenson came up with the idea of this pirate story while in Braemar, Scotland, drawing a map to entertain his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. Within a few years the book had become one of the most widely read of the period, especially by boys.

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