Classic Author Focus: Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Although Robert Louis Stevenson suffered from severe bronchial trouble most of his life, he still traveled extensively and was a prolific writer of novels, essays, poems, and travel books and articles. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of a lighthouse engineer.

As a child, he suffered from ill health, as did his grandfather and his mother, and he tended to extreme sickness every winter until he was 11. This illness caused him to miss a lot of school. It was not until he was 14 and experienced an improvement in health that he was able to attend school regularly until university. There, he was expected to study engineering.

From early years, the family traveled in the summer to inspect his father’s lighthouses, including trips to Orkney Island, the Shetlands, and Erraid. He enjoyed writing about his travels and eventually informed his father that he wanted to be a writer. His father was disappointed but they compromised by Stevenson’s agreement to read law at Edinburgh University.

Stevenson became active in London literary life shortly after moving to England in 1873. He made acquaintance with several literary figures, including critic Sir Sydney Colvin, and writers Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and the editor of Cornhill Magazine, Leslie Stephen, before spending time in Menton, France, because of illness. He made several trips to France and Belgium before publishing his first book, An Inland Voyage, in 1878.

Stevenson met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne on a canoe trip in 1876. Although she was a married American woman separated from her husband, they fell in love, horrifying his parents. He spent much of the following year with her and her children in France. She returned to California in 1878, and Stevenson then made the walking trip documented in Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes. Stevenson followed Osbourne to California the next year. On his trip across the country, he spent time eking out a living in San Francisco and Monterey and nearly died. Osbourne divorced her husband, and the two married in 1880. Then they traveled to Scotland to reconcile with his parents.

The couple moved back and forth between Scotland and the Continent, finally settling in Bournemouth in 1884. Although Stevenson was bedridden most of the time they lived there, this was his most prolific period of work, during which he wrote some of his most popular novels, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and Underwoods.

In 1888, the Stevensons chartered a yacht bound for the Pacific Islands. He spent time on Gilbert Island, Tahiti, Samoa, and New Zealand, finally settling in 1889 in Samoa. The Wikipedia article on him says he wrote approximately 700,000 words while living in Samoa, including The Beach of Falesá, a realistic South Sea story; The Ebb-Tide, about three deadbeats in Tahiti; Catriona, a sequel to Kidnapped; and the beginning of Weir of Hermiston. He died, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage, when he was 44.

Stevenson’s literary reputation was condemned in the early 20th century by such literary figures as Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but more lately it has recovered. He is now evaluated as a peer of Joseph Conrad and Henry James.

Dates: 1850-1894

Most popular works: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes

Other works: The Master of Ballantrae, A Child’s Garden of Verses, New Arabia Nights, and many more

Reviews by members:


18 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Not being loved by the Woolfs is a recommendation in my eyes! Treasure Island, The Master of Ballantrae and Jekyll and Hyde are all favourites, but there’s loads of his stuff I’ve still not read. He was quite prolific considering how short his life was.

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  2. Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes is so good!
    I wrote a small blurb on my blog:
    Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is the narrative of the 12 days Robert Louis Stevenson traveled with his donkey Modestine in this very isolated area of France, marked by fierce fights between Roman Catholics and Protestants. I really enjoyed his humor at describing the mentality of the area and the people he met. Some passages were really hilarious. Who would have thought!

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      1. Probably his most well-known is The Land of Counterpane, about a little boy sick in bed who plays with his toys like they’re soldiers… My kids loved it as much as I did when I was little.

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  3. I wrote a review of his fables (not including ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, which we mustn’t forget he classed as a fable) here: I read Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae in my teens along with Treasure Island, but though I revisited (and reviewed) the last title I’ve still the first two to appreciate more fully.

    I had A Child’s Garden once but sadly it seems to have been mislaid during one of our moves, along with Travels with a Donkey.

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  4. I loved Treasure Island and The Black Arrow, but it is Kidnapped that has a special place in my heart. The friendship between David Balfour and Alan Breck is one of the most nuanced and beautiful portraits in literature. And of course, I learned a lot about the plight of the Scottish Highlanders that I did not know about before. Hope more people read and can appreciate Stevenson’s work!

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  5. I think I bought two books of him, but haven’t read them. Thank you for sharing and now I want to read them. He is so romantic and so full of genuine love for the people of pacific islands. He is the true hero…

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