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Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson
Portrait by Girolamo Nerli, 1892 Born November 13, 1850(1850-11-13)
Edinburgh, ScotlandDied December 3, 1894(aged 44)
Vailima, SamoaOccupationNovelist, Poet, Travel writerLiterary movementNeo-romanticismInfluences
Edgar Allan Poe
Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov, J. M. Barrie
Not to be confused with Robert Stephenson.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (November 13, 1850December 3, 1894), was a Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer, and a representative of neo-romanticism in English literature. He was the man who "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins", as G. K. Chesterton put it. Stevenson was greatly admired by many authors, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov,[1] and J. M. Barrie.[2] Most modernist writers dismissed him, however, because he was popular and did not write within their definition of modernism. It is only recently that critics have begun to look beyond Stevenson's popularity and allow him a place in the canon.


Early life

Stevenson[3] was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson,[4] in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. His father was Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather was Robert Stevenson; both were notable lighthouse engineers, as was his great-grandfather. It was from this side of the family that he inherited his love of adventure, joy of the sea and for the open road. Through his mother he was descended from Gilbert Elliott, 1st Baronet of Minto and the Reverend George Smith and was related to Arthur St. Clair. His maternal grandfather, Lewis Balfour, was a professor of moral philosophy and a minister, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his house. "Now I often wonder", says Stevenson, "what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them." From his mother, Margaret Balfour, he inherited weak lungs (contemporary views were that he had tuberculosis, but more recent views are that it was bronchiectasis[5] or even sarcoidosis[6]) that during the winter kept him constantly in "the land of the counterpane" (in the words of his own verse), where his nurse spent long hours by his bedside reading from the Bible and lives of the old Covenanters. During the summer he was encouraged to play outside, where he proved to be a wild and carefree child, and by the age of 11 his health had improved so that his parents prepared him for the University of Edinburgh by attending Edinburgh Academy, planning for him to follow his father as a lighthouse engineer. During this period he read widely and especially enjoyed Shakespeare, Walter Scott, John Bunyan and The Arabian Nights.[7]

He entered the University of Edinburgh at 17, but soon discovered he had neither the scientific mind nor physical endurance to succeed as an engineer. When his father took him for a voyage he found—instead of being interested in lighthouse construction—that his mind was teeming with wonderful romances about the coast and islands which they visited. Although his father was stern, he finally allowed him to decide upon a career in literature—but thought it wise for Stevenson first to finish a degree in law, so that he might have something to fall back upon. Stevenson followed this course and by the age of 25 passed the examinations for admission to the bar, though not before he had nearly ruined his health through work and worry. His father's lack of understanding led him to write the following protest:

Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.

Marriage and travels

The next four years were spent mostly in travel and in search of a climate that would be more beneficial for his health. He made long and frequent trips to Fontainebleau, Barbizon, Grez, and Nemours, becoming a member of the artists' colonies there, as well as to Paris to visit galleries and the theatres. It was during this period he made most of his lasting friendships and met his future wife, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, an American who was 10 years his senior and married at the time. Among his friends were Sidney Colvin, his biographer and literary agent; William Ernest Henley, a collaborator in dramatic composition; Mrs. Sitwell, who helped him through a religious crisis; and Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, all writers and critics. He also made the journeys described in An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. In addition, he wrote 20 or more articles and essays for various magazines. Although it seemed to his parents that he was wasting his time and being idle, in reality he was constantly studying to perfect his style of writing and broaden his knowledge of life, emerging as a man of letters.

Stevenson paces in his dining room in an 1885 portrait by John Singer Sargent. His wife Fanny, seated in an Indian dress, is visible in the lower right corner.

Stevenson and Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne met in France in 1876. A few months later, when she returned to her home in San Francisco, California, Stevenson determined to follow. His friends advised against the journey, knowing his father's temper, but he sailed without notifying his parents. He took steerage passage on the Devonian, in part to save money, but also to learn how others travelled and to increase the adventure of the journey. From New York City he travelled overland by train to California. He later wrote about the experience in An Amateur Emigrant and Across the Plains. Although it was good experience for his literature, it broke his health, and he was near death when he arrived in Monterey. He was nursed back to health by some ranchers there.

By December of 1879 he had recovered his health enough to continue to San Francisco, where for several months he struggled "all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts,"[8] in an effort to support himself through his writing, but by the end of the winter his health was broken again, and he found himself at death's door. Vandegrift — now divorced and recovered from her own illness — came to Stevenson's bedside and nursed him to recovery. "After a while," he wrote, "my spirit got up again in divine frenzy, and has since kicked and spurred my vile body forward with great emphasis and success." When his father heard of his condition he cabled him money to help him through this period.

In May, 1880, Stevenson married Fanny although, as he said, he was "a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom." With his new wife and her son, Lloyd, he travelled north of San Francisco to Napa Valley, and spent a summer honeymoon at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. He wrote about this experience in The Silverado Squatters. He met Charles Warren Stoddard, co-editor of the Overland Monthly and author of South Sea Idylls, who urged Stevenson to travel to the south Pacific, an idea which would return to him many years later. In August 1880 he sailed with his family from New York back to Britain, and found his parents and his friend Sidney Colvin on the wharf at Liverpool, happy to see him return home. Gradually his new wife was able to patch up differences between father and son and make herself a part of the new family through her charm and wit.

Attempted settlement in Europe

Portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1887.

For the next seven years between 1880 and 1887 Stevenson searched in vain for a place of residence suitable to his state of health. He spent his summers at various places in Scotland and England, including Westbourne, Dorset, a residential area in Bournemouth. There he lived in a dwelling he renamed Skerryvore after a lighthouse, the tallest in Scotland, built by his uncle Alan Stevenson many years earlier. For his winters, he escaped to sunny France, and lived at Davos-Platz and the Chalet de Solitude at Hyeres, where, for a time, he enjoyed almost complete happiness. "I have so many things to make life sweet for me," he wrote, "it seems a pity I cannot have that other one thing — health. But though you will be angry to hear it, I believe for myself, at least, that is best. I believed it all through my worst days, and I am not ashamed to profess it now." In spite of his ill health he produced the bulk of his best known work: Treasure Island, his first widely popular book; Kidnapped; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story which established his wider reputation; and two volumes of verse, A Child's Garden of Verses and Underwoods. At Skerryvore he gave a copy of Kidnapped to his dear friend and frequent visitor, Henry James.[9]

Stevenson's "Cure Cottage" in Saranac Lake.

Journey to the Pacific

On the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson felt free to follow the advice of his physician to try a complete change of climate. He started with his mother and family for Colorado; but after landing in New York they decided to spend the winter at Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. During the intensely cold winter Stevenson wrote a number of his best essays, including Pulvis et Umbra, he began The Master of Ballantrae, and lightheartedly planned, for the following summer, a cruise to the southern Pacific Ocean. "The proudest moments of my life," he wrote, "have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat with that romantic garment over my shoulders."

In June 1888, Stevenson chartered the yacht Casco and set sail with his family from San Francisco. The vessel "ploughed her path of snow across the empty deep, far from any hand of help." The salt sea air and thrill of adventure for a time restored his health; and for nearly three years he wandered the eastern and central Pacific, visiting important island groups, stopping for extended stays at the Hawaiian Islands where he became a good friend of King David Kalakaua, with whom Stevenson spent much time. Furthermore, Stevenson befriended the king's niece Princess Victoria Kaiulani, who was of Scottish heritage. He also spent time at the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti and the Samoan Islands. During this period he completed The Master of Ballantrae, composed two ballads based on the legends of the islanders, and wrote The Bottle Imp. The experience of these years is preserved in his various letters and in The South Seas. A second voyage on the Equator followed in 1889 with Lloyd Osbourne accompanying them.

It was also from this period that one particular open letter stands as testimony to his activism and indignation at the pettiness of such 'powers that be' as a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu named Rev. Dr. Hyde. During his time in the Hawaiian Islands, Stevenson had visited Molokai and the leper colony there, shortly after the demise of Father Damien. When Dr. Hyde wrote a letter to a fellow clergyman speaking ill of Father Damien, Stevenson wrote a scathing open letter of rebuke to Dr. Hyde. Soon afterwards in April 1890 Stevenson left Sydney on the Janet Nicoll and went on his third and final voyage among the South Seas islands.[10]

Last years

In 1890 he purchased four hundred acres (about 1.6 square kilometres) of land in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. Here, after two aborted attempts to visit Scotland, he established himself, after much work, upon his estate, which he named Vailima ("Five Rivers"). Stevenson himself adopted the native name Tusitala. His influence spread to the natives who consulted him for advice, and he soon became involved in local politics. He was convinced the European officials appointed to rule the natives were incompetent, and after many futile attempts to resolve the matter, he published A Footnote to History. This was such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson feared for a time it would result in his own deportation. When things had finally blown over he wrote a friend, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but now he shines beside the politician."

In addition to building his house and clearing his land and helping the natives in many ways, he found time to work at his writing. In his enthusiasm, he felt that "there was never any man had so many irons in the fire." He wrote The Beach of Falesa, Catriona (titled David Balfour in the USA),[11] The Ebb-Tide, and the Vailima Letters, during this period.

For a time during 1894 Stevenson felt depressed; he wondered if he had exhausted his creative vein and completely worked himself out. He wrote that he had "overworked bitterly". He felt more clearly that, with each fresh attempt, the best he could write was "ditch water". He even feared that he might again become a helpless invalid. He rebelled against this idea: "I wish to die in my boots; no more land of counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse — ay, to be hanged rather than pass again through that slow dissolution." He then suddenly had a return of his old energy and he began work on Weir of Hermiston. "It's so good that it frightens me," he is reported to have exclaimed. He felt that this was the best work he had done. He was convinced, "sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, I would hardly change with any man of my time."

Stevenson's tomb on Mt. Vaea

Without knowing it, he was to have his wish fulfilled. During the morning of December 3, 1894, he had worked hard as usual on Weir of Hermiston. During the evening, while conversing with his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly exclaimed, "What's that!" He then asked his wife, "Does my face look strange?" and collapsed beside her.[12] He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral haemorrhage, at the age of 44. The natives insisted on surrounding his body with a watch-guard during the night, and on bearing their Tusitala (Samoan for "Story Writer") upon their shoulders to nearby Mt Vaea and buried him on a spot overlooking the sea. A tablet was placed there, which bore the inscription of his 'Requiem', the piece he always had intended as his epitaph:

“ 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 sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Modern reception

Stevenson was a celebrity in his own time, but with the rise of modern literature after World War I, he was seen for much of the 20th century as a writer of the second class, relegated to children's literature and horror genres.[13] Condemned by authors such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf, he was gradually excluded from the canon of literature taught in schools.[13] His exclusion reached a height when in the 1973 2,000-page Oxford Anthology of English Literature Stevenson was entirely unmentioned; and the Norton Anthology of English Literature excluded him from 1968 to 2000 (1st–7th editions), including him only in the 8th edition (2006).[13] The late 20th century saw the start of a re-evaluation of Stevenson as an artist of great range and insight, a literary theorist, an essayist and social critic, a witness to the colonial history of the Pacific Islands, and a humanist.[13] Even as early as 1965 the pendulum had begun to swing: he was praised by Roger Lancelyn Green, one of the Oxford Inklings, as a writer of a consistently high level of "literary skill or sheer imaginative power" and a co-originator with H. Rider Haggard of the Age of the Story Tellers.[14] He is now being re-evaluated as a peer of authors such as Joseph Conrad (whom Stevenson influenced with his South Seas fiction) and Henry James, with new scholarly studies and organizations devoted to Stevenson.[13] No matter what the scholarly reception, Stevenson remains very popular around the world. According to the Index Translationum, Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of fellow Victorians Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.[15]


For a detailed list see bibliography.


Short story collections

Short stories

List of short stories sorted chronologically. Note: does not include collaborations with Fanny found in More New Arabian Nights:The Dynamiter.

Title Date Collection Notes "A Lodging for the Night" 1877 New Arabian Nights Stevenson's first published fiction when he was 27 years old. "The Sire De Malétroits Door" 1877 New Arabian Nights "An Old Song" 1877 Uncollected "Edifying Letters of the Rutherford Family" 1877 Uncollected "Later-day Arabian Nights" 1878 New Arabian Nights Seven interconnected stories in two cycles: The Suicide Club(3 stories) and The Rajah's Diamond(4 stories). "Providence and the Guitar" 1878 New Arabian Nights "The Pavilion on the Links" 1880 New Arabian Nights Told in 9 mini-chapters. Conan Doyle in 1890 called it the first English short story. "The Story of a Lie" 1882 Uncollected "The Merry Men" 1882 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables "The Body Snatcher" 1884 Uncollected First published in the Christmas 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette. "Markheim" 1885 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1886 Uncollected Often called a short story or a novella. "Will O' the Mill" 1887 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables "Thrawn Janet" 1887 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables "Olalla" 1887 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables "The Treasure of Franchard" 1887 The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables "The Misadventures of John Nicholson: A Christmas Story" 1887 Uncollected "The Bottle Imp" 1891 Island Nights' Entertainments "The Beach of Falesa" 1893 Island Nights' Entertainments "The Isle of Voice" 1893 Island Nights' Entertainments

Other works

  • Virginibus Puerisque, and Other Papers (1881)
  • Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882)
  • Memories and Portraits (1887), a collection of essays.
  • Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (1890)
  • Vailima Letters (1895)
  • The New Lighthouse on the Dhu Heartach Rock, Argyllshire (1995). Based on an 1872 manuscript edited by R. G. Swearingen. California. Silverado Museum.
  • Sophia Scarlet (2008). Based on 1892 manuscript edited by Robert Hoskins. AUT Media (AUT University).
  • Aes Triplex (1887)


  • A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), written for children but also popular with their parents. Includes such favourites as "My Shadow" and "The Lamplighter". Often thought to represent a positive reflection of the author's sickly childhood.
  • Underwoods (1887), a collection of poetry written in both English and Scots.
  • Songs of Travel and Other Verses (1896)
  • Ballads (1891)

Travel writing

Island literature

Although not well known, his island fiction and non-fiction is among the most valuable and collected of the 19th century body of work that addresses the Pacific area.

Non-fiction works on the Pacific

  • In the South Seas. A collection of Stevenson's articles and essays on his travels in the Pacific.
  • A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892)[16].

Works in Scots

Stevenson also wrote poetry and prose in Scots. See ScotsteXt

Musical compositions

Stevenson was an amateur composer who wrote songs typical of California in the 1880s, salon-type music, entertaining rather than serious. A flageolet player, Stevenson had studied harmony and simple counterpoint and knew such basic instrumental techniques as transposition. Some song titles include "Fanfare", "Tune for Flageolet", "Habanera", and "Quadrille". Robert Hughes in 1968 arranged a number of Stevenson's songs for chamber orchestra, which went on a tour of the Pacific Northwest in that year. [1]

See also


  1. ^ R.H.W. Dillard, Introduction to Treasure Island, by Signet Classics, 1998. ISBN 0-451-52704-6. See Page XIII
  2. ^ Chaney, Lisa. Hide-and-Seek with Angels - A Life of J. M. Barrie, London: Arrow Books, 2005
  3. ^ Unless otherwise noted, the biography of Stevenson in this article, from birth to death, was adapted from James Cloyd Bowman (1918) (see sources)
  4. ^ When Stevenson was around 18 years old he changed the spelling of 'Lewis' to 'Louis'.
  5. ^ Holmes, Lowell (2002). Treasured Islands: Cruising the South Seas with Robert Louis Stevenson. Sheridan House, Inc.. ISBN 1574091301
  6. ^ Sharma OP (2005). "Murray Kornfeld, American College Of Chest Physician, and sarcoidosis: a historical footnote: 2004 Murray Kornfeld Memorial Founders Lecture". Chest 128 (3): 1830–5. doi:10.1378/chest.128.3.1830. PMID 16162793
  7. ^
  8. ^ The Amateur Emigrant
  9. ^ References to Skerryvore come from Leon Edel's Henry James: A Life, c. 1985, p. 309 - 310.
  10. ^ The Cruise of the Janet Nichol Among the South Sea Islands, Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1914.
  11. ^ Robert Louis Stevenson - Bibliography: Detailed list of works. Retrieved on 2008-04-20.
  12. ^ Balfour, Graham (1906). The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Methuen. 264.
  13. ^ a b c d e Stephen Arata (2006). "Robert Louis Stevenson". David Scott Kastan (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Vol. 5: 99-102
  14. ^ introduction to 1965 Everyman's Library edition of the one-volume The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau
  15. ^ See the Index Translationum.
  16. ^ Project Gutenberg online text of A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa

External sources

  • Bowman, James Cloyd (1918). An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey.
  • O'Brien, Robert. This Is San Francisco, 1948, reprint Chronicle Books 1994

Further reading

External links

Wikisource has original works written by or about: Robert Louis Stevenson Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Robert Louis Stevenson Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Robert Louis Stevenson


Biographies and commentaries


Categories: Robert Louis Stevenson | 1850 births | 1894 deaths | Alumni of the University of Edinburgh | Edinburgh Academical | Scottish historical novelists | Lallans poets | People from Edinburgh | People from Napa County, California | Scottish children's writers | Scottish horror writers | Scottish novelists | Scottish poets | Scottish short story writers | Scottish travel writers | British non-fiction outdoors writers | Deaths by cerebral hemorrhage

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