This Day In Writing History
On November 13th, 1850, the legendary Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a renowned civil engineer who designed, built, and maintained lighthouses. It was the family business, which Stevenson's uncles and grandfather also worked in.
As a boy, Robert Louis Stevenson was sickly. Prone to coughs and fevers, which worsened considerably during the winters, he most likely suffered from bronchiectasis resulting from pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough. Stevenson's parents were devout Presbyterians, but not incredibly strict. His nanny, Alison Cunningham, was a fiercely religious Calvinist. Though her religious fervor gave Stevenson nightmares, she nursed him tenderly through his illnesses. She also read to him often and told him folk tales, planting the first seeds of his writing career.
When he was six years old, Stevenson began his schooling. Odd looking and eccentric, he didn't fit in with the other kids. His frequent illnesses kept him out of school, so he received most of his early education from private tutors. He didn't learn to read until he was seven or eight, but he began writing stories before that, dictating them to his mother and nanny. After he learned to read and write, he continued to write compulsively. When he was eleven, he entered Edinburgh Academy.
At the age of sixteen, Robert Louis Stevenson published his first piece, an essay titled The Pentland Rising: A Page Of History, 1666 (1866), which was an account of the covenanters' rebellion. His father, who was proud of his interest in writing, paid for the printing. However, he expected Robert to follow in his footsteps and join the family business. So, when he entered the University of Edinburgh in November of 1867, he majored in engineering. He hated it. Having no interest in or enthusiasm for the study of engineering, he avoided lectures whenever he could. He joined the Speculative Society - the University's exclusive debating club - whose members would become lifelong friends of his.
During vacations, Stevenson traveled with his father around the Scottish islands to inspect the family's lighthouses and other engineering works. He enjoyed these travels, but only as a source of prospective writing material. In 1871, Stevenson finally told his father that he wanted to be a writer and not an engineer. His father was displeased, but agreed to a compromise: Stevenson would study law to have something to fall back on. While he studied, Stevenson adopted a bohemian lifestyle. He wore his hair long, rejected his religion, and spent his meager allowance on cheap pubs and brothels. Although he graduated and qualified for the Scottish Bar, he never practiced law. He began his writing career instead. When his parents learned that he had become a libertine, they disowned him. It would be years before he reconciled with them.
In late 1873, Stevenson went to England to visit his cousin. While there, he hobnobbed with London's literati and struck up a friendship with Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, who was impressed by his work. When Stephen visited Edinburgh in 1875, he met with Stevenson and took him to see a friend of his, William Henley, a patient at the Edinburgh Infirmary. Henley was a colorful, talkative character who had a wooden leg. He and Stevenson became friends, and it is believed that the character of Long John Silver in Treasure Island was inspired by Henley.
Robert Louis Stevenson continued to travel. One of his journeys was a canoe trip taken through Belgium and France with Sir Walter Simpson, his old friend from the Speculative Society. The trip would serve as the basis of Stevenson's first book, An Inland Voyage, (1878) a travelogue. The canoe trip would take him to Grez in September of 1876, where he would meet Fanny Osbourne, a separated single mother ten years his senior. They would become lovers the following year. In August of 1878, Fanny returned to her home in San Francisco while Stevenson stayed in Europe and went on a 12-day, 120-mile solo hike through the Cevennes Mountains in South central France.
Stevenson wrote of the journey in his next book, Travels With A Donkey In The Cevannes. (1879). It was one of the earliest non-fiction books to present hiking and camping as recreational activities. To prepare for the trip, Stevenson commissioned one of the first sleeping bags to be made for him. Using the money he earned from Travels, Stevenson booked second class passage on the steamship Devonia and sailed to New York City. From there, he traveled across the country by train, bound for San Francisco, where Fanny was waiting for him. This trip was chronicled in his book The Amateur Emigrant, which would be published posthumously in 1895.
Unfortunately, when Stevenson reached Monterey, the trip had taken a huge toll on his fragile health. Too weak to go on to San Francisco, he was joined in Monterey by Fanny, who nursed him back to health. They were married in May of 1880. After Stevenson regained his health, they went to England, where Fanny would help her husband reconcile with his parents. Stevenson and Fanny spent the next several years living in various places throughout England and Scotland, searching for a home that would be suitable for his fragile health. His writing career took off, as he wrote his most famous works.
Treasure Island (1883), his first novel, was an exciting adventure for children about a boy, Jim Hawkins, who helps search for treasure after receiving a map from pirate Billy Bones, a rum-guzzling lodger at his parents' inn. Originally titled The Sea Cook before an editor changed it, Treasure Island was a rarity for a children's novel due to its depiction of unrestrained drinking and its moral ambiguity, with the charming and ruthless pirate Long John Silver proving himself to be not all bad.
Kidnapped (1886) was set amidst the historical events of 18th century Scotland. It told the story of Daniel Balfour, an orphaned 17-year-old boy who goes to live with his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. He doesn't know that his uncle cheated his father out of his estate. When Ebenezer's plan for Daniel's "accidental" death fails, he tricks him into going on board the brig Covenant, where he sells Daniel into slavery. Daniel is shanghaied and forced to work as the ship's new cabin boy.
The Black Arrow (1888) was a swashbuckling adventure set during the Wars of the Roses. In it, young Dick Shelton rescues his lady, Joanna Sedley, becomes a knight, and joins the Black Arrow outlaw gang to avenge the murder of his father, Sir Harry Shelton. His father's murderer turns out to be Sir Daniel Brackley - Dick's guardian.
Though he wrote other books, Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous novel was the classic novella, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. (1888) In this celebrated tale of psychological horror, brilliant doctor Henry Jekyll is a good man troubled by his capacity for cruelty. So, he invents a potion that he hopes will remove the dark side of human nature once and for all. Instead, the potion unleashes it, transforming Jekyll into Edward Hyde, a younger, stronger, bestial man. Cruel, remorseless, misanthropic, and downright evil, Hyde consorts with prostitutes, steals, and causes all sorts of trouble. At first, Jekyll is able to use his potion to change back into himself, but soon, it requires larger doses. When the potion is used up, Jekyll tries to make more, but he can't - it was an imperfection in one of the ingredients that made it work. Realizing that his next transformation into Hyde will be permanent, Jekyll commits suicide by poisoning himself.
In addition to his novels, short story collections, and travelogues, Stevenson also wrote poetry collections. His most famous was a collection of poems for children called A Child's Garden Of Verses (1885). Containing the memorable poems My Shadow and The Lamplighter, the book would be popular with adults as well.
Believing it would suit his fragile health perfectly, in 1890, Stevenson bought 400 acres of land in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. He moved there, built an estate in the village of Vailima, and took the native name Tusitala, which means teller of tales in Samoan. Believing that the European colonial officials who ruled Samoa were incompetent, Stevenson blasted them in his non-fiction book, A Footnote To History, (1892) which was a chronicle of the Samoan Civil War. The book caused such an uproar that Stevenson feared that the colonial officials would deport him.
In 1894, a bout with writer's block drove Stevenson into a deep depression. He feared he would never write again. Just when he had hit bottom, he suddenly regained his creative juices and began work on a new novel called Weir Of Hermiston. Believing that it was his best work and reportedly saying that "it's so good, it frightens me," Stevenson channeled all his energy into his writing, oblivious to the tremendous toll it was taking on his fragile health. His last novel would be unfinished.
Robert Louis Stevenson died suddenly on December 3rd, 1894, at the age of 44, most likely from a stroke. He remains one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 19th century.
Quote Of The Day
"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish." - Robert Louis Stevenson
Today's video features a reading from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella, The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Enjoy!