Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), born as Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson, was a novelist, essayist, travel writer and poet. He was born in Edinburgh's New Town on November 13th 1850, and died 44 years later of a brain haemorrhage, on December 3, 1894, on Upolu, a small Samoan island; there he was known as "Tusitala" ("Teller of Tales"). He was buried at the summit of Mount Vaea (475m).[1] When his wife, Fanny, died in 1914 in California, her ashes were brought to Samoa to be buried alongside her husband.[2]

The Stevenson Family

"For love of lovely words, and for the sake
Of those, my kinsmen and my countrymen,
Who early and late in the windy ocean toiled
To plant a star for seamen, where was then
The surfy haunt of seals and cormorants:
I, on the lintel of this cot, inscribe
The name of a strong tower.

'Skerryvore', by RL Stevenson; from Underwoods

RL Stevenson was born an only child into a remarkable family of lighthouse engineers; five generations of the family produced eight lighthouse engineers for the Northern Lighthouse Board. His birthplace, 8, Howard's Place, is on the edge of Edinburgh's New Town. In 1953 the family moved to 1, Inverleith Terrace, and in 1856 to 17, Heriot Row. His father, Thomas Stevenson (1818-1887) invented, among other things, the marine dynamometer, which measures the force of waves. In RL Stevenson's words, his father "was a man of a somewhat antique strain: with a blended sternness and softness that was wholly Scottish and at first somewhat bewildering; with a profound essential melancholy of disposition and (what often accompanies it) the most humorous geniality in company; shrewd and childish; passionately attached, passionately prejudiced; a man of many extremes, many faults of temper, and no very stable foothold for himself among life's troubles."[3] RL Stevenson's mother, Margaret Balfour, was the youngest of the thirteen children of a Scottish clergyman, the Reverend Lewis Balfour. His grandfather, Robert Stevenson was Britain's most famous builder of lighthouses, whose achievements include the Bell Rock Lighthouse off Arbroath, the world's oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, built in 1807-1811.[4] "Stevenson College" in Edinburgh is named after Robert Stevenson.[5] . Robert's eldest surviving son Alan Stevenson (1807-1865) built Skerryvore lighthouse, described by RLS as "the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights". Through his mother, RLS was descended from Gilbert Elliott, 1st Baronet of Minto and the Reverend George Smith, and was related to Arthur St. Clair. As a child, he spent much of his holidays in the house of his maternal grandfather, Lewis Balfour, who was a Minister of religion and a professor of moral philosophy,.


As a child, RLS was affectionately known as 'smout', a Scots word for a young fish, ans his mother kept a careful account of his illnesses, his religious training and his development. From the age of six, RLS lived at 17 Heriot Row, an elegant Georgian house in Edinburgh's New Town. This home is now a hospitality venue known as "The Stevenson House"[6] There, he was educated at home because of his poor health (he suffered from tuberculosis), with a Scottish nanny, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), who he later claimed was a major influence, and to whom he dedicated A child's garden of verses (1885). He developed an early interest in writing, dictating "A History of Moses" to his mother when he was six.[7] He later said "I have three powerful impressions of childhood: my sufferings when I was sick, my delights in convalescence at my grandfather's manse of Colinton, near Edinburgh, and the unnatural activity of my mind after I was in bed at night."


"Now understand my state: I am really an invalid, but of a mysterious order. I might be a malade imaginaire, but for one too tangible symptom, my tendency to bleed from the lungs…If you are very nervous, you must recollect a bad haemorrhage is always on the cards, with its concomitants of anxiety and horror for those who are beside me. Do you blench? RLS, 1886[8]

The chronic illness that afflicted RLS throughout his life was diagnosed in his time as consumption (tuberculosis), which in the 19th century was regarded as at least severely debilitating if not a death sentence. Whether he indeed had tuberculosis has been questioned; he may have been asthmatic, and his symptoms were possibly not helped in adult life by his chronic heavy smoking of cigarettes. More recently it has been suggested that he suffered from bronchiectasis[9] or sarcoidosis[10])

In 1867, RLS entered Edinburgh University to study engineering, but changed to law and in 1875 was called to the Scottish bar. At University, rather than concentrating on academic work, he busied himself in learning how to write, imitating the styles of William Hazlitt, Sir Thomas Browne, Daniel Defoe, Charles Lamp, and Michel de Montaigne. He contributed several papers to the Edinburgh University Magazine, including one on "The Philosophy of Umbrellas."


Instead of practicing law, RLS turned to writing travel sketches, essays, and short stories. He published an account of his canoe tour of France and Belgium in 1878 as An Inland Voyage, and Travels With A Donkey In The Cevennes was published in 1879. In September 1876, at Grez, a riverside village south-east of Paris, RLS met Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, a married American woman with two children, living apart from her husband; he was twenty-five, and she was thirty-six. In 1879 he moved with her to California marrying her in 1880 after her divorce. After a short stay at Calistoga (recorded in The Silverado Squatters), they returned to Scotland, and then moved often, searching for a climate that would be better for Stevenson's precarious health.

His best known works are the romantic adventure story Treasure Island (1883) (the first of his writings ‘for children’), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).[11] and Kidnapped (1886). He also wrote for several periodicals, including Longman's Magazine, where "A Humble Remonstrance" was published in 1884; this, a reply to Henry James's The Art of Fiction began a lifelong friendship between the two authors.

In 1887, after the death of his father, RLS returned to the USA, living for a year at Saranac Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, where he wrote some of his best essays, including Pulvis et Umbra, and he began The Master of Ballantrae. In June 1888, he chartered the yacht 'Casco' and, with his family, set sail from San Francisco. For nearly three years he explored the eastern and central Pacific, stopping at the Hawaiian Islands, where he became a friend of King David Kalakaua and the king's niece, Princess Victoria Kaiulani. He also spent time at the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti and the Samoan Islands. He completed The Master of Ballantrae, wrote two ballads based on the legends of the islanders, and wrote The Bottle Imp. He wrote of these years in In The South Seas. '

The Vailima Years

In 1889, he and his family set out on a cruise of the South Sea Islands, and he settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa, where he bought a plantation of about 400 acres, and built a house there; he nemed the estate 'Vailima' (Five rivers). He became involved in local politics, convinced that the European officials appointed to rule were incompetent, and he published A Footnote to History (1892) as a protest. He wrote a friend, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but now he shines beside the politician."

Stevenson's observations on Samoan life were published in In the South Seas (1896). In Samoa, RLS also wrote The Beach of Falesa, The Ebb-Tide, the Vailima Letters, Catriona (1893), an unfinished sequel to Kidnapped, and Weir of Hermiston also unfinished at his death.

On the morning of December 3, 1894, he had been working on Weir of Hermiston. During the evening, while conversing with Fanny and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly collapsed, dying within a few hours, probably of a cerebral haemorrhage. The natives surrounded his body with a watch-guard during the night, and carried his body to nearby Mount Vaea and buried him on a spot overlooking the sea. There, a tablet is inscribed with his 'Requiem', his best known poem. Requiem, included in 'Underwoods', his volume of miscellaneous verse.

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 long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Critical Appreciation

RLS is probably held in higher regard for his novels and essays than for his poetry, but his poetry has its admirers too.

Graham Greene once described how he and Jorge Luis Borges were walking in Buenos Aires discussing Stevenson, who they both admired. When Greene mentioned Stevenson's 'finest poem'; there, amid the roar of traffic, Borges recited the poem in which Stevenson apologises to his ancestors for failing to follow in their footsteps:[12]

"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.
But rather say: In the afternoon of time
A strenuous family dusted from its hands
The sand of granite, and beholding far
Along the sounding coast its pyramids
And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
Smiled well content, and to this childish task
Around the fire addressed its evening hours."

from Underwoods.


  1. Robert Louis Stevenson Museum Villa Vailima, Samoa
  2. Samoa (Upolu) The resting place of Fanny's ashes is marked by a bronze plaque inscribed with the words of RLS:
    "Teacher, tender comrade, wife
    A fellow-farer true through life
    Heart-whole and soul free,
    The August Father gave to me."
  3. 'Thomas Stevenson - civil engineer' by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. BBC History; The Bell Rock Lighthouse
  5. Stevenson College, Edinburgh
  6. The Stevenson HouseEdinburgh
  7. 'The History of Moses' at the National Library of Scotland]
  8. quoted in The Strange Case of RL Stevenson by Richard Woodhead, Luath Press Ltd, Edinburgh ISBN 0 946487 86 3
  9. Holmes, Lowell (2002). Treasured Islands: Cruising the South Seas with Robert Louis Stevenson. Sheridan House, Inc.. ISBN 1574091301. 
  10. 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. Research Blogging.
  11. Online Books by RL Stevenson
  12. A Major Minor Poet? David Fergus in Textualities, an online literary nagazine