Friday, 27 November 2009

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on
November 13 1850 in Edinburgh to parents
Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Balfour. The
Stevenson family were already well known as
Thomas and his father, Robert Stevenson, were
both famous lighthouse designer and engineers.
From them, Robert Louis inherited his adventurous
nature that would stimulate his imagination and
spark his interest in literature.

As a child Robert was severely ill due to a
weakness in his lungs which he inherited from
his mother. His health improved with age and
after a troublesome time at Edinburgh Academy
he entered Edinburgh University at the age of
seventeen. Lacking the necessary approach for
engineering, he instead pursued law and was
called to the bar at twenty-five. This was a
reserve plan to fall back on should his true passion
– literature – fail.

A man who saw great romance and art in all 
aspects of life, Stevenson decided to travel. 
This was most likely in search of better health
but also for adventure. As a writer, he craved 
stimulation for his imagination and he created
notes of all he saw. His travels took him to
Grez-Doiceau, Belgium and France where
he visited Nemours and Paris often. A canoe
trip in 1878 inspired his travelogue An Inland 
Voyage and later Travels with a Donkey in 
the Cevennes. He also wrote a number of articles
and essays to generate income. Two years before
this, he had met Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, an
American divorcee, in France and fallen in love.
A few months later she returned home and fell ill
. When the news reached him, Stevenson, against
the advice of his friends, departed for San Francisco.
The journey from New York to California almost 
killed him. However, it inspired his works An 
Amateur Immigrant and Across the Plains.
He eventually arrived in San Francisco with 
scarcely any money at all. By the end of winter 
1879 his health declined once more. Fanny 
nursed him back to health.

In May 1880 he and Fanny married. They would
spend the next seven years seeking a suitable
environment for his ever declining health. Having
suffered so terribly in winter during his life, they
would reside in Scotland and England and winter
in France . His greatest works were created in this
period: Treasure Island, The Strange case of 
Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Kidnapped. He
also published two volumes of poetry: A Child’s 
Garden of Verses and Underwoods.
Stevenson’s father died in 1887. In June 1888
Stevenson chartered the yacht Casco and he
and his family sailed around various locations.
This period also saw the production of further
work including: The Master of Ballantrae,
The Bottle Imp and The South Seas.

In 1890 Stevenson and his family moved to the
Samoan island of Upolu where he would live
out his final years. He named his estate Vailima,
meaning “Five Rivers”. His literary work and
reputation was influential and the locals would
consult him for advice. They named him the Tusitala
– the Teller of Tales. His interaction with the locals
led him to observe that European rule was less than
benevolent and he published the highly critical A

Footnote on History. Given his literary power, his
work caused two officials to be recalled. As well as
supporting the natives and building his estate,
Stevenson published further works such as David 
Balfour and Ebb Tide. He also wrote the Vailima 
Letters in this period. With his health waning,
Stevenson became depressed and concerned
that his creativity was being exhausted.

His spirit refused to succumb and he began his
masterpiece, the Weir of Hermiston. He
apparently remarked: “It’s so good that it frightens
me.” He would not complete it. On December
3 1894, after working on his book, Stevenson
collapsed in the company of his wife. He was
44 when he died as a result of a cerebral
haemorrhage. The natives surrounded his body
and carried their Tusitala upon their shoulders to
a cliff top where he was buried.

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