Robert Louis Stevenson has a special place in the hearts of
readers. He's one of those writers people feel they've become friends with through their
books. He inspires great fondness as well as admiration and his popularity has, if
anything, grown, perhaps because his outlook was remarkably modern.
Born in Edinburgh in 1850, he was a frail little boy who often had to stay in
bed while other children were playing out of doors, and through force of circumstance he
developed his imagination to entertain himself. His delightful book of poetry for
children, A Child's Garden of Verses, recalls those days in Heriot Row.
The Stevensons were a family of great engineers, but Robert
disappointed them by his absence of enthusiasm for a solid professional career. He was
never happy to conform for the sake of conformity. His marriage to a woman who was
considerably older than him raised eyebrows - even present-day commentators sometimes
suggest that Fanny Osbourne was primarily a mother figure to him.
Stevenson studied at Edinburgh University, in the Old Quad
situated directly opposite James Thin's bookshop on South Bridge. Though he loved books
and reading and his passionate ambition was to become a writer, he wasn't interested in
formal learning. He studied engineering for a session in 1867, then transferred to law,
becoming an advocate in 1875. But his heart just wasn't in it. As a student, he found fun
and distraction in Edinburgh pubs. One of his favourites was Rutherford's - it's still
there in Drummond Street, busy as ever.
Much as he loved Scotland, he felt stifled there by social
and family demands. A free and restless spirit, he became a great traveller despite
chronic ill health, and never failed to write up his experiences in books such as Inland
Voyage and Travels on a Donkey in the Cevennes. He and Fanny made good travel
companions, finally settling in 1889 on the gentle island of Samoa. The people there loved
him and called him Tusitala - teller of tales. He died in 1894 on his estate,
Vailima, at the age of forty-four, leaving unfinished Weir of Hermiston (published
posthumously in 1896), which some think would have been his masterpiece.
Stevenson is most strongly associated with Edinburgh, a city
whose dualism he chillingly characterised in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
(1886). However far away he travelled, images of life in Edinburgh filled his mind, as he
describes vividly in the following letter to his friend, Charles Baxter from Yacht Casco,
at sea, near the Paumotus in 1888:
'Last night as I lay under my blanket in the cockpit,
courting sleep all of a sudden I had a vision of - Drummond Street. It came on me like a
flash of lightning; I simply returned thither, and into the past. And when I remembered
all that I hoped and feared as I picked about Rutherford's in the rain and the east wind:
how I feared I should be a mere shipwreck, and yet timidly hoped not; how I feared I
should never have a friend, far less a wife, and yet passionately hoped I might; how I
hoped (if I did not take to drink) I should possibly write one little book I should like
the incident set upon a brass plate at the corner of that dreary thoroughfare, for all
students to read, poor devils, when their hearts are down.'
Stevenson's most famous adventure books, Treasure Island
and Kidnapped, first published in 1883 and 1886 respectively, are regarded as
classics. His work has inspired a remarkable diversity of interpretations from book
illustrators, from Charles Robinson's intriguing art nouveau drawings for A Child's
Garden of Verses to the dreamy dark images Mervyn Peake produced for Treasure Island.
Many of Robert Louis Stevenson's books are still in print, enthralling generation after
generation, and there are several first-rate RLS biographies available.
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