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Issue 34 - National treasure

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007

 

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National treasure

Sally Toms looks at the life of celebrated Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894) was born in Edinburgh in November 1850. The Stevensons were distinguished lighthouse designers, but from an early age Robert showed an interest in literature.

An only child, Robert was intelligent but often ill; he had ‘weak lungs’ which might well have been tuberculosis. This meant he had to spend many of his formative years in bed, but it also fuelled his imagination for stories.

At the age of 11 his health had improved and his parents prepared him to follow his father as a lighthouse engineer. He attended the Edinburgh Academy and entered the University of Edinburgh at 17, but soon discovered he had neither the scientific mind nor physical endurance to succeed as an engineer. Instead Robert was something of a bohemian. He rebelled against the conventions of Edinburgh middle-class society and even changed the spelling of his name from ‘Lewis’ to the French form, ‘Louis.’ He was often to be found meandering through the streets of the Old Town in his long hair and trademark velvet coat, in search of adventure.

His father was less indulgent of Robert’s desire to embark up on a career in literature, and encouraged him to study law instead.

By the age of 25 Robert had passed the examinations for admission to the bar, though not until he had nearly ruined his health through work and worry. He left Scotland in search of a climate kinder to his health. This, coupled with his wandering nature, kept him away from his native Scotland for most of his life.

In France, Robert met his future wife Fanny Osburne; an American divorcee 10 years his senior, it caused some distress to his family when they were married in 1880.

After a year in the United States he travelled back to Britain with his new wife and stepson, and it was during a holiday in Braemar when the first chapters of Treasure Island began to take shape.

Published in 1883, the novel was an immediate success and was followed by others in the adventure genre: Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893). Darker interests emerged in the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and The Ebb-Tide (1894).

He also penned highly accomplished short stories as well as poetry, of which A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) is his best known.

After the death of his father in 1887, Robert embarked on a voyage through the South Pacific accompanied by Fanny and his widowed mother, before finally settling in Samoa. He never returned to Scotland.

Robert died on the morning of December 3, 1894, while he was working on Weir of Hermiston. During the evening, while conversing with his wife and straining to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly fell to the ground, asking: “What’s the matter with me?

What is this strangeness? Has my face changed?” He died within a few hours, probably of a cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried on the island.

A celebrity in his own lifetime, Robert Louis Stevenson was later dismissed as a populist author of children’s books. He was gradually excluded from the canon of literature taught in schools; his exclusion reached a height when in the 1973 Oxford Anthology of English Literature Stevenson was entirely unmentioned, and the Norton Anthology of English Literature excluded him from the first seven editions.

Thankfully, times and attitudes have changed and today he is duly recognised as a subtle and innovative commentator on the late Victorian scene, and as one of Scotland’s most famous sons.