Even if you have not heard of him, you will surely have at some point come across one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic works of fiction, or their famous characters. Long John Silver of Treasure Island, perhaps (pictured)? Or Doctor Henry Jekyll and his hideous alter-ego, Mr Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13th, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The son of a lighthouse designer, at the age 17 Robert enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, so he could follow in his father’s footsteps. In truth, though, lighthouse design never appealed to Stevenson, and he switched to studying law. However, this didn’t suit his spirit of adventure either, and after travelling around France with a group of artists, writers, and painters, Stevenson decided to try his hand at writing.
In 1878, his first book, An Inland Voyage, was published. It was an account of his trip from Antwerp to northern France, which he made in a canoe via the river Oise. This was followed by other travel books, including, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Stevenson also published essays and magazine articles before moving fictional works. His first book of short stories was New Arabian Nights (1882).
In 1880 he married Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee with two children. They took a three-week honeymoon near an abandoned silver mine in Napa Valley, California, which provided the inspiration for The Silverado Squatters (1883). It was during the 1880s that Stevenson’s most famous stories were written. It was also a period in which he began to suffer from declining health. He suffered from hemorrhaging lungs (probably tuberculosis), and writing was one of the few activities he could do while confined to bed. It was from his bed that Robert wrote Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Black Arrow (1888).
An upturn in Stevenson’s health meant that in 1888 he and his family could take a trip from San Francisco, California, to travel the islands of the Pacific Ocean, stopping for stays at the Hawaiian Islands. In 1889, they arrived in the Samoan islands, where they decided to build a house and settle. The island setting stimulated adventurous Stevenson’s imagination. Several of his later works are about the Pacific isles, including The Wrecker (1892), Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893), The Ebb-Tide (1894) and In the South Seas (1896).
On 3rd December 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson died of a stroke, at his home in Vailima, Samoa. He was buried in one of his favourite places; at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.