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Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson wearing his famous black velvet jacket
Robert Louis Stevenson in deep thought portrait

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850. The only child of Thomas and Margaret “Maggie” Stevenson, he went by Louis (eventually adopting the French spelling and dropping Balfour). Thomas Stevenson came from a prosperous and famous family of Scottish lighthouse engineers; Margaret’s father, Lewis Balfour, was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Sickly and imaginative from childhood, Stevenson’s long periods of convalescence and immersive play with his many maternal cousins were formative and memorably represented in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). Stevenson dedicated the volume to his childhood nurse Alison Cunningham or “Cummy” who joined the household when he was two and left when he was fourteen. Cummy’s fire and brimstone instruction couldn’t have helped young Louis’s nightmares, but she also helped shape his early love of story and stayed up with him through long nights of childhood illness and fear. Stevenson retained a strong affection for Cummy throughout his life and dedicated A Child’s Garden of Verses to her. His education included private tutoring and several stints in formal school, which were often cut short by poor health.


In 1867, Stevenson enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. While there, he joined a debating society, missed a lot of lectures, established a college magazine with friends, and wrote personal essays for it. Expected to continue in the family business, he studied engineering and spent his summers training along Scotland’s coastlines from Fife and the Hebrides to the northernmost parts of the country—experiences that provided material for his essays and settings for his fiction. In April of 1871, he finally told his father that he wanted to be a writer rather than an engineer. As a fallback, he agreed to study law. In 1873, Stevenson published his first essay in a professional journal, had a painful clash with his parents over his loss of Christian faith, and was sent by doctor’s orders to the south of France to recover from illness and nervous exhaustion. In 1875, he completed his studies and passed the Scottish Bar. Over the next several years, he took multiple long-distance walking tours through Scotland, northern England, and France along with a canoeing trip through France and Belgium.


In the fall of 1876, he stayed in Grez-sur-Loing in a bohemian community of painters. There he met Fanny Osbourne: an American woman who was in France with her children to study painting and have time away from her unfaithful husband in California. Within weeks of meeting Fanny, Stevenson began work on an essay called “On Falling in Love.” Three years later he was boarding a ship for New York and a train to California, determined to marry her. Fanny divorced her husband Sam Osbourne in December of 1879 and she and Stevenson were married the following May in San Francisco. The couple honeymooned in an abandoned mining camp above Napa Valley, recounted in Stevenson’s memoir The Silverado Squatters. In August of 1880, they traveled back to the UK. They moved around between Great Britain and continental Europe for the next three years, spending two winters in Davos, Switzerland and one in France. Stevenson relished his new parental role, having never fully outgrown childhood play. He and Lloyd waged weeks-long toy soldier campaigns, dutifully reported in their own newspaper. During a rainy stay in Braemar, Scotland in 1881, Stevenson tried to entertain the twelve-year-old Lloyd with paint and paper. Out of Stevenson’s “doodlings” emerged a map. He labeled it “Treasure Island” and was soon writing out a list of chapters for a new book, with its central character Jim Hawkins about the same age as Lloyd. While in Davos, Stevenson wrote poems and carved wood block illustrations for Lloyd’s personal publication on his toy printing press.


From 1884 to 1887, Stevenson was in particularly bad health and the family moved to the seaside health resort of Bournemouth. He was often too sick to leave the house during these years. His father Thomas Stevenson purchased a house, presented as a wedding gift for Fanny, which they called Skerryvore after the famous Stevenson lighthouse. Though Stevenson was ill and often wrote from bed, the Bournemouth years were very productive. While there, he wrote and published A Child’s Garden of Verses, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which, as his essay “A Chapter on Dreams” relates, began as a nightmare. The novella would change Stevenson’s status from a popular and well-respected author to an international literary sensation. Stevenson’s father died in May of 1887. Three months later, Stevenson’s household left for New York, joined by his mother Maggie.


Click here for an account of Stevenson’s time in New York and Saranac Lake.


In June of 1888, Stevenson and his family left New York for California and boarded the yacht Casco for a seven-month cruise of the Pacific Islands, ending in Honolulu. After five months in Hawaii, they took another cruise of nearly six months en route to Samoa. Stevenson purchased a large property in Apia called Vailima where he lived with Fanny, her children, son-in-law, grandson, and his mother, Maggie. Stevenson’s health seemed to improve again in the Pacific islands, where, in addition to writing fiction and South Sea chronicles, he sailed, rode, walked, weeded, and swam. Lloyd was now a man in his twenties and began collaborating with his step-father in earnest, co-authoring The Wrong Box (1889), The Wrecker (1892), and The Ebb-Tide (1894) during these years. His step-daughter Belle worked as his “amanuensis,” transcribing to his dictation when he couldn’t physically write himself. In June of 1893, war broke out between the Samoan chiefs Mataafa and the Laupepa, who had the backing of the German Empire. Stevenson lobbied for peace and Samoan self-rule, backing Mataafa and his allies, whom he visited and supplied with goods while the political prisoners were incarcerated. When the chiefs were finally released, they built a road connecting Stevenson’s house at Vailima to the public road to thank him for his assistance during their imprisonment. They called it the Road of the Loving Heart. On 3 December 1894, he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried on the nearby summit of Mount Vaea. He was a prolific writer to the end, working on his unfinished The Weir of Hermiston, which he felt would be his best novel, on the day he died. 

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