When it comes to the literary legacy of Robert Louis Stevenson, he is remembered not just for his poems. Books such as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island brought him fame. We must not forget the beautiful poems he wrote.
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. He was the son of lighthouse engineer Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Isabella Balfour. At the age of eighteen years old, he changed from Lewis to Louis. He stopped using the name Balfour not long after this change.
This Scottish writer, poet and musician was named after his famous grandfather: the famous civil engineer Robert Stevenson (1772 – 1850). His grandfather was responsible for the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, off the coast of Angus (Scotland).
The Balfour family had a different profession, dating back to Lewis Balfour (1777-1860), in the Church of Scotland. Lewis was the minister there. Just like her father, Lewis suffered from weak lungs. This made the family move to another part of the city. Unfortunately for Robert, he was still ill many times during the period until his eleventh birthday. Most probably he suffered bronchitis or maybe sarcoidosis. There are other clues this sickness might have been a misjudged case of tuberculosis.
Religion played a role of importance during Stevenson’s childhood. When he was sick, he was being read from the Bible instead of children’s books. As he grew up, this weak odd looking child fell out of place. As he was ill many times, he had private teachers to help him with his school work. It didn’t help him to start reading. He was at the age of eight when he was able to read for the first time. From that moment, he started writing stories. At first, his father was very proud of his son. Later, as he began to write more, his father told him to stop doing that. There was a sense of fear that Stevenson Jr. would show other interests than the family business. His father assumed that his son would take up the same work career as he did. Still, at the age of sixteen, his father decided to pay for Robert’s first publication about the Covenanters. This was a group of Scottish Presbyterians, who played an important role in the history of Scotland. The movement was named after the agreement they signed and was a reference to the Covenant between God and the Israelites as described in the Old Testament of the Bible. As it was about a religious group, this was the reason that his father decided to fund this.
This first publication would mark the start of his writing career. In 1873, he would meet his cousin in England. This visit also marked the introduction to Sidney Colvin and Frances “Fanny” Jane Sitwell. Sitwell was a 34-year old woman, who Stevenson showed interest in. For a few years, they would correspond using letters. The romance was probably one-sided, as Sitwell would eventually get involved with someone else. Colvin played an important role in the early writing career of Stevenson, as he introduced him to many people. Colvin would also become his literary advisor and after Stevenson’s death, he would be the editor of the many letters Stevenson wrote.
In London, Stevenson was introduced to people such as Andrew Lang, Leslie Stephen and Edmund Gosse. People who meant something in the literary world at that time. It was Stephen who was very interested in the literary aspirations of Stevenson. He was the editor of the Cornhill Magazine and introduced him to William Ernest Henley. It is most likely that Henley was the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Henley was at that time treated in the Edinburgh Infirmary and had indeed a wooden leg. Their friendship was born, but an argument broke it off in 1888.
Meanwhile, Stevenson suffered health issues and the doctors advised him to turn to a warmer place. He went to Menton at the French Riviera. In 1874, he returned and began a new study. France kept tempting him to come back, as he did many times. He finished his Law study in 1875, but would never use his title for work. He wanted to write.
In 1876 he met Fanny van der Grift Osbourne. She was an American who he met in Grez. Osbourne was at that time separated from her husband after his infidelity. She studied art in France and had three children from her former marriage. Stevenson would follow her after they spend a year together in France, to the United States. This was against the advice of his family and friends. From New York, he travelled to California and this nearly killed him. He married the one he searched for and they would travel back home eventually. Upon returning home, he again suffered health issues. This didn’t stop him from writing his famous book Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide. But it was in France where he wrote the book that would bring him even more fame: Treasure Island. After his father died in 1887, he decided to follow up on the advice of his doctors. He moved, together with his mother, wife and her kids, to Colorado (US). He tried to visit Scotland two times but aborted the attempts. In 1890, he visits the island Upolu in Samoa. Here he saw that the European colonisation of this island wasn’t good for the natives. His protests about the conditions the natives lived in, caused an argument with the local officials. He was deported from the island.
Soon after his return, he would suffer from depression. He found himself not able to write anymore. He feared that his health would turn against him, leaving him dependent on others. On December 3, 1894, he suddenly asked his wife, whilst opening a bottle, what was wrong with his face. He died soon after saying these final words. He was only 44 years old at that time. Even though he was deported from Samoa, he would return there after his death to be buried. His tomb contained the following inscription, his own Requiem:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Unfortunately, this was a wrong interpretation of his words, as the sentence
Home is the sailor, home from sea
Home is the sailor, home from the sea.