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Robert Louis Stevenson


Robert Louis Stevenson, an only child, was born in Edinburgh in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father, Thomas, was an engineer who - like his father and grandfather before him - designed lighthouses. His mother – Margaret Isabella Balfour – was daughter to a minister. Although history knows the writer as Robert Louis Stevenson those close to him always addressed him by his second name (originally spent Lewis).

Stevenson was a sickly child and health problems stayed with him throughout his life – he was only forty-four years old when he died. Stevenson packed a lot into what by modern standards would be seen as a short life. His mother was not a well woman, his father frequently worked away; Louis’ parents therefore employed Alison Cunningham, nicknamed Cummy, to look after the young boy. Their relationship was strong and in adulthood Stevenson dedicated his book A Child’s Garden of Verses to his old nanny. Cummy , a Calvinist, imparted her religious views, enforcing a strong sense of good and evil in her young charge. She would regularly read to him from Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Stevenson loved reading and particularly enjoyed the works of Sir Walter Scott - another writer who suffered illness in childhood, though Scott lived to a good age. Louis did not just read, he also wrote and produced his own magazines. His travels abroad with his parents when he was young sparked a taste for travel that would stay with him, although travel was always in part a search for warmer climes that were better for his health.

At first it seemed that Louis would follow in his father's footsteps for he went to Edinburgh University to study engineering - a profession his father considered worthwhile. Thomas Stevenson, wanting his son to be able to see the practical application of the skills he was learning, took Louis to lighthouses that were being built on Scottish shores. Louis was twenty years old when he eventually faced his father with an unpalatable truth - that engineering was not and never would be for him. Louis wanted to be a writer above and beyond anything else in life, but did follow his father's suggestion of studying law as a back-up plan should he not be able to make a living as a writer. Although he qualified for the Scottish Bar in 1875 Stevenson never used his legal skills

Breaking free of study and travelling aided Stevenson's muse. His travels from Antwerp to Paris by canoe provided rich source material for his book An Inland Voyage. Travelling through Cevennes with a donkey who had a mind of her own led to the production of Travels With A Donkey. It was in France that he first met his future wife Fanny - an American woman ten years older than Stevenson, who had two children and was separated from her husband. Their relationship was not always easy, and when she returned to America he followed her there, but the trials and tribulations of a sea voyage and a long train journey made him ill. He was, however, now free to marry Fanny as her divorce had been granted.

The genesis of Treasure Island lay in a map Louis drew for his stepson; this sparked the idea of a story for boys and was picked up for serialisation when partially written by Young Folks magazine. This book, published in 1883, was Stevenson's path to fame, and following its publication he moved to Bournemouth, looking for milder air than could be found in wind-swept Scotland. During his years in Bournemouth A Child's Garden of Verses, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde were published. The latter was first conceived in a dream, and although set in London is reminiscent of Victorian Edinburgh.

Stevenson's later years saw travel to America and Australia. In Samoa he bought land and built his own house which the family moved to in 1891 He continued to write but his health was failing, and he died of a haemorrhage in 1894. Stevenson was buried near his Samoan home, and twenty years after his death Fanny's ashes were added to the grave.


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Content copyright © 2014 by Asha Sahni. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Asha Sahni. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Asha Sahni for details.

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