Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson, Robert Louis (13 November 1850 - 3 December 1894)
Stevenson, the Scottish novelist, poet, and essayist who was born in Edinburg, was the son of Thomas Stevenson, joint-engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses. A sickly child, he let his imagination soar and wrote A Child's Garden of Verses, a work that evokes a universal feeling about childhood. When he was around 18, he changed the spelling of his name from "Lewis" to "Louis." He was unable to follow his father’s strenuous profession and, although he studied law and was admitted as an advocate in 1875, Stevenson was fascinated by Edinburgh low life and cultivated a Bohemian life style.
In 1875 he met the author of “Invictus,” William Ernest Henley, who was hospitalized after having a foot amputated, and the two collaborated on several plays, none of which had much success. Another friend was Charles Baxter, with whom he drank in pubs and grimy dives frequented by sailors. Baxter, “the only person I ever knew who could advise,” was the one to whom he confided about his problems at home, specifically how his early rejection of Christianity created a schism with his father, a fanatical Scots Presbyterian, who raged at his son. In a letter to Baxter, Stevenson confided,
- The thunderbolt has fallen with a vengeance now. You know the aspect of a house in which somebody is still waiting burial - the quiet step - the hushed voices and rare conversation - the religious literature that holds a temporary monopoly - the grim, wretched faces; all is here reproduced in this family circle in honour of my (what is it?) atheism or blasphemy. On Friday night after leaving you, in the course of conversation, my father put me one or two questions as to beliefs, which I candidly answered. I really hate all lying so much now. . . but if I had foreseen the real Hell of everything since, I think I should have lied as I have done so often before. . . . I do not think I am thus justly to be called a “ 'orrible atheist” and I confess I cannot exactly swallow my father’s purpose of praying down continuous afflictions on my head.
Stevenson left on a visit to his cousin Maud Babington. She was married to a clergyman in Suffolk, and Stevenson’s letters at this time indicate that he fell in love with Frances Sitwell, who was estranged from her husband and had recently lost her older son. To her he confided about the rift with his parents as well as his moods, his fears, his thoughts about writing.
He began contributing to leading magazines. He also traveled despite frail health. A walking trip in France produced Travels with a Donkey in Cervenne (1878). His first novel, An Island Voyage (1878), was followed by Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped.
Stevenson specialized in adventure and often dipped into the macabre, explaining,
- But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.
Much of his life was spent traveling in search of health, for he suffered from a chronic bronchial condition (possibly tuberculosis). In France in 1876 he met his future wife, the American Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, whom he married after her divorce in 1880. She was ten years his senior and cared for him through many bouts of serious illness. The two sailed to Samoa in 1888 with his widowed mother as part of the entourage. He settled in Samoa at Vailima, where he temporarily regained his health and gained a reputation as “Tusitala,” or the story teller. While working on unfinished masterpieces, Weir of Hermiston (published 1896) and St. Ives (published 1897), Stevenson died from a brain hemorrhage.
(See a complete bibliography of his works.)
Two biographers have concluded that Stevenson, while not wishing to affiliate with rationalist groups, was an agnostic. Biographer F. Watt (R.L.S., 1913) wrote that Stevenson "was destitute of fixed creed or belief, and that he is properly described as an Agnostic." A. Johnson, in R. L. Stevenson in the Pacific, quoted Stevenson as having written,
- I am religious in my own way, but I am hardly brave enough to interpose a theory of my own between life and death. Here both our creeds and our philosophies seem to me to fail.
Claire Harman's Robert Louis Stevenson (2005) has been discussed by Jane Stevenson in The Observer as being "long on facts but short on real insight." The work mentions "his oddly effeminate self-presentation and his attractiveness to homosexuals, but there is nothing here about the far more profound ambiguities which attend a Scottish master of English prose."
Stevenson and homosexuality are discussed by some, who point to his knowing Oscar Wilde and to Enfield's using "Black Mail House" and "Queer Street" as a name and as an address in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
- The Union Jack that flew over Vailima was brought and laid over him, and the Samoans passed in solemn processions, each kneeling and kissing the hand of their friend and master. The next day, Samoan chiefs came and spread fine mats on him till the Union Jack was hidden beneath them. The chiefs remained all night beside him, in silence. By the flashing light of torches, 200 Samoans hacked a path up the side of the mountain, while the men of the household dug the grave on the summit. Then up the steep path, with the ensign of the Casco laid over it, came the coffin, carried shoulder high by powerful Samoans. The Samoan chiefs forbade the use of firearms on the mountain, after Robert Louis Stevenson was laid to rest on its summit, so that the birds, undisturbed, might sing about his grave.
Stevenson died of a brain hemorrhage. At a height of some 1,500 feet, on the summit of Mount Vaea, Stevenson’s body lies in a cement-block tomb which is topped by a plinth. A bronze plaque on one side bears the words “The Tomb of Tusitala” and a biblical passage. On the other side, a bronze plaque is inscribed with the words of Stevenson’s “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 long'd to be;
- Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
- And the hunter home from the hill.
In 1994, the first two volumes of The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson were published. The 2,800 letters in eight volumes included one love letter that referred to what was an admission of physically unrequited passion and included, “I believe in you as others believe in the Bible.” Tusitala, the teller of tales, was how Stevenson was called by Samoans, who seldom used his given name. He had lived in a sprawling, two-story villa at Valima.