Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Scottish essayist, poet, and author of fiction and travel books, known especially for his novels of adventure. Stevenson's characters often prefer unknown hazards to everyday life of the Victorian society. His most famous study of the abysmal depths of personality is THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886). Many of Stevenson's stories are set in colorful locations, they have also horror and supernatural elements. Arguing against realism, Stevenson underlined the "nameless longings of the reader", the desire for experience.
"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 appetities, 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." (from 'Aes Triplex')
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh He was the only son of Thomas Stevenson, a prosperous joint-engineer to the Board of Northern Lighthouses. He invented, among others, the marine dynamometer, which measures the force of waves. Stevenson's grandfather was Britain's greatest builder of lighthouses. Since his childhood, Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis. During his early years, he spent much of his time in bed, composing stories before he had learned to read. At the age of sixteen he produced a short historical tale. As an adult, there were times when Stevenson could not wear a jacket for fear of bringing on a haemorrhage of the lung. In 1867 he entered Edinburgh University to study engineering. Due to his ill health, he had to abandon his plans to follow in his father's footsteps. Stevenson changed to law and in 1875 he was called to the Scottish bar. By then he had already started to write travel sketches, essays, and short stories for magazines. His first articles were published in The Edinburgh University Magazine (1871) and The Portofolio (1873).
In a attempt to improve his health, Stevenson travelled on the Continent and in the Scottish Highland. However, traveling on boats was not always easy for him. In letter, written on his journey across the Atlantic in 1879, he complained: "I have a strange, rather horrible, sense of the sea before me, and can see no further into future. I can say honestly I have at this moment neither a regret, a hope, a fear or an inclination; except a mild one for a bottle of good wine which I resist". Later Stevenson spent much time in warmer countries. These experiences provided much material for his writings.
Among Stevenson's own early favorite books, which influenced his imagination and thinking, were Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dumas's adventure tale of the elderly D'Artagan, Vicomte de Bragelone, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, "a book which tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues." (from Reading in Bed, ed. by Steven Gilbar, 1995) Also Montaigne's Essais and the Gospel according to St. Matthew were very important for him.
An account of Stevenson's canoe tour of France and Belgium was published in 1878 as AN INLAND VOYAGE. It was followed by TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN THE CERVENNES "I travel for travel's sake," Stevenson wrote. "The great affair is to move." With his friend William Ernest Henley he wrote several plays. While in France Stevenson met Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, a married woman with two children, Belle and Lloyd. She returned to the United States to get a divorce. In 1879 Stevenson followed her to California where they married in 1880. After a brief stay at Calistoga, which was recorded in THE SILVERADO SQUATTERS (1883), they returned to Scotland, and then moved often in search of better climates.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.
(from Songs of Travel)
Stevenson gained first fame with the romantic adventure story TREASURE ISLAND, which appeared first serialized in Young Folks 1881-82. Before it was published in book form Stevenson revised the text. The central character is Jim Hawkins, whose mother keeps an inn near the coast in the West Country. Jim meets an old pirate, Billy Bones, who has in his possession a map showing the location of Captain Flint's treasure. Bones dies after a second visit of his enemies. Jim, his mother, and a blind man named Pew open Bones's sea chest and finds an oilskin packet, which contains the map. Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, Jim, and a small crew with Captain Smollett sail for Treasure Island. Jim discovers that the crew of the Hispaniola includes pirates, led by a personable one-legged man named Long John Silver, the cook of the ship. On a journey to the island interior, Jim encounters Ben Gunn, former shipmate of the pirates. After several adventures the pirates are defeated, Jim befriends with Long John, and the treasure is found. Jim and his friends sail back to England. Long John Silver manages to escape, taking as much gold as he can carry. The famous poem from the novel ("Fifteen men on the dead man's chest / Yo-ho-ho, and the bottle of rum!/ Drink and the devil had done for the rest - Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!) could have originally been "Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest... referring to a Caribbean Island Dead Chest. According to a tale, the notorious pirate Edward Teach left fifteen men on the island of Dead Man's Chest, with a bottle of rum and a sword.
A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES (1885) was devoted to Alison Cunningham, who was Stevenson's nurse in his childhood. The book was a success - its verses have also become popular as songs. Among Stevenson's other works from the 1880s are KIDNAPPED (1886), the story of David Balfour, his distant ancestor, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, based on a dream and written and printed in 10 weeks, THE BLACK ARROW (1888), set in the era of the War of the Roses, and MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (1889). He also contributed to various periodicals, including The Cornhill Magazine and Longman's Magazine, where his best-known article 'A Humble Remonstrance' was published in 1884. It was a replay to Henry James's 'The Art of Fiction' and started a lifelong friendship between the two authors. Stevenson saw that the novel is a selection of and reorganization of certain aspects of life - "life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate."
In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde is gradually revealed through the narratives of Mr Enfield, Mr Utterson, Dr Lanyon, and Jekyll's butler Poole. Utterson, Jekyll's lawyer, discovers that the nasty Mr. Hyde is the heir of Dr. Jekyll's fortune. Hyde is suspected of a murder. Utterson and Poole break into Jekyll's laboratory and find the lifeless Hyde. Two documents explain the mystery: Jekyll's old friend, the late Dr. Lanyon, tells that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. In his own account Jekyll tells that to separate the good and evil aspects of his nature, he invented a transforming drug. His evil self takes the form of the repulsive Mr Hyde. Jekyll's supplies of drugs run out and he finds himself slipping involuntarily into being Hyde. Jekyll kills himself, but the last words of the confession are written by his alter ego: "Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Dr. Jekyll to an end." The story has been considered an criticism of Victorian double morality, but it can be read as a comment on Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species - Dr. Jekyll turns in his experiment the evolution backwards and reveals the primitive background of a cultured human being. Henry James admired Stevenson's "genuine feeling for the perpetual moral question, a fresh sense of the difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being bad". ('Robert Louis Stevenson' by Henry James in Century Magazine 35, April 1888) Modern readers have set the story against Freudian sexual theories and the split in man's psyche between ego and instinct.- Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has become an icon of popular culture and adapted among others into screen over 20 times. The story of double personality and metamorphosis appealed strongly to Victorian readers. The novel was partly based on Stevenson's and W.E. Henley's play DEACON BRODIA (1880), where an Edinburgh councilor is publicly respectable person but privately a thief and rakehell. The basic theme of true identity have attracted such writers as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818), Hans Christian Andersen ('The Ugly Duckling', 1845), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, 1866), Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1897), Franz Kafka ('Metamorphosis', 1915).
From the late 1880s Stevenson lived with his family in the South Seas, where he had purchased an estate in Vailima, Samoa. During this Stevenson enjoyed a period of comparative good health. With his stepson Lloyd Osbourne he wrote THE WRONG BOX (1889) and other works. He had nearly 20 servants and was known as 'Tusitala' or 'Teller of the Tales'. The writer himself translated it 'Chief White Information.' Fanny was called 'Flying Cloud' - perhaps referring to her restlessness. She had also suffered a mental breakdown in 1893.
In his short story 'The Bottle Imp', set on the island of Hawaii, Stevenson asked the question, does a sudden luck of fortune wipe out one's problems. Keawe, a poor man, buy's a bottle, tempered in the flames of hell. An imp lives inside it and is at the buyer's command fulfilling all desires. "'Here am I now upon my high place,' he said to himself. 'Life may be no better; this is the mountain top; and all shelves about me toward the worse. For the first time I will light up the chambers, and bathe in my fine bath with the hot water and the cold, and sleep above in the bed of my bridal chamber.'" Fascinated by the Polynesian culture, Stevenson wrote several letters to The Times on the islanders' behalf and published novels ISLAND NIGHTS' ENTERTAINMENTS (1893), which contains his famous story 'The Beach of Falesá', and THE EBB-TIDE (1894), which condemned the European colonial exploitation.
Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Vailima. His last work, WEIR OF HERMISTON (1896), was left unfinished, but is considered his masterpiece. Stevenson's best-known work of horror, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has since his death inspired several sequels by other hands, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes by Loren D. Estelman (1979), Jekyll, Alias Hyde: A Variation by Donald Thomas (1988), The Jekyll Legacy by Robert Bloch and Andre Norton (1990) and Mary Reilly by Valrie Matin (1990).