Robert Louis Stevenson died on the 3rd of December, 1894.
Robert Lewis ‘Louis’ Balfour Stevenson was a bit of a wimp, but he sure as heck could write an adventure story. Too sickly to realistically contemplate following the family tradition of building lighthouses, this non-Lighthouse Stevenson compromised by agreeing to study for a law degree. However, he had always wanted to be a professional writer and that, to the joy of millions around the world, then and now, is what he became.
If you’ve never read any of his books, shame on you, but you may well have seen a dramatisation of one or two of them; on television or in the movies or even on the stage. He was the author of ‘Treasure Island’ published in 1882, the macabre thriller ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, which appeared in 1886, ‘Kidnapped’, also from the same year and, in 1886, whilst in America, he began writing ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, which is set in both that country and Scotland. His last book was the unfinished masterpiece, ‘Weir of Hermiston’, set in 19th Century Edinburgh and the Lammermuir Hills. That was written while Stevenson was in exile in Samoa, where he made his home after having scoured the South Seas trying to find a climate that would be conducive to allaying the symptoms of his tuberculosis. In the tropical climate of Samoa, Stevenson’s thoughts often turned to Edinburgh and he wrote a sequel to ‘Kidnapped’ in 1893, called ‘Catriona’.
Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on the 13th of November, 1850, and at the age of eighteen, he dropped the ‘Balfour’ from his name, changed the spelling of ‘Lewis’ to ‘Louis’, and began to refer to himself as ‘RLS’. He produced his first story, a short historical tale, at the age of sixteen and by the time he was called to the bar, he had already started to write travel sketches, essays, and short stories for magazines. His first articles were published in ‘The Edinburgh University Magazine’ and ‘The Portofolio’. Stevenson sometimes wrote in the Scottish vernacular, including a number of poems and the story of ‘Thrawn Janet’. His first book was ‘An Inland Voyage’, an account of his journey through Belguim and France in a canoe designed by John MacGregor, who was largely responsible for popularising canoeing as a sport across Europe.
In Edinburgh, Stevenson led an unconventional, bohemian lifestyle, matched by his daringly long hair and eccentric appearance. In 1879, he published ‘Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes’. Giving a fascinating insight into the Edinburgh of another era, it is amongst the most vivid and personal of his books. It’s a kind of guide book mixed with social commentary and contains controversial views of his native city. So much so in fact, that Stevenson was moved to add a footnote to the first chapter in response to criticism. In closing that first chapter, he had written “By all the canons of romance, the place demands to be half deserted and leaning towards decay; …but these citizens …are altogether out of key. Chartered tourists, they make free with historic localities, and rear their young among the most picturesque sites with a grand human indifference. To see them thronging by, in their neat clothes and conscious moral rectitude, and with a little air of possession that verges on the absurd, is not the least striking feature of the place”.
His footnote added “These sentences have, I hear, given offence in my native town, and a proportionable pleasure to our rivals of Glasgow. I confess the news caused me both pain and merriment. May I remark, as a balm for wounded fellow- townsmen, that there is nothing deadly in my accusations? … And let them console themselves - they do as well as anybody else; the population of (let us say) Chicago would cut quite as rueful a figure on the same romantic stage. To the Glasgow people I would say only one word, but that is of gold; I have not yet written a book about Glasgow”.
Stevenson’s attitude to his writing is illustrated in various prefaces and dedications, often to his friend and financial agent, Charles Baxter. His wife wrote the preface to what must be for lovers of Scotland’s history, Stevenson’s masterpiece. That of course, is ‘Kidnapped’, which wraps the tale of the fictitious David Balfour in the events of the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, during his flight around and across Scotland in the company of historical figures such as Alan Breck Stewart. Fanny wrote in that preface that her husband had the idea of writing a story that would turn on the ‘Appin murder’ and that he gleaned much valuable material for his novel from a book about the trial of James Stewart in Aucharn in Duror of Appin for the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure. She also wrote that apart from having described Alan Breck as “smallish in stature”, Stevenson seemed to have taken Stewart’s personal appearance, right down to his clothing, directly from that book. I guess we can forgive that level of plagiarism – and mine, because the copyright has long since expired.
Whilst in France, prior to writing ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’, Stevenson fell in love with a married American woman, called Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, who was ten years his elder and had two children. When she returned to California to get a divorce, Stevenson followed after her in 1879 and they were married in San Francisco, in 1880. From the late 1880s, Stevenson lived with his family on an estate he had purchased in Vailima, in Samoa, where the servants used to call him ‘Tusitala’ (‘Teller of Tales’).
Robert Lewis ‘Louis’ Balfour Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage at Vailima on the 3rd of December, 1894. His grave on Mt. Vaea in Samoa carries the following quotation from his tale, ‘Old Mortality’, which was published in 1884: “Here he lies where he longed to be; home is the sailor, home from sea, and the hunter home from the hill”.