Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. He was dearly fond of his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), who deeply influenced the young Stevenson. He was also closer to his mother than was common for people of that time and income; they may have understood each other better because both suffered from ill health. Stevenson was an avid reader and began writing at an early age. He wrote essays and sketches for various magazines and newspapers, and in 1878 published his first book, An Inland Voyage, based on his 1876 canoe trip through France.
In 1879 Stevenson traveled to the United States. This voyage not only symbolically liberated him from Great Britain and his parents, but allowed him to pursue Fanny Van de Grift, an American woman. He married her a year later.
It was the publication of Treasure Island that made Stevenson known as a serious writer. The novel began as an attempt to amuse his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, by drawing a map of an imaginary island. Serialized and published as a book two years later, the novel was well received. Even so, it was not until the publication of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Stevenson found fame.
The story began with a nightmare that the author had while the Stevensons were living in Bournemouth, England (then a fashionable seaside health resort), in a house which his father had given to Mrs. Stevenson. Stevenson had been working too hard with a collaborator and had fallen ill. One night, Fanny was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, she awakened him. He said angrily, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” The first draft was finished in three days, and read aloud to his wife and stepson. According to young Lloyd, after Fanny’s criticism Stevenson threw the manuscript into the fire and re-wrote it in three days; apparently he looked more refreshed afterwards than he had for some time.
Ill health plagued Stevenson throughout his life. Much of the energy he needed for writing was taken up by an ongoing battle with tuberculosis. To his friend George Meredith, Stevenson wrote in 1893: For fourteen years I have not had a day’s real health; I have wakened sick and gone to bed weary; and I have done my work unflinchingly. I have written in bed, written in sickness, written torn by coughing, written when my head swam for weakness-and the battle goes on-ill or well, is a trifle; so as it goes. I was made for a contest and the Powers have so willed that my battlefield should be this dingy, unglorious one of the bed and the psychic battle.
For twenty years, Stevenson produced nearly 400 pages per year despite his illness. He wrote many short stories in addition to his novels, and contributed essays and sketches to many periodicals. He also traveled extensively, searching for a climate that would improve his health. He made good use of his traveling experiences and observations in his writing.
Stevenson set out for the South Seas in 1888. A year later, he settled in Samoa. He died there in 1894, after a brief period of good health, at age 44.