Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of Margaret Balfour Stevenson and Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer. The formative years of Stevenson’s life were influenced by his father’s emphasis on duty and responsibility, and his mother’s warm affection.
These two forces played a great part in the development of both Stevenson’s personal attitudes and the themes and topics of his writing. He tended to rebel against the stern old-world rigors of Scottish culture and to appreciate deeply the warmth and sympathy of human affection. His poor health intensified his desire to escape the cold and the austere; Stevenson contracted tuberculosis when a child and was intermittently ill for the rest of his life. The first sign of true rebellion, at first not revealed to his parents but later causing a rupture with his father, was his disaffection for the strict tenets of the Calvinistic tradition of his family. The next was his decision to discontinue the study of engineering, a program he had entered at Edinburgh University in 1867 to please his father. Stevenson’s desire to please the people he cared for had prompted him to undertake the study of law in 1871, but his principal enthusiasm was writing. He decided to teach himself to write and published a historical essay when he was only sixteen.
Stevenson’s mode of self-instruction has caused considerable discussion among critics and biographers. By his own admission, Stevenson was a “sedulous ape” of writers whose styles he admired, including William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Daniel Defoe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Because he believed that style was an artificial achievement that should look easy and natural, he asserted that imitating great stylists provided the best writing instruction.
Probably the main literary influence on him, though, was Sir Walter Scott, with whom Stevenson has been frequently compared. Stevenson resembled Scott (who was lame) in having a physical infirmity that caused him to love adventure, and in enjoying the study of Scottish history, an interest Stevenson incorporated in several of his best-known works.
His love of adventure and travel led Stevenson, after his graduation from law school in 1875, to roam the world. His first major trip took him through parts of France and Belgium; it was in France that he met Fanny Osbourne, the woman who was to become his wife. His love for Osbourne, who was separated from her husband and soon divorced him, drew Stevenson to California, where he married her in 1880. Ten years older than Stevenson, Fanny became a stabilizing force in his restless life. She traveled with him and cared for him during his periods of sickness.
The rest of Stevenson’s life was devoted to travel-to Europe, to America, and then to the South Seas-and writing. A versatile writer, he composed short stories, novels, travel books, essays, poems, and plays for a varied audience. Stevenson’s broad appeal compensated for the lack of depth and substance that some critics noted in his writing.
Stevenson left England and Scotland and settled in Samoa in 1890, soon earning the nickname “Tusitala,” or “teller of tales.” After several productive years at his estate, he died suddenly, from apoplexy, on December 3, 1894. Stevenson’s tomb stands atop a mountain on Samoa overlooking the Pacific.
Throughout his brief life, Stevenson never wavered from his conviction that, despite hardship and disappointment, one must live as fully and courageously as possible. The vitality of his life and his writings reflects this ideal.