Robert Louis Stevenson
No one needs to be told what Treasure Island is about. Robert Louis Stevenson's novel has defined the pirate story, not to mention the treasure-hunting story.... more
The most surprising thing about Stevenson's horror story if you had previously known the Jekyll and Hyde characters only indirectly through popular culture is that the story's.... more
Robert Louis Stevenson
The ever-young adventurer
Do people still grow up reading Robert Louis Stevenson? His adventures were staples of my own youth because my parents had some of his old books around the house, but I recall even then that my reading friends were into more current books in which long-past British and Scottish customs and expressions did not have to be puzzled out. Now in the era of Harry Potter, I suspect the exploits of lads from centuries ago are not exactly engrossing for adolescents.
Of all Stevenson's once immensely popular novels, only Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seems poised to remain a classic for eternity, mainly as a horror story. To a lesser degree his Treasure Island lives on as the archetypal pirate story, helped by repeated movie treatments.
Too bad really, because Stevenson wrote some wonderful stuff. Not only have previous generations of young and old thrilled to his tales, but he laid down many of the structures that have gone into making great popular fiction ever since. Many of today's "modern classics" are based on elements first popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson. He had an incredibly diverse, prolific and innovative output for a writer who died so young.
Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis since his childhood in Edinburgh and spent much of his time in bed as a youth, making up stories before he could read. He studied law at Edinburgh University but instead of practising as a lawyer he went abroad for his health and wrote travel pieces, essays and short stories for magazines. His first two books were travel accounts. Other non-fiction based on his personal experiences followed, but in 1882 four stories he had written in the 1870s were published under the title New Arabian Nights. These fantastic and macabre tales are considered by many the earliest short stories of note in British literary history.
However Treasure Island (1883) was his first big popular success. His first novel began with a map of a "Treasure Island" he drew to amuse his stepson on a rainy day while on holidays. It grew into a serialized story in a youth periodical and then into book form to become the beloved story of pirates and treasure-seeking adventure, creating the enduring character of Long John Silver.
It was followed by the equally popular collection A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), including delightful poems that have been set to music and have come down to the present day. His second novel, Prince Otto (1885), was a psychological fantasy taking place in the fictional state of Grünewald.
But Stevenson called on his own upbringing in Scotland for his next adventure in Kidnapped (1886). This is a sprawling thriller with a young orphan, David Balfour, battling piratical sailors, fleeing the law across the wild Highlands as a falsely suspected murderer, and maneuvering among scarcely understood political intrigues of the time. A lesser known romantic sequel, Catriona (sometimes called David Balfour), was produced in 1893.
The same year as Kidnapped, Stevenson published the famous novella (or long story) Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which a personality is split in two by science—into the respectable Victorian doctor and the brutish hell-raiser Hyde. (Stevenson pronounced the first name like JEE-kyl, by the way, not JECK-le as it's come down to us in movies.) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story susceptible to many psychological interpretations, and perhaps Stevenson's most philosophically sophisticated fiction.
Around this time, Stevenson also wrote many shorter stories, often in a macabre vein recalling Edgar Allan Poe, including "The Body-Snatcher" and "Markheim", which takes Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as a model. Some of Stevenson's contemporaries, notably Arthur Conan Doyle, thought it would be for his short fiction that he would be remembered.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde made Stevenson's fortune and he bought a South Seas island to which he retired to spend the rest of his days quietly, in writing, taking opium and sending letters to newspapers attacking British colonialism.
Many more stories, novels, memoirs and plays appeared over the next several years, including The Black Arrow (1888), an adventure set in the War of the Roses. The Master of Ballantrae (1889) is an adult tale of two brothers—one good and one evil—that some consider Stevenson's best work.
The Wrong Box (1889) was co-written with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. It's a darkly comic tale of mistaken identity (made into a very funny movie in 1966 with Michael Caine, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Ralph Richardson).
His most acclaimed work of this time though is the novella The Beach of Falesá (1892), which was slashed by editors for its depiction of supposed island immorality.
One of the most noteworthy works of Stevenson's latter years is the last to be published during his lifetime, The Ebb-Tide (1894), also co-written with Osbourne. The novella presages both Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and The Heart of Darkness, as well as incorporates some of the features of Stevenson's own adventure tales, though it is far darker and grislier than any of them. This great story has been made into several film and television features.
Stevenson was working on The Weir of Hermiston when he died of a brain hemorrhage, possibly as a result of his drug use, at age forty-four. Published posthumously and unfinished, this novel also is considered by some critics to be his masterpiece.