Robert Louis Stevenson
...the Scottish novelist who, despite being plagued by nightmares and tuberculosis, traveled the world in search of action and adventure.
Romantic adventure on the high seas, defying his parents to follow his dreams, intrigue and danger on a paradise island... The real life adventures of author Robert Louis Stevenson rival those of his famous fictional characters.
After a sickly childhood spent in the bosom of his strict, religious, provincial, middle-class family, he rebelled. Refusing to follow his father into the family lighthouse-construction business, he opted for a literary career, married a gun-toting American pioneer divorcee, and traveled to France, America and the South Pacific.
Stevenson was an atheist and free spirit whose Bohemian lifestyle brought him in contact with troubadours and misfits, who provided inspiration for many of his characters. And in Samoa, where he died, he fought in a civil war in support of the natives' fight for independence. His battles to protect his house there echoed the defense of the stockade by Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island.
Robert Lewis (later 'Louis') Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in November 1850. His father, Thomas Stevenson, belonged to a family of engineers who had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland. His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, came from a family of lawyers and church ministers. In 1857, the family moved to 17 Heriot Row, a solid, respectable house in Edinburgh's New Town.
The young Stevenson was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, despite ill health. At the age of 17, he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, but his heart was not in it and he switched to law. He qualified as an advocate in 1875, but did not practice since by now he knew he wanted to be a writer.
He also rebelled against the conventions of Edinburgh middle-class society. He changed the spelling of his name from Lewis to the French form, Louis, and, wearing his famous velvet coat, he explored all aspects of the life which the city of Edinburgh presented, turning from the New Town to the Old in search of Bohemianism and adventure.
During university's summer vacations he traveled to France, where he met Fanny, the love of his life -- a modern American woman of the time, 10 years his senior. Fanny rolled her own cigarettes and was a crackshot with a Colt pistol. She was also married with two children. Despite his parents' disapproval, Stevenson followed Fanny to America (nearly dying on the journey), and persuaded her to divorce her husband and marry him.
A return to Scotland and a family holiday in the Highlands a year later, with a young stepson to entertain, provided the inspiration for Stevenson's first major writing breakthrough -- Treasure Island. He came up with the idea for the story while painting a treasure map and the character of Long John Silver was drawn from his best friend and literary agent William Henley (who had lost a leg to tuberculosis). Long John Silver became the icon for all future pirates of fiction.
But it was his next book that really put Stevenson on the literary map.
Professor Robert Winston, meanwhile, believes he has found the inspiration for Stevenson's famous tale of good versus evil. According to the TV presenter (who chairs the House of Lords select committee on science and technology), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by Stevenson while he was being treated with a derivative of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus.
In Bournemouth, partially fuelled by drugs and a dream, Stevenson embarked on his darkest work -- the definitive novel on the duality of man. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr. Hyde came out at the same time as the Jack the Ripper murders, and a Jekyll and Hyde frenzy swept the UK and America. The phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" even entered the English language.
Still in genteel Bournemouth, Stevenson went on to finish his next big success. Kidnapped was a blockbuster novel of dramatic adventure, abduction and life on the run in the wilds of Scotland. But Stevenson felt trapped by suburbia and, at the top of his career, the family left Britain for good in 1887, bound for the Pacific Islands on a beautiful sailing schooner.
On the voyage, they encountered storms and met cannibals, and then Stevenson fell in love with Samoa. The tropical climate was beneficial to his health, but the local politics were the opposite. With his family settled there, Stevenson continued to write, but also took up the cause of the natives, supporting a local chieftain -- with whom Stevenson drew parallels with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites -- over the 'puppet' king installed by the Germans. Civil war broke out and the Stevenson clan had to defend their home, much like the stockade featured in Treasure Island.
Eventually, the war was over. While in Samoa, Stevenson felt increasingly homesick and started writing a book celebrating the engineering feats of his family. "Whenever I smell sea water, I know that I am not far from one of the works of my ancestors. And when the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father."
For Stevenson, it should have been a time to enjoy his paradise idyll, but, in 1894, he died, ironically from a brain hemorrhage rather than the lung problems which had beset him throughout his life. He was just 44 years old. The Samoan natives, who were devoted to Stevenson, cut a track through the jungle to create a resting place for him on top of the mountain above his beloved Vailima estate.
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