On November 13, 1850 Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born into a family of engineers who designed, constructed and inspected lighthouses along the Scottish coasts. His grandfather was famous for his lighthouse improvements.
Young Stevenson was expected to follow in the family profession, but he first had to survive his childhood, for he had “weak lungs” and was often bedridden with painful breathing problems – which may or may not have been due to a form of tuberculosis.
He loved stories, both those told at his sick bed and those he read, and at an early age he began writing. As a child he was enrolled at several schools, but health problems kept him out of the classroom most of the time, so much of his early education came from private tutors. When he was able to do so he would take sea voyages with his father on inspection tours. The workings of the lighthouses didn’t interest him, but he loved to be out on the water.
The only occupation he wanted was to be a writer but at the age of seventeen, to please his parents, he began studying engineering at Edinburgh University. After three years he refused to continue his studies, and though his father gave up on his only son becoming an engineer he insisted on a backup career for him. Stevenson studied law and was called to the Scottish bar at age twenty-five, but he never practiced law.
When he was about twenty he changed the spelling of one middle name, and dropped the use of Balfour – his mother’s maiden name. From then on he would be Robert Louis Stevenson. This was just one of his decisions that didn’t please his family.
The Stevensons were wealthy professionals who adhered to the social conventions of their state in life. Robert Louis Stevenson was brilliant, hard working (despite physical limitations), compassionate, and kind to all he met. He was also an eccentric who apparently didn’t understand why his appearance and behavior was considered outlandish.
He’d always been too thin and, starting as a young man, he grew his hair long. He tended to dress in miss-matched clothing, topped with a long ulster coat. Strangers often viewed him as a tramp, which distressed him, for he had been raised to be a gentleman.
After finishing his law studies Stevenson committed his time to writing. In 1876 he joined an artists’ colony near Paris. It was there he met the love of his life. Fanny Osbourne did not meet the immediate approval of the Stevenson family. Not only was she an American ten years older than Robert Louis, but she was the mother of three children, married to a philandering man. Fanny had moved to France to be separated from her husband, Sam Osbourne, but he had traveled to be reunited with her at the death of their youngest child.
Fanny Osbourne returned to the United States with her husband and remaining two children, but corresponded with Stevenson. He decided to follow her to America. The trip nearly killed him.
Now in his late twenties, Stevenson had been living on gifts from his parents. He decided it was time to make his own way in the world. Taking only a change of clothing and some volumes of American history he made the ten day Atlantic voyage as a second class passenger, but chose to spend most of the crossing with the steerage passengers. Time spent in the cramped and filthy steerage area caused a lingering rash on his hands, plus he lost fourteen pounds. When he arrived in New York his five-foot-ten-inch frame was down to a weight of a hundred and five pounds.
Stevenson learned Fanny was living near San Francisco, suffering from “inflammation of the brain.” He took a two-week cross country trip on an emigrant train. Conditions would have been hard for a healthy man to endure, and Stevenson was far from healthy. Railroad cars were crowded and dirty, and on one of the days meals were not available. For part of the trip Stevenson climbed to the roof of a freight car and crossed the prairie sitting outside, breathing in the fresh air his weak lungs needed.
After crossing an ocean and a continent to be with his loved one Stevenson arrived in California a physical wreck, dressed in ragged clothes. And Fanny Osbourne told him she wasn’t sure if she should divorce her husband. Her teenage daughter had just eloped, but her twelve year old son Sam – who went by his middle name of Lloyd – needed a proper home. Stevenson had renounced his family’s wealth, but was making little money from his writing.
Stevenson hired a horse and buckboard and planned to nurse his broken heart by camping in the mountains. On the second day he collapsed and lay on the ground for two days until being found by a goat herder. He spent two weeks convalescing, sitting up in bed, giving reading lessons to two little ranch girls. No matter how weak his condition he possessed a strong, pleasant voice, and he loved helping children.
He then returned to Fanny, now living in Monterey, and learned she was obtaining a divorce. Stevenson found a cheap room near the sea, and spent most of his waking hours writing. He earned little money and began skipping meals. During an influenza epidemic he stayed up nights with his landlady’s four-year-old son, who was thought to be dying.
The boy survived but Stevenson nearly died of hemorrhages, brought on by days of high fever and coughing. Fanny came to be his nurse – and would continue nursing Stevenson for the remainder of his life. His parents learned of his desperate situation and sent a telegram stating they would send him the sum of two-hundred-fifty pounds a year. Twice before they had sent money to their son, but he never received the funds.
On May 19, 1880 Stevenson, who described himself as being “a mere complication of cough and bones,” married Fanny. To save on expenses they honeymooned in the bunkhouse of an abandoned mining town called Silverado.
The new family traveled in search of a place where Robert Louis Stevenson could regain his health. Wherever he was he wrote, and whenever he could he tramped about outside, often with his stepson, who adored his new father. They traveled to Scotland to visit Stevenson’s parents. The damp weather was bad for his health, but his parents learned to appreciate their daughter-in-law.
It was in Scotland that Stevenson drew a treasure map to amuse Lloyd. From that map came his first best selling book. Treasure Island was published in 1883. A Child’s Garden of Verse was published in 1885, followed by Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886. He became wealthy from his own efforts, and was a beloved author around the world.
Stevenson wrote poetry, magazine articles, travel books, and adventure novels that were often set in Scotland. Because of his health he could no longer live in his birth country, but the history he’d learned as a child never left him.
In 1890 the Stevensons settled in the South Pacific island of Samoa where they bought land and built a home. During Stevenson’s years in Samoa he did not consider himself a superior European. He loved the Samoan people and their culture, and his neighbors loved him. He took the native name of Tusitala, which means Teller of Tales.
On December 3, 1894, at the age of forty-four, Stevenson died of a ruptured blood vessel in his brain. He was buried on a Samoan mountain top overlooking the sea. On his grave marker are the words he requested to be his epitaph:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I lay me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.