When one reads the nonfiction work of Robert Louis Stevenson along with the novels and short stories, a more complete portrait emerges of the author than that of the romantic vagabond one usually associates with his best-known fiction. The Stevenson of the nonfiction prose is a writer involved in the issues of his craft, his milieu, and his soul. Moreover, one can see the record of his maturation in critical essays, political tracts, biographies, and letters to family and friends.
What Stevenson lacks, especially for the tastes of this age, is specificity and expertise: he has not the depth of such writers as John Ruskin, Walter Pater, or William Morris. But he was a shrewd observer of humankind, and his essays reveal his lively and perspicacious mind. Though he lacked originality, he created a rapport with the reader, who senses his enthusiastic embrace of life and art. If Stevenson at first wrote like one who only skimmed the surface of experience, by the end of his life he was passionately committed to his adopted land of Samoa, to his own history, and to the creation of his fiction.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born to Thomas and Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. From the beginning he was sickly. Through much of his childhood he was attended by his faithful nurse, Alison Cunningham, known as Cummy in the family circle. She told him morbid stories about the Covenanters (the Scots Presbyterian martyrs), read aloud to him Victorian penny-serial novels, Bible stories, and the Psalms, and drilled the catechism into him, all with his parents’ approval.
Thomas Stevenson was quite a storyteller himself, and his wife doted on their only child, sitting in admiration while her precocious son expounded on religious dogma. Stevenson inevitably reacted to the morbidity of his religious education and to the stiffness of his family’s middle-class values, but that rebellion would come only after he entered Edinburgh University. The juvenilia that survives from his childhood shows an observer who was already sensitive to religious issues and Scottish history.
Not surprisingly, the boy who listened to Cummy’s religious tales first tried his hand at retelling Bible stories: “A History of Moses” was followed by “The Book of Joseph. ” When Stevenson was sixteen his family published a pamphlet he had written entitled The Pentland Rising, a recounting of the murder of Nonconformist Scots Presbyterians who rebelled against their royalist persecutors. In November 1867 Stevenson entered Edinburgh University, where he pursued his studies indifferently until 1872.
Instead of concentrating on academic work, he busied himself in learning how to write, imitating the styles of William Hazlitt, Sir Thomas Browne, Daniel Defoe, Charles Lamp, and Michel de Montaigne. By the time he was twenty-one, he had contributed several papers to the short-lived Edinburgh University Magazine, the best of which was a fanciful bit of fluff entitled “The Philosophy of Umbrellas. ” Edinburgh University was a place for him to play the truant more than the student.
His only consistent course of study seemed to have been of bohemia: Stevenson adopted a wide-brimmed hat, a cravat, and a boy’s coat that earned him the nick-name of Velvet Jacket, while he indulged a taste for haunting the byways of Old Town and becoming acquainted with its denizens. The most significant work from his student days was “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses,” a scientific piece that explained the economical combination of revolving mirrors and oil-burning lamps. He read it before the Royal Scottish Society of Arts on 27 March 1871 and received the society’s Silver Medal.
The paper, a result of his engineering studies, revealed his keen eye for technical detail. Only two weeks later, however, Stevenson took a long walk with his father and declined to follow the family profession of engineering; he meant to become a writer. Thomas Stevenson insisted that the young man study law, and his son stuck to the bargain long enough to receive, in 1875, a law degree he barely used. It was not the first time that Stevenson disappointed his father. In January 1873 Thomas Stevenson discovered some papers that seemed to suggest that the young Stevenson was an atheist.
Father and son had their worst falling out. In letters to his student chums, especially to Charles Baxter, Stevenson called himself a “damned curse” on his family. Though it is tempting to see his filial rebellion as a classic Victorian melodrama, father and son did reconcile. The episode is more important in having given the author one of the enduring themes of his fiction. It runs from “An Old Song,” a short story published in an 1877 issue of the weekly London, to the masterly romance Weir of Hermiston (1896), left unfinished. It also threads through his nonfiction, in which it is tempered by a tone of reconciliation.
For example, in “Crabbed Age and Youth,” written in 1877, Stevenson seems to be looking for the common bond that father and son share. In the decade after his university graduation, Stevenson steeped himself in life, finding an essential core of good humor in people and things. Something of the lightheartedness of this period survives in the humorous essays in Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers (1881), published when the author was thirty-one years old. The essays in this collection had been originally published from 1876 to 1879 in the Cornhill, Macmillan’s, and London magazines.
The collection received little attention from the critics, but the brilliant whimsy and ironic tone in these pieces were well matched to their loose structures, modeled after Thomas Browne’s and William Hazlitt’s works, which Stevenson admired. He pretends to analyze marriage in “Virginibus Puerisque” and the relationship between old and young in “Crabbed Age and Youth”; he mounts a pseudophilosophical defense of sloth in “An Apology for Idlers” and humorously advocates the old method of illuminating cities in “A Plea for Gas Lamps. In “Child’s Play,” “El Dorado,” and “Pan’s Pipes,” the author seems more entranced with the flight of his own rhetoric than he does with the topic at hand. There is a more serious side to the collection as well: in “Aes Triplex” and “Ordered South” Stevenson deals with his physical frailty and the trips away from Scotland’s rugged winters he had taken for his health. As a boy, Stevenson had been to the Continent several times, and he grew up to love purposeless, rambling tours across Europe.
In An Inland Voyage (1878), written from a journal he had kept of a trip down the French river Ois with his friend Walter Simpson, Stevenson glories in the slow pace of his vagabond life traveling through France. The young author expresses pleasure at having been suspected of being a Prussian spy by the French gendarmes and pride at having endured hunger, cold, and misery on a journey that, from Stevenson’s account, sounds like one of the oddest and most aimless ever undertaken.
The publication of An Inland Voyage was significant: it was his first full-length book and was reviewed kindly by the critics, though it did not enjoy as many printings as his next travelogue did. Travels with a Donkey in the Cvennes (1879) has something of the same sense of aimlessness and introspection as An Inland Voyage, but it lacks the other’s high spirits. Its more somber, melancholy tone is due to the fact that Stevenson had fallen in love, and the relationship was a difficult one.
On a trip to a French artists’ colony in July 1876 with his cousin Bob, Stevenson had met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married woman, an American, and ten years Stevenson’s senior. She had been living in Paris and had come to the sleepy summer colony of Grez to recuperate after the death of her son. By the time she returned to America in 1878, Stevenson had fallen deeply in love with her; he undertook his walking tour through the mountains in France in part as a restorative to his emotional life.
In August 1879 Stevenson received a cable-gram from Fanny Osbourne, who by that time had rejoined her husband in California. Details are vague, but there seems to have been some last attempt by Osbourne to break with Stevenson; the contents of the cable were never revealed by either to family or friends. With the impetuosity of one of his own fictional characters, Stevenson set off from Greenock, Scotland, on 7 August 1879 for America. On 18 August Stevenson landed, sick, nearly penniless, in New York. From there he took an overland train journey in miserable conditions to California, where he nearly died.
After meeting with Fanny Osbourne in Monterey, and no doubt depressed at the uncertainty of her divorce, he went camping in the Santa Lucia mountains, where he lay sick for two nights until two frontiersmen found him and nursed him back to health. Still unwell, Stevenson moved to Monterey in December 1879 and thence to San Francisco, where he fluctuated between life and death, continually fighting off illness. Stevenson characteristically turned the ocean-crossing and transcontinental journey into grist for the literary mill. The Story of a Lie” and “The Amateur Emigrant” were two products of Stevenson’s trip. The former, a short story, was published in the New Quarterly Magazine in 1879. In the latter, a travelogue, Stevenson noted the harsher side of life, especially for the immigrant passenger aboard ship sailing for America. Its grim tone distressed his friends and family. Certain passages were considered too graphic by the publisher and by Stevenson’s father: Thomas Stevenson bought all the copies of the already printed travelogue because he found it beneath his son’s talent.
Stevenson also produced a travelogue about the train journey, “Across the Plains,” which was published as the title piece of his 1892 essay collection. The suppressed piece and “Across the Plains” were eventually published together in The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook in 1895, the year after Stevenson’s death. When Stevenson left Scotland so abruptly he temporarily estranged his parents. They were also upset about his relationship with a married woman. However, hearing of their son’s dire circumstances, they cabled him enough money to save him from poverty.
Fanny Osbourne obtained her divorce from her husband, and she and Stevenson were married on 19 May 1880 in San Francisco. For their honeymoon they headed to Mount Saint Helena in Napa Valley, California–partly on the recommendation of friends concerned about Stevenson’s frail health and partly because their meager finances afforded them no more than the rundown shack they were able to rent at Silverado, on the side of the mountain. Stevenson also turned this experience into literature: he wrote The Silverado Squatters in 1880 from a journal he kept during the approximately two months they spent at the abandoned mine site.
It is a pleasant description of their adventures and their domestic life and includes portraits of the people living around Saint Helena and Calistoga in the Napa Valley. The work was first serialized in the Century Magazine in 1883 and later that year was published as a book. When both husband and wife were well enough for extended travel, they returned across the continent and set sail from New York, landing in Britain on 17 August 1880. Fanny Stevenson was soon accepted at the Stevenson family home on 17 Heriot Row.
She became a favorite of Stevenson’s father and a staunch ally of his mother, with whom she shared the duty of attending to Stevenson’s health. In the next seven years, 1880 to 1887, Stevenson did not flourish as far as his health was concerned, but his literary output was prodigious. Writing was one of the few activities he could do when he was confined to bed because of hemorrhaging lungs–“Bluidy Jack” he nicknamed the recurrent bleeding. But, despite illness, he wrote some of his most enduring fiction, notably Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Black Arrow (1888).
He was also busy writing essays and collaborating on plays with W. E. Henley, the poet, essayist, and editor who championed Stevenson in London literary circles and who became the model for Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Although he settled well into domestic life with Fanny, Stevenson’s letters revealed that he rejoiced in returning to his friends–to fellow artists such as Edmund Gosse and Henley, to Sidney Colvin, his longtime literary adviser, and to Charles Baxter, the confidant from his university days who remained his closest friend as well as financial adviser. It was also a period of much traveling.
His and Fanny’s various temporary residences in England, Switzerland, and southern France had more to do with his probable tuberculosis (it was never diagnosed as such during his lifetime) than with his love for travel. It was at Braemar in Scotland that Treasure Island was begun, sparked by a map that Stevenson had drawn for the entertainment of his twelve-year-old stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson had quickly imagined a pirate adventure story to accompany the drawing, and a friend arranged for it to be serialized in the boys’ magazine Young Folks, where it appeared from October 1881 to January 1882.
By the end of the 1880s, it had become one of the most popular and widely read books of the period. William Ewart Gladstone was supposed to have stayed awake all night to read it, and Stevenson, no supporter of Gladstone, snapped upon learning the news that the man would have done better “to attend to the imperial affairs of England. ” In the seven-year period from 1880 to 1887 Stevenson’s output also included essays on the craft of fiction.
In these, in which the reader might expect Stevenson to exhibit a more objective attitude than he had in the travelogues, the author’s cultivated discursiveness and rambling rhetoric are not always successful. Stevenson had a very uncomplicated view of art; he would have rewritten Horace to assert that it was better to entertain than to instruct. Consequently his critical essays on literature contain few sustained analyses of style or content. They are more entertaining to read for the narrator’s tone than they are instructive about the fine points of writing.
In “‘A Penny Plain and Two-pence Coloured'” (1884), Stevenson recounts how the seeds of his craft were sown in childhood when he purchased Skelt’s Juvenile Drama–a toy set of uncolored or crudely colored cardboard characters (hence the title of Stevenson’s essay) who were the principal actors in a usually melodramatic adventure. Stevenson maintained that his art, his life, and his mode of creation were all in some part derivative of the highly exaggerated and romantic world that he had inherited from Skelt’s toy.
The same love for the exaggerated world of romance and adventure informs the essays “A Gossip on Romance” (1882) and “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s” (1887). Again Stevenson maintains that the better end of reading and writing is entertainment, a claim that led some critics to accuse him of escapism. French realists, such as mile Zola, had begun to explore the harsher sides of reality in their fiction. To some extent English realists, George Gissing, for example, and Americans, including William Dean Howells and Henry James, agreed in practice with the tenets of realism.
But the bulk of Stevenson’s literary criticism is explicitly in favor of the romance. He saw himself as the literary descendant of Sir Walter Scott. The best storytelling, he felt, had the ability to whisk readers away from themselves and their circumstances. It was particularly the tendency in French realism to dwell on sordidness and ugliness that Stevenson rejected. In an 1877 essay, “Franois Villon: Student, Poet, and Housebreaker,” he castigates the French medieval poet Franois Villon for lying about the poor: Villon had made them out to be as greedy, covetous, and deceitful as he, but he had not the courage to depict their nobility.
Stevenson reiterated this theme, but with an eye on the nineteenth-century French realist Zola, in his essay “The Lantern-Bearers” (1888). In this piece he describes a childhood game wherein vacationing schoolboys belted tin bull’s-eye lanterns to their waists, buttoned their top-coats over the lanterns, and met in some remote cove to reveal, at a password, the lit lanterns beneath their coats. Stevenson likens the average person to the boy who joyfully walks in the dark knowing he has a lantern “within” him.
All people are noble, although Zola (and realists like him) would dismiss them as dreary lumps of humanity, seeing only the topcoats of mundane dullness, completely missing the nobility that it is the artist’s job to uncover. Stevenson attempted to justify his attack upon realism on technical grounds. In both “A Note on Realism” (1883) and “A Humble Remonstrance” (1884), Stevenson analyzes different types of fiction. The 1883 essay maintains that realism differs from romance only according to the writer’s choice of style.
In “A Humble Remonstrance,” Stevenson answers Henry James’s claim in “The Art of Fiction” (1884) that the novel competes with life. Stevenson protests that no novel can ever hope to match life’s complexity; it merely abstracts from life to produce a harmonious pattern of its own. Henry James essentially agreed: he had made the point earlier that reality was too immense to capture in art. At Bournemouth, where the Stevensons lived from 1884 to 1887, James came calling in the spring of 1885 and was mistaken for a tradesman. Gradually, however, the two men became close friends.
James, in fact, was one of the few of her husband’s associates whom Fanny Stevenson trusted. Watchful of her husband’s health, she resented the friends who kept Stevenson up into the night. Fanny Stevenson had never been content to remain on the outside of her husband’s craft; she coupled her nursing with editorial duties and alienated some of her husband’s friends in the process. Doubtless she had kept him alive from Silverado to Bournemouth, but barring some of his lively friends from seeing Stevenson caused some resentment. W. E.
Henley had the worst falling out with Fanny Stevenson, partly because of his drinking and partly because he exhausted Stevenson by keeping him at work collaborating on plays that had little promise. The major crisis occurred after the Stevensons had settled at Saranac Lake, New York (the move was supposed to have been only a temporary leave-taking of Scotland), on 3 October 1887. Henley accused Fanny, in a letter marked confidential, of having stolen a story from Stevenson’s cousin, ignoring or forgetting that Fanny had permission to rework the story.
Stevenson was crushed, although he eventually forgave Henley, who never admitted he had done anything wrong. What made the accusation harder to bear was that it came on the heels of Thomas Stevenson’s death. The elder Stevenson had died after a long illness in May 1887, plunging his son into a deep depression. In the spring of that year Stevenson contemplated arranging his martyrdom in Ireland, intending to die at the hands of night riders, in the theory that his death–he was by now the well-known author of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–would draw attention to the injustices suffered there.
Partly out of that bizarre wish came Confessions of a Unionist (1921), an explanation to Americans why Ireland should continue to be ruled by England. Written in January 1888, it was rejected by Stevenson’s American publisher and never published during his lifetime. In 1888 the main threads of Stevenson’s art and life seemed to snap; he wrote the last of his literary essays for Scribner’s magazine by May, and his serious quarrel with Henley had opened his eyes to betrayal. In a letter he wrote to Baxter in May 1888, he sounded as though he was gambling for new stakes.
He informed his friend that he would take a South Seas cruise, one that he expected to heal him emotionally as well as physically: “I have found a yacht, and we are going the full pitch for seven months. If I cannot get my health back … ’tis madness; but of course, there is the hope, and I will play big. ” The Stevenson party–including Stevenson, his wife, his stepson, and his mother–chartered the yacht Casco and sailed southwest from San Francisco to the Marquesas Islands, the Paumotus, and the Society Islands, and thence northward from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands by December of 1888.
They camped awhile in Honolulu, giving Stevenson time to visit Molokai’s leper settlement and to finish his novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889). In June 1889 they set out southwest from Honolulu for the Gilbert Islands aboard the schooner Equator. From there in December 1889 the Stevensons traveled to the island of Upolu in Samoa. By that time Stevenson realized that his health could never stand a return to Scotland, despite his friends’ urgings and his own homesickness. Gosse and Colvin, in particular, urged him to return.
Only James and Baxter seemed to react sympathetically to Stevenson’s predicament: each time that he ventured far from the equator he fell sick. In October 1890 the Stevenson party returned to Samoa to settle, after a third cruise that took them to Australia, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, and some of the remoter islands in the South Seas. Stevenson detailed his three cruises and adventures in the letters he wrote to his friends, exulting in his newfound health, relating incidents of life on the open sea, and capturing the flavor of life lived away from Western civilization.
From 1889 to 1894 his attitude toward the islanders in his letters gradually changed from paternalism to sympathy for their troubles with Western imperialism. He studied South Seas politics to espouse plans that he believed would ensure harmony between the whites and the indigenous races of the South Pacific. The naivet of his early letters is absent from his remarkable book of essays on the various island groups and their peoples–In the South Seas . Written from material he had collected on the three cruises, the book reveals a much shrewder observer of human nature and politics than the man who had written Confessions of a Unionist.
He viewed the islanders as humans who were not without a valid culture of their own. They were not all cannibals, nor were they all noble savages. As for politics, he advocated self-rule for the islands, a view that did not always make him popular with contemporary travelers and settlers in the Pacific. But he was never predictable. While he was in Hawaii, for example, Stevenson felt himself drawn to the royalists–those who wanted the United States out of Hawaii.
But he resisted becoming involved in their intrigues because he did not fully trust the royalists themselves. In the South Seas had a checkered publishing history, not so much because of the radical nature of its political views, but because it was not so colorful as his former travelogues. Twenty-two copies for copyright purposes were printed in 1890 by the London firm Cassell; an enlarged text, bearing the Scribners imprint, was published in New York in 1896, and the first British edition, from Chatto and Windus, appeared in 1900.
Although Stevenson was happy with his work, his friends back home thought he was wasting his talent on politics when he should have been writing fiction. The complicated publishing history of In the South Seas suggests that it may have been too serious for those who wanted Stevenson to remain the introspective traveler he had been when he was younger. The work, however, did find an admirer in Joseph Conrad, who highly approved of its form and its portrayal of life on the edge of civilization.
While Stevenson was in Hawaii, in June 1889 he visited the government’s leper colony on Molokai. According to Fanny Stevenson, her husband had first gone to the island on a fact-finding mission, expecting to uncover the “truth” about Father Damien De Veuster, the missionary to the lepers who had died only a month earlier. His admiration was awakened by firsthand reports of the man’s courage and resourcefulness which contradicted then-current rumors that the priest had contracted leprosy through intimacies with female patients.
In Sydney, Australia, eight months later Stevenson read an attack in the religious press upon Damien by a Dr. Charles M. Hyde, a former missionary to Molokai, who maintained that these rumors were true. The letter by Hyde was circulated throughout the South Seas and the world. Stevenson was so provoked that he wrote his famous Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (1890) in a hotel lobby, in uncharacteristic haste. His defense of Father Damien was curious.
It did not deny Hyde’s charges so much as it suggested that their publication was an indication of the meanness, cowardice, and jealousy of Hyde. Though defending Damien DeVeuster’s character was a way for Stevenson to identify with the good work of the missionary priest, the defense involved some risk. Stevenson fully expected to be sued and financially ruined by Hyde–by a libel suit he knew, as a lawyer, he had little chance of winning. Luckily for the Stevensons, Hyde contented himself with dismissing the author as a crank.
The episode had a profound effect on Stevenson and his work on the South Seas. He continued to champion the oppressed even when it seemed to threaten his safety and security. While he lived in the Pacific, Stevenson kept up his usual impressive literary output. From 1888 to 1894 the author finished The Wrecker (1892), a collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne; Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893), containing “The Beach of Fales,” “The Bottle Imp,” and “The Isle of Voices”; and The Ebb-Tide (1894), again a collaboration with his stepson.
He also completed the sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona, published in 1893. At his death in December 1894 two novels lay unfinished–St. Ives (1897), a pot-boiler about a French prisoner who escapes from a Scottish jail to England, and Weir of Hermiston (1896), generally acknowledged to be a master-piece although it is a fragment. In his last years he also worked industriously at his nonfiction. With In the South Seas finished, he completed A Footnote to History, published in 1892. At his death Records of a Family of Engineers (1916) lay unfinished.
Stevenson had gathered material on Samoa for In the South Seas but later realized that he had enough for more than one book. The Samoan political situation in the late 1880s and early 1890s was complex. Historically the Samoans had chosen a king from among several tribal high chiefs. Because of friction over trade in the islands, Germany, England, and the United States had attempted but aborted a plan to divide the islands into protectorates. In 1888 the Germans banished Laupepa, one of three tribal chiefs in contention for kingship, the other two being Tamasese and Mataafa.
After a short war between the other two chiefs (in which some Germans died) the three Western nations formed a tripartite consulate and established Laupepa as king of Samoa and Mataafa as vice-king. Arguing that Mataafa had, by rights and power, more claim to kingship than his rival, Stevenson advocated Mataafa’s cause in A Footnote to History and continued writing letters to several British newspapers well into 1894, stirring up a hornet’s nest of controversy for himself in Samoa. His book earned him the resentment of the Germans and threats of deportation from harassed British officials.
When the Germans banished Mataafa to the Marshall Islands in 1893, Stevenson’s agitation could do no more than secure the release of some of Mataafa’s supporters who were jailed in Apia. In A Footnote to History Stevenson advocated justice and compromise among the Samoan factions. He wanted to bring the affair before the public, to acquaint Westerners with the effects of imperialistic policies they tacitly supported. Though he apologized for the tempest-in-a-teapot nature of the rebellion, he believed A Footnote to History performed a service for the beleaguered country.
In the last two years of his life Stevenson’s letters to his friends in Great Britain increasingly revealed his longing for Scotland and the frustration he felt at the thought of never seeing his homeland again. To S. R. Crockett he wrote, “I shall never see Auld Reekie. I shall never set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried. The word is out and the doom written. ” It may have been this preoccupation with Scotland and its history that made Weir of Hermiston so powerful a tale.
With its theme of filial rebellion, its evocation of Scotland’s topography, language, and legends, it is a masterly fragment and the most Scottish of all his works. Records of a Family of Engineers, a biographical work that recounts his grandfather’s engineering feats, reveals that Stevenson was trying to find a bridge back to his own family and finally coming to terms with his earlier rejection of the engineering profession. In Records of a Family of Engineers he depicts his grandfather as a scientist-artist, linking his own growing objectivity in his style of writing to the technical yet imaginative work of his forebears.
Increasingly Stevenson’s art embraced more of the everyday world and drew on his experiences in the South Seas for its strength. His South Seas work, both nonfiction and fiction, gradually grew more powerful than the earlier works for which he is, ironically, more famous. When he died of a stroke on 3 December 1894 in his house at Vailima, Samoa, he was at the height of his creative powers. The Samoan faction that he had helped to free from jail assembled at his house to cut a path to the top of Mt. Vaea, where he was buried.
He had been rich, famous, an adventurer, and a legend in his homeland; the report of his death created a small shock wave throughout the literary world. Almost immediately the Stevenson family began attempts to glorify the memory of Stevenson, and this action was to work against the writer’s literary reputation. They dickered over who would best edit Stevenson’s letters. Baxter and James steered clear of the unenviable task, which fell to Sidney Colvin. There also appeared memoirs by Stevenson’s friends who did him the disservice of writing hagiography instead of biography.
The inevitable reaction of the succeeding literary generation to this presentation of Stevenson as a demisaint was severe. The worst of it amounted to speculation about Edinburgh prostitutes whom the youthful Stevenson might have known and the exact amount of impropriety in Stevenson’s relationship with Fanny before their marriage. From personal attacks on Stevenson, critics turned to style: he was accused of blind imitation, having nothing to say and saying it oddly, and of promoting a spineless escapism.
What Stevenson was left with was a literary reputation based solely on his romances–a reputation that solidly ignored his South Seas fiction, his essays, his travelogues about America and the Pacific, and the letters that revealed his enthusiasm for his craft and for the islanders of the South Pacific. Because of this failure to acknowledge his breadth as a writer, he is often remembered primarily as an author for children; his reputation as the author of Treasure Island has prevented many adults from reading any of his other works.
But he may yet survive the injustice. G. K. Chesterton’s 1927 book Robert Louis Stevenson restored a sense of balance to the examination of the author’s life and letters. Recent studies have turned more attention to Stevenson’s less-well-known works, attempting to integrate the various strata of his literary output. Consequently, Stevenson has risen in stature since the early 1900s. The centennial of his death may bring a scholarly reappraisal of Stevenson that will move him from the second rank of Victorian authors to the first.