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The Life and Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

When it is stated that Robert Louis Stevenson lived one of the hardest, most painful, yet most rewarding lives of a Victorian writer, the fact is accepted as common knowledge.  Most critics and historians agree that his romantic adventure novels will never be surpassed.  Stevenson, who some say is the greatest storyteller of the nineteenth century, overcame unbelievable health problems throughout his life to become one of the most recognized authors of the Victorian time period.  The majority of his life was spent on two things, writing, and traveling in search of health.  Stevenson never limited himself to one genre of writing, but all of his works, whether it was a poem, an essay, a children’s story, or a novel, all were done in his unique writing style that was full of imagery and honest romance.  He strived to entertain himself and the people around him.  During his relatively short life, Stevenson was known for his vivid imagination, attention to detail, and a broad view of the world and human life.  Disease, family life, the Victorian time period, and Henry James all have had a profound effect on Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing style and works of literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson must have been strong willed, and possessed a love for life because he was able to live a productive life even though he was stricken with health problems from an early age.  Sometime in his life Stevenson contracted tuberculosis, which led to his death on December 3, 1894 (Stevenson, Robert Louis 9).  Little was known about the relief of tuberculosis in the late 1800’s, so Stevenson’s only treatment came from his nurse Alison Cunningham and from the places he traveled to in search of health. The presence and influence of Cunningham had a profound effect on young Stevenson, “It [Cunningham’s influence] is admitted to have been enormous…But it is perhaps worthwhile to emphasize the fact that, while Alison Cunningham was not only a devoted nurse, night and day, to the delicate child, she actually was in many ways responsible for the peculiar bent of Stevenson’s mind”(Swinnerton 13).  Even though Stevenson had a difficult childhood, Alison Cunningham was able to make his life more enjoyable by reading to him and tutoring him.

When the author reached fifteen he started traveling with his parents to find a climate that suited him better than the weather of his home Scotland.
In the late nineteenth century it was common to seek treatment for ailments in places with natural wonders or astounding beauty.  Many times this type of treatment was unsuccessful, but it is evident from his personal writing, that Robert Louis Stevenson was helped by certain climates (Swinnerton 23).  In 1873 Stevenson met Lady Colvin and Sidney Colvin who gave him moral support and provided him with his first trip in search of health in France.  Stevenson was  accompanied by Sidney Colvin on a  journey to Paris where he was able to relax (Swinnerton 18).

France must have suited Stevenson because he returned to his home in Scotland only shortly, and then returned to France for five years.  He enjoyed steady work writing and publishing The Wrecker and Fontainebleau, which details his life in Paris and on the French Rivera (Swinnerton 19). Stevenson’s early travel books create a foundation for the style or writing that appears in his other works of literature:
His first published volume, An Inland Voyage (1878), is an account of the journey he made by canoe from Antwerp to northern France, in which prominence is given to the author and his thoughts.  A companion work, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), gives us more of his thoughts on life and human society and continues in consolidating the image of the debonair narrator that we also fined in his essays and letters (which can be classed among his best works) (Robert Louis 1).

While in France, Robert Louis Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne and fell in love with her, even though she was a married woman.  Stevenson followed Mrs. Osbourne to the United States, and after she divorced her husband, the two were married (Maixner 385).  The long journey to California caused Stevenson to grow ill with tuberculosis and he only survived because his wife nursed him back to health (Stevenson, Robert Louis 8).  After a year long stay in California, Fanny Stevenson and her son Lloyd Osborne traveled back to Scotland for a summer with Robert Louis Stevenson.  It was at this time Treasure Island, one of Stevenson’s most noted works, was completed (Robert Louis 1).  The Scottish climate soon caused Stevenson problems, so he moved his family to Bournemouth in souther England.  Here Stevenson was able to publish two famous works, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped (Swinnerton 22).

During his four years in Bournemouth the health of Stevenson seemed to be somewhat stable, but after the death of his father in 1887, the Stevensons’ traveled to the Adirondacks in search of a climate to help his lung problems.  While in New York treating his health problems, Stevenson began The Master of Ballantrae (Swinnerton 23).  This novel has many similarities to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde both containing characters wiht mixed personalities and in both novels the two antagonists die.  Strangely, in both of the novels the main characters have the initials J and H (Robert Louis 2).  Stevenson was a well known and liked author at this time of his life, but all of his recognition could not cure his illness.  With encouragement from his wife, they traveled first to Hawaii, then finally to Apia in the Samoan Islands.   Here he enjoyed relatively good health and built a home where they lived for the rest of his life (Swinnerton 23).  The warm climate and life free from distractions brought on by other scholars and writers provided Stevenson with some of his most productive and enjoyable years of his life.

Robert Louis Stevenson had many triumphant times throughout his life, but the contraction of tuberculosis left the great writer with a constant struggle for life.  Tuberculosis, also referred to as TB or consumption, has been affecting animals of earth since the Paleolithic period, and in humans before the birth of Christ (Roche 715).  The type of tuberculosis that Stevenson was infected with is unknown, but adult type pulmonary tuberculosis does create the same symptoms of lung inflammation, fever, chest pain, and dyspnea that Stevenson complained of (Berkow 115).  Contraction of tuberculosis is primarily occurs by breathing in airborne droplets containing the disease.  Tuberculosis can be carried by animals though, so infection can be caused by contaminated milk and unsanitary conditions (Berkow 115).  It attacks the lungs in most cases, and causes an inflamation which can spread to the lymph nodes. At this stage, the disease may spread to the rest of the body.

The natural defenses of the human body can usually destroy the bacteria that causes TB, but in some cases it does not.  If advanced tuberculosis is not treated with medicine, the disease can leave disabling scars on the tissue it attackes (Kunz et al. 574).  Starting as a sickly child and continuing to have medical problems throughout his whole life cased Stevenson to suffer physically, but his times resting only made him a more imaginative and a creative writer.
Robert Louis Stevenson lived a painful but rewarding life that creates an awe inspiring story.  The trials and tribulations that he endured shaped his writing style and imagination.  While in bed due to sickness Stevenson was able to let his imagination run, which transferred to his adventure stories.  The tuberculosis he contracted forced him to lead an unusual life, but as his early works show the imagination and determination more than made up for his lack of traditional schooling.  From the early trips to France, all the way to Samoa, Stevenson led a life just as many of his characters did, free and adventurous.  Robert Louis Stevenson and his works were not only shaped by his illnesses, but also by his family.  .

Family Life
Robert Louis Stevenson was in need of physical caring all of his life, but at the same time he looked to be independent and unique in both his actions and writing style.  On the thirteenth of November, 1850 Thomas Stevenson and wife Margaret Balfour were blessed by their only son, Robert Louis Stevenson (Robert Louis 1).  From early life Stevenson seemed destined to be a writer, following at first religious themes.  At the age of six Stevenson wrote an essay on Moses, then a history on Joseph at the age of nine (Swinnerton 10).  These biblical works may not have been close to the caliber of the works that would come, but they did spark the desire to write.  From then on he never stopped producing essays, novels, children books, letters, and speeches.  His parents were Scottish, and their catholic background was present in their religious up brining of Robert Louis Stevenson.  This influence is apparent in many of the authors essays and novels.  One vivid image that gives example to his strict religious beliefs comes in Treasure Island:
Captain Long John Silver.  The Black spot!  I thought so,…Where might you have got the paper?  Why, hello!  look here, now; this ain’t lucky!  You’ve gone and cut this out of a Bible.  What fool’s cut a Bible? (sic)
Morgan.  Ah, there…there.  Wot did I say?  No good’ll come o’ that I said.(sic) (Stevenson 223)

Even Long John Silver, who was the nastiest pirate in the novel, understands and respects the Bible in this scene.  In many of Stevenson’s works of literature, a religious theme or sermon appears.  “Stevenson significantly admits that he may have inherited from this grandfather [Balfour side] the love of sermonizing, which is as noticeable in An Inland Voyage and in Virginibus Puerisque as it is in his latest [in the 1880’s] non-fiction work” (Swinnerton 12).  This worldwide sermon reached millions of readers, and is a testament to the religious guidance provided by Robert Louis Stevenson’s parents. While still in the care of his parents, much of his childhood was spent with his nurse Alison Cunningham.  Her own love for reading and teaching helped Stevenson develop into one of the nineteenth centuries greatest writers.  “Not only that: she [Alison Cunningham] introduced him thus early to the Covenanting writers upon whom he claimed to have based his sense of style” (Swinnerton 13) She not only was his friend and nurse but she also guided him in the studies that he missed due to his inability to attend grade school. Stevenson’s own view on learning and education was “no man learns how to write solely by observation and imitation” (Swinnerton 14).  This scholarly approach to learning made fro a writer who was open to experimentation and originality, two important traits of Stevenson.

Schooling, in the sense that most humans in the 1990’s think of, was not possible for young Robert Louis Stevenson (Swinnerton 15).  His childhood lung trouble caused absence from school, but he did manage to study Latin, French, German, bathing, and dancing.  He was privileged as a child to travel to London with his father, and Italy, Germany, and the Rhine while accompanying his mother (Swinnerton 15).  His father, a civil engineer, took him on trips to the coast viewing lighthouse construction and harbors.  The images of mountains and oceans filled his mind, but engineering was not to be his forte (Stevenson, Robert Louis 3).  In 1867 Stevenson did attend Edinburgh University working for a Science degree, but his love for writing grew, and his fathers dream of his son becoming a civil engineer was disappearing (Swinnerton 16).  Stevenson gained writing recognition in 1871 when he was awarded a silver medal for a paper by the Scottish Society of Arts.  The title of the paper, A New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses, suggests an interest in civil engineering, but later that year Stevenson told his dad that he would not continue his education at Edinburgh.  As a compromise he studied and was admitted to the Scottish Bar (Stevenson, Robert Louis 4).  Once again Robert Louis Stevenson decided to continue writing, and do so against his fathers wishes.  It was at this time that he suffered from a bad spell of health problems, and moved to France with Sidney Colvin to work on perfecting his writing (Swinnerton 18).

In Stevenson’s relatively short life many people were instrumental in the caring and the support of him. Even with all of the friends and family he had, Stevenson was helped the most by his wife Fanny Osbourne Stevenson.  Her courage and guidance enabled the couple lead prosperous lives, even though they were unable to settle down for many years.  Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne while staying in France with Sidney Colvin.  The two fell in love, and reached an agreement that Fanny Osbourne would divorce her husband (Maxiner 385).  When the two traveled to California to receive the divorce, Stevenson grew very ill with TB.  Only after careful nursing from Fanny Osbourne and financial help from Thomas Stevenson was Robert Louis Stevenson able to recover and return to Scotland (Swinnerton 21).

Because of his health problems the Stevenson family moved in search of a proper climate many times.  After a short stay in Scotland Stevenson moved to Bournemouth in southern England.  It was here that his most recognized children novel Treasure Island was published (Robert Louis 2).  “It [Treasure Island] is extraordinarily superior to the imitations which have followed it, for this reason if for no other, that it was the product of an enjoying imagination.  It is possible to read Treasure Island over and over again, because it is good fun” (Swinnerton 165).  Treasure Island is a story of courage and adventure that all boys and girls should like, Stevenson himself said “I liked the tale itself … it was my kind of picturesque” (qtd. in Swinnerton 164).  Treasure Island is noted for it’s honest plot, clear romance, original adventure, and the ability to draw the reader into a world with the characters (Swinnerton 165).

After the publishing of Treasure Island Stevenson gained recognition as a writer, and appeared to be enjoying his life in Bournemouth.  When his father died in 1887 Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson left England and Europe never to return.  Together they traveled to the Adirondacks in New York.  Here the couple enjoyed good health, but as always, decided to travel.  This time on a schooner searching islands in the south seas.  The Master of Ballantrae was finished while living at Waikiki in Hawaii (Swinnerton 23) .  This widely criticized romance novel has some excellent scenes mixed in with numerous simplistic ones.  The good scenes, like in Treasure Island, are able to capture the reader and express the authors words like you were right in the action (Swinnerton 170).  In one of the vivid scenes, Mr. Henry strikes the Master:  The Master sprang to his feet like one transfigured; I had never seen the man so beautiful. A Blow!’ he cried.  I would not take a blow from God Almighty!’ (qtd. in Swinnerton 170) This was Stevenson’s final book before he reached Apia in Samoa..  Here Stevenson spent the rest of his life, enjoying prolonged periods of good health and a distraction free environment for writing (Maixner 385).
As with many of the worlds greatest literary men, Robert Louis Stevenson and his works of literature were shaped by parents, friends, family, and schooling.  Both day and night Stevenson’s imagination was a canvas for his future works of literature.  Early on Alison Cunningham proved to be interested in not only his health, but also in Stevenson’s education. She filled his mind by reading to him and encouraging him to write his autobiographical poem A Child’s Garden of Verses (Stevenson, Robert Louis 2).  This early introduction to scholarly activities created an interest for literature which Stevenson carried with him for the rest of his life.  The Scottish heritage of his family was presented to him through a strict religious mother an father.  Together with Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather young Stevenson was introduced to  the sermonizing which appears in many of his novels, including Treasure Island.  Stevenson, thankfully did not follow his fathers wish for him to become an engineer to come true.  If he followed his education in science, twentieth century adventure writing would not be the same, and it may have never reached the standards created by Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s bold decision to forgo his fathers wishes meant that future generation would get the chance to experience the lifelike images created in his works.

Victorian Age
The Victorian age could be called the age of change due to the difference in the style of literature, life, and Great Britain’s power.  This time period was named after Queen Victoria who ruled from 1837-1901(Famighetti 578).  The literary rebellions of Byron and Shelley declined, and England turned to a more social from of Government.  Some of the citizens of Great Britain were able to prosper with their counties’ new found power, making travel and education more available to the general public (English Literature 1).  This was possible due to the industrial revolution, which made some men wealthy, but has been criticized for its many problems.  The streets of Great Britain became dirty and filled with disease due to the poor conditions workers were faced with at the factories.  Stevenson was not directly confronted with working in the deplorable conditions, but he breathed the smoke filled air, and was susceptible to disease.

Even though no one is certain of the cause of Stevenson’s childhood illnesses, if they were caused by the industrial revolution, all of the men and women who suffered in the time period will be forever noted in the literature created by Robert Louis Stevenson.   The world’s view on literature changed greatly form the Romantic period to the Victorian age.  Where in the Romantic period it was degrading to write novels, the Victorian age brought about the wide spread reading of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Trollope’s Orley Farm, and Collins’ The Moonstone (English Literature 3).  These writers and their respective novels laid the foundation for the literature that was common in the late 1890’s. The novelists were able to create vivid images and convincing moods, that when combined with views of life, mysterious plots, or just honest tales, made for some of the greatest pieces of English literature ever written.

Later in the Victorian age Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling became popular (English Literature 4).  Stevenson used light moods in his works along with exciting adventure and Romance to interest readers.  Kipling wrote satires on the English military, but today he is most recognized for his children’s stories The Jungle Books and Captains Courageous (English Literature 4).  The authors of the Victorian age played a vital role in blazing a trail for Stevenson to follow.  The introduction of the novel style of writing enabled him to be accepted by both literary critics, and by the readers of England and around the world.

The power of Great Britain, the industrial revolution, and the early Victorian novelists all shaped Stevenson’s writing style and the novels he produced.  From birth the society that he had to live in shaped his thoughts and imagination.  The increase of public education around this time period also led to more men and women who were able to read his essays, poems, and novels.  Henry James, a Victorian period critic, was the 1880’s version of Siskel and Ebert.  He read all types of literature, and he read to answer the question “why they do it” (qtd. in Swinnerton 151).  Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson were “linked, not only by the closest ties of personal affection, but by a common concern for the craft of the novelist, and for the whole art of literature” (Smith 9).  From their meeting at Bournemouth to Stevenson’s death in Samoa the two always kept in touch, not only for personal information, but so they could critique each others works.

Because of this a strong bond of friendship developed (Smith 10).  Stevenson’s works of literature were many times reviewed by James before they were released, and because of this Henry James had a profound effect on Stevenson’s novels (Smith 30).  Men and women around the world who enjoy reading should be thankful that the relationship between the two men survived even when they were separated. With the help of Henry James, Stevenson created some of the best literature ever produced.

The life of Robert Louis Stevenson must have been very difficult due to the health problems he faced and because of the constant traveling to find relief from his lung pain.  No one person or object can be credited with influencing Stevenson and his way of life.  The combination of tuberculosis, family life, friends, wife Fanny Stevenson, Henry James, and the society he lived in had a profound influence in the shaping Robert Louis Stevenson’s ability to capture his readers, and draw them into a world created by his imagination.  It can be said that Thomas Stevenson tried to tame the sea and coast through engineering, but his son Robert Louis Stevenson created vast worlds in every letter he wrote down.  Stevenson’s work of literature are timeless, and will always be regarded as some of the greatest novels and essays to come from the Victorian time period.

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