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Robert Louis Stevenson

The names 'Jekyll and Hyde' have caused many a spine to chill since the novel was first published in 1886. But how did its author, R.L. Stevenson, come to write it? Who was Robert Louis Stevenson?

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Robert Louis Stevenson

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The names 'Jekyll and Hyde' have caused many a spine to chill since the novel was first published in 1886. But how did its author, R.L. Stevenson, come to write it? Who was Robert Louis Stevenson?

Robert Louis Stevenson’s biography

Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish writer and the son of a wealthy civil engineer. The Stevensons were noted lighthouse designers, and Robert Louis was expected to follow in the family tradition. He thought otherwise and, after some discussion, was permitted to study law instead. However, he never practised as his love of writing took over, and he was a published author by his early twenties.

Fun fact: Stevenson was called Louis by his family and friends.

Stevenson mainly was taught at home because of his poor health as a boy. However, he did attend the Edinburgh Academy and enrolled at Edinburgh University when he was seventeen. Stevenson showed an early interest in writing. His first work, The Pentland Rising, was published in 1866, a year before he started university.

While at university, Stevenson rebelled against his parents’ religion and the hypocrisy of bourgeois society in general. He did this by styling himself as a liberal bohemian. He also started travelling in Europe.

Liberal bohemian: a free-thinking creative (painter, writer, poet) who lives unconventionally.

After travelling around France, Stevenson met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne in Switzerland. The couple fell in love, but Fanny, although separated from her unfaithful husband, was still married. Fanny’s husband came to Paris to attempt a reconciliation, and Fanny returned to America. Stevenson spent a fretful, gloomy year in Paris until word came from Fanny. In 1879 Stevenson joined her in California, and the couple married after Fanny’s divorce in 1880.

With Fanny’s young son Lloyd, the couple moved to Switzerland, France and England, primarily for health reasons. Stevenson's health worsened in England, so they then returned to America. Once in America, Stevenson discovered his writings were famous. The family then sailed in the South Seas before finally settling in Samoa.

Robert Louis Stevenson facts:

  • Stevenson loved the heat – even Hawaii was too chilly for him!
  • Stevenson invented the sleeping bag – in his early travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).
  • Stevenson describes how he designed a ‘sleeping-sack’ for his travels:

This child of my invention was nearly six feet square, exclusive of two triangular flaps to serve as a pillow by night and as the top and bottom of the sack by day. I call it “ the sack,” but it was never a sack by more than courtesy: only a sort of long roll or sausage, green waterproof cart cloth without and blue sheep’s fur within. It was commodious as a valise, warm and dry for a bed.—Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes: Velay

Robert Louis Stevenson, Stevenson lounging in a fur sleeping bag with a donkey directly behind him and a small village further behind, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Stevenson's sleeping bag.

Stevenson novels

Stevenson was an essayist and a poet. He wrote both fiction and travelogues. He is now best known for his novels Treasure Island (1881), Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1889), all of which have been adapted for stage and/or screen.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island is a classic pirate adventure story set in 18th century Bristol when Jim Hawkins finds the map of a dead pirate of an island with buried treasure. The story describes the adventures of Jim and his friends, which include pirates, mutiny and desert islands. Treasure Island has served as the model for pirate adventure tales ever since.

Kidnapped

Kidnapped is also set in 18th century Scotland, just after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1747. A true murder case partially inspires it. David Balfour, recently orphaned, is sent to claim his inheritance from his miserly uncle, who promptly arranges to have David kidnapped by a sea captain. David helps a fellow captive, Alan, to escape, and they return to Scotland. After several mishaps and near death, Alan is a Jacobite agent who helps David recover his inheritance. Like Treasure Island, Kidnapped is a historical adventure and has been adapted multiple times for film and stage.

Jekyll and Hyde

‘All I dreamed about Dr. Jekyll was that one man was being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being. I awoke and said at once that I had found the missing link for which I had been looking so long, and before I went again to sleep almost every detail of the story, as it stands, was clear to me. Of course, writing it was another thing.’—R.L.Stevenson, Interview, New York Herald, 1887

The story of Jekyll and Hyde came to Stevenson in a dream. He had always been fascinated by an individual living a double life. However, according to his wife Fanny, the dream was different from the story.

‘In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily: 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale...’—Fanny Stevenson, Letter to Graham Balfour, 1899

Stevenson’s ‘fine boguey tale’ concerns the mystery of Dr Jekyll and his repellent associate Mr Hyde. Hyde seems to have access to charitable Dr Jekyll’s house at all times of day or night. Most worrying of all, the good doctor continues to make excuses for Hyde's behaviour.

Eventually, suspecting Hyde of having murdered Jekyll, Utterson and Jekyll's butler break into Jekyll's laboratory to find Hyde dressed in Jekyll’s clothes. Jekyll had experimented on himself with a mix of chemicals to ‘split’ his personality into two halves: the good and the evil. The evil half is Hyde, who then begins to take over Jekyll until finally, Jekyll, in despair of finding a solution, kills himself.

There was not a little heated dispute in the writing of the novella - Fanny did not care for the beginning ‘…which was confused – again the dream’ and suggested additions such as Hyde trampling over the little girl in the opening chapter. A little later, Fanny and her son Lloyd was summoned to witness the second draft.

‘... As I entered the door Louis pointed with a long dramatic finger (you know) to a pile of ashes on the hearth of the fireplace saying that I was right and there was the tale. I nearly fainted away with misery and horror when I saw that all was gone. He was already hard at work at the new version which was finished in a few days more.’—Fanny Stevenson, Letter to Graham Balfour, 1899

Fanny had also suggested the story would serve to make a great allegory rather than simply a sensationalist story; the duality of the persona, good versus evil. She felt the new version still did not quite fulfil this potential but refrained from further comment as she ‘after that pile of ashes had not the courage’.—Fanny Stevenson, Letter to Graham Balfour, 1899

Stevenson sent off the finalised manuscript a few weeks later, and after a slow start, he shot to fame: 40,000 copies of the book were sold in six months. The book was talked about, written about, translated, and adapted for the stage.

Its Gothicism verges on science-fiction (something it shares with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) through its use of medicine; ultimately, it is an allegory of duality in human behaviour. Stevenson’s success increased again when in the same year (1886) his ‘Kidnapped’ was serialised in the Young Folks magazine.

Why is R.L. Stevenson important to English Literature?

Let us look at the importance of R.L Stevenson

‘Tusitala’

Before leaving the US for the South Seas, Stevenson had been approached by a newspaper syndicate to send letters describing his travels. After settling in Samoa, Stevenson struggled to continue writing the letters and by mutual consent was released from the agreement; these letters were published after his death as In The South Seas (1896). Although recognised and admired by authors such as Joseph Conrad, Stevenson was dissatisfied with the form they had taken. After exploring Samoa some more, turned to writing A Footnote to History (1892). This covered the years 1882 to 1892 of Samoan history at the hands of colonials, highlighting the injustices and conflict between Samoan society and the outsiders.

Stevenson was deeply critical of European and US interference with Samoan culture and economy and became very involved in the island's politics. He wrote and acted to support the people and their culture, warning them of the danger their economy and culture stood in from outside influences.

Stevenson’s writings earned him the name of ‘Tusitala’ (the writer of tales) in Samoan; his affection for Samoans was warmly reciprocated, and he died a much-loved member of the Samoan community.

Writing style

Stevenson wrote historical romances and adventure stories that place him between Rider Haggard (1856-1925) and Joseph Conrad (1857-1924); he possesses something from both these writers. He grew up delicate in health which may have contributed to an already restless temperament and made him feverish, urgent and headlong in his writing. Combined with the realism gained from his travels and journalistic writing. His style is witty and dramatic, compelling and realistic.

Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure stories set in unexplored or 'forgotten' places.

Joseph Conrad wrote about life at sea and explored darker aspects of humanity.

Stevenson was a visionary, with the ability to share the intensity of what he felt when narrating in an accessible manner. His creativity took on new vitality after Jekyll and Hyde and Kidnapped, which continued until his death.

Recommended reading:

With Stevenson in Samo (Harry Jay Moors, 1910)

Dreams of Exile (Ian Bell, 1995)

Robert Louis Stevenson: a biography (Claire Harman, 2005)

Robert Louis Stevenson - Key takeaways

  • 1850: Stevenson is born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • 1883: Treasure Island is published, establishing Stevenson as a writer.
  • 1886: Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde are published.
  • 1887: Stevenson travels to America with his wife and family.
  • 1890: The Stevensons settle in Samoa.
  • 1894: Stevenson dies on 3 December, in Vailima, Samoa, while working on Weir of Hermiston.

Frequently Asked Questions about Robert Louis Stevenson

The novels Treasure Island (1881) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

He invented the sleeping bag and loved the heat.

The sleeping bag.

13 November 1850.

3 December 1894.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Choose: Enfield caught Hyde and brought him back to the scene where the crowd demanded the man should

Multiple choice (more than one answer is possible): A week later Lanyon dies, leaving:

Choose: Dr Utterson is a friend of Dr Jekyll and has a ... and ... personality.

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