Robert Louis Stevenson

Glenda Norquay

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson (b. 1850–d. 1894) was born in Scotland and died in Samoa at the end of a life of travels, during which he produced novels, short stories, literary essays, poetry, drama, and travel writing. Trained in law at Edinburgh University, Stevenson was under pressure to conform to the Edinburgh bourgeois society in which his family had made its name as lighthouse engineers; he preferred a more bohemian existence as a writer. He sought adventure through travel but also needed an environment amenable to his recurring ill health. Early travels around Scotland then in France, where he met his wife (an unconventional and controversial American named Fanny van der Grift), were extended in later life to America, Australia, and Samoa. Hailed in his time as the savior of “masculine romance,” his adventure novels for both adults and children—Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona (published in the United States as David Balfour), The Master of Ballantrae, even the less successful St. Ives—revived the genre with brio but also deployed it to address larger issues around imperialism and personal, political, and national identities. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde became an archetype of gothic duality. But Stevenson also wrote a large number of essays, many on literary topics. He also produced mannered fiction (Prince Otto and The New Arabian Nights); wrote significant Scottish short stories, such as “Thrawn Janet”; and latterly engaged with Polynesian politics, intervening in person and in writing. His later fiction, set in the South Seas (The Ebb-Tide, The Wrecker, “The Beach of Falesá”) and in Scotland (David Balfour and Weir of Hermiston), is generally recognized as representing a darker realism and new direction. Just as Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde perhaps obscured the full range of Stevenson’s fiction, so his success with the much-loved A Child’s Garden of Verses diverted attention from his other poetry. Stevenson also worked collaboratively, most notably with a friend from his Edinburgh days, W. E. Henley (with whom he later quarreled), and with Fanny’s son from her first marriage, Lloyd Osbourne. By the 1890s Stevenson was viewed as a highly successful writer and popular romantic figure, yet attention to his short and romantic life was at the expense of his work. It has taken time for his reputation to recover from the critical backlash of the early 20th century. Biographical interest has remained intense, but critical interest in his work has flourished in the 21st century.

Article.  10766 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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