November 13th – Robert Louis Stevenson

There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world,

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13th, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He later changed the spelling to Louis and dropped the Balfour. His father was a leading lighthouse engineer, and lighthouses were the family business of his father’s side. His mother’s father was a preacher, and his parents and nurse were all devout Presbyterians. His first published work, The Pentland Rising (1866), had a religious theme. 

Stevenson suffered from ill-health related to weak lungs throughout his life. The family brought on a nurse before he was two, and he later dedicated his book A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) to her. 

Despite his ill health, Stevenson went to University at the age of 16 to study engineering. During his time at University, he broke away from the conventions his parents set – shocking people, especially his father, with his Bohemian dress of wide-brimmed hats and a velvet coat, along with occasionally visiting brothels and smoking hashish. By the age of 22, he also shed his religion and became agnostic. 

After declaring his ambition to be a writer, he changed his major to law at his father’s urging, although he never practiced. Early travels with his father to inspect lighthouses inspired his love of travel, and he sought to write about his journeys. His first books, An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) were written during his early travels to France. 

While in France in 1876, he met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American 11 years his senior, who was married with two children. He fell in love. Fanny had left her philandering husband and was studying art in Paris. She and Stevenson became lovers, but in 1878 she returned to her husband in America. Then in 1879, she sent Stevenson a mysterious cable, and he left Scotland for America. The journey nearly killed him. He reached America in August and made an overland journey from New York to California. By the time he reached Monterey, he was broke and nearly dead. He was nursed back to health, Fanny obtained a divorce, and they were married on May 19th, 1880.

Stevenson didn’t waste any of his adventures, making them all into books. Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays (1892), The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook (1895), and his honeymoon with Fanny as Silverado Squatters (1883) were all written about his American journeys.

The couple returned to Scotland, and there during a rainy school holiday, his 12-year-old stepson Lloyd created a map of an island, sparking the idea for one of Stevenson’s best-known works, Treasure Island (1883). 

In 1886 he published Kidnapped, an adventure novel similar to Treasure Island, and another seminal work, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, inspired by a nightmare Stevenson had. The dream so shook Stevenson he wrote a 40,000-word book in the three days following. His wife disapproved of the first draft, and he threw it in the fire, then rewrote it (again in 3 days, revising over six weeks). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sold steadily and brought him much attention as a writer. 

The family lived briefly in New York State before traveling to the South Pacific along with Stevenson’s widowed mother. They settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890, purchasing 314 acres of land and building their house, which they called Vailima. He took the name Tusitala, the teller of tales, and became part of the local community. 

On December 3rd, 1894, Stevenson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried at the summit of Mount Vaea. 

Lesson from Stevenson:

Stevenson didn’t let his ill health stop him from his adventures, just like he didn’t let Fanny being a married woman with two kids 11 years older than him stop him from crossing the ocean to get to her. He traveled the world, with his beloved wife, and wrote classics that have inspired countless others. 

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