Robert Louis Stevenson

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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...
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