A Head Full of Swirling Dreams

The short-lived Robert Louis Stevenson was perhaps the most comprehensively accomplished writer in the English language
More

Robert Louis Stevenson was a ham-handed playwright, a less than minor poet, a fitful journalist, and the author of several awful novels. What might have been his crowning masterpiece was never finished; only a scrap of his most ambitious project was ever published; and he died young, just as his work was sharpening and deepening in startling ways.

Yet Stevenson, born in Scotland in 1850, and killed by a stroke in 1894 as he made a salad for dinner at his house in Samoa, also wrote a timeless classic of young-adult fiction (Treasure Island), two and a half other novels of the first rank (Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston), a classic children's book of poems (A Child's Garden of Verses), and an exceptional travel book (Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes). He was additionally a fine essayist, a prescient political reporter, a skilled social anthropologist, a maker of historical fiction in the vein of his countryman Sir Walter Scott, an early practitioner of the modernist novel, a sharp-eyed chronicler of nature and landscape, a biographer, a historian, a prolific and hilarious letter writer, a composer of deft and poignant prayers, and even the author of horror stories. He created a handful of characters who are embedded in the popular imagination and culture: the cunning and complex pirate Long John Silver, the dashing and vain Scottish rebel Alan Breck Stewart, the bipolar Everyman Dr. Jekyll.

Stevenson was twenty-three when his first magazine essay appeared, twenty-eight when his first book was published (An Inland Voyage, his report on a canoe trip in France), thirty-five when Jekyll and Hyde made him world-famous, and only forty-four when he died in the South Seas. Considering the astonishing variety of his literary achievements, we might account him the best writer our language has known—or at least the most comprehensively accomplished. That is a remarkable epitaph for a man who in his mid-twenties was known in his native Edinburgh mostly as a rake, a failed lawyer, and a "horrible atheist," as his shocked and devoutly Presbyterian parents called their only child.

Stevenson wanted to be a writer before he could write. By age six he had dictated a history of Moses to his mother. By age ten he was inventing brief plays for a miniature theater he conducted with his cousin Bob. As a youth he was playing the "sedulous ape" to Hazlitt, Lamb, Defoe, Hawthorne, Montaigne, Baudelaire, Chaucer, Ruskin, and Swinburne—writing passages in their styles after reading their books, according to his own account.

All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words ... [This] taught me (so far as I have learned them at all) the lower and less intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential note and the right word.

At age sixteen he wrote a brief history of the Pentland Rising, a Scottish revolt against England. At seventeen he enrolled at Edinburgh University, ostensibly to study engineering, the profession in which his family had earned national renown. The Stevensons were famed especially for their adroit work on lighthouses—beloved and crucial structures in a nation with so much rugged coast. But Louis, as his family called him to distinguish him from his exuberant cousin, was soon spending his time in bars, brothels, and the shabby offices of the student debating society, where he argued about literature and politics, and began to write the ornate essays he would later collect as Virginibus Puerisque.

It was soon clear that he was no engineer. His father insisted that he pursue an orthodox profession, and Louis dutifully passed his law examinations, was called to the bar, and entered the firm of Skene, Edwards & Bilton, in Edinburgh, where he practiced briefly and badly. In 1876 he embarked on a canoe trip through France with a friend, and very soon the law and the other travails of his life in Edinburgh faded away utterly. In France he found his voice as a writer, found a climate more suitable than dank Scotland for his ravaged lungs (he had suffered from lung disease since childhood), and found the love of his life—a married woman from a farming family in Indianapolis.

They met at the Hotel Chevillon, in Grez. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, married at seventeen, was thirty-six years old that summer, traveling with her son and daughter, separated from her repeatedly unfaithful husband, and mourning the recent death of her younger son. She repaired to Grez, something of an artists' colony, where one hot night in July she met Stevenson—in a scene that would not have been out of place in one of his dashing novels.

The hotel guests were gathered for dinner at a large table in the dining room; darkness fell as wine circulated and laughter rose. Then Fanny's son, Lloyd, age eight, heard a noise outside. An instant later a thin, dusty young man vaulted lightly into the room through the window and bowed to the gaping crowd. Stevenson wrote later that he had stood long in the dark outside the window that night, staring at Fanny's face, instantly smitten; and as the scholar Richard Holmes wrote dryly, "perhaps he did." Suffice it to say that Stevenson and Fanny were soon very much in love.

Her love sparked something great in him, some firming of resolve, some confidence of voice. Until his death, eighteen years later, whether confined to bed or not, he produced 400 pages a year, his cousin Graham Balfour wrote. In just his last five years, perhaps the healthiest of his life, he wrote what his biographer J. C. Furnas estimated to be 700,000 published words—about ten books' worth of prose, poetry, political essays, and prayers. His collected works, published posthumously, ran to thirty-five volumes.

Stevenson and Fanny courted for the next three years, in France and then in America, which he crossed by train to meet her in San Francisco. (Of Nebraska he wrote with amazement, "We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression ... To one hurrying through by steam there was a certain exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon.") Fanny finally procured a divorce in 1879, and the two were married in San Francisco in 1880, when he was twenty-nine and she forty.

They then set about over the next eight years trying to find a salubrious climate for Louis, whose health continued to deteriorate. They tried Switzerland, Scotland (where he began Treasure Island one rainy day after idly drawing a map of the island to amuse his stepson), France, and England (where he became a close friend to Henry James, and wrote and rewrote Jekyll and Hyde in a week).

In these years he was furiously busy—busier, perhaps, than he might have been healthy, for when out of bed and surrounded by visitors, he was a talker of legendary wit and range. A family friend remembered the first time she heard his voice.

Suddenly from out of a dark corner came a voice peculiar, vibrating ... I listened in perplexity and amazement. Who was this ... who talked as Charles Lamb wrote? This young Heine with the Scottish accent? I stayed long, and when I came away the unseen converser came down with me to the front door ... I saw a slender, brown, long-haired lad with great dark eyes, a brilliant smile ...

It was Stevenson at age eighteen.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In