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Treasure Island Author Robert Louis Stevenson Was a Sickly Man with a Robust Imagination

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, July/August 2015 | Volume 36, Number 4

The late William Zinsser called it “probably the most inaccessible grave in English letters.” He was talking about the top of a small mountain in Upolu, Samoa, where the Scottish man of letters Robert Louis Stevenson was buried in 1894. Stevenson was only forty-four when mourners climbed the mountain to lay him to rest, but he had accomplished a lot, penning scores of poems and essays, brightly imagined adventure novels such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and a pioneering work of science fiction, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He even managed to write his own epitaph, a small poem inscribed across his gravestone:

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie

Glad did I live and gladly die

And I laid me down with a will

This be the verse you grave for me

Here he lies where he longed to be

Home is the sailor home from the sea

And the hunter home from the hill

Stevenson had many occasions to think about his own mortality. Frequently ill since childhood, he’d suffered from a chronic lung ailment with symptoms typical of tuberculosis, including breathing problems and spitting up blood. Some commentators have speculated that Stevenson didn’t have tuberculosis, but a rarer pulmonary condition such as bronchiectasis or Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome. Whatever the root of Stevenson’s health problems, the result was essentially the same. He’d come near death several times, and had traveled much of the world in an odyssey to find a climate ideal for his health. In Samoa, he made his last great attempt to regain his health, although a look at any of Stevenson’s portraits underscores how tenaciously illness shadowed him.

In John Singer Sargent’s painting of Stevenson, he looks stretched to distortion, like a reflection from a fun-house mirror. People were often shocked by how skinny he was. “Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless,” historian Henry Adams remarked after visiting Stevenson in Samoa. A doctor summoned to attend Stevenson in his final hours couldn’t believe that a man so frail had done so much. “How can anybody write books with arms like that?” he asked.

But those who knew Stevenson often thought not of his physical weakness, but his emotional vitality. He was, despite his frailty, a man who seemed aggressively alive. He was five feet, ten inches tall, and prone to eccentric fashion. “The whole world knows what Stevenson looked like,” writer William Maxwell noted. “The velvet coat, the long straight hair, the stringy mustache, the engaging brown eyes that were, it appears, capable of great changes of expression and color.” Writer Edmund Gosse recalled how arresting Stevenson was when he first met him in London. They’d agreed to lunch, but hours later, with sunset approaching, Stevenson was still talking. “As twilight came on,” Gosse remembered, “I tore myself away, but Stevenson walked with me across Hyde Park, and nearly to my house. He had an engagement, and so had I, but I walked a mile or two back with him. The fountains of talk had been unsealed, and they drowned the conventions. I came home dazzled with my new friend.”

As a university student, before he gained fame as the author of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie bumped into Stevenson in the middle of an Edinburgh street, then ended up skipping class so that he could share a few hours with Stevenson in a tavern. “Some men of letters, not necessarily the greatest, have an indescribable charm to which we give our hearts,” Barrie wrote. 

“Part of the dazzle,” scholar Jenni Calder writes of Stevenson, “arose from the brilliance of his conversation. He loved to talk, and as he talked he would move about the room, gesturing expressively, smoking almost continuously, fluid and restless. . . . He was spontaneous and thoroughly unconventional.”

His oddness could sometimes border on affectation; in some pictures, he wears a sash that looks lifted from the pirates of Treasure Island.  “Depending on one’s point of view, Stevenson was either immensely charismatic or maddeningly self-involved, or both,” explains scholar Jenny Davidson. “It is quite clear that he liked always to be the center of attention and if he was not, he would do outrageous things to have himself restored to his rightful place,” biographer Frank McLynn has noted. Stevenson once removed his coat in a drawing room—a vivid breach of etiquette—because he felt the conversation shifting away from him. “You might as well put your coat on again, no one is taking any notice of you,” his hostess told him. “I wish that life was an opera,” Stevenson wrote to his mother when he was a young man. “I should like to live in one; but I don’t know in what quarter of the globe I shall find a society so constituted.”

From an early age, Stevenson indulged a rich fantasy life. “When he was a child and was kept awake by night fears and fever,” wrote Maxwell, “his father would sit at his bedside and for hours carry on a droll conversation with imaginary coachmen, innkeepers, and such, until the reassuring sound of his voice and the strangeness of what he was saying sent the little boy off to sleep.”

In this way, quite possibly, Stevenson came to see imagination as a way to stay alive, like the mythical heroine of The Arabian Nights. Stevenson learned to use the making of stories, again and again, to lift him from his sickbed. That theme rests at the heart of Stevenson’s deeply autobiographical “The Land of Counterpane,” from his celebrated collection of poems for youngsters, A Child’s Garden of Verses. In “Counterpane,” which takes its name from an old-fashioned term for bedspread, a convalescing child, shut off from the world, creates a new one of his own:

When I was sick and lay a-bed, 
I had two pillows at my head,
 
And all my toys beside me lay 
To keep me happy all the day. 

And sometimes for an hour or so 
I watched my leaden soldiers go, 
With different uniforms and drills, 
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills; 

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets 
All up and down among the sheets; 
Or brought my trees and houses out, 
And planted cities all about. 

I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Born in 1850, Stevenson grew up as an only child in a fashionable Edinburgh neighborhood. His father, Thomas Stevenson, was part of a distinguished line of engineers, and the young Louis, as he was known to friends and family, was trained to follow suit. After Louis confessed no interest in extending the family tradition, he became a law student, but that line of study proved fruitless, too. What Louis really wanted to do, more than anything, was write.

Stevenson’s precarious career choice, along with his questioning of his father’s orthodox religious views, brought deep strains to their relationship, although the elder Stevenson continued to financially support Louis during his years of literary struggle. In the wake of these family conflicts, Stevenson left for France, ostensibly in search of a better climate for his lungs. He found the change of culture even more bracing than the change of air.

A prototypical hippie, Stevenson loved the laid-back sensibility of the French. Listen to how Stevenson, dependent on his father’s allowance and still bristling at his family’s Presbyterian propriety, romanticizes his lack of money:

Now, what I like so much in France is the clear unflinching recognition by everybody of his own luck. They all know on which side their bread is buttered, and take a pleasure in showing it to others, which is surely the better part of religion. And they scorn to make a poor mouth over their poverty, which I take to be the better part of manliness.

In France, though, Stevenson also saw an opportunity to make some money for himself. He recorded a lengthy canoe ride that concluded in Pontoise, a community northwest of Paris, translating his experiences into his first book, the travelog An Inland Voyage. The book was well received, and literary critic Sidney Colvin, a close friend, lauded Stevenson’s “landscape writing” as “like the landscape-painting of the Japanese.”

Embracing a technique that would become his signature, Stevenson doesn’t merely record geography; he dramatizes it. Here, as he perilously navigates toward Pontoise, Stevenson takes the reader by the collar and brings him aboard:

The canoe was like a leaf in the current. It took it up and shook it, and carried it masterfully away, like a Centaur carrying off a nymph. To keep some command on our direction required hard and diligent plying of the paddle. The river was in such a hurry for the sea! Every drop of water ran in a panic, like so many people in a frightened crowd. But what crowd was ever so numerous or so single-minded?

Stevenson quickly capitalized on the success of An Inland Voyage with Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, a sometimes comic account of his journey into the mountains of south-central France with a recalcitrant beast of burden named Modestine. He somewhat sanitized his treatment of Modestine, which involved frequent swats to prod her along. Not all critics were mollified, though. “Raw legs and bleeding skin do not move him in the least,” one reviewer lamented of Stevenson.

But the book drew more fans than detractors, and Stevenson needed professional success more than ever. In France, he had begun a love affair with Fanny Osbourne, a married American with two children who was estranged from her husband. Stevenson eventually followed Fanny back to America, a trip that nearly killed him. The two married in San Francisco in 1880 shortly after Fanny’s divorce, which made Stevenson responsible for a dramatically expanded household.

Biographers have, in general, taken a dim view of Fanny’s role in Stevenson’s life, faulting her and her son, Lloyd Osbourne, especially, for draining him physically, financially, and emotionally. McLynn, the leading prosecutor in the anti-Osbourne school of Stevenson biography, puts it bluntly in his 1993 account of Stevenson’s life, concluding that it’s “impossible to argue against the thesis that Robert Louis Stevenson was a martyr to the greedy, grasping Osbourne family.”

Stevenson did, indeed, work hard to keep his household solvent, even when it involved churning out manuscripts from his sickbed. Strapped for cash after their California wedding, the Stevensons improvised a bizarre bargain honeymoon, holing up for a time in a deserted miner’s shack in the hills above Napa Valley. Still weak from his transatlantic voyage and in no shape for roughing it, Stevenson nevertheless turned out another travelog of his Western sojourn, The Silverado Squatters. Travel writing continued to be an important part of Stevenson’s career as he and his family visited one country after another, usually in search of a better climate for his lungs. His biography reads like a steamer trunk stamped with interesting destinations: France, Switzerland, New York, England, the Marquesas, the Paumotus, Tahiti, Hawai‘i, and, finally, Samoa.

Along with travel journalism, Stevenson proved a prolific essayist, publishing so many pieces in editor Leslie Stephen’s magazine The Cornhill that the initials “RLS” in Stevenson’s byline were jokingly assumed to signify the “Real Leslie Stephen.” His essays shimmer with easy charm, offering disquisitions in the style of Charles Lamb or even Montaigne on topics as eclectic as dogs, umbrellas, and the pleasures of loafing. But within cheerfully chatty passages, Stevenson gives a nod toward bleaker themes—a literary gesture all the more shocking because it seems so casual. In one of his signature compositions, “The Lantern-Bearers,” he warmly recalls boyhood excursions in which he and his adventuring comrades hooked tin lanterns on their belts to brighten evening walks through a little fishing village. It’s a classic summer reminiscence that’s blithely mingled with macabre memories of a local fisherman’s wife who cut her own throat. “She was lodged in the little old jail in the chief street,” Stevenson mentions in passing, “but whether or no she died there, with a wise terror of the worst, I never inquired.” It’s vintage Stevenson—private terrors winking at us from the otherwise pleasant hearth of daily existence—and not an entirely surprising sensibility for a writer whose comfortably affluent childhood had been shadowed by dangerous illness.

In his fiction, too, Stevenson ceaselessly explored the curious duality of existence, how darkness and light could reside in the same day, the same life, even the same person. That vision informs Treasure Island, his wildly popular pirate’s tale in which we’re not quite sure of the line between heroes and villains. The yarn seems, at first glance, like a straightforward adventure tale about a boy named Jim who discovers a treasure map and, with the help of friends Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney, outfits a ship to search for the loot. Long John Silver, on board as a crewman, conspires to mutiny and take the treasure for himself. But as McLynn points out, all of the characters, even the ostensibly virtuous ones, have been corrupted by their pursuits, although Long John is the only one who seems to truly know his own motivations. That moral ambiguity is equally evident in Kidnapped, another buccaneering narrative that asks us to consider which character—the volatile rebel Alan Breck Stewart or the more coldly rational David Balfour—has the truer grasp of reality.

Stevenson’s defining masterpiece of conflicting values, of course, is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the physician Jekyll develops a drug that divides him into two selves—his good-natured familiar character and the monstrous alter ego, Hyde. The tale has become such a cultural commonplace that today’s readers might have a hard time fathoming just how shocking it was to Stevenson’s nineteenth-century fans. “Published in January 1886, Stevenson’s story quickly became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic,” writes Davidson. Only a year later, the American actor Richard Mansfield launched a stage version of the novel in Boston that created a sensation. “Strong men shuddered and women fainted and were carried out of the theater,” Mansfield biographer Paul Wilstach noted. “People went away from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde afraid to enter their houses alone. They feared to sleep in darkened rooms. They were awakened by nightmare. Yet it had the fascination of crime and mystery, and they came again and again.”

As Davidson points out, Stevenson didn’t fully benefit from the craze he’d created, since copyright laws failed to prevent unauthorized theatrical adaptations from cashing in. He continued to work as hard as ever, even after settling in 1890 in Valima, his estate in Samoa, a tropical getaway that seemed to promise rest and relaxation. During his Samoan period, Stevenson led a life as colorful as any of his novels. He became involved in local politics, campaigning for Samoan rights against colonial powers. He was even accused of sedition by the British government when he supported a Samoan chief, but was eventually hailed as a peacemaker.

On December 3, 1894, as he was standing with Fanny on the veranda and making dressing for the dinner salad, Stevenson collapsed and lost consciousness, dying the same evening of what doctors determined to be a brain hemorrhage. Stevenson had wanted to be buried on the plateau of Mount Vaea near the family home, but there was no path up the long, steep incline, and the tropical heat meant that his burial could not be delayed.

“More than forty Samoans, including some chiefs, came promptly the next day and began the seemingly impossible task of clearing the virgin jungle up the mountainside,” writes biographer Claire Harman. The instant roadway, adds Harman, “was a feat of love as well as industry, the latest and greatest mark of the Samoans’ respect and affection for their most sympathetic sojourner.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s life embraced contradictions as intense as any found in his stories. He seemed like the quintessential bohemian, but was thoroughly conventional in his devotion to family. He cast himself as a merry idler, yet displayed a work ethic that would shame the most ardent Puritan. Illness destined him to the sickbed, but he traveled the globe and continues to inspire new generations of dreamers.  His books are both celebrated and dismissed as simple entertainments, but literary sophisticates as diverse as Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges looked to him as a model.

He risked oblivion in raging currents and rugged mountains, but eventually died while helping his wife make dinner. Stevenson, one gathers, would not have been surprised by that last, crowning contradiction. “You may paddle all day long,” he wrote, “but it is when you come back at nightfall, and look in at the familiar room, that you find Love or Death awaiting you beside the stove; and the most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek.”

About the Author

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. He frequently writes about literature for national publications.

Funding Information

An NEH grant helped advance the preservation of materials at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, California. The museum contains nearly eleven thousand items related to the author, his family and friends, and his writings.