Robert Louis Stevenson, whose best-known works include Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was born on the 13th November 1850. Here, we celebrate the approaching anniversary of his birth with this brief biography of his life and work.
Born and raised in Edinburgh, Robert was the only child of middle-class parents. He was a sickly child, suffering from frequent bronchial illnesses, which left him bed bound and unable to attend school. As a result he was often educated at home by tutors and nannies, his favourite being one Allison Cummingham (whom he nicknamed Cummy) who would regularly read to him. This isolated childhood helped develop a great imagination.
In 1867, Robert began studying science at the University of Edinburgh and it was hoped that he would follow the family tradition and enter the civil engineering industry. But Robert quickly grew disinterested in this field of study, turning his attention to French literature, Scottish history and writing, developing his writing skills by imitating the work of his favourite authors. He also became more Bohemian in appearance and declared himself agnostic, in opposition to his parents’ religious beliefs. After informing his father that he no longer wished to pursue a career in engineering, it was agreed that Robert study law instead.
During the summer, Robert would often go to France, where he would spend time in the company of artists and writers whilst writing essays on his travels – travelling would inform much of his future writing. Between visits to Europe, Robert spent time writing book reviews whilst experimenting with short stories. Many of his travel essays and articles were published in periodicals and his first two books, An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (both 1879) were about his travels in France.
Robert’s first novel, Treasure Island, was published in 1883 and was closely followed by other hugely poplar works, including Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) which he dedicated to his old nanny Cummy, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Whilst Robert claimed that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the worst thing he’d ever written, it received huge critical acclaim at the time of publication, selling 40,000 copies within the first six months. The novel remains one of his most well-known works.
Robert Louis Stevenson continued to write and publish right up until his death in December 1894 – he died tragically young at the age of 44 after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
For more information about the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson visit Robert Louis Stevenson (robert-louis-stevenson.org) and Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.