Treasure Island Author Robert Louis Stevenson Was a Sickly Man
dig the grave and let me lie
I’m glad I lived and glad to die
and I slept with a will
this is the verse you record for me
here she lies where she longed to be
home is the sailor home of the sea
and the hunter home from the hill
Stevenson had many occasions to think about his own mortality. Frequently ill since childhood, he suffered from a chronic lung ailment with typical symptoms of tuberculosis, including respiratory problems and regurgitation of blood. Some commentators have speculated that Stevenson did not have tuberculosis, but rather a rarer lung condition such as bronchiectasis or Osler-Weber-rendu syndrome. Whatever the root of Stevenson’s health problems, the result was essentially the same. he had been near death several times and had traveled much of the world on an odyssey to find an ideal climate for his health. In Samoa, he made his last great attempt to regain his health, though one look at any of Stevenson’s portraits underscores the tenacity with which the disease stalked him.
in john singer sargent’s stevenson painting, he looks stretched to distortion, like a funhouse mirror’s reflection. people were often surprised at 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 that were morbidly intelligent and restless,” commented historian Henry Adams after visiting Stevenson in Samoa. A doctor called to attend to Stevenson in his last hours couldn’t believe that such a frail man would have done so much. “how can someone write books with arms like that?” he asked him.
But those who knew Stevenson often thought not of his physical weakness, but of 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. “Everyone knows what Stevenson looked like,” noted writer William Maxwell. “the velvet coat, the long straight hair, the stringy moustache, the attractive brown eyes which, it seemed, were capable of great changes of expression and color.” writer edmund gosse recalled how fascinating stevenson was when he met him in london. They agreed to have lunch, but hours later, as sunset neared, Stevenson was still talking. “When twilight came,” Gosse recalled, “I started, but Stevenson walked with me through Hyde Park and almost to my house. he had an engagement, and so did I, but I walked a mile or two with him. the fountains of talk had been opened and drowned out the conventions. I came home dazzled with my new friend.”
as a college student, before gaining fame as the author of peter pan, j. subway. barrie bumped into stevenson in the middle of an edinburgh street, then ended up skipping class so she 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 pour our hearts,” Barrie wrote.
“Part of the dazzle,” writes scholar Jenni Calder of Stevenson, “came from the brilliance of their conversation. he loved to talk, and while he talked he moved about the room, gesturing expressively, smoking almost continuously, fluent and restless. . . . it was spontaneous and completely unconventional.”
Her weirdness could sometimes border on affectation; In some photos, she wears a sash that looks like something out of the Treasure Island Pirates. “Depending on one’s point of view, Stevenson was either immensely charismatic or maddeningly selfish, or both,” explains academic Jenny Davidson. “It’s pretty clear that he always liked the spotlight, and if he wasn’t, he would do outrageous things to get it back where it belonged,” said biographer Frank Mclynn. Stevenson once took off his coat in a saloon, a vivid violation of etiquette, because she felt the conversation drift away from him. “You’d better put your coat back on, nobody’s paying attention to you,” the hostess told him. “I wish life were an opera,” Stevenson wrote to his mother when he was young. “I would like to live in one; but I don’t know in what part of the globe I will find a society thus constituted.”
From an early age, Stevenson indulged in a rich life of fantasy. “When he was a boy and was kept awake by night fears and fevers,” wrote Maxwell, “his father would sit by his bed and for hours make funny conversation with coachmen, innkeepers, and other imaginaries, until he heard the reassuring sound of her voice and the strangeness of what she was saying made the boy fall asleep.”
In this way, quite possibly, Stevenson came to see in his imagination a way to stay alive, like the mythical heroine of the Arabian Nights. Stevenson learned to use storytelling, over and over again, to get him out of his sickbed. That theme lies at the heart of Stevenson’s deeply autobiographical work, “The Land of the Quilt,” from his celebrated collection of poems for young people, A Garden of Verse for Children. In “quilt,” which takes its name from an old-fashioned term for quilt, a convalescing boy cut off from the world creates a new one of his own:
When I was sick and lay in bed, I had two pillows on my head and all my toys were by my side to keep me happy all day. and sometimes, for an hour or so, I would see my tin soldiers pass, in different uniforms and drills, between the sheets, across the hills; and sometimes I sent my ships in fleets up and down between the sheets; or I removed my trees and my houses, and planted cities around. I was the great and still giant who sits on the pillow-hill, and sees before him, valley and plain, the pleasant land of the quilt.
Born in 1850, Stevenson grew up an only child in a fashionable Edinburgh suburb. His father, Thomas Stevenson, was part of a distinguished line of engineers, and young Louis, as he was known to friends and family, was trained to follow his example. After Louis confessed that he was not interested in extending the family tradition, he became a law student, but that line of study also proved unsuccessful. what louis really wanted to do, more than anything, was write.
Stevenson’s precarious career choice, coupled with his questioning of his father’s orthodox religious views, placed deep strains on their relationship, though the elder Stevenson continued to support Louis financially during their years of literary struggle. . As a result of these family conflicts, Stevenson went to France, apparently in search of a better climate for his lungs. he found the change in culture even more invigorating than the change in air.
Stevenson, a quintessential hippie, loved the laid-back sensibilities of the French. Listen as Stevenson, dependent on his father’s allowance and still chafing at his family’s Presbyterian propriety, romanticizes his lack of money:
Now, what I like so much in France is the clear and unwavering recognition by everyone of their own luck. everyone knows which side their bread is buttered on, and they enjoy showing it off to others, which is surely the best part of religion. and they make fun of making a bad mouth about their poverty, which I take as the best part of manhood.
In France, however, Stevenson also saw an opportunity to make some money for himself. He recorded a long canoe trip that ended in Pontoise, a community northwest of Paris, translating his experiences into his first book, the travelogue An Inland Voyage. The book was well received, and literary critic Sidney Colvin, a close friend, praised Stevenson’s “landscape writing” as “like the landscape painting of the Japanese.”
adopting a technique that would become his signature, stevenson doesn’t just record geography; he dramatizes it. Here, as he sails perilously towards Pontoise, Stevenson grabs the reader by the throat and pulls him on board:
The canoe was like a leaf in the stream. she took it and shook it, and masterfully carried it off, like a centaur carrying off a nymph. maintaining some control over our steering required hard and diligent handling of the oar. What a rush the river was in to reach the sea! every drop of water ran in panic, like so many people in a frightened crowd. but what crowd was ever so numerous or so determined?
Stevenson quickly capitalized on the success of An Inland Journey with Ride a Donkey in the Cévennes, a sometimes comical account of his trek into the mountains of south-central France with a recalcitrant beast of burden called Modestine. he somehow cleaned up his treatment of modesty, which involved frequent beatings to push her. however, not all critics calmed down. “The raw legs and bleeding skin don’t move him one bit,” lamented one reviewer of Stevenson.
But the book attracted more admirers than detractors, and Stevenson needed career success more than ever. In France, he had started a love affair with Fanny Osbourne, an American married with two children who was separated from her husband. Stevenson eventually followed Fanny back to the United States, a trip that nearly killed him. The two were married in San Francisco in 1880 shortly after Fanny’s divorce, leaving Stevenson responsible for a dramatically expanded home.
biographers have generally taken a poor view of fanny’s role in stevenson’s life, blaming her and her son, lloyd osbourne, especially, for draining him physically, financially, and emotionally. Mclynn, the lead prosecutor in the anti-Osbourne school’s biography of Stevenson, puts it bluntly in his 1993 account of Stevenson’s life, concluding that it is “impossible to argue against the thesis that Robert Louis Stevenson was a martyr to the greedy and greedy osbourne family.”
Stevenson, in fact, worked hard to keep his household solvent, even when it meant producing manuscripts from his sickbed. Strapped for cash after their California wedding, the Stevensons improvised a rare bargain honeymoon, hiding out for a while in an abandoned miner’s shack in the hills above Napa Valley. Still weak from his transatlantic voyage and in no condition to have a bad time, Stevenson nonetheless produced another travelogue from his stay in the West, The Silverado Squatters. Travel writing remained an important part of Stevenson’s career as he and his family visited country after country, often in search of a better climate for their lungs. His biography reads like a steamer trunk stamped with interesting destinations: France, Switzerland, New York, England, the Marquesas, the Paumotus, Tahiti, Hawaii, and finally Samoa.
Along with travel journalism, Stevenson proved a prolific essayist, publishing so many pieces in editor Leslie Stephen’s The Cornhill Magazine that the initials “RLS” in Stevenson’s line were jokingly assumed to stand for the “real Leslie stephen”. His essays glow with easy charm, offering Charles Lamb- or even Montaigne-style disquisitions on subjects as eclectic as dogs, umbrellas, and the pleasures of loitering. But within gleefully chatty passages, Stevenson winks at darker themes, a literary gesture all the more shocking because it seems so casual. In one of his signature compositions, “The Lanterns,” he warmly recalls childhood excursions in which he and his fellow adventurers would hook tin lanterns to their belts to brighten up late-night strolls through a small town in fishermen. it’s a classic reminiscence of summer that merrily mixes with macabre reminiscences of a local fisherman’s wife who slit her own throat. “They locked her up in the little old jail on the main street,” Stevenson mentions in passing, “but I never inquired whether she died there or not, in a wise terror of the worst.” It’s vintage Stevenson, private terrors winking at us from the cozy home of everyday existence, and a sensibility not entirely surprising for a writer whose comfortably prosperous childhood was overshadowed by a dangerous illness.
Also in his fiction, Stevenson endlessly explored the curious duality of existence, how darkness and light can reside in the same day, the same life, even the same person. That vision informs Treasure Island, his wildly popular pirate tale in which we’re not quite sure the line between heroes and villains. the thread seems, at first glance, like a simple adventure story about a boy named jim who discovers a treasure map and, with the help of his friends, dr. Trelawney, spirited and shield-wielding, equips a ship to search for loot. Long John Silver, on board as a crewman, plots to mutiny and take the treasure for himself. But as Mclynn points out, all the characters, even the seemingly virtuous ones, have been corrupted by his activities, though Long John is the only one who seems to truly know his own motivations. That moral ambiguity is equally evident in Kidnapped, another buccaneer narrative that asks us to consider which character, the volatile rebel Alan Breck Stewart or the more coldly rational David Balfour, has the more realistic grasp of reality.
Stevenson’s defining masterpiece of conflicting values, of course, is the strange case of dr. jekyll and mr. hyde, in which doctor jekyll develops a drug that splits him in two: his kindhearted family character and the monstrous alter ego, hyde. The story has become such a cultural commonplace that today’s readers may find it difficult to comprehend just how shocking it was to Stevenson fans in the 19th century. “Published in January 1886, Stevenson’s Story quickly became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic,” writes Davidson. Just a year later, American actor Richard Mansfield released a stage version of the novel in Boston that caused a sensation. “Strong men shuddered and women swooned and were carried out of the theater,” noted Mansfield biographer Paul Wilstach. “people turned away from dr. jekyll and mr. hyde is afraid to go into his house alone. they feared sleeping in dark rooms. they were awakened by the nightmare. however, he had a fascination with crime and mystery, and they came up again and again.”
As Davidson points out, Stevenson did not fully benefit from the craze he had created, as copyright laws failed to prevent unauthorized stage adaptations from getting paid. He continued to work as hard as ever, even after settling in 1890 at Valima, his Samoan estate, a tropical getaway that seemed to promise rest and relaxation. During his Samoan period, Stevenson led as colorful a life as any of his novels. He became involved in local politics, campaigning for Samoan rights against the 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, while standing with Fanny on the terrace and preparing the salad dressing for dinner, Stevenson collapsed and lost consciousness, dying later that night of what doctors determined was 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 slope, and the tropical heat meant his burial could not be delayed.
“More than forty Samoans, including some chiefs, arrived promptly the next day and began the seemingly impossible task of clearing virgin forest on the mountainside,” writes biographer Claire Harman. The Instant Road, Harman adds, “was a feat of love and labor, the latest and greatest display of Samoans’ respect and affection for their most understanding traveler.”
Robert Louis Stevenson’s life encompassed contradictions as intense as those found in his stories. he seemed the quintessential bohemian, but he was completely conventional in his devotion to family. he presented himself as a jolly slacker, but displayed a work ethic that would put the most ardent puritan to shame. Illness confined him to the sickbed, but he traveled the world and continues to inspire new generations of dreamers. His books are both celebrated and dismissed as mere entertainment, but literary sophisticates as diverse as Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges held him up as a model.
He risked oblivion in raging currents and craggy mountains, but ultimately died while helping his wife prepare dinner. Stevenson, one realizes, would not have been surprised by that latest climactic contradiction. “You can row all day,” he wrote, “but it is when you return at dusk and look into the family room, that you find love or death waiting by the stove; and the most beautiful adventures are not the ones we are going to seek.”