Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born at Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. He was a sickly youth, and an only son, for whom his parents had high hopes. When at last Stevenson was able to attend school, he did extremely well and entered the university at sixteen. His family expected him to become a lighthouse engineer, a family profession, but Stevenson agreed, as a compromise, to study law instead. He was a young rebel; he thought that his parents’ religion was an abomination, and he soon became known as a bohemian, ranting about bourgeois hypocrisy.
When he was twenty-three, Stevenson developed a severe respiratory illness and was sent to the French Riviera to recuperate. This was the first of his many travels abroad, usually to France. In fact, many of his best-known writings use voyages and travels as their framework — Treasure Island and Kidnapped, for example — and Stevenson would travel for the rest of his life. He was always restless and curious about the world, and he never put down roots for long in any single location.
While Stevenson was staying at Fontainebleau, in France, in 1876 (he was twenty-six), he met Fanny Osbourne, an American woman who was separated from her husband. He fell in love with her, and much to the horror of his parents, he courted her for two years. In 1878, Mrs. Osbourne returned to California, and the elder Stevensons felt that perhaps their son would come to his senses and forget the “loose” American woman. They were wrong. Robert decided to follow Fanny to California. He arrived there in 1879, very ill and very poor. It was not an easy time for the young lovers. Stevenson barely managed to eke out a living and was ill much of the time. They were married early in 1880 and honeymooned on the site of an abandoned silver mine. It was not long, however, before they received a telegram from Stevenson’s father, relenting and offering them financial support. Soon afterward, the couple sailed for Scotland.
For some time, the Stevensons lived in Switzerland because of Robert’s bad health, but still he continued to suffer from bouts of severe respiratory illness; he returned to the Scottish Highlands, but became critically ill with a lung hemorrhage. He tried living in England, but the climate there was also bad for him. All this time, however, he continued to write and publish. His best-known novels, Treasure Island and Kidnapped, are both products of this period, as is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), more commonly referred to as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In August 1887, Stevenson and his family sailed for America, where he found himself famous. Thus, he chartered a yacht and sailed for the South Seas. He lived there for the rest of his life, writing novels, essays, and poetry and traveling among the islands. In the South Seas (1896) and A Footnote to History (1892) are records of his fascination with the exotic new peoples and the countries he encountered.
Finally, when Stevenson was forty, he decided to make his home in Samoa, and he lived there, with his wife, his mother, and his wife’s two children, for four years. He died very suddenly early in December 1894; surprisingly, his death was due to a cerebral hemorrhage and not to the long-feared tuberculosis which had plagued him so relentlessly throughout his life.