Robert Lewis (later: ‘Louis’) Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. His father Thomas belonged to a family of engineers who had built most of the deep-sea lighthouses around the coast of Scotland. His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, came from a family of lawyers and church ministers.
From infancy Stevenson was a sickly child, suffering from recurrent respiratory illnesses and coughs. These illnesses persisted throughout his life, taking the form of fevers, coughing, bronchial infections, and eventually “Bluidy Jack,” a hemorrhage of the lungs that results in blood issuing from the mouth.
At the age of seventeen he enrolled at Edinburgh University (1867-1872) to study engineering. He abandoned this course of studies and made the compromise of studying law. Stevenson was called to the Scottish bar in 1875 but did not practice since he had decided to become a writer. While at the university Stevenson began to write verse and literary essays which were published in several periodicals. He also became increasingly bohemian and artistic, and in general declared his independence from his middle-class family values.
In his early twenties Stevenson wrote a number of travel essays which portray his perceptions, moods, memories, and the lessons he draws from his travel experiences. Two essays, Forest Notes (Cornhill Magazine, May 1876) and Fontainebleau: Village Communities of Painters (The Magazine of Art, May and June 1884), describe Stevenson’s stay in the artist colonies around Fontainebleau in the spring of 1875, where the Barbizon school of French painting had been located. His motifs focus on aspiring painters seeking escape from bourgeois society in an artists’ colony. Stevenson’s first published volume, An Inland Voyage (1878), is an account of the journey he made by canoe from Antwerp to northern France.
In September 1876 at Grez, France, Louis met an American woman, Fanny Osbourne, who was to become his future wife. After falling in love, Fanny later returned home to Oakland, California to reconcile with her estranged husband, Sam Osbourne. Failing this, Fanny decided to seek a divorce and Stevenson set out from Scotland to California. The couple married in San Francisco on May 19, 1880. An account of their honeymoon on Mount St. Helena in the Napa Valley was written about in Stevenson’s The Silverado Squatters (1883). After receiving a yearly allowance of 250 pounds from his father, the Stevensons’ returned to Scotland, eventually settling in Bournemouth, England until the death of his father in 1887. During these years Stevenson produced many works including: Treasure Island (1883), A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), Kidnapped (1886), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
After Thomas Stevenson’s death, Louis, Fanny, her Lloyd Osbourne and the widowed Margaret Stevenson set sail for America, landing in New York in 1887. They lived temporarily at Saranac Lake, New York before chartering the schooner Casco, berthed in Oakland, California, to set sail for the South Seas in 1888. In 1889, the Stevenson family arrived at the port of Apia in the Samoan islands, where Louis bought property and built a house he called Vailima (‘five streams in Samoan’). Continuing his career as a successful author, he became known in the islands by his Samoan name “Tusitala” (‘A Teller of Tales’). On December 3, 1894, at forty-four years of age, Stevenson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He left unfinished the stories of St. Ives and The Weir of Hermiston.
Robert Louis Stevenson was buried at the summit of Mount Vaea overlooking the sea.