One of Scotland’s most famous writers—in fact one of the most famous writers in Western literature—Robert Louis Stevenson is remembered as a great storyteller. We know of his novels: the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (inspired by Edinburgh’s infamous Deacon Brodie) the children’s classic Treasure Island, and numerous poems and short stories and articles. But past the bare bones biography, what does the average person know about Robert Louis Stevenson?
He was born in Edinburgh, became a celebrity author, and died after a few decades of yarn-spinning. But there is so much more to the man behind the books. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about Robert Louis Stevenson:
1. Young Rebel: When he was a young man (known as “Velvet Jacket” because of his dandified tastes), Stevenson had a circle of close friends who hung out at Rutherford’s Bar near Edinburgh University. He and his pals were the founding members of the LJR (Liberty, Justice, Reverence) League, whose motto was “Disregard everything our parents taught us!” And that wasn’t the last of his rebellious streak.
3. A Fallback Career:
Robert Louis Stevenson had a sickly constitution and spent much of his childhood in bed, reading and writing. He loved books, but when he went to school it was to study engineering. This was the family business (you can still visit the beautiful Bell Rock and Eilean Glas
lighthouses that his grandfather and namesake designed). He even won a silver medal for an article “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses.” When he finally decided to pursue his first love of writing, he switched his study to law as a profession that he could fall back on in case his writing failed.
3. The American Divorcée: Stevenson was a great traveler, and on a canoe trip through France he encountered an American woman named Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. She was a married woman with two children, and she was 10 years older than him. Stevenson fell in love with her and they struck up an affair. When she went back to San Francisco he pursued her on a steamship (which took such a toll on his body that he had to be nursed back to health by California ranchers). After Fanny divorced her husband she and Stevenson were married.
4. “I have now no further use for a birthday”: Due to his health problems, Stevenson and his family spent much of their time away from Edinburgh’s cold and sooty skies. In his last years he purchased a vast estate in Samoa. While living there he discovered that 12-year-old Annie, the daughter of the U. S. Commissioner to Samoa, was terribly unhappy about her birthday falling on Christmas Day. In his own witty, generous way, Stevenson attempted to rectify the situation by writing a lengthy legal letter transferring his birthday to the girl:
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind and pretty well I thank you in body…Have transferred, and do hereby transfer to the said A. H. Ide, All and Whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said A. H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise and enjoy….
5. Buried Far From Home: Robert Louis Stevenson had a regrettably short life, dying at the age of 44. The boy with big dreams who was born in a plain house in Edinburgh lived out his adventurous life all over the globe, and when he died in 1894 he was buried in a grand ceremony on Mount Vaea, Upolu. He had become a treasured adviser and administrator for the local people, even taking the native name Tusitala (Samoan for “Teller of Tales”). He was commemorated with an impressive tomb inscribed with these lines, “Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill.”
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