Few writers of our own generation have been so well known or have so appealed to the personal affections of their readers as Robert Louis Stevenson. Our intimate knowledge of his life is due in part to the degree to which he put his experiences into his books, in part to the sympathy and admiration aroused by his plucky fight to do his work under the heavy odds of ill health. To his personal acquaintances he was lovable because of his brilliancy, his high-mindedness, his humor and his broad sympathies; to his readers he was lovable because he carried these qualities into his writings.
He was born in Edinburgh, November 13, 1850. His grandfather, his father and several of his uncles were builders of lighthouses. Of their ability, their sterling qualities of character, and their eccentricities he has told in his essay, A Family of Engineers. Upon reading this paper one can see whence came many of Stevenson's own characteristics: his love of thoroughness in his work, his chivalric devotion to truth, and his quaint humor. Of his father, particularly, it is said that he was serious, painstaking, with a touch of daring and a fondness for the out-of-doors life, and a power of saying things in picturesque fashion. His mother came of a famous old Scotch family, the Balfours. She was bright and vivacious, and a tactful hostess. Between mother and son a strong attachment existed up to the end of his life. After the death of his father she accompanied him in his pursuit of health, first to America and then to the islands of the Pacific.
He was a precocious and imaginative child. And his memories of his childhood, of his plays and games, and especially of the child's view of the things about him seem to have been more vivid and lasting than is usual even in literary geniuses. No better portrayal of childhood exists than his Child's Garden of Verses. This book is fittingly dedicated to the nurse who was his attendant, friend, and teacher, Alison Cunningham.
He learned to read late--at seven or eight years--because he had been read to by his mother and nurse, and, as he has said, saw no reason then why he should read for himself. His formal instruction began in a private school in 1859. From 1861 to 1864 he went to the Edinburgh Academy: from 1864 to 1867 to another private school in Edinburgh, and then to the University of Edinburgh. One of his masters in the first school said of him: "He was without exception the most delightful boy I ever knew; full of fun, full of tender feeling; ready for his lessons, ready for a story, ready for fun." His fragile body was unfit for vigorous athletics; boating, riding and swimming were his only sports. But he found entertainment enough in life; for his mind was active. Even as a child his delight was intense in hearing, reading, and making imaginative stories. Of some of this early reading he has written most delightfully in A Penny Plain, Two Pence Coloured, a title taken from the price of the series of plays and stories that he and his schoolmates most affected.
His interest in learning to write began early. From the time he was twelve, this was his chief and most constant interest. In his essay A College Magazine occurs the oft quoted passage:
"All through my boyhood and youth I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was for no ulterior use, it was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that I wished to be an author (though I wished that too) as that I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practised to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself."
He started several magazines in his boyhood. The earlier ones were in manuscript, but illustrated, and the later ones in print. Their contents were generally hair-raising tales of adventure. Altogether, it would be hard to find a better instance of a man's bent showing itself all through his life.
It had been understood in the family that Louis--as his friends always called him--should follow his father's profession, engineering. Accordingly, when he entered the University of Edinburgh, he chose his course with this in view. At various times he went with his father or alone to acquaint himself with the practical side of the profession. What he thought of these experiences he tells us in his usual interesting way:
"As a way of life, I wish to speak with sympathy of my education as an engineer. It takes a man into the open air; it keeps him hanging about harbour sides, which is the richest form of idling; it carries him to wild islands; it gives him a taste of the genial dangers of the sea; it supplies him with dexterities to exercise; it makes demands upon his ingenuity; it will go far to cure him of any taste (if he ever had one) of the miserable life of cities; and when it has done so, it carries him back and shuts him in an office. From the roaring skerry and the wet thwart of the tossing boat, he passes to the stool and desk; and with a memory full of ships, and seas, and perilous headlands, and the shining pharos, he must apply his longsighted eyes to the petty niceties of drawing, or measure his inaccurate mind with several pages of consecutive figures. He is a wise youth, to be sure, who can balance one part of genuine life against two parts of drudgery between four walls, and for the sake of the one, manfully accept the other."
But, though Stevenson was never the man to shirk drudgery, "genuine life" lay for him in another field of work. The call to write was as strong in him as ever. And so, in 1871, he decided to relinquish the profession of engineering. His father was, of course, disappointed. As his friends could not yet be brought to regard authorship as a profession and a means of livelihood, it was now decided that he should become a lawyer. During 1871-2 he pursued the study of law. This was interrupted by ill health; and how he was sent to Southern France because of incipient consumption he has told in Ordered South. In the spring of 1874 he returned, resumed his law studies, and was admitted to the bar. As he felt no more strongly drawn to this life than to engineering, he never engaged in the practice of the law.
From this period, the years just before and beyond twenty five, date the beginnings of many of his life-long friendships. Among these friends were W. E. Henley, Charles Baxter, Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse, and Fleeming Jenkin. He made various trips to Fontainebleau, and formed close ties with many of the artists gathered there. Of the charm of his talk at this period Mr. Gosse has written delightfully:
"[Gaiety] was his cardinal quality in those early days. A childlike mirth leaped and danced in him; he seemed to skip upon the hills of life. He was simply bubbling with quips and jests; his inherent earnestness or passion about abstract things was incessantly relieved by jocosity; and when he had built one of his intellectual castles in the sand, & wave of humor was certain to sweep in and destroy it."
It was during this period that he went on the canoe trip that he made famous in The Inland Voyage. While on one of his sojourns with the artist colony at Grez, near Fontainebleau, he met his future wife, Mrs. Osbourne, who had come there from San Francisco to study art. After her return to San Francisco Stevenson crossed the Atlantic to visit her. Of this voyage, made partly in the steerage, and of his journey across the United States in an emigrant car, he has told in The Amateur Emigrant. The journey made him ill. He lived for a time in Monterey and San Francisco in poverty, ill health, and loneliness, but working with persistence upon various books.
In May, 1880, he married Mrs. Osbourne. They went at once up into the mountains, to a deserted mining camp; and out of this experience Stevenson made The Silverado Squatters. In August they sailed for Scotland to visit his parents.
A few months later he was sent by his physicians for a winter in Switzerland. For the next seven or eight years the story of the life of the Stevensons is mainly an account of their wanderings in search of a climate that would help him in his fight against consumption, of the mutual love and devotion of husband and wife, of his persistent work upon his books in spite of ill health, and of his growing reputation as an author. During these years he lived in the Adirondack Mountains, in Switzerland, at Hyeres, near Paris, at Bournemouth, England, and for a short period or two, in Edinburgh.
His literary reputation was perhaps most securely established by Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All of these were widely read and highly praised not only by the ordinary reader of novels but by men of distinction in letters.
In the spring of 1888 he conceived the plan of cruising in the South Seas. He chartered a schooner in San Francisco, and the next three years were spent in cruising among thc islands of the Pacific. He sojourned for shorter or longer periods here and there, always making friends of the natives, perhaps because he appealed to the best in them and gathering many pictures and impressions. Few books of travel are so interesting, and perhaps none so charming, as his book, In The South Seas. His story, The Beach of Falesa, is also filled with the spirit of the region.
In 1891, he settled definitely in Samoa. He bought land, built a house, and established a plantation there; and there he spent three busy, helpful and, on the whole, happy years, until his death in August, 1894. He called his home Vailima, a Samoan word meaning "five waters," from the five streams upon the estate.
He was buried on a hill on his estate overlooking the sea. On his simple monument was inscribed the Requiem written by himself:
Under the wide and starry sky,
This be the verse you grave for me:
One of the most significant things in his life was his relation to the natives there. His native servants idolized him. To the chiefs and the other islanders Tusitala ("the teller of tales" - so they called him) was as a brother. To the missionaries and traders, and brother Europeans there, he was a friend and counsellor. With their own hands the natives, chiefs and all, built a road from the seaport, Apia, to Stevenson's house; and they named it Ala Loto Alofa, The Road of the Loving Heart.
Twice, at least, he used his powers as a writer in a public protest against injustice. Father Damien, a devoted young Catholic priest, who was giving his life to the service of the lepers in their colony at Molokai had been basely slandered. Stevenson took up his cause, and denounced his traducers. Again, seeing the incompetence and injustice existing in Samoa under the three-fold government of Germany, England, and the United States, Stevenson wrote a series of vigorous letters to the London Times, which, though they made enemies for him, eventually helped to bring to an end a bad condition of government. An account of these events may be read in his A Footnote to History. It was for this crowning service that the chiefs built The Road of the Loving Heart.
Stevenson's work is of three kinds: fiction, essays, and poetry. The best known is his fiction; the least known--with the conspicuous exception of A Child's Garden of Verses--is his poetry. But to a wide and growing list of readers his essays and letters are the best work.
We have seen that he was a teller of tales and a lover of them all his life. When he wrote, he lived not only in the characters but in the scenes of his stories. His sympathies were, as he has told in A Little Gossip on Romance, all with the romantic school. For him the unusual, the striking, the quaint and the heroic held the greatest charm. He admired Scott, Dumas, and the other great romancists. He was fertile in invention. He conceived many plans for stories, dramas, and other books that he never found time and strength to write. All his life the world was rich and full to him; as it had been in his observant and imaginative childhood, so it continued, to be in his fuller and richer manhood.
The world is so full of a number of things.
I have already spoken of his painstaking efforts to master his craft. Few prose writers have had so keen a sense of style or so zealous a desire to write well. Not only his essays, but even his stories, were rewritten and polished again and again. And so he came to the power of saying perfectly just the exact thing that he meant to say. When we read him we have the satisfaction that comes from feeling that we and the author are in perfect accord.
But this is not the only, or even the greatest, satisfaction that he gives us. I have spoken of his richness of observation and invention. He is never dull. Every page--every sentence almost--has its charm either in the picture or the idea it suggests. His books are full of vivid action, life-like and convincing touches of character portrayal, descriptions of scenes and places, each with its special charm. And to many readers his revelation of his own personal qualities is the greatest charm of all. What he sees, he has seen for himself, not through others' eyes. His thoughts are his own, not the borrowed garments of other men. His good humor, his playful spirit, his high courage, his innate truthfulness and honesty,--all these are in his books for the eye that will see.
Stevenson called Treasure Island his "first book." He meant, not the first book that be had published, but the first that had a great success. He has told fully and most interestingly of the beginning and progress of the story. His young stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, was in part responsible for the story, as Stevenson has said in the dedication. His father, now old and retired from his profession, entered into sympathy with the work like a boy. It was he who made out the contents of Billy Bones's chest, suggested the name Walrus for Flint's ship, and did the handwriting of Bones and Flint on the map. The boy and the old man were an eager audience to each chapter as it was finished.
The story began with the map. Stevenson's interest in places and in maps was always great. In A Little Gossip on Romance he has well expressed his feeling that there is a certain kind of scene appropriate to a certain kind of event; and that many places only await the advent of some genius who will make them famous by fitting to them some appropriate incident. In this case the map, which he called Treasure Island, was the fire of his inspiration and the backbone of his plot. He fell to work upon the story eagerly, writing the first fifteen chapters at the rate of a chapter a day. Then his inspiration gave out. The tale would not go on. In the meantime it had begun to appear as a serial in Young Folks, and Stevenson was in despair. Later he went to Switzerland for the winter, and while here his inspiration came back to him, and he finished the remaining chapters as rapidly and easily as he did the first.
The first title Stevenson had given it was The Sea Cook. But at the suggestion of his publisher it was changed to "Treasure Island; by Captain George North." Its real value was not recognized at first. But later, Messrs. Cassell, publishers, arranged to bring it out in book form. Its success was now immediate and astonishing. Graham Balfour, his biographer, says:
"Its reception reads like a fairy tale. Statesmen and judges and all sorts of staid and sober men became boys once more, sitting up long after bedtime to read their new book. The story goes that Mr. Gladstone got a glimpse of it at a colleague's house, and spent the next day hunting over London for a second-hand copy. The editor of the Saturday Review, the superior, cynical 'Saturday' of old days, wrote excitedly to say that he thought Treasure Island was the best book that had appeared since Robinson Crusoe; and James Payn, who, if not a great novelist himself, held an undisputed position among novelists and critics, sent a note hardly less enthusiastic. Mr. Andrew Lang spent over it 'several hours of unmingled bliss. This is the kind of stuff a fellow wants. I don't know, except Tom Sawyer and the Odyssey, that I ever liked any romance so well.' "
Stevenson's own comment upon his success was characteristically modest and whimsical. "This gives one strange thoughts of how very bad the common run of books must be; and generally all the books that the wiseacres think too bad to print are the very ones that bring one praise and pudding.' But this modest comment of the author is indeed far from the truth. Though Treasure Island is neither a great book, nor a storehouse of wisdom, it is one of the very best of its kind. No apologies need ever be made for books which can give so much harmless pleasure to readers of all ages and of such varying tastes.
The central figure of the story is, of course, the Sea Cook, Captain John Silver. His ability is as extraordinary as his shameless rascality; and he is consistently drawn from start to finish. Many of the other figures are equally well done, though less prominent: as Bill Bones, the blind Pew, Doctor Livesey, the Squire, and Ben Gunn, the maroon. Each has his mark,--his tag, so to speak. One of the best touches of the story is poor Ben Gunn's habit of semi-soliloquy in dialogue and his longing for a bit of "Christian diet," a piece of toasted cheese.
The author has recorded with characteristic frankness his debt to other writers. He borrowed the parrot, from Robinson Crusoe, the skeleton from Poe, the stockade from Captain Marryat's Masterman Ready, "and Billy Bones, the chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit and a good deal of the material of the first chapters' from Irving's Tales of a Traveller. "But," he goes on, "I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the springtides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet, day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning's work to the family. It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye." One can not but wish that the masters from whom he borrowed might, like us, have the pleasure of seeing what good use he rnade of the loans!
Were there time and space in such an edition, an interesting essay might be written upon the history of piracy and its contributions to literature. There is something in the life of this type of plunderer that makes a strong appeal to the unregenerate boy-tastes of us all. But like many types of heroes, such as the red Indian and the quarrelsome knight errant, the pirate's charm depends upon his being contemplated at a proper distance of time and place, and through the proper halo of romantic fiction. Near at hand, and seen truly, he was a base and ugly specimen.
Piracy is perhaps as old as commerce. The Phœnicians, who not only engaged in trade by sea, but preyed upon the commerce of other maritime peoples, such as the Greeks, are thought to have been the first pirates. Our Norse and Saxon ancestors were famous pirates; they took England and Northern France in that direct and brutal way. Piracy flourished in the middle ages. No general attempt was made to suppress it. There was, indeed, something of the same halo attaching to it as to the equally cruel and savage practice of winning lands by conquest. Society rested somewhat unstably
on the simple plan
The law of might had not yet come into contempt. So in spite of attempts by various nations to put it down, it existed in Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. Its last representatives were the Moors of the northern coast of Africa. Our school histories tell us that it was finally suppressed here by the United States; English text-books assign the credit to English sailors. Both are entitled to the credit.
The particular type of piracy, of which that in Treasure Island is one of the flickering remnants, was that against the Spaniards in the Spanish Main, or the Caribbean Sea. The Spaniards had stolen vast treasure from the Indians, and added to it by working the gold and silver mines in Central America; and enterprising adventurers of various nations proceeded to steal from the Spaniards by robbing and sinking their treasure-laden ships. The most adventurous and successful thieves were the English. Under the color of the war between England and Spain, men like Admiral Hawke and Sir Francis Drake became rich and famous heroes. But when war ceased, and piracy became mere theft and murder, the sentiment of nations could no longer condone it; and the Buccaneers, as they were then called, were hunted from the seas. In the Encyclopedia Britannica the student will find under "Buccaneers" an interesting account of the rise and fall of this particular branch of piracy. How the pirate had come to be the lowest and most reckless type of criminal, hunted and hiding from the law, a thing of terror to the law-abiding citizen, and living himself in terror of being "hanged and sun-dried at Execution Dock" is clearly shown in Treasure Island. It will easily be remembered, however, that this book is not history, but romance.
ENTER “Treasure Island”!