Sunday, July 29, 2007

Background and Early Life

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish author best remembered for his adventure novels, "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," and his supernatural thriller, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Despite being plagued by chronic illness, he traveled extensively and documented his travels in essays and books.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the only child of Thomas Stevenson, a wealthy civil engineer, and his wife Margaret.

Stevenson spent his early years bedridden, suffering from several illnesses. He was a frail child, but had a vivid imagination and amused himself by making up stories. When he was six years old, before he learned to write, he won a writing competition by dictating a story to his mother.

Stevenson started school at the age of six, but frequent illness prevented him from attending regularly. His parents also removed him from school periodically so he could accompany them on trips around Scotland. Stevenson was a mediocre student when he did attend classes, and preferred writing and languages to math and science.

Upon entering his teens, Stevenson decided that he wanted to be a writer. He observed how people interacted with each other and took notes on their conversations. He read voraciously, and wrote original prose in the style of other authors to improve his own composition skills. In 1866, Stevenson financed the publication of one of his own essays, entitled "The Pentland Rising." It was his first published piece.

His health having improved, Stevenson enrolled in Edinburgh University in November 1867. He was reportedly more interested in socializing and strolling around the campus grounds than attending classes. He became involved with the bohemian culture, an anti-establishment movement made up of artists and intellectuals, and took to drinking and visiting brothels. In 1869, Stevenson was invited to join the Speculative Society, a prestigious campus literary club, and he changed his name to Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1871, Stevenson confronted his father and told him that he wanted to be a writer. Thomas Stevenson was disappointed, and worried that a writing career would not be lucrative. He had hoped his son would become an engineer like himself and enter into the family business of lighthouse design.

Thomas Stevenson urged his son to study law, if not engineering, as a career to fall back upon should he fail at writing. Stevenson agreed, encouraged by his father's promise to give him £1,000 if he passed the bar exam.

Stevenson's law studies were interrupted by a bout of respiratory illness, which drove him to Menton, France to rest and recover in late 1873. He remained there until the following April, and wrote and published a handful of essays until July 1875, when he passed the Scottish bar exam.

By Jamie Aronson



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