Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

Excerpt

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON was born in Edinburgh on the 13th of November 1850. His inheritance was distinguished; the Stevenson family were brilliant engineers with an international reputation. His grandfather, Robert Stevenson, was Engineer to the Board of Northern Lights, and had built the Bell Rock Lighthouse. His father, Thomas Stevenson, had constructed most of the lighthouses on the western coast and islands of Scotland. They were both architects and builders; the plans which they articulated in Edinburgh they carried out with much hardship and some danger in places where no man had built before, on ledges of rock and spurs of island under the howling assault of the Atlantic. Thomas Stevenson, especially, was a man of inventive genius. He made many improvements to the apparatus used in lighthouses and perfected the machinery for revolving lights. He was not a trained scientist, he worked by intuition with the spring of the creative artist. He had a particular gift for seeing the way to overcome difficulties which seemed insuperable. His work was a vocation to him and he was justly proud of his achievements. His firm were consulting engineers to the Governments of India, New Zealand and Japan. Thomas Stevenson was deeply romantic and loved every detail of the struggle against wind and water for the lives of men. To this inheritance, creative energy, constructive work of great delicacy and precision and a persevering courage, the child, Robert Louis, was born. The other chief part of his inheritance was religion. Thomas Stevenson had, so his son wrote, "a clansman's loyalty to the Church of Scotland." An austere morality was his ruling passion. He was melancholy by nature in spite of a genial public manner, and Louis speaks of his father's "sense of the fleetingness of life, and of his concern for death." He married Margaret Balfour, youngest daughter and thirteenth child of the minister of Colinton. Her great-great-grandfather was the famous Whig lawyer, James Balfour, her family tree was thick with lawyers and divines, and she was related to the border Elliots and through them distantly to Sir Walter Scott. In her, too, piety was the mainspring, but it was a less sombre piety than her husband's. She was gentle, gay, graceful, charming. She had an early delicacy of the lungs which she outgrew, but which she handed on to her only child.

He was even more alone than most only children. In the summer there were visits to Colinton and the entrancing company of his cousins, the swarming brood of Balfour children. In the bleak Edinburgh winter he was often ill with chest complaints and sometimes had to be kept indoors for weeks at a time. So restricted and bearing the full pressure of family concern and family feelings, it was inevitable that he should escape early into fantasy, nor did he have to find his own way there. There was an unexpected boyish streak in Thomas Stevenson. The responsible engineer and severe moralist put himself to sleep every night of his life by telling himself stories about "ships, roadside inns, robbers, old sailors and commercial travellers before the era of steam." No doubt he told some of these tales to the child when he lay in bed, feverish with bronchitis and with terror of "the jet black night, that stares through . . .

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