The Versatility of Robert Louis Stevenson

By Bevan, Bryan | Contemporary Review, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Versatility of Robert Louis Stevenson


Bevan, Bryan, Contemporary Review


THE imminent centenary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa in the South Seas on December 3, 1894 provides an opportunity to assess his literary work. He was a writer of remarkable versatility, essayist, novelist, writer of fables and ballads, poet, playwright, travel writer, and he excelled as an author of short stories, revealing a rare genius.

Louis was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850 at 8 Howard Place, a street of elegant houses lying north of the Water of Leith in what is now known as Edinburgh's New Town. Both his father Thomas and his grandfather Robert were remarkable men, lighthouse engineers. Robert's most celebrated work was the Bell Rock lighthouse, eleven miles distant from Arbroath in Scotland. Louis's mother and father were devoted to their only son, despite bitter quarrels about religion. Margaret Isabel Balfour, tall and graceful as a girl, was the youngest daughter of Dr. Lewis Balfour, minister of Colinton, a village near Edinburgh.

Louis's health as a child in his father's new home in 17 Heriot Row and throughout his life was wretched, and from infancy he depended much on his nurse, a Scotswoman from Fife, Alison Cunningham, the cherished 'Cummy'. In a real sense she influenced his work as a writer, firing his imagination by reading to him accounts of persecuted Scottish Covenanters and arousing his pity in her rich, dramatic voice. Louis's imagination was already so vivid that he did not need his nurse to overstimulate his brain, but his sense of drama certainly owed something to her. 'It's you that gave me a passion for the drama, Cummy', he told her later. 'Me, Master Lou?', she protested, 'I never put foot inside a playhouse in my life'. 'Ay, woman', cried Louis, 'but it was the grand dramatic way ye had of reciting the hymns'. It was to 'Cummy' that he dedicated his A Child's Garden of Verses, first published in 1885. Both his conscience-stricken father and his diligent nurse sowed in R.L.S.'s mind in boyhood a powerful sense of evil and a consciousness of Sin, thus influencing his best stories such as Thrawn Janet, The Merry Men and Markheim where the devil makes a brief appearance as he does in Thrawn Janet.

His father naturally expected Louis, in the family tradition, to pursue the arduous and exacting career of a light-house engineer, entailing as it does constant visits to the coast in extremely harsh weather conditions. Stevenson was always intensely proud of his family's achievements as lighthouse engineers, but his own frail health would never have allowed him to make it his career. Nor had he a vocation or real aptitude for the profession. Yet the wild beauty of the coast between Caithness and the Orkney Islands stirred his deepest feelings and his love of nature can be perceived in his letters to 'his Madonna' Frances Sitwell. Moreover, his adventures on the isle of Erraid off Mull gave him fruitful material for his fine topographical novel Kidnapped and his story The Merry Men. Stevenson accompanied his father on a tour of Scottish lighthouses.

Stevenson always wanted to become a successful professional writer, learning the hard way, for his early efforts at writing stories met with failure. He would tell his intimate friend Charles Baxter, a Scottish lawyer, how on walks he would break out into dramatic dialogue, taking various parts and writing down conversations from memory. As he himself admitted, 'I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Baudelaire and to Obermann...'. As a mature writer he once described his method of embarking on his imaginative work to a Glasgow correspondent. 'I am still a slow study, and sit for a while on my eggs... Macerate your subject, let it boil slow, then take the lid off, and there your stuff is -- good or bad.'

Above all, Stevenson became a devoted student of topography, stressing the importance of place and action. In an early essay A Gossip on Romance, he describes 'fitness in events and places' where a certain locality becomes associated with an appropriate invented action. …

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