David Nightingale: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Mar 12, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson in a work by Count Girolamo Nerli
Credit Count Girolamo Nerli / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Let's take a break from politics and trumpitudes, and look at the early life of Robert Louis Stevenson -- for that's about all a short essay can encompass. Specifically, let's go as far as the time Stevenson fell off his horse in California, on his way to his future wife ... and lay there for two days, before a couple of ranchers saved him ...

He was born in Edinburgh, a sickly and thin child, who remained fragile for all of his 44 years. Thin legs, a large head, and wide set eyes, he lived in Scotland, France, Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks [ref.3], Samoa -- and is buried on a mountain top on one of the Samoan islands. He once said "I don't travel to get somewhere, I just love to travel."

His father, an engineer who designed and built lighthouses in various parts of Scotland, wanted him to be an engineer also.

RLS was a sensitive and observant child, who loved art and music (by the end of his life he had written over 140 songs and compositions for mandolin, clarinet and more.) He was sent to a couple of private schools, but was always too sickly to remain; and at 11 to the Edinburgh Academy, where he was required to study Greek (he lasted one year at that) and Latin (2 yrs ! only), and mathematics and physics -- which he also hated. At 17 he began at the University of Edinburgh, but dropped out. By the time he was 19 his religious and doting parents were ashamed to see him staggering out of pubs, unkempt, long-haired and dressed like a Bohemian. His father -- seemingly ever patient -- gave him allowances, and went on hoping he would change. In one of the Edinburgh pubs that catered mostly to dock workers he made a strong friendship with a dark-haired attractive prostitute, and when he told his Presbyterian father that he was both an atheist and didn't want to be an engineer he managed to relieve the huge family tension by saying he would try to study law. He did this on-and-off, not actually passing the Edinburgh bar exam (after travelling and writing) until he was 25.

As a lawyer he took almost no cases, spending more and more time writing. It is said [ref.1.] that his lifetime earnings as a lawyer amounted to about 4 guineas (perhaps $200 in today's money). Yet after those exams his proud father had given him 1000 pounds to set him up in law, and a plaque was put on the front of the family house.

In his early 20s RLS had made the acquaintance of various writers in the London area, as well as Paris, and some of his essays and poems had appeared in literary magazines. Nevertheless, frequently coughing and tired he had also been sent, upon the advice of his doctor, to Menton, near Italy, on the French Riviera.

At 26 he and a friend kayaked from Belgium into France, which provided material for his first book, An Inland Voyage.

"You must understand," he wrote to his mother "that I shall be a nomad more or less until my days are done."   [Ref.1, p.64]

He lived briefly in various writers' houses in and around Paris -- and, at an inn in the picturesque village of Grez-sur-Loing, he met an attractive American, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, who had a 16 year-old daughter and a son of 9. Fanny was 10 years older than the then 26 year-Daold Stevenson, but they became inseparable. She was a brown haired adventurous artist/photographer and was immediately attracted to him -- a contrast to her husband, apparently a continual philanderer who she had married while still in her teens. When she left France to return with her children to America RLS fell into a deep depression, buying a small donkey and undertaking a 10 day trek towards the south of France, which became the book "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes".

There's no time to continue about his falling off that horse in California on his way to Fanny. This essay has only been about the first 28 years of the author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae, Kidnapped, and so many more.


1. "Robert Louis Stevenson; The Frail Warrior", by Jean Marie Carre, translated from French by  Eleanor Hard; Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, NY; 1930 and 1971.

2. "Robert Louis Stevenson", by James Pope Hennessy; Simon & Schuster, NY, 1974.

3.   'Stevenson Cottage and Museum', Saranac Lake, NY.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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