Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

By Aussiegirl

My daily email from Scotsman.com informs me that Robert Louis Stevenson was born this day in 1850. Accompanying the notice was a brief biography, which I'm posting below.

Scotsman.com Heritage & Culture - Robert Louis Stevenson - Isolated grave for "Treasure Island" author


WHEN Robert Louis Stevenson collapsed and died whilst opening a bottle of wine in the early morning of 3 December 1894, the Samoan islanders whose cause he had championed insisted on standing guard outside his home until daybreak.

As dawn broke over the island of Upolu, Western Samoa, they lifted the man they called Tusitala - or teller of tales - upon their shoulders and carried him several miles to the top of Mount Vaea, where he was buried overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Carved on one side of his tomb is a poignant elegy taken from one of his own works, Requiem, ending with the lines:

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill
The lines are touching and reflect Stevenson's constant state of fear and dread about his own mortality. But although he may have immersed himself in Samoan culture during the last years of his life, the remote Pacific island was not the place where he "longed to be". He had for years harboured a desperate desire to return to his native Scotland but was ultimately prevented from ever seeing his homeland again by the one thing which had plagued him throughout his tragically short life – ill health.

Stevenson was only 44 when he died in his island home, most likely of a cerebral haemorrhage. His beloved wife Fanny had suffered a mental breakdown a year earlier. The couple, along with Fanny's son from her previous marriage, had moved to Samoa in 1890 in the hope that the mild climate would ease his health problems. His literary output was prolific but he wrote to friends of his longing to return home. To writer Samuel Crockett acknowledged:

I shall never see Auld Reekie.
I shall never set my foot again upon the heather.
Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried.
The word is out and the doom written.

Stevenson had always been melancholic - not surprising given that he was a frail and sickly child who struggled for most of his life against illness. He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and spent much of his young life "in the land of counterpane" being attended to by his faithful nanny Alison Cunningham, who read him grim, morbid stories about the Covenanters and drilled into him biblical tales.

His own family were respectable and God fearing. His father and grandfather were responsible for building many of the lighthouses round Scotland's coast. The plan for young Robert was to get him well enough to attend university so he could study engineering and follow in the family tradition.

Young Robert certainly became well enough to get a place at Edinburgh University but, once there, he threw off the stiff middle-class values his family had tried to impress and became a rebel. Robert Lewis became the more fashionable Robert Louis. He adopted a bohemian appearance and lifestyle, his floppy wide-brimmed hat, cravat and long coat earned him the nickname "Velvet Jack" and he spent as much time in the arms of women of the night and propping up bars as he did studying. RLS was, in effect, a 19th century version of a 1960s hippie.

He fell out with his father Thomas over a number of issues. His lack of interest in engineering, his rejection of the Church and finally his romance with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an already married American woman he met while on a trip to a French artists' colony in 1876. His wife-to-be was 10 years older than him but the romantic Scot fell passionately in love with her. He followed her to California, almost dying of starvation in the process, waiting until she divorced her husband before marrying her.

Everything Stevenson had done in his life was turned into a literary work. His journeying in France became the famous Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes; his trip across the Atlantic and America became An Amateur Emigrant; even his honeymoon on Silverado mountain was turned into The Silverado Squatters.
When he and Fanny lived in Scotland they visited Braemar with Fanny's son Lloyd. On a rainy day he drew a map for the 12-year old boy and the two imagined a pirate adventure which grew into Treasure Island. It was followed by Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Black Arrow. Scotland, however, was no place for his ailing health and he eventually set sail on Pacific cruises before settling in Samoa. He almost certainly suffered from tuberculosis but it was never diagnosed during his lifetime.

Stevenson excelled in virtually every form of writing; poems, plays, travelogues, adventure stories, essays, romances, fantasies, literary criticism and more. In Scotland he is ranked with Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott as the "big three" of Scottish literature. Yet when the Oxford Anthology of English Literature was published in 1973, it failed to give Stevenson a single mention. Many modernist writers, including Virginia Woolf, criticised him for being not quite serious enough.

Thankfully outlooks have changed, Stevenson remains one of the world's top-selling authors and millions of readers continue to find his work fascinating and charming.


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