Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson was born to Thomas and Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. From the beginning he was sickly. Through much of his childhood he was attended by his faithful nurse, Alison Cunningham, known as Cummy in the family circle. She told him morbid stories about the Covenanters (the Scots Presbyterian martyrs), read aloud to him Victorian penny-serial novels, Bible stories, and the Psalms, and drilled the catechism into him, all with his parents’ approval.
Thomas Stevenson was quite a storyteller himself, and his wife doted on their only child, sitting in admiration while her precocious son expounded on religious dogma. Stevenson inevitably reacted to the morbidity of his religious education and to the stiffness of his family’s middle-class values, but that rebellion would come only after he entered Edinburgh University.
The juvenile that survives from his childhood shows an observer who was already sensitive to religious issues and Scottish history. Not surprisingly, the boy who listened to Cummy’s religious tales first tried his hand at retelling Bible stories: “A History of Moses” was followed by “The Book of Joseph.” When Stevenson was sixteen his family published a pamphlet he had written entitled The Pentland Rising, a recounting of the murder of Nonconformist Scots Presbyterians who rebelled against their royalist persecutors.
Edinburgh University was a place for him to play the truant more than the student. His only consistent course of study seemed to have been of bohemia: Robert Louis Stevenson adopted a wide-brimmed hat, a cravat, and a boy’s coat that earned him the nick-name of Velvet Jacket, while he indulged a taste for haunting the byways of Old Town and becoming acquainted with its denizens.
The most significant work from his student days was “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses,” a scientific piece that explained the economical combination of revolving mirrors and oil-burning lamps. He read it before the Royal Scottish Society of Arts on 27 March 1871 and received the society’s Silver Medal. The paper, a result of his engineering studies, revealed his keen eye for technical detail. Only two weeks later, however, Robert Louis Stevenson took a long walk with his father and declined to follow the family profession of engineering; he meant to become a writer. Thomas Stevenson insisted that the young man study law, and his son stuck to the bargain long enough to receive, in 1875, a law degree he barely used.
Not the first time
It was not the first time that Robert Louis Stevenson disappointed his father. In January 1873 Thomas Stevenson discovered some papers that seemed to suggest that the young Stevenson was an atheist. Father and son had their worst falling out. In letters to his student chums, especially to Charles Baxter, Stevenson called himself a “damned curse” on his family. Though it is tempting to see his filial rebellion as a classic Victorian melodrama, father and son did reconcile. The episode is more important in having given the author one of the enduring themes of his fiction. It runs from “An Old Song,” a short story published in an 1877 issue of the weekly London, to the masterly romance Weir of Hermiston (1896), left unfinished. It also threads through his nonfiction, in which it is tempered by a tone of reconciliation. For example, in “Crabbed Age and Youth,” written in 1877, Stevenson seems to be looking for the common bond that father and son share.
In the decade after his university graduation, Stevenson steeped himself in life, finding an essential core of good humor in people and things. Something of the lightheartedness of this period survives in the humorous essays in Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers (1881), published when the author was thirty-one years old. The essays in this collection had been originally published from 1876 to 1879 in the Cornhill, Macmillan’s, and London magazines. The collection received little attention from the critics, but the brilliant whimsy and ironic tone in these pieces were well matched to their loose structures, modeled after Thomas Browne’s and William Hazlitt’s works, which Stevenson admired.
Analysis of Marriage
He pretends to analyze marriage in “Virginibus Puerisque” and the relationship between old and young in “Crabbed Age and Youth”; he mounts a pseudo philosophical defense of sloth in “An Apology for Idlers” and humorously advocates the old method of illuminating cities in “A Plea for Gas Lamps.” In “Child’s Play,” “El Dorado,” and “Pan’s Pipes,” the author seems more entranced with the flight of his own rhetoric than he does with the topic at hand. There is a more serious side to the collection as well: in “Aes Triplex” and “Ordered South” Stevenson deals with his physical frailty and the trips away from Scotland’s rugged winters he had taken for his health. As a boy, Stevenson had been to the Continent several times, and he grew up to love purposeless, rambling tours across Europe.