Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850–94) was born in a dank and cold Edinburgh, but travelled greatly in search of less brutal weather, finally to pass away in the temperate climes of Samoa. For today’s reader his reputation as a writer of adventure fiction is well established but as a poet, essayist, travel writer and masterful short story writer his range was great and varied. In his time, he was a popular author and associated with many of the most notable writers of the late Victorian period, although the elitism of some contemporary literary critics sought to bury him with the Romantics until his reputation was rescued in the twentieth century, as a skillful storyteller of the gothic and fantastic.
Born to respectable parents at the height of the British Empire, Stevenson’s ill health led him to spend much of his time reading, or being read to, frequently unable to join his peers at school. His grandfather was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, his father a civil engineer of over 40 prestigious lighthouses, so there were great expectations for the young Stevenson. However his mind was saturated by the works of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan, The Arabian Nights and the elaborate, moralising fairy tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. His early instincts for storytelling were clear, in spite of the best attempts of his family who expected him to pursue a career in science.
Initially he consented to the study of engineering at the University of Edinbugh from 1867, but soon found the pull of literature to be too seductive. His parents were horrified at the prospect of their son relying on the unstable, and distasteful, pursuit of writing as career, so collectively they managed a compromise: Stevenson would study law instead. He was called to the bar in 1875, although never practised.
As he grew into adulthood Stevenson’s conflicts with his parents – his father in particular, and all he stood for – intensified. In common with many artists, writers and musicians of the era Stevenson’s behaviour and interests were thought to be dangerously Bohemian, and in his case led to a scandalous outcome: he fell in love with Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne. Fanny rendered four terrible sins for the young Scot, any one of which would have secured his social damnation: she was American, married, had borne two children, and was 10 years his senior. However, determined to follow his own path in life, eventually he travelled, at great cost to his health, to San Francisco, in 1880 and shortly after, married the then divorced Fanny Osbourne.
Work, Writings and Themes
The lifelong tension with his father provided much for Stevenson to explore in his writing, extending beyond the natural rebellion of youth, to deeper examinations of the conflict between the past and the present, and the superficiality of society undermined by the inherent ugliness of humankind.
Stevenson’s single-minded dislike of authoritarianism provided the background to much of his writing. As with many late Victorian writers, from Arthur Machen to Oscar Wilde, the mood of hedonism and liberalism – the mode of the literate avant garde – had become attractive to those exposed to the diverse ideas of others. Stevenson’s poor health released him to think, create and write in a way that might otherwise have been denied. (This experience would be echoed only a few decades later by H.P. Lovecraft.)
Although a monumental letter writer and poet (A Child’s Garden of Verses in 1885), he is best known for his series of successful novels and short stories, Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1889). As was the tradition in the Victorian era Stevenson’s early work was initially serialized in magazines (as, of course, was that of Dickens, H.G. Wells and many others), building his readership and tuning his methods: in 1881 Treasure Island was serialized before publication as a book and allowed Stevenson to forge one of his key techniques, of page-turning suspense: ‘No need for psychology or fine writing’ he would later say.
Hypocrisy and Duality
The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is an altogether darker story than most of his other novels, but an adventure springing from everyday life, it dwells on many of the same themes. Based on a story about the double life of Deacon William Brodie – cabinet maker by day, but dissolute and thief by night – it scrutinizes puritanism, secrecy and hypocrisy, hinting at dark affronts to the public consciousness of proud Victorians, suggesting murder and egregious sexual acts, which some modern critics imbue with undercurrents of homosexuality; Oscar Wilde’s fate only a few years after Stevenson’s death show the perils of this latter imputation in the Victorian age.
Stevenson was preoccupied with duality, the twin forces that wrestle for the mind and fortune of humankind, as he said in his posthumously published letter to his cousin Bob Stevenson: ‘the prim, obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy and orgiastic’. Even Kidnapped uncoils alternative, dark futures for us, if we fall unexpectedly from our comfortable lives, into a grim world that runs in parallel to our own.
It’s worth remembering that Edinburgh, the city of Stevenson’s birth, exemplified these twin forces: the ambitious, striving energies of empire, underneath which lurked the secret city of despair and criminality, with its dark corridors and passages, hidden worlds beneath the bridges, the undulating streets with rooms carved into arches that reeked of poverty and disease. The grand streets above sought to flatten the landscape for their carriages and parties, with the great bridges of the industrial revolution, the pride of Scottish engineering. Stevenson, son of a celebrated civil engineer, seemed naturally attuned to, and repulsed by, this contrast.
Often regarded as a children’s writer, this highlights a significant misunderstanding of the literature of the Victorian period. This was the era of gothic exhortation, of intense recountings of grim fairy tales, full of bile and vitriol, the age of vivid storytelling. While the striving middle classes read great literature to their children, education had begun to snake its way through the working classes; the British Empire, with the Scots at its core, paraded itself as a moral and educating force to the world, exporting great industrial achievements in the form of the railway, the telegraph, and the mighty civil engineering projects – the ships, aqueducts and bridges.
But it was also the era of Jack the Ripper, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, springing from the unearthly flesh of Frankenstein, the era of accelerated scientific progress, as the trading prowess of the Victorian Era brought new ideas from around the world, in art, religion, science and philosophy, so that the question of an individual’s place in the headlong charge of advancement lay suppressed, and unexamined. But the gothic literature, from Dickens’ Bleak House to Oscar Wilde’s tale of excess and greed, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, explored the tension at the heart of Empire, of the conflict between the beast and the man within.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein had raised questions about superficiality, the role of humankind in creating the world around it, of responsibility and desire, but in Stevenson’s Jekyll was an everyday protagonist. A doctor by day, he was someone who could be understood by all of his readers, someone they, and we still, could all meet. Stevenson reveals the beast within, insinuating the fear of the civilized man, that the inner neanderthal might rise and overcome this new found sophistication, and drag down the advancement of science and nationhood.
Stevenson has been much criticised for his taste for the fantastic. His short novels, his racy plots, his emphasis on storytelling rather than the reflection of a supposed real life was out of step with the elite literary mood of the late Victorian, and early twentieth century. Indeed the writers who could share his inclinations were relatively unknown to him: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, unaware – as is often the case – that he was writing in an emerging tradition.
Connections, Legacy and Later Years
Stevenson admired the economy of Henry James and Guy de Maupassant, reveled in the forboding gloom of Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s critique of religion and the dark moments of the soul. He was widely read, and respected for the eloquence of his writing by many fellow writers: he corresponded with J.M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy, and was lauded by Edith Wharton, and later by Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, and John Buchan who brought Stevenson’s page-turning adventures into the middle of the twentieth century, bridging the gap between the great nineteenth century novel and the shorter, more fragmented forms of modernism.
Stevenson’s place is secure in the Gothic Tradition but his impact was wider, both during his life and after. His last 14 years, spent with his wife Fanny, were marked by ill health, bed rest and travel, but he wrote his most celebrated books during that period. He became a celebrated, successful writer and finished his years in the Islands of Samoa, his life extinguished by a heart attack, at the relatively young age of 46.
This text appears as the Life and Works biography in the Flame Tree Publishing 2015 edition of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde. Available here.
Other posts of interest in These Fantastic Worlds include:
- Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration
- Henry Fuseli: Dark Gothic Fantasy
- Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Gothic, Pulp and SF Classics
- Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror
- Algernon Blackwood: Master of Supernatural Fiction
- William Hope Hodgson: Master of Weird Fiction
- Arthur Machen: Master of Supernatural Horror
- Charles Brockden Brown: First American Gothic
- William Blake: Artist and Revolutionary
- Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions
- Frankenstein by Jeffrey Catherine Jones
- H.P. Lovecraft: From Weird to Modern Gothic