Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was an only child. Throughout his childhood, he suffered from health problems that confined him to bed. His nurse, Allison Cunningham, often read to him and inspired his passion for literature. In 1867, he entered Edinburgh University as a science student, where his father expected him to study civil engineering as he himself had done. Robert, however, was much more creative and romantic at heart and while working on his science degree, spent much of his time studying French literature, Scottish history, and poetry. When he told his father that he did not want to become an engineer and instead wished to pursue a career in writing, his father was naturally upset. They settled on a compromise: Robert would study law so that if he should fail as a writer, he would have a respectable profession to fall back on.
In order to understand the world in which Stevenson was raised, it is necessary to understand that there were two Edinburghs, both of which played a part in shaping his personality and ideas. On the one hand, there was New Town, respectable, conventional, deeply religious, and polite. On the other, there was the much more bohemian Edinburgh, symbolised by brothels and shadiness. The juxtaposition of the two contrasting aspects made a deep impression on Stevenson and strengthened his fascination with the duality of human nature. This fascination was to provide him with the theme for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Slowly but surely, he earned a name for himself in journalism and his pieces began appearing in distinguished journals. He then met an American married woman, Fanny Vandergrift Osbourne, 10 years his senior, who was in Europe after separating from her husband. Stevenson continued his relationship with her for three years and eventually followed her to San Francisco, where she divorced her husband and married him in May 1880.
During this time, he published his first book, An Inland Voyage. In August 1880, the Stevensons returned to England. The critical issue in Stevenson’s life from this point on was to find a warm climate where he could live because of his failing health. He and his wife thus spent winters in the south of France and the summers in England from 1880-1887. This time was marked by an active period of literary achievement. His first novel, Treasure Island, was published in 1883, followed by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). Stevenson had become a popular author.
Upon the death of his father in 1887, Stevenson decided to leave England for America, where he stayed for a year. In May 1888, together with his wife, his stepson, and his mother, he went to the South Seas. He became so enchanted with the life of the South Seas that in December 1889 he bought an estate in Apia, Samoa, convinced that he could no longer withstand the harsh winters of his native Scotland or England. Apia was a perfect location because the climate was tropical but not wild, the people were friendly and hardworking, and it possessed a good postal service. He lived on his 300-acre estate, Vailima, in the hills of Apia until his death five years later.
The list of his writings between 1890 and 1894 reveals an impressive range of activities. During this time, he completed two of his finest novellas, The Beach of Falesa and The Ebb Tide, two novels, The Wrecker and Catriona, the short stories The Bottle Imp, The Isle of Voices and The Waif Woman, and several short pieces collected under the title of Fables. He also began a number of novels that he did not live to complete, including St. Ives, The Young Chevalier and Heathercat. He was working on Weir of Hermiston until the day he died on December 3, 1894. His death was sudden and unexpected. He had finished dictating another instalment of the novel, and was talking to his wife in the evening when he felt a violent pain in his head and almost immediately lost consciousness. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage a few hours later at the age of forty-four.