Learn English: Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

This post looks at the life of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.   Stevenson is most famous for writing Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde as well as many essays, poems and plays. Words with an * are explained at the end.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on 13th November 1850.  His father was a lighthouse engineer who wanted Robert to become an engineer also. Stevenson was an only child* and often too sick to attend* school. He frequently travelled with his family, for health reasons.  They would travel to find somewhere with a warmer climate* to help with Robert’s lung problems. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson spent most of his life travelling and living in different places looking for the perfect climate.  He finally settled* on one of the Samoan islands a few years before his untimely* death. Stevenson’s travels helped inspire* many of his stories.

In 1867, Stevenson began an engineering degree at Edinburgh university.  However, his heart was not in engineering.  He didn’t attend most of his lectures because he spent a lot of time with his friends drinking, smoking hashish and trying to meet women. 

Eventually he gave up the engineering to become a writer.  However, to please his father, he began, and finished, a degree in law although he never practised*.

Stevenson had always been a writer.  Even before he could read he would dictate* stories to his mother and his nurse who then wrote them down*.  His first published book was ‘An Inland Voyage’ in 1878.  The book was about a journey through France and Belgium that Stevenson and a friend did in a canoe.  It was on this journey that Stevenson met a married American who was separated from her husband.  Her name was Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne.  She had two children.  Stevenson fell in love.  He continued to write to Fanny even after she returned to America.  When Fanny finally divorced her husband, Stevenson moved to America to be with her.  The journey nearly killed him.  After a while his health improved and Stevenson began to earn money through writing.  However, he became ill again and his father had to send money. 

Stevenson married Fanny in the spring of 1880 and after their honeymoon* they moved with Fanny’s children to Britain.  They settled in Bournemouth, on the English south coast, and this is where Stevenson wrote some of his most famous novels; Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden Book of Verse (a collection of poetry for children).

On a wet, rainy holiday in Scotland, Stevenson entertained his bored step-son* with a picture of an island.  Stevenson began to create a story about the island, giving names to places on the island.  This was to become Treasure Island, possibly his most famous novel.

After several years in England and following the death of his father, Stevenson moved his family back to America.  He had been advised by a doctor to move somewhere with a warmer climate.  A year later, he hired a yacht and he and his family spent several years sailing on the Pacific Ocean, stopping at different islands around Hawaii and around New Zealand.  The family eventually settled on the Samoan island, Upolu.  He grew to love the Samoan people and was loved in return.  However, on 3rd December 1894, he became ill and, within a few hours, he died. He was 44. 

Stevenson’s body is buried on a hill top near his home.  During his life, the Samoans gave Stevenson a nickname*.  It was ‘Tusitala’ meaning ‘Teller of Tales’* (one who tells stories).

Vocabulary Check

An only child – someone who does not have any brothers or sisters

Attend – to go to

Inspire – to make someone feel they want to do something.

Climate – the weather conditions a place has (a warm climate, a cold climate, a harsh climate etc)

Settled – to start living in a place you are going to stay in for a long time

Untimely – earlier than expected

Practice law – to work in a particular profession – usually law or medicine

Dictate – to tell someone exactly what to write for you

Write down – to write something on a piece of paper

Honeymoon – a holiday many couples take just after getting married

Step-son – someone’s son by marriage not a blood relation

Nickname – a name friends or family call you that is not your real name

Tales – stories

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Samuel Johnson