In This Article Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Adaptations

Victorian Literature Robert Louis Stevenson
by
Glenda Norquay
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0092

Introduction

Robert Louis Stevenson (b. 1850–d. 1894) was born in Scotland and died in Samoa at the end of a life of travels, during which he produced novels, short stories, literary essays, poetry, drama, and travel writing. Trained in law at Edinburgh University, Stevenson was under pressure to conform to the Edinburgh bourgeois society in which his family had made its name as lighthouse engineers; he preferred a more bohemian existence as a writer. He sought adventure through travel but also needed an environment amenable to his recurring ill health. Early travels around Scotland then in France, where he met his wife (an unconventional and controversial American named Fanny van der Grift), were extended in later life to America, Australia, and Samoa. Hailed in his time as the savior of “masculine romance,” his adventure novels for both adults and children—Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona (published in the United States as David Balfour), The Master of Ballantrae, even the less successful St. Ives—revived the genre with brio but also deployed it to address larger issues around imperialism and personal, political, and national identities. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde became an archetype of gothic duality. But Stevenson also wrote a large number of essays, many on literary topics. He also produced mannered fiction (Prince Otto and The New Arabian Nights); wrote significant Scottish short stories, such as “Thrawn Janet”; and latterly engaged with Polynesian politics, intervening in person and in writing. His later fiction, set in the South Seas (The Ebb-Tide, The Wrecker, “The Beach of Falesá”) and in Scotland (David Balfour and Weir of Hermiston), is generally recognized as representing a darker realism and new direction. Just as Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde perhaps obscured the full range of Stevenson’s fiction, so his success with the much-loved A Child’s Garden of Verses diverted attention from his other poetry. Stevenson also worked collaboratively, most notably with a friend from his Edinburgh days, W. E. Henley (with whom he later quarreled), and with Fanny’s son from her first marriage, Lloyd Osbourne. By the 1890s Stevenson was viewed as a highly successful writer and popular romantic figure, yet attention to his short and romantic life was at the expense of his work. It has taken time for his reputation to recover from the critical backlash of the early 20th century. Biographical interest has remained intense, but critical interest in his work has flourished in the 21st century.

General Overviews

There are surprisingly few general overviews of Stevenson’s writing, with earlier criticism focusing on one aspect of his writing and more recent monographs driven by theses that shape interpretation. Two early studies, Daiches 1947 and Saposnik 1974, offer insights into a good range of works. Furnas 1951, Calder 1980, and Harman 2005, all cited under Biography: General, usefully situate writing into life narrative. Mehew 2004, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, presents a succinct and masterly outline. There are a number of collections of critical essays, several arising from major conferences, cited under Criticism that tend to the specific. The best general overview is Fielding 2010. The RLS Website offers an excellent starting point to the life, works, and critical responses. The Journal of Stevenson Studies is a good representation of early-21st-century work.

  • Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Revaluation. Glasgow: William Maclellan, 1947.

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    Short but stimulating analysis of Stevenson’s fiction. Set the benchmark of critical insights for a number of years. Structured around genre, this focuses on Scottish and adventure fiction, less on the South Seas. Long excerpts support the argument for Stevenson’s narrative mastery.

  • Fielding, Penny, ed. The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

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    Important collection of essays by established scholars building on late-20th- and early-21st-century research, locating Stevenson in various literary cultural and intellectual milieus, and covering a range of writing. Gives a good sense of Stevenson’s range and versatility.

  • Journal of Stevenson Studies.

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    Established in 2005. The source of the most up-to-date criticism and debate. Past issues accessible through the RLS Website.

  • Mehew, Ernest. “Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Brian Harrison. 2004.

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    Available by subscription only. Incisive and detailed biography by a leading Stevenson scholar drawing on many years of archival research. Organized chronologically and topographically, this study reflects on Stevenson’s reputation and writing as well as his life. The best short introduction to his life and works.

  • RLS Website.

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    Excellent source of information on the life, works, history of reception, literary networks, and visual images accumulated over a number of years.

  • Saposnik, Irving S. Robert Louis Stevenson. Boston: Twayne, 1974.

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    Argues for Stevenson’s versatility, focusing on the range of literary forms deployed. Written in response to the critical backlash against Stevenson and claims his place alongside George Meredith and Joseph Conrad.

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