On Tuesday, Scotland celebrates RLS Day – a commemoration of one of the nation’s greatest writers. Stevenson was a man whose wild, outrageous, tragic, romantic and adventurous life often reflected his art. Writer at Large Neil Mackay explores the drama of being Robert Louis Stevenson



IT was a chill, damp Wednesday in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850 – the kind of day Victorians, in dread of tuberculosis and the fatality of all manner of coughs and chills, hated. In a well-appointed New Town home at number 8 Howard Street, Margaret Stevenson was recovering from the birth of her first and only child – Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson. As a young man, Robert would drop the "Balfour" and change the spelling of Lewis to Louis, but until then he would most often be known by the nicknames bestowed on him by his eccentric and rather melancholic father, Thomas: Smout, Signor Sprucki, Baron Broadnose – he was always a rather peculiar looking individual after all – and Lou.

Lou was born into wealth and privilege. The men of his father’s family – beset with a touch of mental illness through the generations – were renowned engineers who had built some of the most iconic lighthouses around the wildest stretches of Scotland’s coast, including Skerryvore. His mother was a daughter of the manse.

Lou was sickly from the start, and would remain almost invalid most of his life. Before he was 10, he had suffered from scarlatina, bronchitis, gastric fever, whooping cough and chickenpox. For a Victorian child, it was somewhat miraculous he survived – but loving, constant care seems not only to have kept him alive but also fed his imagination while on his sickbed. That care, however, came not from his mother, but from his nurse, Alison Cunningham, or Cummy as she was called. Cummy was a fire and brimstone Christian, who administered the fear of damnation along with cough syrup and poultices.

Stevenson would call Cummy "my first wife" as an adult, and go on to dedicate A Child’s Garden of Verse - one of the most popular anthologies of poetry for children ever published - to the working class woman who effectively raised him.

Cummy’s mix of hell and damnation and Scottish folklore were probably responsible for the nightmares he experienced as a child and often experienced throughout his life – dreams which sometimes turned into his greatest stories. His night terrors were perhaps not helped by the wardrobe in his bedroom – handmade by Deacon Brodie, the upstanding tradesman turned criminal by night, who was infamous in Edinburgh.

Stevenson was slow to learn to read – around seven by the time he mastered his letters – but by 12 he was already showing flare as a writer, although his taste in titles left a lot to be desired. His first work, "The Baneful Potato", was followed by a treatment of Deacon Brodie’s story – source material that would recur throughout his life. Brodie was, after all, the prototype for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The boy also steeped himself in Scottish history.

But there was always a doubleness about Stevenson’s relationship with Scotland. On one hand he was obsessed with the romance of its blood-soaked past, but then as his biographer Claire Harman says, to ordinary Scots he would have "appeared little more than a rich townie", a spoiled brat with a gentrified Edinburgh accent.



By 1867, the teenage Stevenson was a strange combination of character traits – half dilettante, half religious prig. He was packed off to Edinburgh University to study engineering as a path to joining the family business, but as he later said: "I had already my own private determination to be an author." What he lacked, though, was the determination to see anything through. He was a lad of great ideas, but often thinking up the idea was enough to exhaust him, and his great plans went no further than his imagination.

On break from university, his father sent him around Scotland to the family’s various engineering works. The journeys underscored the conflict in his Scottishness. In Edinburgh, he felt as Scottish as the next person, in the Highlands though, he couldn’t understand a word people said to him. "What is worse," he wrote to his mother, "I find the people here about don’t understand me."

His morality also became "double natured" around this time too. Still in thrall to religion, yet drawn to the works of both Darwin and the scandalous French poet Baudelaire, Stevenson could be found drinking with prostitutes on a Saturday night, yet moralising over someone’s failure to keep the Sabbath on a Sunday.

By now, Stevenson had taken to growing his hair long and wearing a black velvet smoking jacket. "It declared," says Harman, "that although young Stevenson was sometimes confusable with a privileged brat from the New Town, his real milieu was the Left Bank." And so, he gained a new nickname – Velvet Coat.

With his desire to be scandalous, his experiences with prostitutes and opium, and his wealth and status, Stevenson could easily have become something of a brute towards women – but he did not. In fact, in many ways, he deified the women in his life. He found the conditions women had to endure – the corsets, the control – a form of subjugation, although he was specifically opposed to the suffragette movement.



By 1873, Stevenson horrified his parents when he told them he had – inevitably – lost his faith in religion. His parents sent their only child – who they could now barely talk to – on holiday to relations in Suffolk. While there, Stevenson fell in love with a much older woman (a recurring theme in his life) called Fanny Sitwell. She was 34, the mother of a son, and separated from her husband. Stevenson took to calling Fanny his "madonna".

The love affair was doomed, however. She was in love with another man, the literary critic Sidney Colvin. Despite losing in love, Stevenson gained a great friend in Colvin, who went on to champion him in London’s literary world.

Stevenson’s parents had been dealt another blow – their son wasn’t only a heretic destined for hell, but he now declared he had no interest in joining the family firm as an engineer. It was the writer’s life he wanted to follow. Aware that they couldn’t change his mind they persuaded him – thanks to the lure of a £1000-a-year stipend from them, about £50,000 in today’s money – that he should study law as a fallback. He agreed, but had little or no interest in attending lectures, much preferring what he and his friends called "Jinks" – playing absurd practical jokes and tricks on each other around the pubs and dives of the Old Town.

Friends were always important to Stevenson, but one, who he met in 1875, would change his life – William Ernest Henley, a 26-year-old writer who had come to Edinburgh infirmary to be treated by the acclaimed surgeon Joseph Lister for necrosis of the bone. Henley, a charismatic and garrulous man, lost a leg due to his illness. His personality and physical appearance would later crystallise into the character of Long John Silver.



Stevenson was now well networked in to the literary scene, and friends with writers, reviewers and editors. As a result his first book An Inland Voyage was more than well received. It was ironic, though, that the book, which tells of his journey by canoe through Belgium and France, painted the young writer as a man of action, rather than the wheezing invalid he was – that doubling in the life of Stevenson again coming to the fore.

Travel now became central to Stevenson’s life. Whether it was for health reasons – with trips to TB sanatoriums at Davos in Switzerland – or as a writer with a recalcitrant donkey and a prototype sleeping bag in his second acclaimed travelogue Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Stevenson was a soul in endless, restless movement.

It was on one of his trips to the artist colony at Grez in France that he met the woman who would become his wife, his muse, his tormentor and his soul mate – the American Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. She’d lived in the wild west before coming to France to study art.

She was the original "pistol-packing mama", known as "the wild woman" or "her Majesty" by the couple’s friends, some of whom despised her. She was again an older woman, 10 years his senior, separated and with two children.

Their relationship was strange from the start. In one incident in a cab in Paris, Stevenson began laughing and couldn’t stop. He asked Fanny to bend his fingers back to make him stop laughing. She refused. He then threatened to break her fingers and grabbed her hand. Fanny bit him, drawing blood, and Stevenson came to his senses. The relationship was tempestuous to say the least.

When Fanny abruptly returned to America, he later followed her after a bout of ill health which looks suspiciously like the symptoms of second-stage syphilis. For once, he could not borrow money from his parents, and he made the crossing of the Atlantic in second-class. His journey across America to San Francisco and his love for Fanny was tortuous. He was penniless by now, often surviving on the comfort of strangers, in ill health and in a land whose people struck him as cruel and selfish. The treatment of native Americans in particular was monstrous to Stevenson’s eyes.

The pair spent their honeymoon in 1880 at an abandoned mining camp called Silverado, so littered with debris that it was almost impossible to walk on the ground. Suddenly, Stevenson experienced something he had never experienced before – homesickness. "In his exile," his biographer Claire Harman says, "he had discovered himself a Scot." On his return home, he wrote Treasure Island in 1883, which he had dreamt up one rainy day in Scotland to entertain his stepson. It was his first financial and commercial success, though he published it under a pseudonym, initially fearing it too low-brow as an adventure tale for boys.

In 1885 came A Child’s Garden of Verses. He wrote it in agony. His right arm was bound to his body because of a lung haemorrhage, he was kept in a darkened room and ordered not to speak. Paper had to be pinned to a board so he could finish the poems left-handed.



Now more financially secure, he and Fanny and her children moved to Bournemouth – away from the cold Scottish climate for the sake of his health – and Stevenson embarked on the book which would secure his legend: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As one of Britain’s leading cultural critics, Sir Christopher Frayling, says, the story of Jekyll and Hyde "dramatises conflicts and tensions within Stevenson himself – between his personal and private life, reality and dreams, conformity and art". Frayling sees the book as not just representing a twin battle between the conscious and the subconscious but also of "Stevenson’s own divided personality – between the man of action inside his head, and the disabled artist he saw in the mirror".

Jekyll and Hyde was a pouring of his soul on to paper and the writing of it left Stevenson more weak than usual. Clive Holland, a visitor to the family home in Bournemouth, named Skerryvore, recalled seeing Fanny carrying Stevenson downstairs in her arms "just as you would a baby". The spindly Stevenson seldom weighed much more than eight stone all his life.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the intense personal nature of the book, and the toll it took on him to write, Jekyll and Hyde became a global smash-hit. On publication in 1886, it sold 40,000 copies in Britain. At the time a young Sigmund Freud was beginning to unravel psychoanalysis, and Jekyll and Hyde would soon fuse in the public mind. Two years after publication, in 1888, the series of murders in Whitechapel by Jack the Ripper, seemed to have come from the pages of Stevenson.

In one of his last works, Stevenson wrote of his childhood and the “gnomes” which plagued his nightmares. He said: ‘The gnome’s name is Jekyll and Hyde, but I believe you find he is likewise quite willing to answer to the name Stevenson.’

Now that the classic adventure story Kidnapped was also published, money began to pour in. With his father dead, his family – mother, wife, and stepchildren – decided to embark on a trip to America. On arrival in New York he was mobbed by an adoring public. He found the adulation both absurd and wonderful, noting that the crowds would not have behaved more wildly should "Jesus Christ himself" have arrived at the quayside.

The family eventually made the west coast, from where they embarked on a sea journey through the Pacific islands which was itself like a tale from a novel. Stevenson befriended south sea kings and islanders, including one man who was the last of his people to partake of "long pig" – human flesh. He finally set up home on Samoa, at first living hardscrabble until his colonial style home at Vailima was built. Stevenson loved the people of the islands, but with a patronising and racist Victorian sentimentality. He referred to the islanders as his "chocolates". They in turn called him "Tusi Tala" – the teller of tales.

Fanny’s mental health deteriorated during the time of their south sea adventures, but Stevenson managed to finish his darkest work, The Master of Ballantrae, a sadistic tale of two rival brothers set amid the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

His next work was to be the Weir of Hermiston, but as everyone who has read it knows, it finishes mid-sentence, as that is where Stevenson stopped to help his wife prepare lunch at midday on December 3, 1894. He and Fanny were making mayonnaise together when he set down the bottle of oil he was using and knelt by the table.

"Do I look strange?" he asked Fanny. Eight hours later, he was dead from a brain haemorrhage. He was 44 and childless. Today, 168 years after his birth, he remains Scotland’s greatest writer, and a man still unfathomable in many ways through his own deeply divided self.