Robert louis stevenson as an essayist


“On the enjoyment of unpleasant places,” advice from R. L. Stevenson

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson 13 November — 3 December was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson now ranks as the 26th most translated author in the world. Barrie, and G. Chesterton, who said of him that he "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins".

He was christened Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson. At about age 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of "Lewis" to "Louis", and in , he dropped "Balfour". Lighthouse design was the family's profession: Thomas's father Robert's grandfather was the famous civil engineer Robert Stevenson, and both of Thomas's brothers Robert's uncles Alan and David, were in the same field. Indeed, even Thomas's maternal grandfather, Thomas Smith, had been in the same profession. However, Robert's mother's family were not of the same profession. Margaret's natal family, the Balfours, were gentry, tracing their lineage back to a certain Alexander Balfour who had held the lands of Inchyra in Fife in the fifteenth century.

Margaret's father, Lewis Balfour — , was a minister of the Church of Scotland at nearby Colinton, and her siblings included the physician George William Balfour and the marine engineer James Balfour. Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood holidays in his maternal grandfather's house. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them.

Lewis Balfour and his daughter both had weak chests, so they often needed to stay in warmer climates for their health.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Illness would be a recurrent feature of his adult life and left him extraordinarily thin. Contemporary views were that he had tuberculosis, but more recent views are that it was bronchiectasis or even sarcoidosis. Stevenson's parents were both devout and serious Presbyterians, but the household was not strict in its adherence to Calvinist principles.

His nurse, Alison Cunningham known as Cummy , was more fervently religious. Her Calvinism and folk beliefs were an early source of nightmares for the child, and he showed a precocious concern for religion. But she also cared for him tenderly in illness, reading to him from Bunyan and the Bible as he lay sick in bed and telling tales of the Covenanters. Stevenson recalled this time of sickness in "The Land of Counterpane" in A Child's Garden of Verses , dedicating the book to his nurse.

An only child, strange-looking and eccentric, Stevenson found it hard to fit in when he was sent to a nearby school at age six, a problem repeated at age eleven when he went on to the Edinburgh Academy; but he mixed well in lively games with his cousins in summer holidays at Colinton. In any case, his frequent illnesses often kept him away from his first school, so he was taught for long stretches by private tutors.

He was a late reader, first learning at age seven or eight, but even before this he dictated stories to his mother and nurse. He compulsively wrote stories throughout his childhood. His father was proud of this interest; he had also written stories in his spare time until his own father found them and told him to "give up such nonsense and mind your business. In September , Stevenson went to Mr Henderson's School in India Street, Edinburgh, but because of poor health stayed only a few weeks and did not return until October During his many absences he was taught by private tutors.

In October , he went to Edinburgh Academy, an independent school for boys, and stayed there sporadically for about fifteen months. In the autumn of , he spent one term at an English boarding school at Spring Grove in Isleworth in Middlesex now an urban area of West London. In October , following an improvement to his health, he was sent to Robert Thomson's private school in Frederick Street, Edinburgh, where he remained until he went to university. In November , Stevenson entered the University of Edinburgh to study engineering.

Robert Louis Stevenson | chlorwornessle.tk

He showed from the start no enthusiasm for his studies and devoted much energy to avoiding lectures. This time was more important for the friendships he made with other students in the Speculative Society an exclusive debating club , particularly with Charles Baxter, who would become Stevenson's financial agent, and with a professor, Fleeming Jenkin, whose house staged amateur drama in which Stevenson took part, and whose biography he would later write.

Perhaps most important at this point in his life was a cousin, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson known as "Bob" , a lively and light-hearted young man who, instead of the family profession, had chosen to study art. Each year during vacations, Stevenson travelled to inspect the family's engineering works—to Anstruther and Wick in , with his father on his official tour of Orkney and Shetland islands lighthouses in , and for three weeks to the island of Erraid in He enjoyed the travels more for the material they gave for his writing than for any engineering interest.

The voyage with his father pleased him because a similar journey of Walter Scott with Robert Stevenson had provided the inspiration for Scott's novel The Pirate. In April , Stevenson notified his father of his decision to pursue a life of letters. Though the elder Stevenson was naturally disappointed, the surprise cannot have been great, and Stevenson's mother reported that he was "wonderfully resigned" to his son's choice.

To provide some security, it was agreed that Stevenson should read Law again at Edinburgh University and be called to the Scottish bar.

Early life

In his poetry collection Underwoods , Stevenson muses on his having turned from the family profession:. Say not of me that weakly I declined The labours of my sires, and fled the sea, The towers we founded and the lamps we lit, To play at home with paper like a child. But rather say: In the afternoon of time A strenuous family dusted from its hands The sand of granite, and beholding far Along the sounding coast its pyramids And tall memorials catch the dying sun, Smiled well content, and to this childish task Around the fire addressed its evening hours.

In other respects too, Stevenson was moving away from his upbringing. His dress became more Bohemian; he already wore his hair long, but he now took to wearing a velveteen jacket and rarely attended parties in conventional evening dress. Within the limits of a strict allowance, he visited cheap pubs and brothels. More importantly, he had come to reject Christianity and declared himself an atheist. In January , his father came across the constitution of the LJR Liberty, Justice, Reverence Club, of which Stevenson and his cousin Bob were members, which began: "Disregard everything our parents have taught us".

Questioning his son about his beliefs, he discovered the truth, leading to a long period of dissension with both parents:. What a damned curse I am to my parents!


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As my father said "You have rendered my whole life a failure". As my mother said "This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me". O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of probably the only two people who care a damn about you in the world. In late , on a visit to a cousin in England, Stevenson met two people who were to be of great importance to him, Sidney Colvin and Fanny Frances Jane Sitwell. Sitwell was a year-old woman with a son, separated from her husband. She attracted the devotion of many who met her, including Colvin, who eventually married her in Stevenson was also drawn to her, and over several years they kept up a heated correspondence in which Stevenson wavered between the role of a suitor and a son he came to address her as "Madonna".

Colvin became Stevenson's literary adviser and after his death was the first editor of Stevenson's letters. Soon after their first meeting, he had placed Stevenson's first paid contribution, an essay entitled "Roads," in The Portfolio. Stevenson was soon active in London literary life, becoming acquainted with many of the writers of the time, including Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill Magazine , who took an interest in Stevenson's work.

Stephen in turn would introduce him to a more important friend. Henley, an energetic and talkative man with a wooden leg, became a close friend and occasional literary collaborator, until a quarrel broke up the friendship in In November , after Stevenson's health failed, he was sent to Menton on the French Riviera to recuperate.

He returned in better health in April and settled down to his studies, but he returned to France several times after that. He made long and frequent trips to the neighbourhood of the Forest of Fontainebleau, staying at Barbizon, Grez-sur-Loing, and Nemours and becoming a member of the artists' colonies there, as well as to Paris to visit galleries and the theatres.

Stevenson, Robert Louis

He did qualify for the Scottish bar in July , and his father added a brass plate with "R. One has only to read such essays, however, as those printed in this volume to realise not only their spirit and charm, but to feel instinctively that one is reading English Literature. They are exquisite works of art, written in an almost impeccable style. By many judicious readers, they are placed above his works of fiction. They certainly constitute the most original portion of his entire literary output.

It is astonishing that this young Scotchman should have been able to make so many actually new observations on a game so old as Life. There is a shrewd insight into the motives of human conduct that makes some of these graceful sketches belong to the literature of philosophy, using the word philosophy in its deepest and broadest sense.

The essays are filled with whimsical paradoxes, keen and witty as those of Bernard Shaw, without having any of the latter's cynicism, iconoclasm, and sinister attitude toward morality.

For the real foundation of even the lightest of Stevenson's works is invariably ethical. His fame as a writer of prose romances grows brighter every year. His supreme achievement was to show that a book might be crammed with the most wildly exciting incidents, and yet reveal profound and acute analysis of character, and be written with consummate art.

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Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 - 1894. Essayist, Poet and Author

His tales have all the fertility of invention and breathless suspense of Scott and Cooper, while in literary style they immeasurably surpass the finest work of these two great masters. His best complete story, is, I think, Treasure Island. There is a peculiar brightness about this book which even the most notable of the later works failed to equal. Nor was it a trifling feat to make a blind man and a one-legged man so formidable that even the reader is afraid of them.

Those who complain that this is merely a pirate story forget that in art the subject is of comparatively little importance, whereas the treatment is everything. To say, as some do, that there is no difference between Treasure Island and a cheap tale of blood and thunder, is equivalent to saying that there is no difference between the Sistine Madonna and a chromo Virgin. The Personal Essay is a peculiar form of literature, entirely different from critical essays like those of Matthew Arnold and from purely reflective essays, like those of Bacon.

It is a species of writing somewhat akin to autobiography or firelight conversation; where the writer takes the reader entirely into his confidence, and chats pleasantly with him on topics that may be as widely apart as the immortality of the soul and the proper colour of a necktie. The first and supreme master of this manner of writing was Montaigne, who belongs in the front rank of the world's greatest writers of prose. Montaigne talks endlessly on the most trivial subjects without ever becoming trivial.

To those who really love reading and have some sympathy with humanity, Montaigne's Essays are a "perpetual refuge and delight," and it is interesting to reflect how far in literary fame this man, who talked about his meals, his horse, and his cat, outshines thousands of scholarly and talented writers, who discussed only the most serious themes in politics and religion. The great English prose writers in the field of the personal essay during the seventeenth century were Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Fuller, and Abraham Cowley, though Walton's Compleat Angler is a kindred work.

Burton's wonderful Anatomy of Melancholy is a colossal personal essay. Some of the papers of Steele and Addison in the Tatler , Guardian, and the Spectator are of course notable; but it was not until the appearance of Charles Lamb that the personal essay reached its climax in English literature. Over the pages of the Essays of Elia hovers an immortal charm--the charm of a nature inexhaustible in its humour and kindly sympathy for humanity. Thackeray was another great master of the literary easy-chair, and is to some readers more attractive in this attitude than as a novelist.


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In America we have had a few writers who have reached eminence in this form, beginning with Washington Irving, and including Donald G. Mitchell, whose Reveries of a Bachelor has been read by thousands of people for over fifty years.

The Biography of Robert Louis Stevenson

As a personal essayist Stevenson seems already to belong to the first rank. He is both eclectic and individual. He brought to his pen the reminiscences of varied reading, and a wholly original touch of fantasy.

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He was literally steeped in the gorgeous Gothic diction of the seventeenth century, but he realised that such a prose style as illumines the pages of William Drummond's Cypress Grove and Browne's Urn Burial was a lost art. He attempted to imitate such writing only in his youthful exercises, for his own genius was forced to express itself in an original way. All of his personal essays have that air of distinction which attracts and holds one's attention as powerfully in a book as it does in social intercourse. Everything that he has to say seems immediately worth saying, and worth hearing, for he was one of those rare men who had an interesting mind.

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