Treasure Island | Study Guide

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson | Biography


Born November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was the only son of a renowned lighthouse engineer. Throughout childhood, Stevenson struggled with ill health, which interfered with his schooling. Nevertheless, he entered Edinburgh University at age 17. Though his family expected him to study engineering, Stevenson had little interest in the field. As an alternative, he studied law in preparation for the Scottish bar. However, when he was called to the bar, Stevenson never served. Happily, he pursued a life of writing instead.

Early on, Stevenson exhibited a rich imagination. In his teens, he began learning the writer's craft and published his first work—Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666—at age 16. Though more of a pamphlet than a book, it was nonetheless a start. In his 20s, he produced a noteworthy series of essays and memoirs, many based on his travels abroad. Throughout his life, much of Stevenson's writing was done while traveling for his health. Serious lung ailments troubled him, from breathing difficulty to spitting up blood, and places like France and the Swiss Alps offered healthy climates and thus some relief.

In 1879 Stevenson traveled to California to marry a woman he had met earlier in France named Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. She was an American, divorced, and more than 10 years older than Stevenson, all of which horrified Stevenson's parents. The two were married in 1880 and—following an unconventional honeymoon in a miner's shack near an abandoned silver mine—they sailed back to Scotland to make peace with the family. With them was Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny's 12-year-old son. The idea that sparked the pirate tale Treasure Island began with the drawing of an imagined island Stevenson and young Lloyd produced one rainy afternoon.

Following their return to Scotland, Stevenson experienced several attacks of tuberculosis. On medical advice, he and his family traveled to the mountainous regions of Switzerland and Scotland. Along the way, Stevenson began developing his ideas for Treasure Island. By October 1881 they were being published as serialized stories in a weekly children's magazine called Young Folks. The original title was The Sea Cook; or, Treasure Island—a reference to the tale's iconic pirate, Long John Silver. In 1883 the stories were repackaged and published in book form. It was Stevenson's first novel.

Stevenson's story was an adventure intended for boys. Though popular, it was not taken seriously by adults until his works such as Kidnapped (1886), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Master of Ballantrae (1889) caught the attention of the general reading public.

With his family, Stevenson left Britain in 1887 and sailed to America. He would never return. After a stay in New York's Adirondack Mountains, the threesome went on to San Francisco, chartered a schooner yacht, and set sail for the Marquesas Islands. For months, they wandered from island to South Sea island, eventually settling on Samoa, where Stevenson purchased a villa.

During these travels Stevenson continued writing, improving his craft and showing maturity in style and technique. The climate of Samoa was healthful, and he enjoyed a time of great productivity. He was working on what is considered an unfinished masterpiece—The Weir of Hermiston—when he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage on December 3, 1894. He was buried in Samoa on the top of a high plateau.

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