Five Fascinating Facts about Robert Louis Stevenson

Fun facts about the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island

1. We’ve been mispronouncing his middle name all this time. Stevenson – or ‘RLS’ as he is sometimes known – was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson, in 1850. He later changed ‘Lewis’ to ‘Louis’, but continued to pronounce it ‘Lewis’. He also dropped the ‘Balfour’ middle name, although he would later use it as the surname for David Balfour, the protagonist of Stevenson’s adventure novel, Kidnapped (1886).

Literature in many of its branches is no more than the shadow of good talk. – Robert Louis Stevenson

2. He was something of a literary superstar. Stevenson sometimes bemoaned the sensationalist way in which publishers promoted his work to the public: his 1884 Christmas story, ‘The Body Snatcher’, had been advertised by six men who had been paid to roam the streets wearing huge coffin-shaped sandwich boards and plaster skulls (these Robert Louis Stevensonfigures caused such a stir among the people of London that the police were called in to ‘suppress the nuisance’ … the power of advertising!). His first novel, Treasure Island, even helped to inspire another of the great Victorian adventure novels of the 1880s. (Treasure Island would also invent many of the classic tropes we associate with pirates.)

3. He gifted his birthday to someone. While he was living in the South Seas – where he would die in 1894 – Stevenson discovered that the 12-year-old daughter of Henry Clay Ide, the US Commissioner to Samoa, had her birthday on Christmas Day and disliked this. All her friends had a birthday and Christmas Day (and so two lots of presents!), whereas she had to make do with one special day each year. Stevenson nobly signed away all ‘rights’ to his birthday to the girl, as a letter of 1891 makes clear: ‘I … Have transferred, and do hereby transfer to the said A. H. Ide, All and Whole of my rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said A. H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats and receipt of gifts, compliments and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.’ What a nice man!

4. According to his stepson, he destroyed the first draft of Jekyll and Hyde and rewrote it from scratch. The idea for the story of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) came to Stevenson in a dream. His wife criticised the initial manuscript, which was produced in just three days, and it has been suggested that Stevenson burnt the manuscript following this adverse verdict from his beloved wife, and her suggestion that he had ‘missed the allegory’ of the story he was writing. However, we must be wary of taking this story at face value, since it has become part of the mythology surrounding the creation of the novel, and was told, at any rate, by Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who was not a reliable storyteller by any means. At any rate, Stevenson rewrote the tale after that, again very rapidly (it appears to have taken him about six weeks this time), and it was sent off for publication soon after. The rest, as they clichaically say, is history. Though much of what we think we know about the book – including how to pronounce ‘Jekyll’ – is shrouded in the sort of thick mist that hangs over the dark London streets in the novella itself.

If you are going to make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning. – Robert Louis Stevenson

5. Robert Louis Stevenson had a donkey called Modestine which he took on his travels with him. He published an account of his adventures hiking through France with a recalcitrant donkey, titled Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, in 1879. This makes it one of Stevenson’s earliest published works. Indeed, Stevenson began his book-writing career as a travel writer: his first book, published a year before Travels with a Donkey, was An Inland Voyage (1878), about his journey canoeing through France and Belgium a couple of years earlier.

Image: Photo of Robert Louis Stevenson (by Lloyd Osbourne, date unknown), Wikimedia Commons.


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  6. I loved this post – especially about the birthday. Very sweet!

  7. What is the pronunciation that you believe to be in error? I don’t think I personally have been mispronouncing his name — but then, around here we pronounce Louis and Lewis the same. :-)

    Treasure Island is a treasure our reading-aloud family has enjoyed many times over the years, and now you make me want to read Travels With a Donkey.

    That is a great story about him giving away his birthday. Thank you for posting this article in time for me to remember his November birthday as his anyway. I will remember it by reading some of his work!

  8. The Bookaneer heavily features RLS when he went native with his family. Sounds like fiction was imitating life from this account.

  9. Fact #6 – Looks like he was Severus Snape’s father.

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  11. Not only he was a fantastic storyteller, he was also an awesome man.

  12. David Balfour also features in Kidnapped’s sequel, Catriona, which I have to say I didn’t like quite as much :-(

  13. This man gave me glorious sleepless nights and a thirst for literary adventures. Finding out more about him is always welcomed. Thank you for posting!

  14. Wow, Robert Louis Stevenson lived a life more exotic than I had imagined! I’m interested in his travel writing, and curious as to why he is not better known as a travel writer. I wish I had read more of him when studying postcolonial literature. Which of his travel books would you recommend? He has a reputation for being sensationalist but is it deserved?

    • ‘Travels with a Donkey’ is the travel book to go for, though his fiction based around Samoa and the South Pacific (where he lived for the last few years of his life) deserves to be better known! It’s collected in the OUP edition ‘South Sea Tales’, and includes such wonderful stories as ‘The Ebb-Tide’ and ‘The Bottle Imp’ :) I think much of his fiction has subtler undercurrents than the label ‘sensationalist’ implies, so I’d say he’s a more interesting writer than that would suggest :)

      • Reading Travels with My Donkey almost saved my life! It was when I was teaching English in Belgium and suffering from severe depression. I had a school edition bound in cloth, bought in a charity shop – I have it on my desk now – and I have written in the front: “what a comfort amidst the trauma”! There are some passages in the book that can only be described as poetic. A great read! I’ve an edition of his south sea stories which Ive yet to read.

  15. Such a wonderful article, enjoyed!