Robert Louis Stevenson : Scottish Novelist

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     Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was born at Edinburgh, and was called to the Scottish Bar. He had little taste for the legal profession, and a constitutional tendency to consumption made an outdoor life necessary. He travelled much in an erratic manner, and wrote for periodicals. Then, when his malady became acute, he migrated to Samoa (1888), where the mildness of the climate only delayed a death which came all too prematurely. He lies buried in Samoa.

Stevenson first published works were of the essay nature, and included An Inland Voyage (1878), Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), and Virginibus Puerisque (1881). His next step was into romance, in which he began with The New Arabian Nights (1882), and then had real success with Treasure Island (1883), a stirring yarn of pirates and perilous seas.
Robert Louis Stevenson

      Stevenson first published works were of the essay nature, and included An Inland Voyage (1878), Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), and Virginibus Puerisque (1881). His next step was into romance, in which he began with The New Arabian Nights (1882), and then had real success with Treasure Island (1883), a stirring yarn of pirates and perilous seas. Then came The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), a fine example of the teror-mystery novel, and several historical novels: Kidnapped (1886), The Black Arrow (1888), The Master of Ballantrae (1889), and Catriona (1893), which was a sequel to Kidnapped. With the exception of The Black Arrow, the historical novels deal with Scotland in the eighteenth century. At his death he left a powerful fragment, Weir of Hermiston.

      In the essay Stevenson shows himself to be the master of an easy, graceful style, the result of much care and a close attention to artistic finish, though, on occasion, he is in danger of becoming over-solemn. It is, however, as a romancer that he now lives. A follower of the Scott tradition, he has a power of rapid narrative, which gains because it avoids the verbiage and digressions to which Scott himself was so prone. Such books as Treasure Island reflect the adventurous spirit which, in spite of his illness, he never lost, and in most of them the story moves well. Generally plot seems to have been of more importance to Stevenson than character, though, even so, some of his stories, such as Kidnapped, are rather episodic, while others, notably The Master of Ballantrae, fall away in a manner which suggests some lack of staying power. Catriona is a not very successful attempt to emulate Meredith's detailed character analysis, and it may be said that, with the exception of his unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston, which approaches more closely to the novel (as distinct from the romance) than any other of his works, few of Stevenson's books have deeply studied characters. In many ways he is at his best in his short stories, where there is not the same need for a long-sustained effort. Here his artistry, working in a limited scope, produced such masterpieces as The Bottle Imp. His wide knowledge of, and deep regard for, his native land find their expression in the racy, Lowland Scots vernacular which was his natural idiom, and which he uses to such effect in Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae.

      Stevenson's true merits have long been obscured by the glamourizing and sentimentalizing of his illness and life in Samoa. As we move further away from his own time and see him in a truer perspective, we are able to recognize in him the conscious and expert craftsman, deeply anxious to study and formulate the technicalities of his craft. The importance to him of this study can be well estimated from his numerous letters on the subject to his friend and fellow-writer Henry James.

     Stevenson's poetry is charming and dexterous. His best volumes are A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), Underwoods (1887) and Ballads (1890).

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