Very few authors can claim to have written a piece of work that had such a broad influence on culture that it redefined a genre of literature. But Robert Louis Stevenson can. And, in fact, he managed it twice. Stevenson wrote both Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two books that span completely different genres and even generations. For that, he is our World of Rare Books Author of the Week.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born 13 October 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He came from famous stock; both his father Thomas and grandfather Robert were famed and celebrated as lighthouse designers. Stevenson, however, was a born writer, dictating stories to his parents long before he knew how to read. Stevenson was forced to stay indoors for long periods of his childhood due to a bout of tuberculosis and he used to watch children playing in the street and make up stories about them. Stevenson spent much of his youth travelling and his early publications mainly documented his experiences away from home.
In 1883 he completed his first novel Treasure Island. It’s a swashbuckling adventure that follows the path of Jim Hawkins, a young man who becomes involved with the life of pirates. Treasure Island had an enormous influence on our modern perception of pirates, and it introduced the concepts such as “X marks the spot” on a map of buried treasure and the infamous Long John Silver. For a long time Treasure Island was considered just a story for children, but has more recently become highly praised for its contribution to popular literature.
Three years after Treasure Island was published, Stevenson penned the macabre Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A horror novella, it was extremely popular in its day and has gone on to be reproduced in films and theatre. The story is of an English gentleman named Dr Jekyll who yearns for excitement and a dark side to his pleasant-but-dull existence. Drinking a potion, he transforms himself into Mr Hyde, an energetic and violent character who indulges in any pleasure he wishes- legal or otherwise. Stevenson actually wrote the first draft in just three days – after he let his wife read it – he burned the manuscript and started again from scratch!
Stevenson was a prolific story-teller, who seemed to prefer writing short stories to full novels. Many of his full pieces were co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. He died relatively young at age 44 after living for many years in Samoa.
Stevenson’s most famous books are now, to a certain extent, victims of their own success. You’ve probably already seen the movie adaptations so the stories will already be familiar. But the novels are excellent works in their own right and are well worth a read if you get the chance. We’ve got plenty of his works available on our rare book website: (http://www.worldofrarebooks.com).