Born in Edinburgh into a distinguished family of lighthouse engineers, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) was a sickly child, with a solitary childhood dominated by his governess, Alison “Cummie” Cunningham, who regaled him with tales drawn from Calvinist folklore. Sent to the university to study engineering, Stevenson rebelled against his upbringing by spending much of his time in the lowlife howffs and brothels of the city.
Stevenson’s early successes were two travelogues, An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, kaleidoscopic jottings based on his journeys in France, where he went to escape Scotland’s weather, which was damaging his health. It was there that he met Fanny Osbourne, an American ten years his senior. Having married the now-divorced Fanny, Stevenson began an elusive search for an agreeable climate that led to Switzerland, the French Riviera and the Scottish Highlands. He belatedly turned to the novel, achieving immediate acclaim in 1881 for Treasure Island, a moralistic adventure yarn that began as an entertainment for his stepson and future collaborator, Lloyd Osbourne. In 1886, his most famous short story, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, despite its nominal London setting, offered a vivid evocation of Edinburgh’s Old Town: an allegory of its dual personality of prosperity and squalor, and an analysis of its Calvinistic preoccupations with guilt and damnation. The same year saw the publication of the historical romance Kidnapped, an adventure novel that exemplified Stevenson’s view that literature should seek above all to entertain. In 1887 Stevenson left Britain for good, travelling first to the United States. A year later, he set sail for the South Seas, and eventually settled in Samoa, where he died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage in 1894.