Robert Louis Stevenson is best known as the author of the children’s classic Treasure Island, and the adult horror story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both of these novels have curious origins. A map of an imaginary island gave Stevenson the idea for the first story, and a nightmare supplied the premise of the second. In addition to memorable origins, these tales also share Stevenson’s key theme: the impossibility of identifying and separating good and evil. Treasure Island ‘s Long John Silver is simultaneously a courageous friend and a treacherous cutthroat, and Dr. Jekyll, who is not wholly good but a mixture of good and evil, is eventually ruled by Hyde because of his own moral weakness. With Silver, Jekyll, and others, Stevenson set standards for complex characterization which were adopted by later writers. His method of rendering ambiguous, enigmatic personalities was one of Stevenson’s greatest literary contributions.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850, Stevenson was the only child of Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Balfour. Inheriting the weak lungs of his mother, he was an invalid from birth. Before he was two years old, a young woman named Alison Cunningham joined the household to act as his nurse. It was to her that Stevenson dedicated A Child’s Garden of Verses over thirty years later. The sheltered, bedridden nature of his childhood is revealed in this collection through poems like “The Land of Counterpane.”
Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.
Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.
The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.
Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy’s inmost nook.
Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.