Saturday, November 13, 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson at 160

Scottish born Robert Louis Stevenson was born on this day in 1850. Arguably one of the great storytellers of his generation, he was the author of (Treasure Island, Prince Otto, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). According to Writer’s Almanac, much of his success was due to the love of the right woman:
He was a sickly, moderately successful essayist and travel writer, living in France, when he fell in love with a woman after one look at her. The woman was Fanny Osbourne, an American, and she was unhappily married. After a few months in Europe, she returned to California, and Stevenson decided to drop everything and go persuade her to divorce her husband and marry him. He collapsed on Fanny Osbourne’s doorstep. She divorced her husband, and they got married and moved back to Scotland.

One rainy summer afternoon, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson, and in a single month, he wrote his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883). It's been in print for 127 years.

He's also the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal. Those two books made Stevenson rich and famous. He spent the rest of his life traveling from one place to the next, and he finally settled on the island of Samoa.
Along the way, both the writer and his wife were painted by the great American portrait artist, John Singer Sargent. The painting shown above left, now in the Steve Wynn collection, was not much liked by critics when it was completed in 1885. From the John Singer Sargent virtual gallery:
By and large, the critical review was mixed about this painting. They thought the composition odd and the depiction of Stevenson strange and unflattering, just as some people had said about Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). But Stevenson, himself, thought that Sargent had captured correctly his odd way in which he fidgeted about the room when he wrote.
Sargent reported that Stevenson was most remarkable subject. “Often when he got animated he rose and walked about as he spoke, as if movement aided thought and expression.”

When Sargent painted Stevenson he wrote to Henry James and said that RLS “seemed to me the most intense creature I had ever met.”
Sargent was twenty-nine years old at the time and RLS was thirty-four. it was less than one year prior to the publication of RLS’s hugely popular “masterpiece” The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). It is fun to think that possibly Robert Louis Stevenson might have been working on the book, if not thinking about it, at the same time that Sargent painted him.
The Writer’s Almanac is here. The John Singer Sargent virtual gallery can be visited here. The National Library of Scotland has an extensive biography of Stevenson, including the entire first edition of Kidnapped, published in 1886.



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