Robert Louis Stevenson is a complicated man whose life was full of interesting tidbits. Born and raised in Scotland, Stevenson’s father Thomas was a lighthouse engineer. His uncle David was a lighthouse engineer. His grandfather Robert was a lighthouse engineer. So you can probably guess what Stevenson planned on studying when he entered the University of Edinburgh. Robert, however, had no interest in engineering and soon decided to turn to a life of writing instead.
Stevenson is best known for three novels, and each of them very different from the other: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and Treasure Island. Though both Kidnapped and Treasure Island are tales of boys experiencing grand adventure, they differ in their fundamentals. Treasure Island always read to me more of an adventure story. Scary, yes, but fun and exhilarating. Stevenson meant it as a story for boys to enjoy. Kidnapped focused on David Balfour reclaiming his legal inheritance. Though it contains pirates of sort and Alan Breck’s loud character to entertain us, it feels much more adult. In fact, the questions of the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland enter it into a different commentary all together: historical fiction and Scottish nationality. But David is still a boy growing into a young man, much like Jim of Treasure Island.
Perhaps most different is Jekyll and Hyde. This short novella has been treated with respect nearing on reverence, especially those who are in the crime fiction genre. Authors such as Ian Rankin will make constant references to it, and even Denise Mina’s work is littered with its influence. Potentially the best-known story, and yet, hardly anyone I know have ever actually read the novella. That is the power of a strong, resonating story. Jekyll and Hyde are names that almost anyone could identify, and characters whose story almost anyone would know. Obviously, the idea of man’s duality resonates with most of us humans.
Stevenson was prone with illness, and so eventually settled in Somoa and the South Pacific for his health. From there, he wrote haunting island narratives. South Sea Tales is a collection of short stories, containing “The Beach of Falesá”, “The Bottle Imp”, and “The Isle of Voices”. In each, Stevenson explores the darker nature of the men who populate the idyllic islands. I particularly liked “The Beach of Falesá” as it shows both the horrific nature and kindness of the human spirit. They are not exhibited in the same being, this time. Rather, the story follows a battle between two European merchants in the Islands. One has tried to trick the other into marrying a woman believed to be cursed by the other villagers. With a cursed woman as his wife, no one will buy from the second merchant. But he overcomes his trials and loveds his wife, no matter what could be said about her. Disturbing and touching, it’s a short story that really illustrates Stevenson’s strength: showing the evil existing beside the good.
Though he died in 1894, Stevenson’s influence and reputation continues to grow. Now, go read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!