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Stevenson, Robert Louis

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1850-1894) Scottish author, who changed his second given name from Lewis to Louis at the age of eighteen; best known for works outside the sf field like Treasure Island (1 October 1881-28 January 1882 Young Folks; 1883), transposed into space as the films Treasure Planet (1982) directed by Rumen Petkov and Treasure Planet (2002) directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, plus the Television series Treasure Island in Outer Space (1987); the topography and vegetation of the Island itself are inconsistent with any planetary locale. Further well-known nonfantastic titles include A Child's Garden of Verses (coll 1885) and Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (1 May-13 July 1886 Young Folks; 1886). As a student at Edinburgh University, Stevenson abandoned engineering for law after successfully completing a full course, but never practised. He travelled widely, suffered most of his life from tuberculosis, and settled in Samoa in 1890. Throughout his career he wrote tales and fantasies incorporating supernatural events, ghosts, Doppelgangers, imps and fairies and so forth, though rarely anything that might be thought of as sf. He is of initial sf interest not so much for this work as for the Club Story frame that governs parts of the New Arabian Nights sequence comprising New Arabian Nights (coll 1882 2vols; cut [second volume eliminated] vt The Suicide Club; And, the Rajah's Diamond 1894; further vt The Suicide Club and Other Adventures of Prince Florizel 1946), and More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (coll 1885) with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The contents of the first volume of New Arabian Nights, all of which contain fantastic elements, initially appeared in the magazine London 8 June-26 October 1878 under the general title Latter-Day Arabian Nights, and are Stevenson's first mature stories; the second volume of New Arabian Nights, which contains nonfantastic work, abandons the club story format. In this early-modern use of the form, the club story framing is most important as a releaser of the tales included, so that breath of the air of Fantastika, which is to say implications of a not quite iterated potential meaningfulness, imbues otherwise frivolous material with narrative gravity.

Other short work includes the tales assembled in The Merry Men, and Other Tales and Fables (coll 1887); Island Nights' Entertainments (coll 1893); Fables (coll 1896 chap); and Tales and Fantasies (coll 1905). One of these so assembled, Olalla (Christmas 1885 Court and Society Review; 2015 chap), is a Werewolf tale whose explanatory structure hints at theories of Devolution. Further individual tales were very frequently republished as small (almost always tasteful) booklets, but none of these is sf, and – with the exception of a posthumously published weird fantasy set in mediaeval Iceland, The Waif Woman (December 1914 Scribner's Magazine; 1916 chap) – they are not given in the Checklist below; nor are the very large number of full-length posthumous collections, mostly comprising reshuffles of already available tales (though some are competently edited). His later work in particular took a pessimistic view of the human enterprise, touched riskily (in Late Victorian terms) on matters of Sex, and was persistently expurgated; The Complete Short Stories (coll 1993 2 vols) edited by Ian Bell, prints original versions, from manuscript where necessary.

Stevenson's longer works do not generally risk the supernatural; even his collaborations with Lloyd Osbourne, such as the mildly black comedy The Wrong Box (1889), are nonfantastic [but see below]. Prince Otto: A Romance (April-October 1885 Longman's Magazine; 1885) is a melodrama involving secret identities and intrigue set in Grünewald, a Ruritanian principality spoofishly described as bordering "Seaboard Bohemia" and Gerolstein, that predates Anthony Hope's defining tale. There are barely submerged (but easily extractable) implications of something unnatural (and perhaps devilish) in the mysterious survival of the evil brother who is the Master of The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale (November 1888-October 1889 Scribner's; 1889). His unremitting malice, his erotic intoxication of his tame brother's wife, and his three deaths – two faked, the third an inexplicable revival after burial in the wilderness of America – inflict a fatal heart attack upon his conspicuously masochistic sibling; they end, twinned, entwined: Doppelgangers in the same grave.

Perhaps because they shy at the end from the fantastic (where The Master of Ballantrae in particular belongs), these tales are modest in their effect compared to the immediate literal impact (see Fantastika) of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); the usual vt from 1896 on, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, lacks the author's sanction for the stuck-on "the". The dual or doubled protagonist of the tale (Jekyll and Hyde in one body) has or have become a central prototype and Icon of all stories from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) on, where intolerable internal strife is most easily made storyable when the intertwinings of pursued and pursuer are unpacked in fantastic terms. A Faustian moral fable in the form of a tale of mystery and horror (see also Gothic SF; Horror in SF), it precedes by five years Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (July 1890 Lippincott's Monthly; exp 1891), which in some respects resembles it.

The plot takes the form of a spiral which moves gingerly into the heart-of-darkness of the climax, when the already dead Jekyll's written confession of his terrible fall is discovered and presented to readers as the last chapter of the text. Years before the tale begins, Jekyll (whose name Stevenson asks to be pronounced with a long "e") has begun to use drugs to dissociate his libertine side (corresponding to Freud's "id") from his normal self. The evil self that surfaces, Hyde, in whose person Jekyll enjoys unspecified depravities (the manuscript Stevenson brought to print gives instances of rage, brutality and murder), is less robust at first than the full man. But spontaneous metamorphoses into an increasingly dominant Hyde begin to occur, and after a temporary intermission larger and larger doses are needed for the "recovery" of Jekyll. Eventually supplies run out and, cornered, Hyde commits Suicide.

Jekyll/Hyde can certainly be understood as a multiple personality (see Identity), but is seen in Jekyll and Hyde as literally two separate persons, the transformation of one into the other, through the application of the mysterious Drug, not rendered by Stevenson as simply a change of personality. Hyde's Apes as Human appearance and behaviour (see Biology; Decadence; Doppelgangers; Devolution; Evolution; Shapeshifters), and the sepulchral vision of London he haunts, can only be understood if their separateness is fully accepted. The rejected first version, dictated by his memories of a nightmare, was perhaps more lurid than the published edition, but apparently presented an evil Jekyll using the Hyde transformation as a mere disguise; the published version transforms this sensationalism into a deep mythopoeisis, though it lacks the sexual explicitness that surfaced more and more clearly in Stevenson's late works, which were usually censored before publication. Jekyll and Hyde therefore transcends some echoes of the case of Deacon Brodie, hanged in 1788 (and also the subject of the play Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life [1880; rev 1888] by Stevenson with W E Henley [1849-1903]); and hearkens back directly to James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). The story has been filmed many times (see Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and has been deeply influential on the development of the theme of Psychology in sf.

In the last years of his life, Stevenson wrote several fantasies set in the South Pacific, in which his increasing revulsion at the excesses – and indeed the ethos – of nineteenth-century Imperialism registers clearly. His final completed work of any substance, The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette (November 1893-February 1894 To-Day; 1894) with Lloyd Osbourne, has remained obscure, in part perhaps because it is collaborative, though Stevenson himself affirmed what is manifest in the published text: that he had shaped the whole, and was entirely responsible for the second half of the tale, which rims if it does not wholly enter the water margins of Fantastika. As Stevenson's portion begins, the criminal cast of The Ebb-Tide sails into view of an uncharted Island, where "from the top of the beach ... a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow [is] to be seen beckoning with up lifted arm", evoking the very similar figure who beckons inward the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838 2vols) at the close of that tale, and quite possibly mocking the recently constructed Statue of Liberty, whose message of hope for migrants contradicted Stevenson's sense of the disastrous consequences of the coercive occupation of the "blank" spaces of the globe by the white empires of the west. The beckoning statue's "leprous whiteness" seems to bode ill, and though it turns out in fact to be the figurehead of an abandoned ship its sepulchral message seems clear in a tale whose darkness is pervasive. The proleptic ominous of the tale comes perhaps closest to the surface through the three visitors' devastating experiences with Attwater, the ruler of the Island, an enclave or Zone whose subjects are slaves in all but name (see Slavery); the scientistic sadism of his governance ("I was making a new people here") arguably prefigures Moreau, in H G Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), as Patrick Brantlinger suggests; a presciently twenty-first century note is evoked through Attwater's premature-corporation-speak shamelessness. Rosalind Williams [for both authors see about the author below] further suggests that the corrupt Utopia constructed by Attwater, the island's white ruler, may have been meant by Stevenson to Parody Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1626); she also notes Attwater's resemblance to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899; 1902).

His last novels, neither completed – Weir of Hermiston: An Unfinished Romance (1896) and St Ives: Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England (November 1896-November 1897 Pall Mall Magazine; 1897) finished by Arthur Quiller-Couch – give truncated hints of growing mastery. [JC/DIM]

see also: History of SF; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Medicine; Metaphysics; Paranoia; Prediction; Scientists; Theatre; Villains.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson

born Edinburgh, Scotland: 13 November 1850

died Apia, Samoa: 3 December 1894

works (highly selected)

collections and stories


New Arabian Nights

individual titles

  • The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (London: Chatto and Windus, 1887) [coll: hb/]
  • Island Nights' Entertainments (London: Cassell and Company, 1893) [coll: illus/hb/Gordon Browne and W Hatherell]
  • The Body-Snatcher (New York: The Merriam Company, 1895) [story: chap: written in 1881, but first appeared in Christmas 1884 Pall-Mall Gazette: in the publisher's Violet Series: illus/A S Hartrick: hb/]
  • Fables (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896) [coll: chap: hb/]
  • Tales and Fantasies (London: Chatto and Windus, 1905) [coll: hb/]
  • The Waif Woman (London: Chatto and Windus, 1916) [chap: first appeared December 1914 Scribner's Magazine: hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Complete Short Stories (Edinburgh, Scotland: Mainstream Publishing, 1993) [coll: published in two volumes: edited by Ian Bell: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Olalla (London: Penguin Books, 2015) [novella: chap: first appeared Christmas 1885 Court and Society Review: in the publisher's Little Black Classics series: pb/]


about the author (a short sample of the huge literature on "RLS")


previous versions of this entry

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