Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13, 1850 – December 3, 1894)
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father and grandfather were both lighthouse engineers, and his mother was often ill with a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, from which her only son also suffered. Later called Louis, as a baby Stevenson was nicknamed "Smout," meaning "runt," because of his small size. Raised in a devout Protestant household, he was often read Bible stories by his nurse, and these gave him terrible nightmares. Yet this sickly, cloistered child who remained ill much of his life went on to write one of the great adventure stories of all time, Treasure Island, and ended his short life on the island of Samoa where he is buried.
Louis showed early promise as a poet but at his father's insistence also studied law. He also seems to have developed other habits.
"My hair, as I think I have said, is long," he wrote in 1874 a letter to his friend Sidney Colvin from a Welsh seaside hotel where he was staying with his parents. "I eat, I am seen about the garden with large and aged quatros, making cigarettes and inhaling the seductive pipe....I go down to the drawing room in the evening, where I listen to the music and say nothing. I wonder what the devil they think of me."
In Edinburgh, Louis had recurring dreams of leading a double life: by day working as a surgeon and by night haunting the seedy parts of town. This was perhaps the life he would have lead had he become the lawyer his father wanted him to me. Instead, he consulted a doctor who gave him an opiate.The dreams stopped.
Louis and his cousin Bob Stevenson, an imaginative person who grew up reading the Arabian Nights and later became a professional painter, were inseparable in 1875 when both met Fanny Osbourne, who was to become Louis's wife. The two Stevensons "pursued girls together and smoked hashish (when they could get it)," wrote his biographer James Pope Hennessy. "They professed agnosticism and derided every tenet that their parents held sacrosanct. Seen together they were always laughing..." But Stevenson was not to shed his Victorian upbringing, nor his physical ailments, so easily, even after he followed Fanny to California, married her and took her to live with him in Bournemouth, England.
"I was dreaming a fine bogeytale," he said to Fanny when she woke him from a nightmare one night in 1885. He began writing the next morning and for three days he lay in bed writing furiously. When he completed the tale, he read it to Fanny, who told him he had missed the point of his own story. It was an allegory that he should have written, she said, not a straight piece of sensationalism. Stevenson decided his wife was right and threw the 40,000-word manuscript into the fire, rewriting it in another three-day fury. "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," published in 1886, "caught the imagination of every reader, from Queen Victoria downward," wrote Pope. It was reviewed in The Times, made the theme for countless church sermons, and sold forty thousand copies in the first six months.
In the story, respectable Dr. Jekyll famously transforms into the hideous monster Mr. Hyde by taking a drug, a white powder Jekyll has developed. Much speculation has ensued about the basis of this fiction in Stevenson's life. In a 1971 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Myron Schultz theorized that cocaine is the culprit. He points to the fact that Stevenson wrote the story so quickly, despite his physical debility, and reported being exhilarated instead of exhausted by the experience. Cocaine had just been made available for medical use, and many doctors were endorsing it, including Sigmund Freud. Arthur Conan Doyle, Stevenson's contemporary and the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, also took cocaine.
In our own kind of modern Victorianism, two psychiatrists, Eric Altschuler and Daniel Wright, recently decided Dr. Jekyll meets six of the seven criteria for a diagnosis of "substance dependence" and recommend the story as "a useful primer for patients, their families, and physicians on substance dependence and its treatment." Aware that Stevenson used hashish and opium, and that cocaine was available at the time, Altschuler and Wright conclude that these drugs wouldn't have produced the effects described in his tale, and speculate that he may have tasted a hallucinogenic mushroom, or that one of his doctors may have accidently synthesized a hallucinogen while trying to treat him.
After Jekyll first drinks his potion, Stevenson writes, "I felt younger, lighter, happier in my body; within, I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations; and in the act, I was suddenly aware that I had lost in stature." Apparently the yoke of original sin laid heavy on Stevenson.
It's possible Stevenson felt guilty and conflicted about his enjoyment of the strange, Eastern ritual of hashish smoking. Hyde's first horrible act is to trample a child like "some damned Juggernaut." In British-controlled India, at Puri in Orissa, the followers of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Jagannath ('Lord of the World'), annually dragged in procession a statue of the deity on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have flung themselves to escape the cycle of karma-samsara (reincarnation).
At the end of his life in Samoa, Stevenson would "welcome a melanga, or visiting party, with a high chief's etiquette. The bowl of chewed kava that was expected was offered by the maids," wrote Pope. "All the liveliness and this eager and friendly hospitability must have formed a glorious compensation for the invalid years when Louis could scarcely bear to see anyone, or to move far from his bed."
Robert Louis Stevenson died of a brain hemorrhage on December 3, 1894 at the age of 44. He chose to be buried on Mount Vaea in Samoa.
Painting: Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent (1887). Photo: John Barrymore as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde from the 1920 film.