Robert Lewis (later: “Louis”) Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. His father Thomas belonged to a family of engineers who had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland. His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, came from a family of lawyers and church ministers. In 1857 the family moved to 17 Heriot Row, a solid, respectable house in Edinburgh’s New Town.
At the age of seventeen he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, with the aim – his father hoped – of following him in the family firm. However, he abandoned this course of studies and made the compromise of studying law. He “passed advocate” in 1875 but did not practice since by now he knew he wanted to be a writer. In the university’s summer vacations he went to France to be in the company of other young artists, both writers and painters. His first published work was an essay called “Roads”, and his first published volumes were works of travel writing.
The meeting with his future wife, Fanny, was to change the rest of his life. They met immediately after his “inland voyage”, in September 1876 at Grez, a riverside village south-east of Paris; he was twenty-five, and she was thirty-six, an independent American “New Woman”, separated from her husband and with two children. Two years later she returned to California and a year after that, in August 1879, RLS set out on the long journey to join her. This experience was to be the subject of his next large-scale work The Amateur Emigrant (written 1879-80, published in part in 1892 and in full in 1895), an account of this journey to California, which Noble (1985: 14) considers his finest work. In this work of perceptive reportage and open-minded and humane observation the voice is less buoyant and does not avoid observation of hardship and suffering. (The light-hearted paradoxes and confidential address to the reader of the essays written a few years before (1876-77) and then published as Virginibus Puerisque (1881) continue in the creation of that original debonair authorial persona.) After Fanny obtained a divorce, she and RLS were married in San Francisco in May 1880. Concluding this first period of writing based closely on his own direct experiences is The Silverado Squatters (1883), an account of their three week honeymoon at an abandoned silver mine in California.
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