My history hero: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)

Author Ian Rankin chooses Scottish novelist, poet, travel writer and children's author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) as his history hero

Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th-century English poet and novelist perhaps best known for his books 'Treasure Island' and the 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. Photo by H. Walter Barnett, c1890. (Getty Images)
Stevenson’s best-known books are Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson travelled widely, visiting America (which he wrote about in The Amateur Emigrant) and the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa with his wife, Fanny. Dogged by ill health throughout his life, he died aged just 44, but remains one of the world’s most widely read authors.

When did you first hear about Robert Louis Stevenson?

 I first heard about him when I read Treasure Island as a kid. I can’t remember the version of the book I read – it was either a comic book or a cheap children’s hardback. But I instantly loved it – it’s a classic boy’s own adventure story, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since.

What kind of person was he?

I learnt all about Stevenson’s extraordinary life when studying for a postgraduate dissertation on Scottish literature. I read two or three biographies to try to get inside his head and discovered that he was a complex character. He suffered ill health, although his imagination remained undimmed, and he travelled extensively. But what really struck me was that he excelled at everything he tried his hand at, be it children’s poetry, travel writing or novels.

What made him a hero?

First and foremost, the fact that he’s arguably Scotland’s greatest author. But also because, for so much of his life, he faced adversity at every turn. As a young man, he was expected to get a proper profession, but he had other ideas, and had to fight against his upbringing to fulfil his ambitions.
He also had to fight, from childhood, against illness – and travelled across the seas to pursue the woman he loved. He also achieved so much in his life, despite dying so young. He was a maverick, and that’s part of the attraction.

What was his finest hour? 

His finest hour would have also been one of his most painful hours – the writing of Jekyll and Hyde. He was in great pain, they were testing a new drug on him at the time to try to deal with his condition, and he was having nightmares and sweats. What’s more, his partner, Fanny, had told him that the book was rubbish so he burnt it, and had to start it again from scratch. And yet despite all that, he produced this amazing book that people are still reading and enjoying.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

That’s a difficult one. I can’t find many faults in the man. Was he generous? Yes. If anything, overly so. He would give family members co-writing credits on books when he moved away to the South Seas, even though they didn’t do an awful lot of the work. He treated his wife well. The only possible thing I could hold against him is that he didn’t always recall Edinburgh fondly in his travel writing – it’s a city I love with a passion.

Can you see any parallels between Stevenson’s life and your own? 

Not really – we came from very different backgrounds. Perhaps the only real parallel is the way that Edinburgh has influenced our writing. In his case, it was being born and growing up there; in my case, it was moving there and trying to make sense of the place.

If you could meet him, what would you ask him? 

I would ask him to tell me what was in the original version of Jekyll and Hyde that his wife objected to so much. Better still, I’d like to have met him just before he tossed the manuscript into the fire – so I could have read it before it went up in flames.
Ian Rankin was talking to York Membery. He is a Scottish crime writer best known for his Inspector Rebus novels, which have been adapted for television. He is based in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons. 
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