History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past
History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

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History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

10 Robert Louis Stevenson’s reading

By Shafquat Towheed

The author of bestsellers such as Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) was one of the greatest literary celebrities of his age, and together with Sir Walter Scott, he is considered to be Scotland’s greatest nineteenth-century writer. Stevenson was a prodigious talent, writing in many different genres: poetry, travel writing, the novel, short fiction, drama, journalism and the literary essay. As well as being a highly prolific writer, Stevenson was from his early childhood, an avid and voracious reader. We can piece together a great deal of information about Stevenson’s reading from the records that he has left behind, especially the references to his reading in his correspondence.

Robert Louis Stevenson at his desk
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Figure 23 Robert Louis Stevenson at his desk

So what did Stevenson read? Using the ‘advanced search’ facility of the UK RED site, we can delve into the records and find out what books Stevenson read during a specific time in his life, before he became a famous author: his childhood and young adulthood while living in his parental home in Edinburgh, 17 Heriot Row. There are more than 50 records, and we can learn a lot about Stevenson’s reading by studying them. One thing they reveal is that Stevenson read many books that were not in English or about Britain. He read several major works in French, including novels such as Gustave Flaubert’s Le Tentation de Saint Antoine, which he read twice and declared to be ‘splendid’ (UK RED: 17758 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ), Théophile Gautier’s Le Capitaine Fracasse - read in the evening in front of the dining room fire (UK RED: 17784) - and Alexandre Dumas’ Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (UK RED: 13546). He also read non-fictional French prose such as Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he considered to be ‘light reading’ (UK RED: 17778) and poems by Charles Baudelaire - ‘some of these are really very excellent’ (UK RED: 18015) - and Réné-François Armand Sully-Prudhomme, whose work he considered ‘adorable’ (UK RED: 18160).

Stevenson read French fluently from childhood, and his writing was heavily influenced by French writers of adventure and romance, such as Alexandre Dumas; he drew upon both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers in his own writing. Stevenson was also a competent reader of German, evidenced by his reading and response to Heinrich Heine’s poems in Buch der Lieder; Stevenson learned some of these poems off by heart (UK RED: 17280), or copied them out in his letters (UK RED: 17771). He also read a lot of British writers, such as George Eliot (UK RED: 16110), Benjamin Disraeli (UK RED: 13545), and Harrison Ainsworth (UK RED: 13550), and American writers, like Walt Whitman (read late at night, UK RED: 17720) and Edgar Allen Poe (a reading experience which stopped him from sleeping, UK RED: 18073). Stevenson’s reading covers many different genres, from science (Darwin, Spencer) to religion (The Bible, John Knox, Foxe’s Book or Martyrs), and from history (Macaulay, Hallam) to books on civil law. While living in the parental home in Edinburgh, Stevenson’s reading shows his interest in the wider world beyond Europe, seen in books on America and Japan.

Stevenson read widely, but he has also been widely read. Because of the popularity of Stevenson’s books, there are also a good number of entries of readers of his works in the RED database, often with divergent views. King Kalakaua of Hawai’i was an avid fan (UK RED: 3900), while the British Orientalist Gertrude Bell preferred reading Stevenson’s essays to visiting the Eiffel Tower (UK RED: 30778). Treasure Island was one of the first books the novelist Rose Macaulay read as a child (UK RED: 2728), while for the poet laureate John Masefield, Stevenson’s adventure novel of pirates on the high seas was a formative teenage influence, first read on board ship (UK RED: 5758). For Arthur Vanson, a British child growing up in Paris, the influence of Treasure Island was so great that he renamed parts of the Bois de Boulogne after the book (UK RED: 13996). Not all readers loved Stevenson, however. The Bloomsbury novelist E.M. Forster thought Treasure Island insincere (UK RED: 20743) while the 16-year-old Hilary Spalding (reading Kidnapped during World War II) felt that it was ‘not up to much’ (UK RED: 6641). For members of the XII Book Club, an English Quaker reading group active during World War I, the charm of reading Stevenson was that each reader had their own favourite work, as noted in their minutes:

It is difficult for anyone to sum up the results of the discussion - it was soon apparent that to some members his essays were the one & only thing worth having, to others his stories, Treasure Island, Island Nights Entertainments & so on reveal his greatness: to others, his letters are the thing & so one might proceed (UK RED: 27224).

Readers through history have evidently had their own favourite Stevenson works, treasured above the rest of his writing. What are yours?

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