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A Commentary

by Ian Campbell

Published in: Audio CD.
By: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Glasgow, October 2007.
Price: £9.95
ISBN 978-0-948877-83-4

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Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. When he was seven the family moved to a house in Heriot Row in the New Town. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and later at Edinburgh University where he studied civil engineering but later abandoned this for law and the Scottish Bar. He never in fact practised as an advocate, preferring to pursue a career as a writer. In 1876 he met Fanny Osbourne, a married American woman ten years his senior whom he married, to the outrage of his Presbyterian family, after she had obtained a divorce in 1880. His poor health was exacerbated by cold damp Edinburgh and they moved first in 1884 to the more congenial climate of Bournemouth, then in 1887 to Saranac Lake in America and, finally, in 1889 to Samoa in the South Seas. There he fulfilled an important rôle as leader of the community and was known by the local people as Tusitala – “teller of tales”. He died in Samoa in 1894.

One of the finest writers of the nineteenth century, Stevenson’s early works include the accomplished literary exercises An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey (1879). He went on to create romantic novels whose success is achieved through rapid action, vivid atmosphere and memorable settings. The most famous of these are the pirate story Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886), set in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Also in 1886 was published his classic study of good and evil, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Master of Ballantrae (1888) marks a change of style – the emphasis moves from action to highly developed characters and paves the way for the powerful South Seas story The Ebb Tide (1894) and his unfinished tragic and dramatic masterpiece Weir of Hermiston (1896).

‘Thrawn Janet’ (1881) and ‘Markheim’ (1885) have the diabolical as their theme, and their sinister settings and atmospheres are expertly created. ‘Thrawn Janet’, set somewhere in the Scottish Borders at the beginning of the eighteenth century, is written in Scots. Its protagonist, a fresh young minister, pays a heavy price for his scepticism about the existence of witches and the devil. ‘Markheim’ is set in a pawnbroker’s shop in contemporary London. Its protagonist is guilty of greed and murder. His remorse and repentance are induced by the appearance of a mysterious stranger.


  1. Stevenson and the Short Story
  2. ‘Thrawn Janet’
  3. ‘Markheim’
  4. Conclusions


Last updated 16 August 2010.