Robert Louis Stevenson Fictive Biography

“A brilliant biography about a literary giant”



It is 1885, a tempestuous – and pivotal – year in Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing life. At ‘Skerryvore’, a Bournemouth villa perched at the edge of a chalky ravine, his wife, Fanny, sets about making ‘labyrinthine paths’, while Stevenson struggles to reconcile illness, entrapment, marital discord and lack of funds with his drive to write.

The House on the Chine takes the author behind the façade of Skerryvore to discover what prompts the ‘doomed and dazzling’ Scottish author to abandon Kidnapped, the ‘boys’ adventure’ he’s working on, and create, before the year is out, his chilling psychological thriller Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

‘It is a terrific read, full of haunting images and beautifully paced.’
Elspeth Barker

‘Stevenson has surely never been rendered so vividly: Sian Mackay blends a biographer’s quest for historical truth with a novelist’s insight and imagination to create a work of striking originality. She lures her readers not only into the hearts and minds of Stevenson, his wife and household, but also into his drawing room, kitchen, study and bedroom, through which family intrigue and famous friends and acquaintances flow, including the Americans, Henry James and John Singer Sargent. The result is memorable: a literary portrait of rare intimacy.’

Jim Crumley, author of The Last Wolf in Scotland

Published by Sancho Press (2013) and Thistle Publishing London (2014). Available to order through good bookshops and on Amazon

What Other Reviewers said about The House on the Chine:

  • “Sian Mackay’s emotional bond across a century with Robert Louis Stevenson stems from her shared childhood home in Scotland. Discovery of the link inspired her to haunt museums and libraries in search of every trace of him. Skerryvore near Bournemouth, where he wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was not only a magnet but a source of pilgrimage. She gazed at every detail, camera in hand. “I evoked Stevenson working at his desk, felt the sleeve of his velvet jacket, smelled his lunch roasting in the oven, heard the tick of the grandfather clock.” She was hooked. The man of her imagination, she freely admits, soon “blurred the edge of fact and fiction and came to sit beside me.” This book is the result. Here is Stevenson in flesh and blood, and Mackay’s sudden, unpredictable use of the present tense jolts like an electric shock. ‘I dreamed a scene split in two,’ he presently tells his wife Fanny early one morning, ‘in which a good man presses himself into a cabinet and swallows a powder. The drug changes him into another being, a monster.’ Readers should plunge without fear into this all too real Victorian world.”
  • “This is a beautifully written and really interesting blend of fact and fiction. The author really knows her subject- RLS- and has produced some deep insights into his mindset as she ponders the great literary mystery- why he so suddenly and dramatically changed literary direction. So you can read this on three levels- as a work of psychology; as a book about RLS, or just a really interesting work of fiction. It has the lot. Great stuff.”
  • “Robert Louis Stevenson is remembered for his literary works, but this biography opens up a new window onto the real struggles of the author, especially his long fight with illness, and isolation from a difficult wife. This biography reveals a somewhat quirky man, who is yet accepting of his lot in life. Thanks to Sian’s biography, it is possible to understand the dark side of RLS, a life which enabled him to channel into his greatest characters – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Thank you for this brilliant biography on a literary giant.”

Charcoal sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson. John Singer Sargent 1885. 

Copyright Yale University.