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The Revisionary Role of Gender in R. L. Stevenson's New Arabian Nights and Prince Otto: Revolution in a "Poison Bad World" Lisa Honaker Richard Stockton College of New Jersey This is a poison bad world for the romancer, this Anglo-Saxon world; I usually get out of it by not having any women in it at all. —Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, February 1, 1892 RECENT CRITICAL attempts to get Robert Louis Stevenson out of the boys' section deserve praise. The efforts in this essay to reinstate him there may thus seem perverse. Yet Stevenson's critical "placement" has always been an affair of labels, inflicted by himself, his friends and opponents. As the primary standardbearer for late-century romance in its war with realism, Stevenson himself wrote romances of the most swashbuckling and wishfulfilling kind, with venues and motives that, like his life, took him far from the "poison bad Anglo-Saxon world."2 His paean to adventure in his "Humble Remonstrance" to Henry James's "Art of Fiction," for instance, makes the appeal of buried treasure, pirates , military commanders, and "imbrufing one's] little hands in gore" both innate and archetypal, bywords of the romancers and the project Stevenson himself constantly articulated in essays and correspondence .3 James, whose remarks on Stevenson became the standard by which to judge him, was, then, only following the other party's line in describing his friend's art as essentially juvenile and male. Finding women "wholly absent from his pages," James celebrated Stevenson on the romancers ' terms, citing his commitment to a "boy's ideal," which, with its "general freshness" and "capacity for successful make-believe," was "considerably more divine [to him] than the passion usually regarded as the supremely tender one."4 297 ELT 44 : 3 2001 Such focus on Stevenson's avowed sympathy with boys and his apparent commitment to them in romance, along with the continued popularity of books like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, created the conditions by which his work could be misrepresented . Subsequent commentators, while still acknowledging Stevenson 's command of various "styles," essentially found him the author James described, and in his work, the conditions James cited. They judged those works that didn't fit the conditions as, at best, uncharacteristic , at worst "freakish" or, in the case of the unfinished Weir ofHermiston —considered Stevenson's most mature treatment of women and sex—as regrettably unrealized.5 Even when attention to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1980s and early 1990s by feminists and queer theorists began to present a more adult Stevenson, whose aims went beyond the production of a ripping yarn, the "no girls allowed" premise for evaluating his romances stuck. This criticism perhaps predictably revealed misogyny and perhaps less predictably both homoeroticism and homophobia .6 More recent criticism has taken issue with this premise, at long last pointing out that women are far from "wholly absent" from Stevenson 's pages and that "the passion usually regarded as the supremely tender one" is a subject of frequent treatment. Critics argue for Stevenson 's frank treatment of married life and love, for a previously unremarked feminism, and for his efforts to "dismantl[e] polarized gender systems" by creating manly women and womanly men.7 This reassessment of Stevenson and gender informs correspondingly fresh views of him as an emerging modernist, who, far from uncritically embracing or even defining romance, used the genre self-consciously to evolve an aesthetic , the only constants of which were a commitment to formal experimentation and defiance of the literary tradition then represented most "tyranically" by the realist novel.8 This more complex Stevenson is better critical company than the adventure enthusiast we have inherited from the nineteenth century. Yet I would argue that constructing Stevenson as an experimental modernist and undiscovered feminist discounts the vision of romance he routinely announced publicly and privately throughout the main phase of his career.9 A fresh look at New Arabian Nights (1882) and Prince Otto (1885), works specifically identified by their author as romances, complete with women and adult intrigue, will show that while Stevenson surely does interrogate and experiment with gender and...


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pp. 297-319
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Will Be Archived 2021
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