- The Real Robert Louis Stevenson
Will the real Robert Louis Stevenson please stand up? Or rather, the real Stevensons. In the fin-de-siècle world of Anglo-American literary journalism, there developed a sort of critical war-game to fix the elusive signifier "Robert Louis Stevenson" to a definite signified. The immensely popular and famous Stevenson name functioned as the battleground over which debates were conducted about the nature of authorship, the relations between literary creativity and imperial ambition, and the character and purpose of the novel. Was the real RLS the author of charming, exquisitely crafted impressionist essays and travel writings? Was he really—as is still most often assumed to have been the case—the romancer of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona (or David Balfour), and The Weir of Hermiston? Was he really, in a category subsuming all the others, the near-mythical Tusitala, "teller of tales," whose life of illness and adventure, of romance and exile, ended in a desperate late-Romantic effort to escape the shackles of modernity? Was he really the psychologizer of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who produced arguably the late-nineteenth century's most richly symbolic and psychologically penetrating embodiment of the now-familiar adage, "scratch a Victorian and find a split personality"? In Jekyll and Hyde, the eponymous doctor describes his "shipwreck[ing]" discovery that "man is not truly one, but truly two." Indeed, he follows this insight to its logical conclusion and "hazard[s] the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens." The "real" Stevenson was all of these things, and more, as Roslyn Jolly shows.
The dominant tradition in Stevenson criticism stretched across the twentieth century, fetishized Stevenson's life at the expense of detailed attention to the wide topical and generic range of his writings, and almost completely excluded the nonfictional works he produced while traveling in the South Pacific and as resident in Samoa. In relation to that tradition, Jolly's book occupies a position roughly analogous to that occupied by Henry Jekyll's speculation about multiplicity in relation to his certain knowledge of duality. She makes a convincing case for the multifacetedness of Stevenson's identity and current significance as a writer; foregrounding several works of late nonfiction, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific continues Jolly's project—as seen, for [End Page 363] example, in her Oxford University Press edition of Stevenson's South Sea Tales (1996) and in several later articles and book chapters—of enlarging our understanding of the signifier "Robert Louis Stevenson."
Jolly offers the most detailed treatment to date of several key works from the last seven years of Stevenson's life, when, having departed Britain forever, he traveled in the South Pacific and then lived, until his death, in Samoa. She focuses on Stevenson's nonfiction: the travel book In the South Seas; the work of Samoan cultural and legal anthropology and history A Footnote to History; and a series of letters that Stevenson wrote to The Times on Samoan politics and on issues regarding colonial expansion in the South Seas. The general purpose of this book is to explore "Stevenson's journey as an author in the years 1887–1894, and the challenges that journey presented to his Victorian readers." After an introductory chapter, "1887: The Turning Point," that biographically contextualizes Stevenson's "radical change of course, shifting from romance to realism, and from the domain of the sentimental traveler to that of the anthropologist"—in other words, "the diversification of Stevenson's activities as an author"—successive, often overlapping chapters focus on one of these works and explore Stevenson's shifting attitude toward authorship; his multidisciplinary (as we would now call it) approach to portraying the complexities of Samoan life; his desire to reinvent himself as a scientific and political writer; and the contemporary, often baffled, sometimes hostile reception of his new work and his own responses to this mixed reception. Jolly's "underlying contention" is that...