- Stevenson in the Third Republic: Fiction and Liberalization
This essay analyzes the relation between literary fiction and its historical context in the case of two short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Providence and the Guitar” (1878) and “The Treasure of Franchard” (1883). The immediate historical context in which I will situate these texts is the emergence of the third French Republic in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the Paris Commune. Stevenson’s non-fiction accounts of his experiences in 1870s France in An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey (1879) will provide a vital link between history and fiction, but my purpose is not to read any of these texts for their biographical content. Rather, I aim to trace the political effects that accompany Stevenson’s increasingly confident subordination of his historical materials to the demands of aesthetic form. We can understand Stevenson’s choice of the short story, rather than the historical novel in the mode of Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, or Leo Tolstoy, in the light of Regenia Gagnier’s suggestion that “the rise of, and high demand for, the modern short story in the 1880s had something to do with the failure of the organic, panoramic view of the ‘realist’ novel to incorporate a world disintegrating into class and gender perspectives” (Subjectivities 124). For mutually incomprehensible class perspectives are exactly what we will find in “The Treasure of Franchard,” in which the professional gentleman and the vagrant boy are reconciled, not at the level of consciousness, by one learning at last to appreciate the values adhered to by the other (as typically happens in the historical novel), but at the level of agency, by the actions of one providing the material salvation of the other through the compact mechanism of the plot.
The politics at stake in Stevenson’s formal strategies are liberal politics, and this essay will try to connect two stories that can be told about the category “liberal” in the second half of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, literary critics commonly identify a specifically liberal type of subjectivity established as a norm in a variety of written genres, including the novel, autobiography, and art criticism. In such genres, the liberal subject valorizes its own mental life, and reflects critically on that life, in ways that are conducive both to the cultivation of its own many-sided personality and openness to experience, and to a corresponding critical detachment or distance from the particular society in which it finds itself. [End Page 125] This self-conception can, of course, be understood as a mystification of “bourgeois individualism” (Gagnier, Subjectivities 169) and thus as a naturalization of the economic individualism of nineteenth-century capitalism. However, recent critics have also reasserted the socially critical potential of the liberal subject by tracing its continuation in the aesthetic doctrines of the last three decades of the century. In The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (1996), Linda Dowling argues against seeing the “Aesthetic Movement” of Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde as a “flight from politics” (1), incorporating as it does the essentially liberal ideals of disinterestedness and judging for oneself; Regenia Gagnier distinguishes the “liberatory aesthetics” of the last three from the anti-politics of “Decadence” (Gagnier, “Critique” 270, 271). Two more recent works, by Amanda Anderson and David Wayne Thomas, further explore the continuities between Victorian liberalism and aestheticism. Both do so by reassessing mid-century liberalism as a regulatory ideal of selfhood rather than an ideology—an aspiration to “detachment” (Anderson) or “many-sidedness” (Thomas) that remains implicit not only in the writing of Pater and Wilde but also in any critical thinking whatever, even that which in our own time attempts, from a Foucauldian or Marxist perspective, to demystify liberal values as the effects of power (Anderson 23–33; Thomas 14–25).
On the other hand, social historians tell a different story about the “liberal” in the same period. Gareth Stedman Jones and Margot Finn, most notably, chronicle “liberalization”: not as a subjective stance but as a social process. “Liberalization” names the gradual...