- Robert Louis Stevenson's Pacific Impressions: Photography and Travel Writing, 1888–1894 by Carla Manfredi
When, in the last years of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson began writing about his experiences in the South Pacific, intervening in Samoan politics and dedicating much of his energy to a history of the 'South Seas', a number of his supporters were puzzled and concerned. This group included not only his London literary mentor, Sidney Colvin, deeply worried about the direction of Stevenson's activities, but also his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. Colvin feared that the anthropological and ethnographic project which Stevenson had engaged in would simply be descriptive and informative, while Fanny was anxious that although he had 'enchanting material' he 'was going to spoil it'. While these concerns had financial, aesthetic and (in Colvin's case) racial underpinnings, they nevertheless point to the challenges of understanding Stevenson's broader cultural project in these last years and how it related to his literary identity. The material that emerges from the 1890s is rich and varied: fiction, poetry, historical accounts, personal recollections, theatrical activities, travel diaries, drawing and photography. This was not only produced by Stevenson but his wife, his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, his step-daughter Isobel (Belle) and her (later divorced) husband Joseph Strong. How might all these activities be situated and contextualised? What do they offer in terms of literary and visual aesthetics and how do we position them ideologically? To what extent and in what ways can they be read as documentary sources? And how might these different perspectives be reconciled?
Carla Manfredi's book, which focuses on photography and writing from Stevenson's years in the South Pacific both engages with and embodies these challenges. This addition to Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture series contributes to growing interest in Stevenson's relationship with visual culture and to excitingly interdisciplinary explorations of the Stevenson community in Sāmoa. Through the work of Vanessa Smith (1998), Ann C. Colley (2004), Julia Reid (2006) and Roslyn Jolly (2009), Stevenson's positioning in the transmission of print culture in the Pacific Islands and his role as anthropologist and ethnographer have become more clearly situated in relation to nineteenth-century colonialism. Emerging from the International Stevenson Conference held in Sydney in 2013, Richard Hill's edited collection, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Great [End Page 200] Affair: Movement, Memory and Modernity (2017) further re-situated Stevenson in an Australasian context and identified him as a key figure for tracing relationships between modernity and mobility. Hill and Colley have both contributed to renewed interest in Stevenson and visual culture: Colley through her focus on photography in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination (2004); and Hill in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Pictorial Text: A Case Study in the Victorian Illustrated Novel (2017). The success of Joseph Farrell's Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa (2017) further testifies to broader interest in this part of Stevenson's life.
Carla Manfredi's project is part of these increasingly wide-ranging approaches but is also quite specific. She focuses primarily on Stevenson's four photograph albums held at The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh, which are too fragile to be displayed. Her book also draws on Stevenson's Samoan Scrapbook, held at the Beinecke, which relates to, but does not include Joseph Strong's photographs. Other images and texts, including unpublished passages from Stevenson's Pacific diaries, are discussed but the book's main aim is to bring these photographs to a wider audience and give appropriate contexts in which to read them.
Like Peter H. Hoffenberg in Oceania and the Victorian Imagination (2016), Manfredi takes issue with Colley's more Foucauldian reading of Stevenson's photographic activities as assertions of power. Instead she presents them as complicated processes of spectacle, in which relations between photographer, camera, subject and audience become 'contested sites of encounter and cultural exchange' (p. 16). Both Hoffenberg and Manfredi take the Stevensons' photographic project seriously, locating it within...