- 1 Part of this essay appeared in Zulli 2011.
History develops, art stands still. The novelist of the future will have to pass all the new facts through the old if variable mechanism of the creative mind.
E. M. Forster
- 2 As Francesco Marroni maintains, the subtitle of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1872), A Study of (...)
- 3 Late nineteenth-century writers were often torn between their writing techniques and ‘mystical’, su (...)
1By the end of the nineteenth century, novel writing had reached the status of a dynamic, open study of society in which man’s life and objectives found expression through different forms. In terms of narrative methods, the novel grew to be an ever-changing model where formal structures and language patterns were continuously rearranged in order to provide a world archetype able to represent reality2. The density of fictional writing was further developed by ideological and existential burdens affecting the individual soul. While representing a world picture able to express the multifaceted manifestations of life, authors had to deal with personal constraints that triggered off deep meditations and the rethinking of their own social and cultural role. As a consequence, the ethical and ideological potential of the novel expanded and often intermingled with the new directions taken by the social environment. For example, the circulation of philosophical sciences, together with original epistemic approaches to reality resulted in intellectual and literary speculation, which fostered, among other things, the fragmentation of authorial identity, often influenced by contrasting forces, such as those of rationalism and spiritualism3.
- 4 “The forms of prose fiction are mixed, like racial strains in human beings, not separable like the (...)
2A particular literary genre was that of adventure fiction which, despite its focus on the extraordinary and the supernatural, was influenced by different thematic features and semantic elements working together to represent the idea of the novel as a fluid construction, a variegated universe where different writing types merge. Northrop Frye’s identification of the different forms of prose fiction with the racial variations intrinsic to a single human being4 offers a good example of how the novel was to be perceived in this period; at the same time, it sheds light on the literary energy produced by other writing forms being introduced in fiction. Despite the crucial role played by the novel in Victorian society as representative of life and culture, other literary genres began to occupy a central position and some of them were given special attention as particularly suitable to explore the multifaceted nineteenth-century world.
3Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre is a valid example when investigating the role played by ‘other writing genres’ both on fiction and on the evolution of authorial identity. His works largely reflect the influence of travel narratives, in the form of letters and anthropological writings, on his literary production, especially in the later years. More specifically, they may very well have promoted a development in his own authorial consciousness. Stevenson’s writing was constantly marked by travel; many of the journeys he made during his life were followed by equally important revisions in narrative style, and each of them turned out to be pivotal for the evolution of his writing career.
- 5 See, for example, Robert-Louis Abrahamson’s essay “‘Of Some Use to Me Afterwards’: Stevenson’s Pivo (...)
4Criticism on Stevenson has often highlighted the fact that these turning points corresponded to important voyages or expeditions he made in his lifetime, such as his tours in France, his American travels and the journey to the South Seas5. In particular, his early journeys to Europe and the last crossing to the Pacific mark the beginning of two key revolutions in his authorial persona. The European journeys designated his ‘birth’ as a novelist. As early as 1873, he spent six months in Menton, on the French Riviera, and this period has been regarded as crucial in the author’s career: “before Menton he could hardly have been called a professional writer at all” (Ambrosini, Dury 37). This journey was followed by further travel in France and in the Alps, which actually engendered the transition from embryonic, descriptive, landscape writing, to a more conscious essay prose first, and then a more personal travel narrative. Following this creative path, not only was he able to add the vivid colors of French art to his fiction, but he also succeeded in introducing a dose of human depth typical of his mature adventure novels, and to write “in a spare yet artistically aware style that gives new life to the adventure tale and creates a kind of epical romance” (Ambrosini and Dury 9). As Ann Colley has underlined, Stevenson’s early travel narratives contain variations of style and pattern which can be easily linked to landscape variations, so that “[…] the topography of his surroundings played an essential role in the mapping of his texts [and] the immediate landscape functioned as a kind of mirror, the reflections from which inscribed his text” (Ambrosini and Dury 54). The narrative ability to recreate landscapes in the text was connected to the power of relating the same landscapes to imaginative spaces, which were strictly linked to Stevenson’s authorial consciousness. This delicate and complex process was repeated in the author’s later production, when the South Sea setting provoked a change in writing perspectives and a new sense of the writer’s role in the world.
- 6 Stevenson had already, as a boy, discovered the South Seas in fiction. At the age of twelve he had (...)
5On June 28th, 1888, R. L. Stevenson, together with his wife Fanny, his mother, and the French maid Valentine Roch left from San Francisco Bay for a voyage across the Pacific. There were several reasons which urged him to make the journey to the South Seas: the belief that a tropical climate could benefit his health; the business opportunity proposed by his literary agent S. S. McClure who had suggested he write travel letters with the promise of an income which would defray the cost of his journey and provide a good profit; and, last but not least, the idea of fulfilling one of his juvenile dreams, that of visiting places he had read about in adventure novels and often dreamt of when he was a child6.
6The task of writing a series of letters able to provide a ‘sense of the Pacific’ to his English and American readers was not Stevenson’s foremost interest when he left on his journey to the South Seas; in fact, other than a serious commitment to writing he felt the need to explore, live in and take part in Polynesian society. Even before leaving, his mind was set on other than authorial perspectives. In a letter to Sidney Colvin he wrote:
Awfully nice man here to-night. Public servant–New Zealand. Telling us all about the South Sea Islands till I was sick with desire to go there; beautiful places, green for ever; perfect climate; perfect shapes of men and women, with red flowers in their hair; and nothing to do but to study oratory and etiquette, sit in the sun, and pick up the fruits as they fall. Navigator’s Island is the place; absolute balm for the weary - June 1875 (Stevenson Letters 235).
7And again, in one of his travel letters from the Casco, Stevenson stated the difficulty in getting down to writing:
The climate is delightful; and the harbour where we lie one of the loveliest spots imaginable. Yesterday evening we had near a score natives on board; lovely parties. We have a native god; very rare now. Very rare and equally absurd to view. This sort of work is not favourable to correspondence: it takes me all the little strength I have to go about and see, and then come home and note, the strangeness around us - 6th September, 1888 (Colvin 76) My italics
- 7 Stevenson wrote fifty letters which were then to be part of a book. Between 1889 and 1894 he also w (...)
8Conversely though, contrary to what one could expect from reading the above, Stevenson’s productivity increased in Polynesia and his literary creativity also took on new forms. In the last six years of his life he wrote an extensive range of works that “represent [his] new sense of writing as action in the world, and most clearly show how the attraction of vocational diversity fragmented, reorganized and transformed his authorial identity” (Jolly 27, my italics). This process of authorial transformation started exactly when he engaged with the project of writing the letters commissioned by McClure7. In his mind, the letters were the occasion to start writing about a reality he would then deal with more extensively in a book he had planned to call The South Seas. The book was actually published in a draft version in 1890 and consisted of the first fifteen chapters of Stevenson’s final work, published posthumously in 1896 and entitled by his friend and editor Sidney Colvin In the South Seas.
- 8 Sidney Colvin, 4th August 1891, quoted in Roslyn Jolly 59.
9The initial thinking behind the epistolary narrative retained some connections to the typical Stevenson world of adventure, with “characters, cannibals, pirates, ancient legends, old Polynesian poetry” (13th June 1889, Letters 312), but its actual contents was soon at a remove from the genre of adventure and travel writing because of the anthropological focus on Polynesian society. The theme of the book and Stevenson’s realistic approach to it produced a negative response on the part of readers; first, the author’s wife Fanny and his friend Sidney Colvin advised him to abandon the anthropological viewpoint and retain a more personal perspective. In Colvin’s opinion, the publication of such material would not be successful as “[…] the South Sea islands turn out to be not only uninteresting, but actually rather repelling, to readers: at least mere description about them does”8. These comments made Stevenson abandon the plan of the book, which he later took up again with the intention to cut it and make its style conform more to that of an anthropological study. The revision was never accomplished and when the volume was posthumously published by Colvin, reviewers immediately pointed out the absence of Stevenson’s habitual impressive style, judging the work evidently inadequate as a ‘scientific’ treatise.
- 9 In 1889 Stevenson had started thinking of another writing project, which then took shape as a Histo (...)
10More than a personal travel narrative, In the South Seas was an anthropological study of Polynesian culture and society, with “questions of race and civilization at every step” (October 1888, Letters 213). Unlike the letters, which might report descriptions and ideas only at a superficial level, this study had required deeper analysis of places and people, as well as greater reflection on events. Moreover, the chronological arrangement typical of travel letters was put aside in favor of a reorganization of the material in thematic parts, which might be more functional to the treatment of the ‘questions of race and civilization’. Despite the formal difference of genre and ideological aim, both the letters and In the South Seas share the same analytical ground, as well as a common aesthetic and cultural environment. The analysis conducted in In the South Seas allowed the author to reach a level of understanding of Polynesian culture which took into account diverse aspects of island life, spanning from the exoticism of landscape, the curiosity for different races and costumes, to the concern for the history and politics of the area9.
11As I will try to show, even by analyzing some of the letters written in this period, including those written before the Pacific travels, those composed during the journey, and those penned when he arrived in Samoa, Stevenson’s shift from a vision of literature intended as a task somehow detached from real life to the perception of it as compellingly linked to politics and society is clearly revealed. By tracing the evolution of his thought and ‘narrative mood’ as defined through the letters, one can actually perceive how the initial enthusiasm for exotic places before his journey (up to 1888) was substituted by a sort of interruption of his writing creativity while travelling to the Pacific (1888-1889). When he settled in Samoa and became acquainted with the place and the people, the interest for Pacific life distanced him further from his literary commitments (1889-1891). From that point on, he went back to writing with a new conscience, a new approach to literature, and a renewed enthusiasm for the potential of writing.
12Stevenson’s mother also wrote a series of letters during her South Sea journey; these letters were edited by Marie Clothilde Balfour and published in 1903 with the title From Saranac to the Marquesas and Beyond. By comparing Margaret Balfour’s letters to Stevenson’s epistolary production first, and then to his anthropological text, different degrees of complexity emerge. The comparison is particularly interesting because it brings to light the underlying idea of authorial self-consciousness that will characterize the final years of the author’s production. Landscape description and the association with Scotland are two of the prevalent issues in Stevenson’s Pacific writings. The author’s mother deals with the same topics, but in her letters they appear as simple descriptions:
My DEAR CUMMY, — here we are in a little bay surrounded by green mountains, on which sheep are grazing, and there are birds very like our own ‘blackies’ singing in the trees. If it were not for the groves of cocoa-nut palms, we might almost fancy ourselves in our own dear land. But the climate here is simply perfect. Of course it is hot, but there are always fresh breezes, and yesterday I climbed a hill as high as Kirk Yetton, and was not in the least over-tired (2nd August 1888, Balfour 85).
13Margaret Balfour portrays places and relates events realistically, avoiding contemplation. Natural and geographical details are sided with comments on a “strange, irresponsible, half-savage life” (Balfour 86), and they always leave out introspection, limiting the prospect to that of the enthusiast traveller. Not surprisingly, Stevenson’s approach is more self-conscious, and addressed to detecting nuances of behavior, culture and civilization in order to describe them and further, elaborate on them in his book. What emerges as a clear characteristic of the Pacific letters is the fact that they were constituted the groundwork for the anthropological South Seas analysis. Stevenson arrived in Samoa with the conviction that a careful study of the islands was necessary in order to ensure far-reaching knowledge of the place and of the culture: “This cruise is deeply interesting; […] I should have come here years ago and studied these islands properly: ‘tis pitiful, to come here and ignorant, elderly ass and glance at them for [a] quarter of an hour out of a ship” (October 1888, Letters 213). This conviction led him to delve into Pacific life, culture, politics, and history looking at them from the inside. Such an approach would entail the abandonment of personal prose and writing theories, and a sort of detachment from literature, resurrecting the “person who prefers life to art” (June 1886, Letters 272). When in Samoa, Stevenson engaged in activities such as setting up a plantation, participating in local politics and acting as a judge among the village chiefs. This established strong links between the profession of ‘farmer’ and that of writer, and for Stevenson to prefer the former to the latter:
I am far indeed from wishing to confine myself to creative work; that is a loss, the other repairs; the one chance for a man, and above all for one who grows elderly, ahem, is to vary drainage and repair. That is the one thing I understand; the cultivation of the shallow solum of my brain. I will get more out of that than all the gaudiness of the Academy. But I would rather, from soon on, be released from the obligation to write. In five or six years, this plantation – suppose it and us still to exist – should pretty well support us and pay wages: not before and already the six years seems long to me. If literature were but a pastime! (29th (?) November 189, Letters 202)
14The role of ‘creative work’ acquired a different position in the author’s consciousness; the enthusiasm for the new life found its best expression through practical commitments, while writing seemed not to be a suitable job anymore. Despite the passionate engagement in different kinds of business and the wish to relegate writing to a pastime, literature was not abandoned at all. In Samoa, together with his anthropological and historical works, Stevenson authored some of his best-known fictions – The Wrecker (1892), The Ebb-Tide (1894), Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893), Catriona (1893), Weir of Hermiston (1896), St. Ives (1897) to name but a few. But a radical change was accomplished in terms of style and technique as in the author’s mind the idea of writing became a function of other purposes and acquired historical and anthropological cogency.
- 10 As early as 1883, Stevenson had written to his friend Henley “to inform you that I, Robert Louis St (...)
15The search for a new artistic personality, which had nevertheless been part of Stevenson’s writing ethos long before he left for the Pacific10, was now perceived as a necessity due to the intellectual changes taking place in Europe at the turn of the century. Despite his geographical isolation, Stevenson took part in the literary life on the Continent and shared with his colleagues and friends on the other side of the globe opinions and speculations both on the condition of the writer and on his personal artistic evolution. Variations in his prose can be read as a conscious intellectual shift, which he gradually transposed into his fiction. In a letter to Henry James, he remarked on the difficulty in approaching ‘a new kind of writing’:
Work? work is now arrested, but I have written, I should think, about thirty chapters of the South Sea book; they will all want rehandling, I dare say. Gracious, what a strain is a long book! The time it took me to design this volume, before I could dream of putting pen to paper, was excessive; and then think of writing a book of travels on the spot, when I am continually extending my information, revising my opinions, and seeing the most finely finished portions of my work come part by part in pieces. Very soon I shall have no opinions left. And without an opinion, how to string artistically vast accumulations of fact? Darwin said no one could observe without a theory; I suppose he was right; ‘tis a fine point of metaphysic; but I will take my oath, no man can write without one – at least the way he would like to, and my theories melt, melt, melt, and as they melt the thaw-waters wash down my writing, and leave unideal tracts – wastes instead of cultivated farms (29th December 1890, Stevenson Letters 66).
- 11 Scott Ashley explores the importance of Stevenson’s Pacific writing as part of a nineteenth-century (...)
16The experimental and revisionary attitude emerging from the Pacific writings is distant from the earlier literary faith in which “all depends on the vocation” (Stevenson Across the Plains 248); facts obviously need to be arranged through creativity, but the support of a theory at the core of literature remains the foundation on which realistic details must be constructed. Stevenson’s thoughts at the end of his career seem to be directed towards artistic draining and moral rigidity, and they show an increasing concentration on the realistic aspects of human existence; his prose becomes more and more complex and combines romance writing with anthropological interests, psychological explorations and moral recklessness. These evolutions imply a self-reflective approach on the writer’s part and a deeper perception of his own role in the world. The entire nineteenth-century discourse converging towards a modern figure of the artist, foresaw a series of adjustments of fictional codes which were summarized by George Gissing in a letter to his brother: “My attitude henceforth is that of the artist pure and simple. The world is for me a collection of phenomena, which are to be studied and reproduced artistically. In the midst of the most serious complications of life, I find myself suddenly possessed with a great calm, withdrawn as it were from the immediate interests of the moment, and able to regard everything as a picture” (Gissing 128). Either looking at the ‘complications of life’ from within English society, or dealing with them from outside it (as in Stevenson’s case when in the Pacific)11, the privileged perspective was far from the once praised quality of prose to “obey the ideal laws of day-dream” (Stevenson Memories and Portraits 178), having moved away from the literary traditions triggering out those day-dreams.
17Rejecting established conventions – be they identified with family models or with literary paradigms – was one of Stevenson’s main modern (and Modernist) features (Sandison 14). This break with the past spontaneously led to the idea of art as a process of constant renewing, in which intellectual development played a fundamental role. The departure from conservative standards was strengthened by the idea that familiarity may generate monotony, while renewal had to be sought after in the continuous variations produced by the deviations of life circumstances:
[…] familiarity has a cunning disenchantment; in a day or two she can steal all beauty from the mountain tops; and the most startling words begin to fall dead upon the ear after several repetitions. If you see a thing too often, you no longer see it; if you hear a thing too often, you no longer hear it. Our attention requires to be surprised; and to carry a fort by assault, or to gain a thoughtful hearing from the ruck of mankind, are feats of about an equal difficulty and must be tried by not dissimilar means (Stevenson Lay Morals 10).
- 12 In his essay “R. L. Stevenson and the Critical Value of the Market”, Richard Ambrosini registers th (...)
18In order to give strength to the convictions of his artistic ideal from a narrative perspective, Stevenson experimented with a variety of novel forms that provided adequate shape to his ever-evolving theorizations, and his last experiment was made with The Ebb-Tide just a year before his death. The number of characters in this novella and the exploration of their individuality is the clear testimony to a kind of prose directed beyond Victorian conventions. Questioning art and the fictional process grew into the search for a different individuality, echoing the urgency of a meditation on the condition of the intellectual at the end of the century. During the last years of his life in the Pacific, Stevenson’s identity as a writer was characterized by important revisions, and the theories of style and literature he had developed between 1870 and 1880 underwent a gradual transformation; his love for romance and non-realistic writing, his passion for the ‘plastic’ quality of literature, able “to embody character, thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye” (Stevenson Memories and Portraits 178) turned into a more marked interest for a insightful representation of native life and active participation in it. The mutation of his authorial persona was linked to a series of episodes – not only related to the Polynesian experience – on which critics have widely commented12. His wish to observe and understand the world became central when he found himself confronted with Polynesian culture, which he described in his travel letters and in In the South Seas. With reference to In the South Seas Stevenson declared:
My book is now practically modeled: if I can execute what is designed, there are few better books now extant on this globe; bar the epics, and the big tragedies, and histories, and the choice lyric poetics, and a novel or so – none. […] nobody has had such stuff; such wild stories, such beautiful scenes, such singular intimacies, such manners and traditions, so incredible a mixture of the beautiful and horrible, the savage and civilized. […] I propose to call the book – The South Seas; it is rather a large title, but not many people have seen more of them than I; perhaps no one: certainly no one capable of using the material (2nd December 1889, Letters 334-35).
19Epic, poetics, and novel writing were excluded from the new narrative plan, while the author’s fascination with “the savage and the civilized” became more and more significant. Fanny Stevenson’s dismissive criticism of her husband’s project leaves little doubt about her preference for Stevenson’s fictional writing: “He has taken into his Scotch Stevenson head, that a stern duty lies before him, and that his book must be a sort of scientific and historical impersonal thing, comparing the different languages (of which he knows nothing really) and the different people […]” (21st May 1889, Letters 303). One wonders to what extent Fanny’s dislike of the realistic-anthropological enterprise may be linked to the awareness that, once in the Pacific, another Stevenson was being born.
20The experimentation with this kind of prose, together with the combination of two diverse cultural traditions, became part of the author’s general progression towards a new axiological setting. Stevenson’s Pacific letters, together with In the South Seas – and A Footnote to History – were to play a fundamental role in the development of the new artistic consciousness of the last years of his life. While dealing with exotic landscapes and native people, they convey a realistic portrayal of places and cultures, and this was to influence his late narrative fiction and in part to change his writing style. His last novels, such as Catriona (1893) and Weir of Hermiston (1896), contain thus elements of realism, which can be ascribed to his more historical and anthropological approach to life. More importantly, they reflect the significance of traditions, culture, and language seen from a double, intersecting perspective. The deconstruction of Highland culture portrayed in Catriona bears the same hermeneutical coordinates of the colonial domination in the South Seas, while the problematic treatment of Scottish language and tradition in Weir of Hermiston serves as a metaphor for doubts about the progress of local colonial culture through the comparison with civilized societies (Reid 160, 171-72). Catriona presents strong links with A Footnote to History in the treatment of political events and reflects the influence of Samoan life on Stevenson’s creative imagination. Unexpectedly, these works describe Scotland in vibrant, intense tones, as if writing about home from afar was a way to enrich the author’s imagination. The two realities continued to inhabit Stevenson’s mind until the end, as he self-consciously wrote to J. M. Barrie: “It is a singular thing that I should live here in the South Seas under conditions so new and so striking, and yet my imagination so continually inhabit that cold old huddle of grey hills from which we come” (1st November 1982, Stevenson Works 264). Their coexistence proved crucial in the process of narrative evolution and artistic growth that Stevenson faced in the final years of his life.