A spirit intense and rare, Doug Munro

Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings
ed Roger Robinson
Streamline, $34.95,
ISBN 0958210624

Everyone knows about Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), described by a contemporary as “a spirit intense and rare” and immortalised by Samoans as Tusitala (the teller of tales). Or so I thought until a younger colleague professed ignorance of the author of such works as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Bottle Imp and Treasure Island. As befits one of the more prominent 19th century writers, Stevenson has been the subject of many biographies, great and small. His books, and those of his entourage, continue to be reissued – most recently Fanny Stevenson’s The Cruise of the “Janet Niccol”. Hollywood has also got into the act. There is literary criticism ad nauseam in addition to numerous editions of his collected works, his letters and poems, not to mention the several selections of his literary essays. Various stages of his life have been given separate treatment – R.L.S. in Samoa, Stevenson in Hawaii, Stevenson and Edinburgh. Writers have traversed the various Stevenson trails and written up their pilgrimages, most eloquently Richard Holmes in Footsteps (1985), less eloquently Gavin Bell in In Search of Tusitala (1994).

Another genre in the massive Stevenson industry comprises edited selections of his Pacific work. The latest to enter these particular lists is Roger Robinson with the “the best” of Stevenson’s Pacific writings. Such is the wealth of material from which to choose that it must have been exceedingly difficult to know what to leave out. The problems of selection have been made further complicated by the principal merit of the collection, namely the inclusion of some of Stevenson’s non-fiction, both before and after his decision to settle in Samoa in 1890.

There is no point in contesting the inclusion of this and the exclusion of that, beyond a quibble that the more mundane and tedious aspects of daily life are little in evidence. The back cover contains Stevenson’s well-known eulogy of the Pacific islands: “No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor, and the task before me is to communicate to fireside travellers some sense of its seduction, and to describe the life, at sea and ashore ….” But Stevenson also communicates a sense of a “long and vile voyage of calms and squalls, cataracts of rain, sails carried away, foretopmasts lost” during the cruise of the Equator in 1889, with his wife Fanny “rather down” and himself “longing for beef steak and mangoes”. He describes too the dull routine of everyday life at Abemama in the Gilbert Islands with its “heat and tedium and villainous dazzle, and yet more villainous mosquitoes”. In short, the legendary romance of the Pacific does become diluted on closer acquaintance.

Sometimes dismissed as a self-conscious stylist, Stevenson in fact had extraordinary powers of observation and a matching ability to depict what he saw and experienced. He was also an astonishingly versatile writer, his oeuvre encompassing fiction, fantasy, travel writing, autobiography, participant history, poetry, fables, ballads. If only from sheer financial necessity, as he built a large house and maintained a large household, his output and variety were undiminished during the last four years of his life in Samoa.

Much of the non-fiction in Robinson’s selection is taken from In the South Seas – Stevenson’s great work of non-fiction, describing the course of two cruises through the Pacific in 1888 and 1889. A selection of extracts from this source, supplemented by selections from Stevenson’s letters, give the reader a sense of the chronology and the key events at this time of his life. But, despite the editor’s brief contextualising commentaries which precede each excerpt, the choice of material relating to Stevenson’s life in Samoa is too episodic to impart an overall sense of his activities there. As well as being a writer, he was a partisan on the side of the Mata’afa faction in the tangled and rancorous political situation that engulfed Samoa at that period. But how effective was Stevenson as a political agitator? His indignant letters to The Times and his book of contemporary history, A Footnote to History, were storms in a teacup. What Robinson does not realise – as the various political histories of Samoa attest – is that Stevenson’s political writing had remarkably little impact.

It is easy enough for a historian like myself to make such criticisms, and to suggest that Robinson’s efforts would have gained had he consulted the work of historians such as H E Maude, Gavan Daws and Kenneth McKenzie. The point is that while Robinson is presenting a selection of Stevenson’s “best Pacific writings”, he is not sufficiently familiar with the Pacific itself. It is not simply a matter that obsolete orthographies have been used (it is “Abemama” not “Apamama”, “Tuamotu” not “Puamotu”). There is also the more serious matter of insufficient editorial input and guidance.

The typical reader of this book will not be a Pacific specialist and is thus unlikely to know with certainty the meaning of some of the contemporary colloquialisms and more specialist terms. This applies to both Stevenson’s fiction and non-fiction. What exactly is a “labour ship”? (In the present context it is a vessel deployed to recruit indentured labourers from other island groups for Samoan plantations.) What does “to get his shirt out” mean? (It means to get angry.) Lack of attention to these essential nuts and bolts does rather take the shine off an enjoyable book.

 

Doug Munro wrote a Ph D on the history of Tuvalu, one of the Pacific island groups visited by Robert Louis Stevenson and his entourage.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson; His Best Pacific Writings was shortlisted in the reference and anthology category of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2004.

 

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Posted in Literature, Pacific and Review
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