Treasure in Stevenson’s Pacific, Roger Robinson

Robert Louis Stevenson: Sophia Scarlett and Other Pacific Writings
Robert Hoskins (ed)
AUT Media, $25.99,
ISBN 9780958282925

“Samoa was susceptible of no ‘style’, ” complained Henry James, cantankerous about his friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s decision to live in the faraway Pacific, and unwilling to be consoled by the short stories Stevenson published in 1893 as Island Nights’ Entertainments. It was one of the Master’s most obtuse moments. It was also typical of a response to Stevenson’s Pacific writings back in England and America that has prevailed for more than a 100 years. There has been almost a conspiracy to suppress them. The American 10-volume Stevenson’s Works (1906) on my shelf silently omits almost all of them, even Island Nights. A 100 years later no Scottish publisher would touch my Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings. Stevenson is still identified by Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Child’s Garden of Verses etc, or by the romance of his life, never by the strange, innovative work of his last six years, never (to make the claim with a touch of hyperbole) as the first major author of post-colonial literature.

Yet by any open-minded critical test, the Island Nights stories, immersed in Pacific reality, society, beliefs, psychology and language, stand as masterpieces of short narrative. They are also among the earliest and most inward critiques of colonialism in imaginative literature. The fact that they attain no single “style” is part of the point. Stevenson knew from experience that the Pacific is richly diverse (he travelled in Melanesia and Micronesia as well as living in Samoa). He also saw that its societies were in the process of being exploited to the despairing edge of extinction by even more diverse intruders. Disruptive irony was needed, not reassuring “style”. “The Isle of Voices” leaves us with the unforgettable image of the island’s people clustered back to back, being ruthlessly slaughtered by a horde of invisible invaders, who hack them down, babbling in “all the tongues of the earth”, greedily grabbing the beach’s magical shells. It is fantasy, but the violence is as real as the fight for the stockade in Treasure Island or the siege of the round-house in Kidnapped. And the searing imaginative power carries tragic meaning. A civilisation is being murdered for greed. At Rye, James seems to have missed it.

Stevenson’s essential literary enterprise during his last years was to tell the truth about the Pacific without succumbing to the “sugar candy sham epic” that his American publisher and sponsor expected. As the task began to take shape during his risky first voyage, he wrote confidently, “I shall have a fine book of travels, I feel sure; and will tell you more of the South Seas after a very few months than any other writer has done – except Herman Melville, perhaps, who is a howling cheese.” (I always wonder about the implications of that phrase, but it suggests he was impressed.) His vision of the imaginative challenge soon went far beyond the travel book In the South Seas. By the time of his sudden death in 1894, while also writing Catriona and other non-Pacific work, he had created a substantial and wide-ranging corpus of Pacific writing, including significant fiction, non-fiction, poetry, ballads, fables, oratory, journalism, political commentary, and letters (including some to children that enhance his achievement in that mode, too).

The originality and importance of this work across so many genres has been overlooked, and even the known books are misrepresented. Everyone quotes his American wife Fanny on In the South Seas, which she thought came from his “Scottish Presbyterian head” as “a stern duty … a sort of scientific and historical impersonal thing.” On the contrary, it is a compellingly personal travel book that is also a tragic narrative, consciously confronting the reader with a people who on island after island had lost their will to live, despairingly “beleaguered by the dead”. Few of our own era’s travel books generate such power. A Footnote to History gets skipped over as a bit of a nuisance, a well-meaning but obscure tangle of local politics. Yet its narrative chapters (the battle on the beach, the hurricane) excel as what we now call creative non-fiction. He called it “modern history”. We might call it an instant book. As war journalism of literary quality, it is a precursor of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  

The short novel The Ebb Tide is in part an exciting experiment in applying musical principles to narrative fiction – pre-Joyce. Its subtitle is “A Trio and a Quartet”, and the essential meaning is in the tone, not the story. A critique of colonial activity that Stevenson described as “black, ugly, trampling, violent”, it matches Heart of Darkness and The Island of Dr Moreau in the dark power of its abhorrent colonial Übermensch.

Or there’s the “queer realism” of “The Beach of Falesá”, a story that has been misread for more than a century as settler-romance-adventure. That is how the first edition’s illustrations packaged it. The text’s vigorously Samoan Uma is illustrated at first as a vapid topless teenage Jennifer Lopez and later as white-skinned with braided hair and wearing Grecian-style lingerie. Dylan Thomas succumbed to the same romance fallacy, writing a film-script version that is sanitised and phony-lyrical, a distortion of the original’s narratorial rough edges and pervasive ambiguity.

Biography, too, has served Stevenson’s Pacific years inadequately. By moving somewhere as alluring as Samoa, he condemned himself to a kind of biographical purgatory, where he is romanticised by a succession of Club Med biographers, not all of them married to Billy Connolly, who retrace his voyagings in five-star comfort and rehash his South Seas years without troubling to read the books (tough, subversive, complex, black, ugly) that he wrote there. The balance has been redressed recently by good editions, notably Barry Menikoff’s The Ebb-Tide (1987) and Complete Stories (2002), Jenni Calder’s Tales of the South Seas (1987), Roslyn Jolly’s South Sea Tales (1996), and Malama Meleisea’s A Footnote to History (1996). My own compilation (2003) was designed to display for the first time the full range and high quality of the work, with text-by-text critical commentary.

Robert Hoskins’ Sophia Scarlett and Other Pacific Writings makes another important contribution to this process by collecting nine fugitive short texts. Three have never been published, and none is readily available. There are four journalistic pieces, two re-told Tahitian legends, two speech scripts, and the sketch-outline for the early chapters of a proposed novel, “Sophia Scarlett”.  Making up the book are two somewhat better-known texts: Stevenson’s speech to the chiefs acknowledging their construction of The Road of Gratitude at his home outside Apia, and “The Bottle Imp” from Island Nights’ Entertainments. 

New Zealand makes a surprise appearance, with Auckland Harbour the setting for the maritime first chapter of the proposed novel. It seems Stevenson did not plan to make use of his own Auckland experience, on April 19 1890, when a stock of fireworks loaded by another passenger ignited spectacularly as the Equator was leaving port. The ship drifted “in gorgeous flames and the most horrible chemical stench”, and the ever-resourceful Fanny narrowly saved her husband’s entire literary output from being tossed overboard in a smouldering trunk. It makes D H Lawrence’s Auckland stopover look tame.

Robert Hoskins has done an impeccable job of locating and editing these texts. Some were difficult work. The “Sophia Scarlett” outline was dictated to Stevenson’s step-daughter Belle Strong, with additions in Stevenson’s hand. Hoskins’ introduction and notes are expert, and the sequential numbering of the notes (1-165 through the whole book) highly convenient. An omission is a note helping readers to get the point of “Plain John Wiltshire on the Situation” by explaining that Stevenson is jokingly recycling his complex narrator from “The Beach of Falesá” for down-to-earth political comments. My only real complaint is that I had to search in several places for the edition to come clean about exactly where some of the texts have been previously published, information that a collection of fugitive pieces should declare on each title page, and that in no way detracts from the book’s originality or usefulness.

As a scholarly supplement, filling cracks in the canon, this collection is indeed welcome. Though its rediscovered pieces are minor, all confirm Stevenson’s commitment to truth-telling about the Pacific, his endeavour to write well, and the “queer realism” that often entailed. Some show that he was not at his best when he tried political polemic. (See Barry Rigby, “Empire building in the Pacific”, New Zealand Studies, November 1997, for a historian’s take on Stevenson’s position.)

But there is buried treasure for a literary pirate like me. Although “Sophia Scarlett” is only a preliminary sketch, its story of an alienated young woman, an illicit affair, a sickly lover who dies, a possible rape, and a mesh of threatening pressures in a small and censorious society, shows Stevenson heading where in English only Thomas Hardy had gone before. And he was going there in a wholly Pacific way.


Roger Robinson’s Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings was published in 2003. 


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