"What an Impotent Picture!": William Gladstone, General Gordon, and the Politics of Masculinity in Robert Louis Stevenson's Prince Otto

Article excerpt

From its first publication in 1885 through the twentieth century and up to the resurgence of critical interest in Robert Louis Stevenson in the twenty-first century, Prince Otto has remained a puzzling anomaly in the writer's canon. A work that Stevenson himself ranked highly but which few others have viewed positively, Otto has suffered from a critical neglect greater than any other of Stevenson's full-length novels. As his recent biographer Claire Harman remarks, "Prince Otto has seldom been reprinted and is regarded with something like embarrassment by Stevenson's apologists" (247). One might include Harman herself in this category, given her verdict that Stevenson's stylistic choices in Otto "seem perverse and puzzling" (248). While other long-neglected works by Stevenson, such as "The Beach of Falesa" and The Ebb-Tide, have received renewed attention under the critical scrutiny of post-colonial theory, Otto has enjoyed no such critical renaissance. An author-centered criticism might insist that any novel deemed by an important author as "[h]itherto, my best" (Letters 4:212)--the words Stevenson used to describe Otto to his mother--merits a more attentive critical appraisal. Eschewing such a rationale, however, this essay will argue that the importance of Prince Otto in lateVictorian culture derives from the novel's urgent engagement with the politics of late-Victorian imperialism and its critique of the versions of masculinity that such politics engendered. By linking the novel to a particular crisis in Britain's imperial history--the siege of Khartoum in 1884 and the death of General Charles Gordon in early 1885--this essay will also challenge the still-propagated myth of Stevenson's "lifelong aloofness from politics" (Kucich 79). Rather, this essay will show, in his early fiction Stevenson was particularly aware of the role that politicized constructions of masculinity played in the expansion of Britain's imperial role. While Treasure Island (1883) openly promotes the aggressive masculinity of pirates and treasurehunters, Prince Otto at once presents a thinly veiled attack on the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and constructs a critique of the juvenile imperial masculinity Stevenson had celebrated (if at times ambivalently) in his first novel. Harman claims that "Prince Otto is most interesting now for the gender anarchy it portrays" (250), and while "anarchy" may be a slight exaggeration, this essay will explore the ways in which the representation of a crisis of masculinity in Prince Otto deeply informs Stevenson's fiction as it engages with late-Victorian culture and imperialism. (1)


In May of 1883--while avidly seeking a publisher for the volume of Treasure Island which had already been serialized in the pages of Young Folks in 1881-82--Stevenson wrote his close friend and mentor W. E. Henley revealing his ambivalence about his current work of fiction:

    "Otto" is, as you say, not a thing to extend my public on.
It is queer
   and a little, little bit free; and some of the parties are immoral;
   and the whole thing is not a romance, nor yet a comedy; not yet a
   romantic comedy; but a kind of preparation of some of the elements
   of all three in a glass jar. I think it is not without merit, but I
   not always on the level of my argument, and some parts are false, and
   much of the rest is thin; it is more a triumph for myself than
   else; for I see, beyond it, better stuff. (qtd. in Maixner 176) 

By March of 1884, however, Stevenson's opinion of his current novel had risen dramatically, as he wrote Sidney Colvin from Chateau Le Solitude, his home in Hyeres on the French Riviera: "Two chapters of Otto do remain: one to rewrite, one to create; and I am not yet able to tackle them. For me it is my chief o' works" (Letters 4: 245). This elevation--from a mere stepping stone to "better stuff" to "My chief o' works"--reveals a major shift in Stevenson's valuation of Prince Otto, his first full-length work of fiction for adults, which would eventually be published between his two most successful "stories for boys" Treasure Island and Kidnapped. …


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