The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson

By Penny Fielding | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Stevenson and the Pacific

Roslyn Jolly

Almost one-third of Stevenson’s career as a professional writer was spent in the Pacific. Within this vast oceanic region, bounded by the New World societies of the Western United States and Australasia and by the coasts of south-east Asia, are scattered a multitude of islands whose people, cultures and landscapes were unlike anything the Scottish author had previously known or seen. This chapter explores how Stevenson’s imagination was possessed by, and attempted to possess, the island world in which he lived from 1888 to 1894. It explores his literary relation to various social environments of the Pacific: to traditional indigenous societies; to the contact zone of trade and informal colonialism; and to the political structures which, in an age of empire, regulated relations between Pacific nations and world powers. No less challenging to his imagination and productive for his writing were the natural environments of the Pacific: its island landforms, tropical climate and vegetation, and the ocean for which the region is named. In his late fiction, Stevenson combined various aspects of these natural and social environments to create specific and very different Pacific worlds. This chapter ‘maps’ the geographical and cultural co-ordinates of some of these worlds through readings of The Wrecker, ‘The Beach of Falesá’ and The Ebb-Tide.

In travelling to the Pacific, Stevenson eagerly took up the challenges to his imagination and his understanding presented by encounters with societies unlike any he had previously known. He was going among people who, although his contemporaries, were ‘as remote in thought and habit as Rob Roy or Barbarossa, the Apostles or the Caesars’.1 The opportunity to observe ways of life so ancient and so alien powerfully attracted one whose writings reflected a long-running quarrel with modern civilisation.

This quarrel seems to have been the expression of a temperamental antipathy, rather than the product of a learned system of ideas. In his early essays and travel-writing Stevenson cultivated the persona of a social misfit, who was constantly straying from the paths of civilisation, and always seeking a more complete escape. In these writings the modern world is represented by a series of synecdoches: ‘business habits’, ‘Burgessry’, ‘offices and the mercantile

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The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Series Editors’ Preface vi
  • Brief Biography of Robert Louis Stevenson vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - Stevenson and Fiction 11
  • Chapter Two - Romance and Social Class 27
  • Chapter Three - Childhood and Psychology 41
  • Chapter Four - Stevenson and Fin-de-Siècle Gothic 53
  • Chapter Five - Stevenson, Scott and Scottish History 70
  • Chapter Six - Travel Writing 86
  • Chapter Seven - Stevenson’s Poetry 102
  • Chapter Eight - Stevenson and the Pacific 118
  • Chapter Nine - Stevenson and Henry James 134
  • Chapter Ten - Stevenson’s Afterlives 147
  • Endnotes 160
  • Further Reading 184
  • Notes on Contributors 186
  • Index 189
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