Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific: Travel, empire and the author's profession
Ashgate, $121 hb, 204 pp
In 1887 Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Kidnapped (1886) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), left England for the sake of his declining health. By the end of 1889 he was living in Samoa. The British reading public adored Stevenson, and reactions in the press to his immersion in the complicated politics of his new home ranged from irritation to incomprehension. When the sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona (or David Balfour), was published in 1893, they rejoiced in the restoration of ‘their RLS’. One reviewer wrote, ‘Write as many sequels to “Kidnapped” as you wish, and we will read them with zest, but do not tell us anything more about Samoa.’
At the same time, the sentimental legend of Stevenson as ‘Tusitala’ (popularly mistranslated as ‘The Teller of Tales’ rather than the more sober ‘Write-information’) obscured the reality of Stevenson’s life in the Pacific with a romantic vision of a white man charming unsophisticated islanders with his storytelling prowess.
However hard he tried to impress on his readers the abuses of power that he observed in Samoa, he could make no headway. As a writer, they wanted him to be the Scottish novelist they loved; as an inhabitant of the South Seas, they wanted Tusitala, an ‘easily grasped image’ which domesticated a complex existence in an unfamiliar society. Roslyn Jolly’s book Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific: Travel, empire and the author’s profession is expressly written ‘against the simplifying, smoothing, reductive powers of that myth’.