Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, by Joseph Farrell

The author of this lively bio about Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) discovered his adventure stories as I did, in childhood:

Growing up in Scotland for my generation meant growing up with Robert Louis Stevenson.  It was not that we were all avid readers, although many of us were, but the B.B.C. did adaptations of his fiction on radio and T.V., and a series of “classic comics” circulated and were keenly read and swopped. Treasure Island and Kidnapped were part of our lives, in the same way, I suppose, as social media is for today’s younger generation.  At least that was the case for boys.  I was surprised when working on this book to be told by female friends that he was regarded as a boys’ writer, not someone for them. (p.13)

Huh? Boys’ writer??  I loved Treasure Island!

Whatever about any of that, feminists will be pleased to see that Farrell gives RLS’s much maligned wife Fanny a fair go.  She was an American and a divorcee and you only need to know about Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson in the 20th century to know that those were two fatal ticks against any woman of the 19th century in Britain.  And #OMGShockHorror! she was ten years older than him.  So, yes, she had a hard time from some unforgiving quarters while RLS was alive, and she got a predictably bad press when the bios were written after his death.

Fanny Stevenson 1885. Source: Wikipedia, attribution** below.

But the fact is that RLS was smitten.  They’d had a fling in in France (where #SansHusband Fanny was studying art) and when she went back to her philandering husband in America, RLS pursued her and wooed her and eventually she agreed to marry him.  And while the Stevensons had a turbulent marriage, it’s clear that Fanny looked after the health and wellbeing of RLS and she enabled his writing by taking care of household management – no mean achievement in Samoa when they settled there for his health. (About which, more later).  Whether she did that at the expense of her own career as an artist isn’t addressed in this book.  She may not have been any good at art –  Farrell doesn’t say (unless I missed it).  But she was certainly an adventurous, spirited woman, and I wish there had been a better photo of her amongst the B&W photos in the book.

If like me, you know RLS only from childhood reading of his tales of derring-do, you may likewise know little about his life and achievements, and perhaps be inclined to underestimate his significance in The Canon.  (RLS has four titles in my 2006 edition of 1001 Books: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Master of Ballantrae.)  But at a time when 19th century imperial powers were rampaging around in the Pacific – and there were three of them at a standoff in Samoa – RLS was a champion for the Samoan people whose culture and way of life was being trampled by the money-makers.  He hurled off letters to The Times, and he wrote a book protesting the colonial administration called A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. Farrell says that for this reason RLS is still revered among contemporary Samoans as a great man.

Fanny, meanwhile, nursed RLS through bouts of grave illness (he had pulmonary disease and was subject to frequent haemorrhages), and she made a home and mini-farm out of a patch of virgin bush.  She put up with being hard-up, with a lot of travelling about, and with hosting the hordes who visited RLS.  She also had to deal with living in difficult conditions because the Samoan lifestyle that RLS was championing did not include much in the way of finishing building projects or providing reliable staff.  Fair enough, Samoans had lived contentedly for centuries without Victorian values being imposed on them and they had no reason to want to change that – but it made it tough for Fanny.  She was much hurt when RLS once told her that she enjoyed slogging it out in the vegie patch because she was a peasant at heart, and her own papers show that the self-doubt provoked by this possibly throw-away comment lingered for a long time.  Nevertheless…

Whatever Fanny’s faults, however morose and prickly she may have been, she was always assiduous and selfless in her care of her husband. (p.328)

Yes.  When RLS took refuge in Hawaii to escape an outbreak of measles on Samoa, Fanny had stayed behind, only to have to travel urgently to Waikiki when the servant Talolo contracted the disease.  It was she who had to nurse RLS until he was well enough to travel home to Samoa, (and I hope he was grateful).

It may not have been Farrell’s intention, but I enjoyed reading about Fanny just as much as I enjoyed reading about RLS and the books he wrote.  While I admire RLS for the stance he took over colonialism, I was not so interested in Samoan politics and … a-hem … skipped some parts of the book dealing with the Samoan leadership aspirations that frustrated RLS because they led to endless wars.  After all, we in Australia are disinclined to be romantic about ongoing governance issues that threaten stability in the South Pacific.  I think that RLS would be disappointed to know that other countries are still involved ‘by invitation’ in Samoan affairs because they don’t seem to be able to sort out some things (e.g. corruption) for themselves.  (Wikipedia says that they have a poor human rights record too, discriminating against women, same-sex relationships and disabled people, because (apparently) these human rights conflict with Samoan traditions.  Not that Australia can be proud of itself in all respects either, of course…)

In discussing the literary merits of RLS’s oeuvre, Farrell is excellent.   I love reading literary biographies that analyse the influences on the writing, and I particularly enjoyed the chapter where Farrell explores the parallels in Samoan and Post-Jacobite Scottish politics of the RLS novels, commenting that he was profoundly aware of the moral as well as the physical disruption created in a society by war.  (And we all know about Jacobite risings in Scotland because of the Outlander series, right?)  Farrell also dissects the difference in style and approach employed by [RLS] when treating the two cultures, histories and lands which dominated his consciousness:

He may have been searching for a new liberty to write openly about sex, physical appetites and emotional drives, or indeed about sex, but strangely  he made use of it only when writing on Polynesian subjects.  In the Scottish fiction composed at the same time, he reverted to the observance of late Victorian standards, even of Victorian prudishness.  (p.313)

It was interesting that RLS didn’t care for the novels of Thomas Hardy and Zola (both favourites of mine), but late in his career he had a change of heart about Zola’s realism.  So I wonder whether he was aware that Zola’s English translator Vizetelly found himself in deep trouble with the censors, and whether this made him circumspect?  Whatever the case, Farrell makes it clear that RLS was primarily concerned with the competing claims of ethics and politics, of justice and power and you can see this in the characterisation of David Balfour in Kidnapped when he fights for justice for James Stewart, a pawn in a complex political power game.

Farrell also explores the characterisation of women in the RLS novels, concluding that

Although many critics have seen Catriona as Stevenson’s most successful attempt to create a credible female character, it is hard now to accept that judgement.

On the first meeting between the two [Catriona and David] Catriona appears a plucky, spirited young woman, capable of shaping her own destiny, but once the adventure element of the novel is resolved and the emotional drama takes centre stage, she declines into the prim, largely passive heroine common in Victorian fiction. (p.317)

However, the representation of women in an unfinished work called Weir of Hermiston hints at what might have been had RLS lived longer.  No previous novel was so splendid in its depiction of emotional turmoil between such masterfully drawn characters and the strong female characters in this novel actively forge their own condition of life, are gifted with intellectual insight and emotional depth. 

Grave of Robert Louis Stevenson on Samoa, 1909.  Source: Wikipedia, attribution* below

But the author of thirteen novels, six short story collections and a string of other works (see the Bibliography at Wikipedia) was not destined for a long life. Not long after celebrating his 44th birthday in great style, Stevenson suffered a stroke and died within 24 hours.  The verse on his grave (resistant to all Scottish attempts to relocate it) is from Stevenson’s Requeim:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Pedants will note that the 7th line has a superfluous ‘the’ inserted before ‘sea’ which mucks up the rhythm).

If you read nothing else by Stevenson, do read ‘The Bottle Imp’.  It’s a great story.

*Photo of RLS’s grave by Bartlett Tripp (1842-1911) Publisher: Cedar Rapids IA : Torch Press *uploaded to Wikipedia by Teinesavaii – Image from 1909 published book My trip to Samoa (1911) ; (USA,1911)[1], Public Domain.
**Anonymous  Public Domain

Author: Joseph Farrell
Title: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Publisher: Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Publishing, part of the Hachette group
ISBN: 9780857057617
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. Farrell isn’t exactly right with his comment about RLS being a boys author. There is strong evidence that girls were reading “boys books” at this time. So much so that there were concerns raised about the moral effect and a concerted effort to make girls books more appealing. In the USA this led to Little Women.

    • Ah well, I think the fact that he just repeats what he was told without commenting on it except to say that he was surprised is interesting in itself. But what could he say without being howled down? In some quarters, a book written by a dead white male about a male central character is automatically off the reading list. No matter how good it might be…
      From my long ago graduate studies in children’s literature I recall that in C19th England, ‘stories for girls’, all written by ‘ladies’, were uniformly didactic, promoting ladylike, selfless, kind-hearted and modest behaviour. Their characters visited the poor, they did their needlework and they read the Bible. I have read some of these and they are excruciating. In the C20th stories for girls graduated to boarding school stories, forerunners of the Blyton school series like Malory Towers. Lots of hockey, and great opportunities to show the kind of moral character that a nice English girl should have. (Girls who were morally suspect always came from the continent and had thick accents and swarthy complexions). But even by the time I was reading for myself in the middle of the century, there wasn’t much around with adventurous girl characters, so a girl who wanted to read an adventure story read books that featured an adventurous male character. Far from teaching me to come to the conclusion that adventures were only for boys, I came to the conclusion that any child – male or female – could be adventurous too if they had the qualities of courage, intelligence, determination and a willingness to encounter the new.

  3. AT this point in my life, I reserve bios for people I am really, really interested in. I still have a huge pile of unread bios here.. Funnily enough, though, I read a RLS book this year: The Wrong Box.

    • I haven’t read that one. It’s one of the ones he wrote in collaboration with Fanny’s son, Lloyd Osborne. Did you review it?

  4. I enjoyed this review Lisa and thanks for the recommendation to read ‘The Bottle Imp’. I have read very little of RLS. I had heard of Treasure Island when I was a chid but it didn’t interest me enough to read. My parents read me A Child’s Garden of Verses. Given my lack of background in the work of RLS I guess I would not get so much out of this bio.

    It is interesting you devote almost half this review to Fanny. The fact that you could write so much about her demonstrates the care that Farrell has taken to ensure that she is not sidelined as ‘the wife’.

    • Yes, we had the Child’s Garden too, and I read them to my son when he was small as well.
      You are right about my focus on Fanny, I found her an interesting person and I think that Farrell has done her justice:)

  5. Thanks for the review Lisa, I have just ordered the book; RLS is a particular favourite of mine and a visit to the RLS home museum and grave site in Samoa is on my bucket list. As you know, the Samoans called him Tusitala, which roughly means ‘teller of tales’, and what an excellent name. His ability to write narrative in an evocative and engaging style is his strength. His character creation is much patchier in my view, although Davis Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped, and Long John Silver, Blind Pew and Isreal Hands in Treasure Island and three masterfully created and different villains.
    On the other hand, I do agree about the weakness of his women, and even Catriona does not really convince me that he was as comfortable in depicting women.

    • Thanks, Chris, I do love it when something I write persuades a reader to buy the book!
      Yes, you’re right about RLS being named Tusitala, but (as you will see) this book is a treasure trove of interesting snippets and no review could really do justice to it and include them all.
      I really must re-read some of his novels, not to mention getting on with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which *blush* I have never read at all.

  6. As a Scot am always pleased to hear good reviews of our writers so thanks again for yours. There are many Scottish writers overlooked in the English literary canon either ignored or termed as British which is quite a problematical notion in old Blighty these days. His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde set the mould for much of modern fiction so his influence quite profound. He too would have been influenced by James Hogg author of The Confessions of a Justified Sinner and much ignored because it’s written in the Scots. Remembering too the context for it was a time of political turmoil as the Union was still in recent memory. And the first political prisoner in this country was Thomas Muir so the threads of influence and intrigue stretch accross the miles and times.

    • Well, Fay, you might have noticed that since Brexit, I have been categorising authors not just as ‘British’ but also from Scotland or Wales or England. This is because even from our side of the world it is obvious that Scotland is a very separate entity to the rest of the country and I am entirely sympathetic to the idea of them exiting the Union in order to stay with the EU. It will be interesting to see what happens!

  7. I have some old RLS stuff here from my mother-in-law, but the books came originally from her father, her father-in-law and her husband (my father-in-law of course). Their publication dates range from 1903 to 1928 and they include fiction and non-fiction. I must say that I was not interested in RLS as a child. I was not interested in adventure. I didn’t like Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven or Five books, either. I have always been more interested in relationships rather than plots. Typical girl I suppose!!

    Still, I’d be interested in reading about his life.

    • Your collection sounds lovely, from the age when every book published was a beautiful object in itself.
      #Tsk, tsk I think it has more to do with upbringing than gender. My mother was adventurous and I yearned to do brave things like she did. Thank heavens I wasn’t born during the helicopter parent era, we had some exciting escapades when I was a child.

      • Yes, it is – very special – particularly because these and other items often have some provenance telling me something about why the book was acquired or its import.

        Ah, perhaps you’re right. My mother loved Jane Austen!

  8. I owned Kidnapped as a boy and often reread it, though not for a long time time. Recently listened to and enjoyed Jekyll & Hyde. It’s interesting how much of Jekyll & Hyde and Treasure Island live on in the popular imagination despite the fact that the books are hardly read these days.

    • Yes, I think they’ve made films of Dr J & Mr H, but with Treasure Island I think it’s because there are beautiful illustrated – and abridged – children’s versions of it. I bought a gorgeous edition of it for my school’s library, cost a fortune, but it was the kind of book those kids would never have access to, so it was worth it.

  9. […] the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson – is being published in the same year as the biographical Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell.  It was interesting to have read the bio first, because it made RLS more familiar to me than if […]


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