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Oliver S. Buckton, Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative and the Colonial Body

Athens,OH: Ohio University Press, 2007

352 pp., ISBN: 0821417560, £40.50

Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific: Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession
Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009
206pp, ISBN: 0754661955, £50.00


Reviewed by Glenda Norquay


Both these books engage with new and challenging versions of Robert Louis Stevenson, continuing the project of significant revaluation which has characterised recent Stevenson scholarship. In each case, the preoccupation is with Stevenson as a travel writer in the broadest sense, and they share a common goal of situating the South Seas fiction and Stevenson’s experiences in Samoa as central to developments in his understanding of both politics and narrative. In Jolly’s study a Stevenson emerges who address his readers ‘from the uttermost parts of the sea’; in Buckton’s, through a wide-ranging deployment of the image of ‘cruising’, a figure who undergoes a transformation in his perspective on and deployment of the structures of travel. While the argument in each study is particular and complex, they tend to focus on many of the same texts and incidents from texts, and combine in arguing that Stevenson’s later novels, written in the South Seas but focusing on Scotland – David Balfour in particular – are as much informed by the personal and wider politics of his situation as they are by a nostalgia for Scotland. Both critics also give different, but equally convincing, accounts of Stevenson as a serious literary figure whose engagements with the colonial body (in every sense) were substantial and significant.

Arguing that travel emerges as the energising narrative dynamic of the majority of Stevenson’s output, Buckton’s ambitious and at times densely argued book uses cruising to link Stevenson’s favourite mode of transport and the narrative practice that derives from his travels. From a liking for random rather than planned journeys, and the movement of travel itself, comes the impetus for a narrative practice which challenges conventional distinctions of realism and romance. Buckton extends the image of ‘cruising’ beyond this, to include its more contemporary meanings, in the connotation of pleasurable travel but also in the more specific sense of a search for sexual partners and erotic experience. The remit is therefore wide and wide-ranging but the structure of the book operates through chapters which focus largely on a single text, although also charting a trajectory of mutation in both the significance of travel and the implications of disordered journeying as a narrative paradigm. Effectively explaining the generic mutations characteristic of Stevenson through this trope, Buckton also traces a movement away from travel for travel’s sake to 'a more pragmatic ... engagement with colonial politics and cross-cultural encounters' (p.29). Theoretically informed by Jameson, White, Bersani, and Barthes, Buckton thus produces some exciting if provocative readings of novels.

The chapter on The Wrong Box, a relatively neglected text, is one example of both the vigour and the problems of his approach. Highlighting the motif of the reanimated corpus in Stevenson’s writings (although with surprisingly little reference to The Body Snatcher), he reads the text as suggesting, without explicitly articulating, unspeakable desires, as the ‘coffinless corpse is allowed … to wander aimlessly, functioning as a contaminated object of desire that eludes narrative containment’ (p.48). Convincingly arguing that the comic possibilities of the corpse become part of an attack on the hegemonic notions of the novelistic plot as based on the individual life story, he also suggests through detailed textual readings that the homoeroticism of the burial scene in the novel becomes a ‘new narrative engine that drives the plot forward and keeps the body in circulation’ (p.51). While his attentiveness to the word play around ‘sod’ (a term in homoerotic usage from 1880) does hold up in this analysis, the observation (in the reading of Travels with a Donkey) that ‘Stevenson’s ass both is and is not a part of him – anticipating how Jekyll at once acknowledges and disavows the anal Hyde as part of his identity’ (p.85) is less convincing. To represent the reluctant Modestine symbolically as ‘the physical body, driven by instinct rather than conscious control, at once an obstacle to Stevenson’s authority and a reminder of his errant, disobedient desire’ (p.68) neatly dissects the difficult dynamic between man and beast, but at times the emphasis on the symbolic dimension of every aspect of the journey is open to question. The monastery at which Stevenson spends the night figures an ‘exclusively masculine space’ but one named after the Virgin Mary, leading to the conclusion that ‘Stevenson’s movement is less a flight from or rejection of the feminine than a flight from one version of femininity (sexual, physical, secular) towards another (pure, virginal, spiritual): by entering the monastery, Stevenson joins a world in which the "secular donkey" can have no place' (p.78). To be prosaic, the monastery itself is a literal location on a literal journey, a place to stay. Nevertheless, such readings are consistently bold and always thought-provoking.

Each chapter of this book is full of moments of real insight and stimulating analysis, although the cogency of the overall argument is at times harder to maintain in the reader’s mind. Buckton’s focus, however, moves increasingly close to that of Jolly’s from Part Two onwards, when in ‘mapping the historical romance’, he presents Treasure Island as a commodity text. Drawing on the work of Feltes and Daly (both important studies which merited refinement in their application to Stevenson)[1] , Buckton reads Treasure Island as part of a body of romance that allowed adult men to return imaginatively to their boyhood. Kidnapped in contrast, although recognisably a romance, does not, he argues, harmonise the contradictions between the conventions of historical romance and a narrative about contemporary colonial intrigue and political corruption: rather it manifests them in ambivalence of the protagonist and the duality created with Alan Breck. In keeping with this study’s powerful melding of an attention to narrative form, an awareness of the commercial context, and an alertness to the homoerotic, Buckton suggests that no ‘union of opposites’ is possible within the text: because Alan and David cannot wed, containing contradictions through marriage, the possibilities of attaining closure are compromised.

Jolly’s study is narrower, but clearly focused and lucid in the extreme. She covers fewer texts but here too the readings are convincing and consistently stimulating. Adopting an interesting structure, by beginning with Stevenson’s departure from Edinburgh in 1887, Jolly focuses on the final seven years of Stevenson’s life, thus allowing a comprehensive analysis of a range of textual productions from the time, which have all too often been seen in isolated, fragmented analysis. Like Buckton she traces a pattern of development as Stevenson moved further away from the expectations aroused by the writer of Treasure Island and uses, to fascinating effect, responses to Stevenson in popular reviews as well as the dismayed reactions of friends as he moved ever further into the politics of what his friend Sidney Colvin called ‘your chocolates’.

While Buckton works through the trope of cruising, Jolly’s interest is articulated in the language of engineering, taken from Stevenson’s father but reworked in relation to ideas of professionalism and leading to an insightful reading of The Wrecker – although as she points out, wreckers and lighthouse builders were antagonists in the drama of the lighting of Scotland’s coastline, and there is something perverse in Stevenson’s use of a group of wreckers to exemplify the romance of work. This novel, she argues, nevertheless represents a crucial turning point in Stevenson’s thinking about work and identity, identifying a ‘vocational restlessness at odds with the single minded devotion to his art that he had nurtured throughout the years of conflict with his father’ (p. 20). In an analysis of his letters from Vailima she demonstrates how strong was the influence of a protestant work ethic, carrying over into his engagement with Samoan politics as well as his frequently expressed views on the professionalism of the writer. In Jolly’s pattern of development the shift to Samoa emblematises a movement from romance to realism ‘and from the domain of the sentimental traveller to that of the anthropologist’ (p. 25) – a move not dissimilar to Buckton’s trajectory of moving away from an ‘exuberant bohemian pleasure in “travel for travel’s sake” and towards a more pragmatic engagement with colonial politics and cross-cultural encounters’ (p.29).

Jolly too argues for a change of purpose in Stevenson’s travel writing, moving away from the early concentration on interiority and on making the ordinary seem strange. Her dominant tropes differ from Buckton’s, and, building on her earlier work on Henry James, narrative and history, depict Stevenson’s new authorial persona in terms of lawyer and historian, assessing the validity of dominant legal frameworks in new and challenging contexts and reconfiguring historical patterns through comparison of Scotland and Samoa’s colonial histories. Again noting the generic mutations that interest Buckton, Jolly sees Stevenson as mapping out ‘an investigative project that defied existing interdisciplinary boundaries’ and, reinforcing the research of Julia Reid on Stevenson and ethnography, situates him within ‘the expanding concerns of comparative jurisprudence and the emergent field of anthropology’ (p. 42). Again her interest in neglected texts from the Samoan period is welcome: her reading of A Footnote to History, for example, makes a convincing case for its development of a particularly forward-looking model of historiography. Such experiments, of course, produced conflicts over Stevenson’s authorial identity, as friends at home sought to maintain Stevenson in the commercial context they were most familiar with: ‘We must confess we prefer Mr Stevenson as a writer of romance to Mr Stevenson as a writer of history’, noted The Times in August, 1892, while The Queen suggested that Samoa was a place where Stevenson lived happily but did not write happily (p.145). While his friends felt some relief at the return to historical romance and to Scottish subject matter in David Balfour, the achievement of Jolly’s book is to demonstrate parallels between that novel and the letters and political writings on Samoa, revealing a common concern with repair and transformation of a society in the aftermath of war and rebellion. Buckton too argues against seeing the South Seas fiction as being informed by nostalgia and also aligns David Balfour with A Footnote to History, as a critique of colonial conditions in the Highlands and Samoa. The novel, he suggests, turns away from the adventure story, seeking to produce a hybrid form that would combine fiction with documentary style.

Welcome in both authors too is the ways in which they attack the difficult issues of Stevenson’s collaborative work in his later years. Buckton approaches this with a typically theoretical framework, arguing through the cruising metaphor that all Stevenson’s texts are in a sense collaborative in that they emerge from contexts not wholly determined by the author and take shape in part through responses and contributions of others: they too engage in the random. Jolly responds to Buckton’s call for further research in this area by bringing together Stevenson's longstanding anxieties over professionalism and Samoan negotiations of his role as teller of tales. She suggests that the figure of ‘Tusitala’ offered some solution to his fears about being both as tradesman of fiction and a serious commentator, while also furnishing a romantic image of the artist as magician amenable to his friends back in Britain.

Perhaps both Buckton and Jolly are a little too strenuous in asserting the development of Stevenson into a writer of realist and engaged texts as evidence of a growing political discernment, and in deploying the term nostalgia to suggest a weakening reading of the later fiction. Arguably Stevenson was still experimenting in generic mutations of established forms at this late stage – witness St Ives – and nostalgia may also be deployed with self-awareness as a tool in the articulation and analysis of desire. The earlier fiction, too, while working within romance frameworks is never entirely conventional in its adherence to that form, and it would be a mistake to replicate the literary commonplace of Stevenson’s own time by equating a move into realism as the only demonstration of a seriousness of purpose. What emerges most strongly from both these exciting new studies, however, is Stevenson as a writer seriously engaging with Samoan politics but also with Scottish history, politics and identity. They leave us with an image of Stevenson caught within a framework of conflicting demands in his professional life: the increasing necessity of feeding his Samoan family reinforcing the pressure for commercial success; his recognition that new forms of documentary analysis were perhaps necessary to do justice to the complexities of the political pushing him into new literary territories; and the pressures of combining personal development as a writer with the heavy investment in a different kind of future mapped out for him by those in his homeland remaining as a source of concern. Buckton and Jolly’s books combine to do justice both to the complexity of that figure and to the breadth and significance of his literary output.



[1] N. Daly, Modernism, Romance and the fin de siècle(Cambridge: CUP, 1999); N.N. Feltes, Modes of Production of Victorian Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)