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Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession

Sylvie Largeaud-Ortega
p. 226-229
Référence(s) :

Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession. Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009, p. x +178.

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1Is Roslyn Jolly’s Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession (2009) yet another biography of Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas? Not so. It is a brand new read, which boldly sets out against the abundant “simplifying, smoothing, reductive” (p. 28) literature which, starting over a century ago, has contributed to building ‘a figure of romance’ out of “the writer of romances” (p. 172) in the Pacific. This work follows in the steps of recent critical Pacific biographies like Oliver Buckton’s (2007), likewise entwining the writer’s overseas life story with a critical study of his literary output. Jolly also bounces on Ann Colley’s (2004) and Julia Reid’s (2006) representations of Stevenson as, much more than a romantic traveller, a Samoan resident engaged in local politics and a pioneering anthropologist.

2Jolly’s work, however, has a still wider scope: it fundamentally asks what the author’s profession may have meant to Stevenson—what did being a writer imply in relation to his forefathers, his academic upbringing, and his having settled down in the Pacific? Jolly adroitly weaves together a traditional biographical and chronological presentation with thematic studies. The central body of her essay presents the author in the light of “The Travel-writer as Anthropologist” (chapter 2), a precursor historian-reporter she wittily names “Our Man in Samoa” (chapter 3), and a “Novelist as Lawyer” (chapter 4). Chapters 1, “1887: The Turning Point” and 5, “1894: Repossession”, act as prologue and epilogue: they start with Stevenson’s departure from Europe and finish with Stevenson’s death in Samoa, debunking the Tusitala myth which was largely constructed after Stevenson’s death.

3Stevenson was the descendant of a line of eminent lighthouse engineers. He repeatedly pondered the significance of writing, which Jolly observes must have been urged by a need to assess his own profession by the rule of his forebears’ practical achievements—especially since his father once condemned art as “no profession” (p. 4). In response to this censure, his works had to achieve credit “in terms of public service” (p. 8). This, Jolly argues, may explain why, after his father’s death and the family’s departure from Europe in 1887, Stevenson’s developed into a groundbreaking anthropologist, a remarkably innovative historian and an impassioned lawyer.

4Jolly demonstrates that Stevenson was indeed an outstanding persona in the three fields of anthropology, history and law. She presents the reader with a thorough and very pertinent study of some of Stevenson’s Pacific works, most of them unknown to the general public—In the South Seas (1896), A Footnote to History (1893), the Times Letters and Catriona (1893)—, “because these works best represent Stevenson’s new sense of writing as action in the world” (p. 27).

5First, Jolly corroborates Reid’s portrait of Stevenson as a prominent Pacific anthropologist, and confirms that In the South Seas paved the way to a new pluralist on-the-field approach to foreign cultures. An Australian scholar, like Stevenson Jolly addresses “readers from the uttermost parts of the sea” (p. 7) and contributes subtle analyses of what geographic and cultural relativism may signify. She shares with anthropologist Stevenson an alertness to the Other’s viewpoints, with, for instance, her footnotes assiduously calling attention to other Stevensonian critics, confronting observations, likewise inviting readers to question proportions and perspectives. Stevenson’s anthropological writings did aim at achieving efficiency “in terms of public service” by alerting his generally unsuspecting audience at home, to “questions of health, manners, religion and government” in the Pacific, to “the conduct of the invading and colonizing nations towards the invaded and colonized, and consequently [to] the survival of entire cultures and races” (p. 33-34).

6Then Jolly turns into a historian when she roots out the sources of Stevenson’s proneness to writing history. Bearing on the impact of the writer’s family, social and cultural conditions on his choice of topics, she stresses Stevenson’s analogy between the clashes Pacific islanders and pre-1745 Scots experienced when faced with an invasion. In her study of A Footnote to History, her method once again proves similar to Stevenson’s, as he attempted “to understand the mentalities, institutions and cultural formations” of Samoans in order to analyse their “transformation” (p. 75) when faced with a changing environment. Stevenson is shown to be as much of a pioneer in historiography as in anthropology: his styles of historical representation point to twentieth-century historiography and journalism, and his philosophy of history is “fundamentally at odds with the progressivist model dominant in ‘scientific’ nineteenth-century historiography” (p. 77). In its turn, historiography is seen as a means for the author to exercise “realistic modes of writing” and “to serve his adopted country” (p. 75).

7From the Pacific, Stevenson wrote eleven letters to The Times, most of them to denounce the quasi-colonial regime imposed on Samoa by the 1889 Treaty of Berlin. He also wrote a Scottish historical novel, Catriona, which shares with the “Letters” a deep concern with the law: Jolly points out that both the author, whose Times letters provide first-hand evidence against imperial ruling, and the novel’s hero, who strives to testify against the early 1750s’ Government of Great-Britain, are determined to uphold the letter of the law at their own risks, in a mutual effort to bring order back to war-stricken communities. Jolly grounds these claims to legality in the author’s study of Public Law at Edinburgh University, the benefits of which have been overlooked by most biographers. Here again Stevenson is shown as a daring pioneer: he “flouts the cherished nineteenth-century British belief” (p. 132) that the West was bringing law and civilization to benighted peoples.

8The epilogue is an enlightening challenge to Stevenson readers, whom Jolly confronts to the Tusitala myth. A linguistic analysis strictly redefines the Samoan word tusitala and brilliantly demonstrates that the myth reduces the author to a romantic figure rather than acknowledge the pioneering anthropologist, historian and lawyer who emerged from the Pacific. The ensuing abundance of biographical work which “greatly outnumbered critical studies of his works” (p. 173) may be contrasted with Jolly’s critical biography.

  • 1 Richard Ambrosini, in Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific. Travel, empire, and the (...)

9Just as Jolly’s work is no hagiography, likewise, to pay it due respect, this book review may find some minor faults to it. In the study of the father and son relationship, Jolly might have pondered how Stevenson, averse to colonial hegemony, coped with his father’s “contribution to the mercantile prosperity of Victorian Britain” (p. 8) such as designing a lighthouse for Tahiti in 1866, for instance. To her commentary on Stevenson’s Times letters, Jolly might have added an annex containing these eleven “Letters”, for the average reader may not have access to Booth and Mehew’s 8 volumes of The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes, Jolly’s work errs on the side, ironically enough, of an over-rigorous composition: the chapter divisions may prove slightly stretched, with the topics of anthropology, history and law actually overlapping. Hers, like Stevenson’s A Footnote to History, is “a compositional challenge” (p. 92) which she nonetheless successfully takes up: such divisions do prove necessary to make her point, i.e. Stevenson’s fresh imprint on three different disciplines and on the author’s profession. Jolly’s work is sustained, thoroughly-documented and groundbreaking in many respects: it fully deserves fellow critic Richard Ambrosini’s praise as “the most important breakthrough in Stevenson studies since the publication of the author’s Collected Letters.”1

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1 Richard Ambrosini, in Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific. Travel, empire, and the author’s profession (Farnham, Ashgate, 2009, back cover).

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Référence papier

Sylvie Largeaud-Ortega, « Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 226-229.

Référence électronique

Sylvie Largeaud-Ortega, « Roslyn Jolly, Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, Travel, Empire, and the Author’s Profession », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 20 janvier 2018. URL :

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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