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Linda Dryden, Stephen Arata and Eric Massie (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition

Claude Maisonnat
p. 540-544
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Linda Dryden, Stephen Arata and Eric Massie (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2009, II + 273 p. £46.95.

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1Oddly enough in view of the temporal proximity of the two writers and of their thematic affinities, the relation not to say filiation between those two landmarks in English literature Conrad and Stevenson had never been explored at such great length before. This volume of essays is therefore welcome and comes at the right time to fill a gap in the scholarship of the two writers. In a short preface Linda Dryden recalls the origin of the project: a conference held at Edinburgh in 2004 and deliberately meant to revive Stevenson’s place in the contemporary literary canon. Then in a longer introduction she traces the similarities in the life experiences and the thematic choices of both writers. She introduces Stevenson as a forerunner of modernism whose reputation suffers from his position in the 19th century literary tradition and the monumental presence of Conrad in the Modernist canon, and suggests considering them as writers of transition between the two periods. She eventually offers a short presentation of each of the fourteen papers that make up the volume. It is divided into three parts, respectively entitled: Stevenson and Conrad: Writers of Transition, Stevenson and Conrad: Writing the Empire, and Social and Psychological Contexts.

2The first part comprises four essays, and the first one, by well-seasoned Conradian scholar Richard Ambrosini, epitomizes the general drift of the collection. Starting from what he considers to be “the current discredit of the modernist canon”, he clearly sets out to re-assess the position of Stevenson with regard to Conrad in the light of what he calls his “manipulation of genres”. He brings the two writers closer together by stressing the importance of romance in connection with imperialism in Conrad’s works—which plays down its critical potential—while at the same time showing how Stevenson, particularly in his non-fictional works, begins to distance himself from the imperial romance of his early period. The second by Eric Massie takes as a starting point the similarities between Stevenson’s The Ebb Tide and Conrad’s Victory. He places both works on the strategic fault line between the emergent modernist narrative and the popular forms of mass culture and even detects a process of filiation in terms of structural and thematic elements common to the two novels. He substantiates his claim by drawing a parallel between Jones, Ricardo and Pedro and Herrick, Davis and Huish. In the third Nathalie Jaëck, relying massively on the notion of transition, which she applies to the function of the sea that she claims legitimates the positions of both writers in the novels, arguing that in these novels topology replaces typology. To make her point she convincingly draws on Roland Barthes's “neutre” and Deleuze’s “deterritorialization” and considers Lord Jim as the paradigmatic transitory ideal on account of its divided structure between the Patna and the Patusan episodes. Equally convincing is the final paper of the first section by Laurence Davies who starts from the familiar reading of the figure of the double as exemplified in The Secret Sharer and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He explores extensively the literary origins of such narratives and concentrates on the impact of the philosophical context to show why and how the metaphysics of the double had undergone an important change in the form of epistemic changes. Thus the tradition of the Scottish uncanny is enriched by the emerging presence of social elements that interfere with the standard readings of the double.

3The second part entitled “Stevenson and Conrad: Writing the Empire” is composed of five papers, and all of them deal with specific sets of texts by each author while focusing on the ideological dimensions of the texts. Thus Andrea White offers a new comparison of Conrad’s short story A Smile of Fortune with Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde whose common point is that they can be read as allegories of the self and of empire, and her argument is generally satisfactory. If her Lacanian reference to the mirror stage is quite debatable to say the least, her resorting to Derrida’s exploration of the notion of hospitality in the wider context of the struggle for self-possession is, on the contrary, perfectly relevant and the use she makes of it convincing. Monica Bungaro for her part focuses on Heart of Darkness and In the South Seas where she highlights the issues of cross-cultural encounters in a colonial context in which the relation between the Self and the Other was frequently problematic, to reach the conclusion that both narratives imply a shift from the objectifying gaze of the imperialist to the reciprocal and intimate exchange of gazes of the artist. In her paper entitled “Conrad, Stevenson and Cannibalism: Journeying Out of the Comfort Zone”, Ann C. Colley also chooses to examine Heart of Darkness and In the South Sea. The approach is anthropological rather than literary. She compares cannibalism in Heart of Darkness with cannibalism in the Congo in terms of mythical time and place, while she shows the influence of the popular image of cannibalism on Stevenson who, in the South Seas, was confronted directly to the traces of anthropophagy in the islands he visited and the people he met, a situation could not but have a disturbing effect on his perception of reality. Robbie H. Goh studies the sea as a liminal symbol in An Outcast of the Islands with The Ebb Tide, in the context of the geopolitics of criticism. She argues that beyond the ideological and stylistic differences between the two writers they shared an artistic awareness of the crucial role played by time and space in the symbolic representation of the modern condition through their narratives of liminal landscapes emphasizing the predicament of the human condition. The third section closes with Robert Hampson’s study of maps, class and sexuality in Treasure Island and Victory. He shows how Stevenson’s South sea fictions do adumbrate the corruption of the island world in Conrad’s Malay novels, and he compares the role and function of the map in Treasure Island with the improbable map leading to a treasure that never existed in Victory so that Conrad could only shift the focus of the story to a dramatization of class distinctions and of sexual identities.

4The third part of the volume: Social and Psychological Contexts, also comprises five papers and appears to be a mixed bag which covers the field of symbolic geography as well as the issues of evil and the supernatural. In the first one: “Conrad, the Stevensons, and the Imagination of Urban Chaos,” Deaglan O’Donghaile starts from the assumption that the distinction between modernism and popular fiction is perhaps not as clear-cut as we might think. The paper offers mainly, but not exclusively, a reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent and the Stevensons’ The Dynamiter, which it places in the socio-historical context of the wave of Irish republican subversion of the time. The author examines the way both writers appropriated the shocks of political terror to recycle them as literary material. In the light of Jean Baudrillard’s “theory of implication” according to which the terroristic imagination which fascinates those who are confronted with overwhelmingly hegemonic forms of power, he argues that it can easily turn into the aesthetic consumption of the chaos of urban spectacles. The second half of the paper focuses on The Secret Agent to show how much it owes to the earlier story by the Stevensons and to the terrorist campaigns of the Clan na Gael, particularly through the paradigmatic figure of the Professor. In “From the City to the Sea: The Double in Stevenson’s ‘Markheim’ and Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’”, Martin Danahay explores the binary opposition between city and sea in order to highlight the difference between the two stories. He argues that the urban noise and landscape of Markheim is replaced by the simplified landscape of the sea, and that whereas Stevenson implicitly reasserts the bonds of the community in spite of the murder, Conrad combines the sea and the double to suggest that paradoxically the antisocial forces let loose in the novel provide the very framework within which the protagonist can affirm his ability to make individual choices so that Markheim’s strong belief in the workings of divine justice is clearly denied in The Secret Sharer. The third paper in this third section, Jane V. Rago’s “‘Affairs in Different Places’: Symbolic Geography in Stevenson and Conrad”, finds its basis in “the family of man” metaphor to stress the importance of the laws of evolution and of the theory of degeneration on the self-representations of the Victorian world. Extensive research on the theoretical background of such representations and on the historical period bring the reader a wealth of information to help him situate the context within which the two novels came into existence. However, little is said about the texts themselves even if we gain a more accurate perception of the ideological stakes involved in contemporary discourses. Rago draws a parallel between Heart of Darkness, which stages the encounter of Marlow with the dark places of the earth, and what she calls “prehistoric man”, and The Suicide Club, which locates the site of degeneration and darkness in the upper classes, right in the centre of the London from which Marlow distances himself in his narrative only to come back changed at the end. As for Nancy Bunge her essay entitled: “Beyond Freud and Jung: The Analysis of Evil in Heart of Darkness and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” seems to be flawed by its very methodological prerequisites, in so far as she claims that she is going to use the stories of Conrad and Stevenson to prove that Freud and Jung were right. Such a form of instrumentalisation of literature is all the more difficult to accept as her conception of psychoanalysis is rather narrow and unsophisticated to say the least. There is certainly nothing new in the twenty first century in the claim that writers “write out of the unconscious” and in so doing explore their personal depths. Because both are concerned with the nature of human nature, the gist of the argument consists in associating Stevenson with Jung, and Conrad with Freud, the only difference lying in the way both thinkers and both writers situate themselves with regard to religion. This is easily the less convincing essay in a collection that is otherwise consistently dense, richly documented and tightly argued. The essay that closes the collection is entitled “Pleasant Spectres and Malformed Shades: Stevenson, Conrad and Spiritualism”, and is provided by Stephen Donovan. Reminding us that the paranormal and spiritualism were extremely popular at the time Conrad and Stevenson wrote, he nevertheless stresses a major difference between the two writers’ response to these phenomena. Where Stevenson shows himself to be sympathetic to and sometimes fascinated by supernatural beliefs, Conrad, on the contrary, remains consistently critical of them, and he considered literature as a means of fighting against the mystification, often of an ideological order, to which such practices gave rise. Even if it is occasionally possible to view the paranormal and spiritualism as popular attempts to account for mysterious phenomena at a time when the unconscious had not yet emerged in Freud’s formulation, as Stevenson sometimes seems to believe as an artist, on the other hand, for Conrad, irony was the usual way of satirizing the credulousness of naïve readers, as his fiction testifies in such works as The Shadow Line or The Planter of Malata.

5Moreover, this collection of essays is usefully completed by a comprehensive bibliography and a detailed index both rerum and nominum. All in all, the initial goal, which was to re-assess the connection between Conrad and Stevenson, and give Stevenson full recognition of his crucial part in the transition towards modernity, is successfully achieved. This long overdue comparative enterprise deserves only praise, and the volume provides an invaluable instrument of research for all scholars interested in the works of the two writers. The volume is thus indispensable to good research libraries and individual scholars alike.

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Claude Maisonnat, « Linda Dryden, Stephen Arata and Eric Massie (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 540-544.

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Claude Maisonnat, « Linda Dryden, Stephen Arata and Eric Massie (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers of Transition »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 29 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Claude Maisonnat

Université Lumière Lyon 2

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