Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad:
Writers of Transition, edited by Linda Dryden, Stephen Arata,
and Eric Massie. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2009. 288
I stood once on a hill in Samoa, mudded and weary from the long
hot climb, wondering at the immense and dedicated toil involved
in bringing the body of Robert Louis Stevenson to such a grave.
“Ah!” said an elderly Samoan by my side, twitching his
lavalava. “He loved the people.” Stevenson came to the
area a writer, his pen alert; Conrad’s colonial experiences
were mostly behind him when he wrote his first novel. Until recently
the two authors have rarely shared the same breath but this overdue
association is remedied by this current collection of essays, the
fruits of a conference held in Edinburgh in 2004.
The dust-wrapper eschews a picture and frames its title effectively
in a floral pattern of gentle green. This simple device instantly
attracts. In her introduction, Linda Dryden refutes the notion that
literary Modernism has “a unique starting point” with
Conrad as its inaugurator and cites Stevenson’s role in its
evolution. Though the writers never met, they are linked in various
ways, and this volume seeks “to probe the Stevenson/Conrad
nexus to produce new understandings about two of the most famous
writers of the late nineteenth century.” Dryden herself suggests
some connections and entices us into the main body of the volume.
This is divided into three parts. Under the heading “Stevenson
and Conrad: Writers of Transition” are grouped four essays.
Richard Ambrosini reviews the history of how the two writers have
been perceived, noting that critical theorists place them in different
epochs, although they were born only seven years apart. Ambrosini
makes some telling comparisons as evidence that this should not
be the case and shows, particularly, how Stevenson supported the
Samoans in their disputes with German authority. He rightly criticizes
the glib allocation of authors into rigid categories and shows how
inaccurate this is here.
Eric Massie, in an illuminating comparison
of The Ebb-Tide and Victory, provides further
evidence for this view and stresses the importance of The Ebb-Tide
as a Modernist work. He stresses the colonial parallels between
Stevenson and Conrad, one being a Scot brought up in a country effectively
colonized by the English, the other a Pole brought up in Russian-controlled
Ukraine. Both writers could therefore empathize with those living
under colonial rule because they themselves had experienced it.
Nathalie Jaëck makes much use of nautical metaphors, showing
how “apparently harmless literary stowaways ... board the
main text ... opening serious leaks in its integrity.” Captain
Flint’s logbook in Treasure Island and Kurtz’s journal
in “Heart of Darkness” are given as examples. This is
an entertaining way of illustrating a key point – that both
authors disliked tidy endings, and their narrators and characters
can be seen to be grasping at utterance and falling short. Finality
eludes them as it does us. This is convincing but not all the language
used succeeds as well as the metaphors. Stevenson declared war against
the adjective, Jaëck tells us. After clambering over words
such as rhizomatic, pleonastic, hodological, apical, and Deleuzian,
one began to wish that Jaëck had done the same.
Laurence Davies’s exploration of the double in Stevenson
and Conrad (types, purposes, and possible extensions), which embraces
nineteenth-century texts by other authors besides the obvious candidates
– “The Secret Sharer” and The Strange Case
of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – usefully ends this section.
Part Two considers “Stevenson and Conrad: Writing the Empire”
and begins strongly with Andrea White’s study of The Strange
Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, unexpectedly, “A Smile
of Fortune.” The Conrad story, she explains, is not just “another
island tale”; like Jekyll (though less lethally) its captain
narrator discovers unwelcome aspects of himself when he succumbs
to the seductions of commerce and passion. Immediate connections
between the stories (one in the darkness of London; the other in
the light of the exotic East) are not obvious and the interweaving
White undertakes is both skilful and convincing.
Monica Bungaro considers In the South Seas and “Heart of
Darkness,” comparing Stevenson’s concerns at observing
and adapting to an Island culture in the Pacific with Conrad’s
criticism of European behaviour in the Congo. Stevenson cites knowledge
of the clans of the Scottish Highlands as helping his understanding
of the culture of Polynesia and Conrad’s Marlow is aware of
“a claim of distant kinship” in the eyes of his dead
Ann C. Colley looks at how Stevenson and Conrad cope with cannibalism,
pointing out that Stevenson was perturbed by living among ex-cannibals
whilst Conrad was simply passing through and making use of them.
She also reveals, though, that sometimes the local population would
exaggerate cannibalistic aspects of their past to impress and appal
their European visitors, whilst conceding the demise of one missionary
victim en route.
Robbie B. H. Goh compares The Ebb-Tide
– clearly a key text in these exchanges – with An
Outcast of the Islands, considering the sea as liminal symbol,
revealing how both stories show characters in shifting positions
or states of mind, always, as it were, in transit – never
fully arrived. What is particularly enthralling about Robert Hampson’s
essay on Treasure Island and Victory is that it
takes a text, usually dismissed as the quintessential boys’
adventure story, and reveals that, given the scrutiny of astute
criticism, it proves to be much more.
The final section, “Social and Psychological Contexts,”
begins with Deaglán Ó’Donghaile’s essay
on Stevenson and Conrad’s reactions to late nineteenth-century
bomb attacks: The Dynamiter in the case of Stevenson, The
Secret Agent for Conrad. Both have would-be bombers (the deliberate
Zero and the innocent Stevie) inadvertently blowing themselves up.
The essay considers incidents of the time, especially Irish bombings,
and shows how both writers were influenced by these in their works.
Martin Danahay returns to the figure of the double, making use
once more of “The Secret Sharer” but comparing it this
time with “Markheim.” He stresses how memories of religious
past bring Markheim to confess his crime but might profitably have
considered Leggatt’s religious upbringing (his father is a
parson) which makes him aware of his fate being akin to that of
Cain, fleeing a society that he can never rejoin.
What is evident from this and other essays in the collection is
that critics take the “land” view of Leggatt’s
act, regarding him as a criminal and a murderer, aligning themselves
with the “old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen”
Leggatt claims are not competent to judge him. The story suggests
that his actions can only be understood by those who have themselves
experienced the vicissitudes of life at sea, like the narrator (or,
One of the delights of this book is the variety
of texts that are brought into the frame for comparison. Alongside
the familiar “Heart of Darkness,” Jane V. Rago places
The Suicide Club and relates it to the development of degeneration
theories in the latter part of the century. Whilst Kurtz in “Heart
of Darkness” exhibits the degeneration of the European “off
the map,” The Suicide Club shows the degeneration
of the upper classes in London. By joining the club Prince Florizel
also “goes native” and is saved only by someone who
remains a non- member.
Nancy Bunge considers how The Strange
Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and “Heart of Darkness”
anticipate the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and C. G.
Jung. Both psychologists claim that “unconscious forces inspire
artists to create” but Bunge contends that writers can understand
the dynamics of such forces. Whilst Freud and Jung claimed to be
revealing truth and had their findings questioned, Stevenson and
Conrad were aware that they were writing fiction and their two great
short works endure to this day. The final essay in the collection
is by Stephen Donovan, who, under the intriguing title “Pleasant
Spectres and Malformed Shades,” notes attempts to link the
paranormal to Stevenson and considers Stevenson and Conrad’s
treatment of the subject.
In many of the essays there is a sense of
needing to justify the alignment of Stevenson with Conrad’s
exalted presence, rather like a musicologist of the 1950s arguing
that the works of Gustav Mahler should be played at Proms Concerts
(he was then out of fashion). That this need should be felt is testimony
to the power of assertion, which, once trumpeted loud enough, becomes
established as fact without the call for evidence.
About thirty years ago Professor Sandison gave
a lecture on Stevenson to the English Department of the University
of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was the first intimation
I had that Stevenson was beginning to be taken seriously by the
academic world. Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad: Writers
of Transition produces convincing evidence that this lengthy
process should now be complete and that we have been bereft of such
an examination for too long.
© 2009 John Lester