Introduction: Stevenson, Evolution, and the ’Primitive’

  • Julia Reid
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Cruising between the Pacific islands in the late 1880s, Robert Louis Stevenson gathered ideas for an ambitious work of travel writing, which he hoped would capture the essence of the South Seas.1 In May 1889, his wife Fanny confided her fears to their friend, Sidney Colvin: ’Louis’, she wrote, ’has the most enchanting material that any one ever had in the whole world for his book, and I am afraid that he is going to spoil it all’.2 Instead of entertaining his readers with all ’the extraordinary adventures that befell us’, she lamented, he had ’taken into his Scotch Stevenson head, that a stern duty lies before him, and that his book must be a sort of scientific and historical impersonal thing’.3 Fanny’s complaint opposes the domains of dry, ’impersonal’ science, and a romantic literature steeped in authorial personality. Twenty months later, she recalled her frustration over the ’South Sea book’:

[m]any times I was almost in despair. He had got… [Darwin’s] Coral Reefs; somebody else on Melanesian languages, books on the origin of the South Sea peoples, and all sorts of scientific pamphlets and papers… Instead of writing about his adventures in these wild islands, he would ventilate his own theories on the vexed questions of race and language. He wasted much precious time over grammars and dictionaries, with no results, for he was able to get an insight into hardly any native tongue.4


Evolutionary Psychology Evolutionist Thought Authorial Personality Literary Discourse Ambitious Work 
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© Julia Reid 2006

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  • Julia Reid

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