Stevenson and the Art of Fiction

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


In a cluster of essays written during the 1880s, Stevenson explored — and celebrated — the persistence of precivilized states of consciousness in the modern world, in the guise of romance, oral narratives, childhood make-believe, and the literary imagination. These essays, which appeared in popular journals and enjoyed a wide readership, mark Stevenson’s engagement with the emergent evolutionist approach to literature. A new school of psychologists, following Herbert Spencer, examined the imagination as a connection between modern individuals and humanity’s collective past. The psychologist James Sully and others used an evolutionary model of the mind to explore the affinity between dreaming, myth-making, and literary inspiration. An increasing interest in the unconscious mind also informed the writings of psychical researchers including F. W. H. Myers and the new sciences of comparative mythology and physiological aesthetics, as practised by Andrew Lang and Grant Allen. Similarly, contemporary writers often expressed evolutionist understandings of creativity: for Kipling, the artist’s imagination represented his memory of past lives and, for Wilde, ’concentrated race-experience’.1


Organic Memory Literary Creativity Oral Narrative Unconscious Mind Mass Readership 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Finest Story in the World’ (1891), in Selected Stories, ed. Sandra Kemp (London: J. M. Dent, 1987), 54–82.Google Scholar
  2. Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1890), in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), 340–408, 384.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    James Sully, My Life and Friends (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1918), 195, 194.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Alvin Sullivan, ed., British Literary Magazines: the Victorian and Edwardian Age, 1837–1913 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984), 82–3.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ed Block, ‘James Sully, Evolutionist Psychology, and Late Victorian Gothic Fiction’, Victorian Studies 25 (1982), 443–67, 444.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology (1855), 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: Williams and Norgate, 1870–72), 2: 648.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Stevenson, ‘Books Which Have Influenced Me’ (1887), in Essays Literary and Critical (London: Heinemann et al., 1923), 62–8, 64–5. On Spencer’s influence on Stevenson, see Chapter 3.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    W. D. Howells, ‘Henry James, Jr.’ (1882), in Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Ulrich Halfmann and Christoph K. Lohmann, 3 vols (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993), 1: 317–23, 319, 323.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Andrew Lang, ‘Realism and Romance’, Contemporary Review 52 (1887), 683–93, 689.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Oscar Maurer, ‘Andrew Lang and Longman’s Magazine, 1882–1905’, University of Texas Studies in English 34 (1955), 152–78.Google Scholar
  11. Marysa Demoor, ‘Andrew Lang’s Causeries 1874–1912’, Victorian Periodicals Review 21.1 (1988), 15–22.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    H. Rider Haggard, ‘About Fiction’, Contemporary Review 51 (1887), 172–80.Google Scholar
  13. Stephen D. Arata, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 79–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Peter Keating, The Haunted Study: a Social History of the English Novel 1875–1914 (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1989), 344–56.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Discussions of the ‘Art of Fiction’ debate, for example, typically downplay Stevenson’s contribution, comparing his ‘conventional’ aims to James’s innovative conception of literature: see Mark Spilka, ‘Henry James and Walter Besant: “The Art of Fiction” Controversy’, Novel: a Forum on Fiction 6 (1973), 101–19, 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 14.
    Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’ (1882), in Memories and Portraits (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), 247–74, 252, 258.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    Walter Edwards Houghton, Esther Rhoads Houghton, and Jean Harris Slingerland, eds, The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824–1900, 5 vols (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1966–89), 4: 430–3. The 1870 Elementary Education Act introduced compulsory elementary education; the 1880 Education Act, strengthening school attendance laws, effectively made the earlier provisions standard across England and Wales.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    N. N. Feltes, Literary Capital and the Late Victorian Novel (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 79.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Longman’s Magazine 4 (1884), 502–21, 510.Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Stevenson, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ (1884), in Memories and Portraits (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), 275–99, 281, 283.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Henry James to Stevenson, July 1888, in The Letters of Henry fames, ed. Percy Lubbock, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1920), 1: 139; Spilka, ‘James’, 115.Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    James Sully, ‘The Undefinable in Art’, Comhill Magazine 38 (1878), 559–72.Google Scholar
  23. See also Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 247–8.Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    Stevenson, ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style’ (1885), in Essays Literary and Critical (London: Heinemann et al., 1923), 33–50, 33.Google Scholar
  25. 29.
    Stevenson, ‘Pastoral’ (1887), in Memories and Portraits (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), 90–105, 97, 102.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    Laura Otis, Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 5–6.Google Scholar
  27. On Spencer’s Lamarckism, see Robert Nye, ‘Sociology and Degeneration: the Irony of Progress’, in J. Edward Chamberlin and Sander L. Gilman, eds, Degeneration: the Dark Side of Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 49–71, 56–7.Google Scholar
  28. 33.
    Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (written between 1872 and 1884 but not published until 1903), ed. Richard Hoggart (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 158–9.Google Scholar
  29. 34.
    Stevenson, ‘Pastoral’, 103–4. The phrase ‘Probably Arboreal’ was a favourite of Stevenson’s, and also occurs several times in ‘The Manse’. It originated with Darwin, who observed, ‘[w]e thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits’: Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), 2nd edn (1874; London: Folio Society, 1990), 533.Google Scholar
  30. 36.
    Stevenson, ‘The Manse’ (1887), in Memories and Portraits (London: Chatto and Windus, 1904), 106–19, 112, 114.Google Scholar
  31. 38.
    Samuel Butler, Life and Habit (London: Trübner, 1878), 249.Google Scholar
  32. 41.
    Helen Small, ‘The Unquiet Limit: Old Age and Memory in Victorian Narrative’, in Matthew Campbell, Jacqueline M. Labbé, and Sally Shuttleworth eds, Memory and Memorials 1789–1914: Literary and Cultural Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2000), 60–79, 67–8.Google Scholar
  33. 46.
    Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), 2nd edn, 2 vols (1875; Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 2: 36.Google Scholar
  34. 47.
    Stevenson, ‘Popular Authors’ (1888), in Essays Literary and Critical (London: Heinemann et al., 1923), 20–32, 31, 21.Google Scholar
  35. 48.
    Stevenson to Haggard, July to August 1891, in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehew, 8 vols (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1994–95), 7: 145 (hereafter, Letters); Stevenson to Edward Burlingame, November 1891, Letters, 7: 189. The Saga Library was translated by William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon.Google Scholar
  36. 49.
    Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 175–243, 181; Wilde, ‘Critic’, 351.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    See for instance Andrew Lang,‘“Kalevala”: Or, the Finnish National Epic’, in Custom and Myth (London: Longmans, Green, 1884), 156–79.Google Scholar
  38. Stevenson, review of James Grant Wilson, The Poets and Poetry of Scotland, from the Earliest to the Present Time, vol. 1, Academy 9 (1876), 138–9, 139.Google Scholar
  39. 53.
    Penny Fielding, Writing and Orality: Nationality, Culture, and Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 56.
    Stevenson, ‘Talk and Talkers: A Sequel’, Comhill Magazine 46 (1882), 151–8, 151.Google Scholar
  41. 58.
    Nicholas Daly, Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle: Popular Fiction and British Culture, 1880–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 22.Google Scholar
  42. 59.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ (1930), in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (London: Random House, 1995), 722–72, 752, 771.Google Scholar
  43. 60.
    Glenda Norquay, ‘Introduction’, in R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 1–25, 11.Google Scholar
  44. 61.
    Sally Shuttleworth, ‘The Psychology of Childhood in Victorian Literature and Medicine’, in Helen Small and Trudi Tate, eds, Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830–1970: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 86–101, 97.Google Scholar
  45. 62.
    E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1871), 1: 257.Google Scholar
  46. 63.
    Tylor, Culture, 1: 258. Lang echoes this association between children and’savages’ in Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, 1887), 2: 325.Google Scholar
  47. 64.
    Stevenson, ‘Child’s Play’, Comhill Magazine 38 (1878), 352–9, 356–7.Google Scholar
  48. 67.
    Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘“Rosa Quo Locorum”’ (1896), in Further Memories (London: Heinemann et al., 1923), 1–8, 1.Google Scholar
  49. 69.
    Andrew Lang, ‘At the Sign of the Ship’, Longman’s Magazine 28 (1896), 313–22, 315.Google Scholar
  50. 70.
    Tylor, Culture, 1: 284; see also James Sully, ‘Poetic Imagination and Primitive Conception’, Comhill Magazine 34 (1876), 294–306, 295, 298.Google Scholar
  51. 72.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’ (1908), in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (London: Random House, 1995), 436–43, 438.Google Scholar
  52. 75.
    Stevenson, ‘The Lantern-Bearers’ (1888), in Further Memories (London: Heinemann, 1923), 29–40, 34.Google Scholar
  53. 77.
    Grant Allen, PhysiologicalÆsthetics (London: H. S. King, 1877), 215–16, 276–7.Google Scholar
  54. 79.
    Lang, ‘At the Sign of the Ship’, Longman’s Magazine 11 (1887–88), 458–64, 458. Even before the article’s publication, Lang had already repeatedly and admiringly discussed Stevenson’s ideas about inspiration: ‘At the Sign of the Ship’, Longman’s Magazine 7 (1885–86), 439–48,441–2; ‘At the Sign of the Ship’, Longman’s Magazine 11 (1887–88), 234–40, 235.Google Scholar
  55. 80.
    Stevenson, ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (1888), in Further Memories (London: Heinemann, 1923), 41–53, 43.Google Scholar
  56. 85.
    E. S. Dallas, The Gay Science, 2 vols (London: Chapman and Hall, 1866), 1: 201.Google Scholar
  57. Jenny Bourne Taylor notes the similarity in’Obscure Recesses: Locating the Victorian Unconscious’, in J. B. Bullen, ed., Writing and Victorianism (London: Longman, 1997), 137–79, 155–6.Google Scholar
  58. 90.
    Elaine Showaiter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 105. On Stevenson’s familiarity with psychological debates about’multiplex personality’, see Chapter 4.Google Scholar
  59. 91.
    F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, 2 vols (London: Longmans and Green, 1903) 1: 14–15.Google Scholar
  60. 95.
    See J. P. Williams, ‘Psychical Research and Psychiatry in Late Victorian Britain: Trance as Ecstasy or Trance as Insanity’, in W. F. Bynum, Roy Porter, and Michael Shepherd, eds, The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, 3 vols (London: Tavistock Publications, 1985–88), 1: 233–54.Google Scholar
  61. 96.
    F. W. H. Myers, ‘Multiplex Personality’, Nineteenth Century 20 (1886), 648–66, 659.Google Scholar
  62. 97.
    Stevenson, An Inland Voyage (1878), in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and Selected Travel Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 1–120, 91–2.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Julia Reid 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Julia Reid

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations