‘[T]he clans disarmed, the chiefs deposed’: Stevenson in the South Seas

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


Stevenson’s life in the South Seas, from 1888 until his death in 1894, exerted a powerful fascination for the late-Victorian literary public (see Figure 6.1). His compulsive writing of Scottish historical novels during these years inspired a romantic legend of the exile yearning for his native homeland. By contrast, his Polynesian fiction, travel writing, and letters were condemned for their perceived realism and grimily contemporary concerns. As Henry James judged, ‘[f]or the absent and vanished Scotland he has the image … The Pacific… made him “descriptively” serious and even rather dry … and this left the field abundantly clear for the Border, the Great North Road and the eighteenth century’.1 Oscar Wilde echoed this privileging of ‘romance’ over realism. ‘I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer’, he wrote, noting sardonically that ‘[i]n Gower Street Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa he wrote letters to The Times about Germans’.2 By the late twentieth century, new critical and political values had overturned this hierarchy. Commentators now deprecate his Scottish fiction for its perceived nostalgia (in Christopher Harvie’s words, ‘why didn’t Stevenson tackle the social realities of Scotland of his own day?’), while celebrating his Pacific writings for their visionary concern with a multicultural world.3


Indigenous Culture Cultural Plurality Racial Hierarchy Folk Culture Oral Culture 
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© Julia Reid 2006

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  • Julia Reid

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