‘At Home in the World’: Stevenson as a global author

In the first of an ongoing series of posts, Harriet Gordon, a first-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, introduces her project: a book historical study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s global literary networks. Harriet’s project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP).

In 1876, Robert Louis Stevenson set out on a canoeing trip through France and Belgium, intending to make the holiday pay by turning it into ‘a jolly book of gossip’. And it did pay, albeit not a lot: An Inland Voyage (1878), the text to come out of the journey and to be Stevenson’s first published book, earned him little over £20 at the time. This trip did, however, begin a 20-year career filled with travel and writing (and travel writing), during which Stevenson produced international bestsellers and gained widespread acclaim, whilst traversing three continents and two hemispheres. He was in the Pacific when he died at the age of 44, and was buried in a hilltop grave above his island home in Samoa.

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Postcard: ‘Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port’ (c. 1903). State Library of Victoria.

In choosing a PhD topic centred on the global peregrinations of this great author, I have combined two of my passions: travel and Victorian literature. During his life Stevenson moved through continental Europe, North America and the Pacific, all the time publishing in Britain (and later the US). While not quite as exciting as visiting these places myself (although who knows where the research might lead me …), following Stevenson’s career as he moves across the world, in a time period that I find fascinating, promises to be the perfect project to preoccupy me for the next three years. The title of my thesis is ‘“At Home in the World”: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Global Literary Networks’, and it will aim to examine how Stevenson’s travels, the varied locations from which he wrote, and the networks that enabled him to publish from such distances, influenced his textual productions. Taking a book historical approach, the widest objective of the project is to reconsider late Victorian authorship in this global context. It will make extensive use of Stevenson’s collected correspondence, as well as publishing records and early editions or manuscripts.

Imperial Map 1886

Walter Crane, Map of the World (1886). Boston Public Library.

In addition to refamiliarising myself with Stevenson’s biography and discovering what material is available, I have spent most of the first few months of the PhD working on the methodology. The concept of networks or webs is central to my project, and not simply the ‘literary networks’ of the title. In considering Stevenson’s international career, I am not taking the nation–state as my analytical point of departure. In other words, I am not examining his literary productions simply against a backdrop of British (or any other country’s) print culture in the late nineteenth century. I am, instead, interested in the connections between these countries and continents, in the networks that allowed Stevenson to publish in Britain from the other side of world in an age without email or high-speed travel, where a letter could take seven weeks to get from Samoa to London. Through this focus on connections, I will apply a networked conception of imperial space and international relations to this study, thereby aiming to displace the spatial binaries of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ that can perpetuate notions of racial or cultural superiority.

As well as applying this conception of global space as a web of networks, I will also be engaging with theoretical advances in geography that define place in terms of networks. Here, essentialist, bounded notions of place are rejected; places (continents, countries, or cities) are instead considered to be made up of various networks and connections, of ‘constellations of multiple trajectories’. As David Lambert and Alan Lester explain, ‘the differences between places are the result of these trajectories intersecting in varied ways across the surface of the Earth’, producing combinations ‘that are unique and thus give “character” to each place’. Such an understanding of place can be useful when considering the relationship between geographical locations and individual subjectivity, as it is in the way we interact with these ‘trajectories’ that place can be said to change a person. As this project traces Stevenson’s global peregrinations, it will not only examine the relationship between place and his subjectivity, but consider the affect his geographical movements had on his literary output, on his social and professional relationships, and on the processes through which his texts reached publication.

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4 comments

  1. Interesting topic.
    The vast space of movement in The Master of Ballantrae and ‘The Bottle Imp’ should show Stevenson’s own interest in this kind of network.
    I seem to remember I calculated the post took 4 weeks from Samoa to London and arrived once a month (there are lots of references in the letters to ‘mail day’), which meant that things like corrected proofs would take 3 months to be sent, new proofs prepared, and then for these to arrive back in Samoa—Stevensn referred to the ‘three month-answer-and-reply business’ (Letters 7, 441)

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes I agree – I’ve looked a little at travel and space in The Wrecker (where the narrative moves between three continents), and am looking forward to reading others more closely with this in mind.
      That’s really interesting about the proofs and is definitely something I’ll be looking into in detail when I reach the Pacific period of his career – the impact on his textual productions from such delayed proofs and letters.

  2. This sounds like a great project. I’ve just completing an article myself on the transatlantic and Samoan complications of the last novels, drawing on the Scribner’s archive at Princeton (a great resource) and my works the EUP Collected Works edition of *St Ives*. Like you I’m finding the challenge is to conceptualise and theorise both the practical and the literary implications of it all. Will be interested in hearing how your ideas develop.

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