Exile as Identity: Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘Life Geography’

In the second of an ongoing series of posts, Harriet Gordon, a first-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, discusses the early steps of 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).

During the past month and a half, I have been busy trawling through the first two volumes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s collected letters. This comprehensive edition, painstakingly drawn together by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, will prove invaluable to my project, and, it is becoming increasingly clear, will be more important to my primary research than any of Stevenson’s published literary works. The two volumes in question span 25 years, from Stevenson’s earliest recovered letters, dictated to his mother at the age of three, which, admittedly, I glanced over only rather fleetingly, up the point he embarks on a steamship to America, in pursuit of his wife-to-be Fanny Osbourne. These letters track the course of Stevenson’s early life and burgeoning career as an author, moving from an enthusiastic but erratic young writer balancing an engineering degree and his father’s disapproval with a burning desire to entire the literary profession, to the author of three well-reviewed (if not financially successful) books, well established within the literary milieu of London.

As I begin to review my notes from these letters, one point that particularly stands out is how much Stevenson’s career, even in its earliest stages, is defined by movement and travel. It is one particularly fateful journey south that precipitates the shift from aspirant amateur to emerging professional: when he meets Frances Sitwell and, subsequently, Sidney Colvin, at Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk. I will not elaborate here on the influence that Colvin had on the early stages of Stevenson’s career (a topic deserving of a post in its own right), but needless to say, without the Cambridge professor’s literary connections, advice and encouragement, the course of the young man’s life could have been dramatically different. It was at Cockfield that Stevenson, with the enthusiastic support of Sitwell and Colvin, conceived of his first published essay, ‘Roads’. With his next essay ‘Ordered South’, describing his ‘exile’ to the Riviera town of Menton on grounds of his health, as well as his first book An Inland Voyage, Stevenson’s early publications continue to be tied up with his own movements.

cockfield-rectory

Cockfield Rectory

In this project, as well as examining the impact of Stevenson’s global peregrinations on his literary productions, I will be considering the relationship between geographical localities and the author’s subjectivity, tracing what David Lambert and Alan Lester call his ‘life geography’. Here, a sense of the spatial is evoked ‘not simply as the location of, or backdrop to, a life, […] but rather as co-constitutive with selfhood and identity’. [1] As Lester explains:

tracking the life geography of any individual means appreciating the relationships between that individual’s continually reconstituted subjectivity, the places in which s/he dwelt, and the spaces through which s/he moved. [2]

With these early milestones in Stevenson’s career so dependent on his movement away from Edinburgh, the formation of his new identity as a professional author is inevitably disassociated with his home town. Many critics and biographers have recognised the ambivalence Stevenson displays towards Scotland: on the one hand retaining a fierce identification with the country throughout his life, while on the other often disparaging it. After his whirlwind summer in Cockfield, it is hardly surprising that the two months following it in Edinburgh seem to Stevenson ‘two long ugly years’. Yet neither does he feel he belongs in London. It is during his stay at Cockfield that he writes to his mother, expressing his ‘astonishment […] at the hopeless gulph that there is between England and Scotland, and English and Scotch’, claiming to feel ‘as strange and outlandish here, as [he does] in France or Germany’.

Edinburgh holds for Stevenson his past rather than his literary future; yet he does not feel entirely at home in the literary environment of London: Stevenson’s new identity as an author is, then, curiously displaced. There are, of course, various practical reasons for the many journeys he makes over his career, including health, relationships and professional motives. Yet perhaps there is also a sense of displacement that spurs his perpetual movement over the first five years of his career; perhaps the significance of geographical movement in the formation of his early literary identity prepared Stevenson for a life as an itinerant author.


[1] Lambert and Lester, Colonial Lives, p. 23.

[2] Lester, ‘Relational Space and Life Geographies’, p. 30.

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One comment

  1. Looking froward to reading more of your posts Harriet. May I ask who’s in the photo at the top of the post and where taken?

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