‘Like continuing another man’s book’: Transitory Identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Early Writing

In the fourth 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).

In my most recent post on this blog I explored Robert Louis Stevenson’s complex relationship with his mentor and literary advisor Sidney Colvin, focusing on the impact he had on the young author’s early career. Although only five years Stevenson’s senior, Colvin was already well established within the literary environment of London when the two men met, and put his contacts and connections at Stevenson’s disposal. Yet it was not simply literary contacts that Colvin supplied: he also offered his encouragement, enthusiasm, and, at times, stern expectations at this crucial moment of the author’s life. Stevenson acknowledges the impact of these less quantifiable acts of assistance, even claiming that Colvin, along with Frances Sitwell, has the ability to alter his own personality. Shortly after his stay at Cockfield Rectory and his first meeting with Colvin, Stevenson writes to Sitwell from Edinburgh that

the stimulus of your approval and Colvin’s has died a good deal off, and I find myself face to face with the weak, inefficacious personality that I knew before (Letters 1, 307)

In this project I will be following the principles of the ‘new biography’, or, as James Clifford terms it, ‘ethnobiography’, which aims to dispel the ‘myth of personal coherence’. Clifford states that ‘the nearer the background can be brought to the lived surface, the better’, as this allows one to portray ‘a more open, less complete, person, and thus to create a less centred biography’. Rather than tracking an individual (who has a fixed and coherent identity) over time, he advocates tracing the ‘narrative of transindividual occasions’ that make up a life, so that ‘individuals becomes meeting points for influences, no longer static but mobile, effusive, decentred, a process not a thing.’ With Stevenson, this objective is easier than with most. In both his letters and his literary productions, in this early stage of his career at least, Stevenson continually acknowledges his shifting and unstable identity, as it is influenced by people and places.

As demonstrated in his letter to Frances Sitwell after leaving Cockfield (above), Stevenson recognises the impact that she and Colvin had on his subjectivity. Upon returning home and preparing to spend the winter back in Edinburgh, he despairs that this positive influence is waning. It is not simply the absence of his new companions that he suggests affects his identity, but his locality as well. He dreams ‘of going south […] to where [his] summer dwells’, in order to alter ‘the dyspeptic, mooning, useless brute that is growing gradually here in the north into the usurped personality of Louis Stevenson’. When he gets his wish and is ‘ordered south’ to convalesce in Menton, he again reflects on the change to his subjectivity that time and travel affects:

I have begun my ‘Walt Whitman’ again seriously; Many winds have blown since I last laid it down, when sickness took me in Edinburgh. It seems almost like an ill considered jest to take up these old sentences, written by so different a person under circumstances so different […]; It is like continuing another man’s book

As this trip to France comes to an end he goes further, declaring ‘it was not I’ that wrote ‘Roads’; it ‘was conceived and written when my life was in flower’, implying that his current self constitutes an entirely different identity from one nine months earlier.


Frontispiece by Walter Crane of the first edition of An Inland Voyage (1878)

Of course, as many people would suggest, such statements can be read as the self-indulgent musings of a young man who is yet to experience much of life or the world. Yet they are interesting when considered in the context of Stevenson’s fledgling career, at this point entirely unstable and unpredictable. As discussed in previous posts, he is enormously reliant on Colvin in the early stages, and is self-conscious and uncertain about his role as an author. As well as the vast amount of evidence in his letters, this self-consciousness is aptly demonstrated in his first published book, An Inland Voyage. As he introduces himself in the preface, Stevenson appears overly and uncomfortably conscious of his role as author, writing:

To equip so small a book with a preface is, I am half afraid, to sin against proportion. But a preface is more than an author can resist, for it is the reward of his labour.

He goes on to describe his fear that nobody beyond himself will ever read the book, confessing that this preface ‘is no more than an advertisement for readers’. Whilst the extreme self-consciousness of the preface does not quite continue into the body of the text, Stevenson’s authorial presence remains weak and unstable. The narrator, regularly revealed to be Stevenson himself, is referred to in the first and third person interchangeably, often simply named ‘The Arethusa’, after his canoe. Stevenson shrinks from using the confident first-person singular continuously, but at times it appears he cannot resist the ‘I’ pronoun. In this passage the narrator describes how his nationality is often mistaken:

He is a born British subject, yet has never succeeded in persuading a single official of his nationality. He flatters himself he is indifferent honest; yet he is rarely known for anything better than a spy […]. For the life of me I cannot understand it. I, too, have been knolled to church and sat at good men’s feasts, but I bear no mark of it. I am as strange as a Jack Indian to their official spectacles. I might come from any part of the globe, it seems, except from where I do.

The ambiguity of his nationality is mirrored in the syntax: the narrator switches between first and third person within the space of a paragraph, Stevenson’s description of his ambiguous national identity here in fact revealing his self-conscious and unstable sense of himself as an author.


  1. Interesting post written in an admirably clear style. You might want to look at ‘Forest Notes’ (1876), where Stevenson seems to be experimenting (perhaps for the first time) with various kinds of pronoun focus (to invent a term).

    I agree that such texts could well reflect in an interesting way on the author’s thoughts about the changeable identity/personality; at the same time, they also show an interest in artistic experimentation. Stevenson is interested in creating form out of elements of meaning, as in ‘He, I say—I cannot say, I’: which reveals something about Dr Jekyll and at the same time is a fascinating repetitive formula. He’s also interested in general in writing texts of frequently changing viewpoint. (And, of course, this too can reflect thoughts about himself and about human perception and memory in general.)

    Switching pronouns is connected with the polysemy of pronouns—’you’, for example can have many different meanings/uses and these can subtly change in the same text (you can see this in ‘Forest Notes’).

    But I fear my style is not as clear as yours—I hope I’m not unnecessarily confusing matters.

  2. Very clear and very interesting, thank you! I will certainly look at ‘Forest Notes’, as it isn’t one of the early essays I have focused on. I love your point about creating form out of meaning, as in the Jekyll and Hyde quote, and will be keeping an eye out for other such examples from now on.

    Thanks again!

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