Stevenson, the Savile Club and its Social Network

In the fifth 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 June 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson was elected as a member of the Savile Club, a prestigious gentleman’s club that welcomed promising young authors, as well as many members already firmly established in the London literary circle. Among these were Sidney Colvin (who proposed Stevenson’s election) and Andrew Lang, as well as editors like Leslie Stephen, John Morely and Charles Appleton. His acceptance into the Savile Club was the apex of the first few years of Stevenson’s literary career, immersing him in a literary milieu that presented new and exciting opportunities.As well as the useful attributes of the individual members, one of the greatest benefits of the social network offered by the Savile Club is its density. As Charles Kadushin explains, ‘density is defined as the number of direct actual connections divided by the number of possible direct connections in a network’. In other words, the more connections there are linking the agents to each other, the denser the network. The diagram below shows a brief snapshot I have been preparing of Stevenson’s network in the Savile Club (this diagram is based on information extracted from a selection of Stevenson’s letters: more agents and connections could undoubtedly be added from further source material). Even though this information is taken solely from Stevenson’s letters, there is evidence of all the agents connecting not only to Stevenson, but to each other in different variations, resulting in a high-density network. As Kadushin explains:

Density facilitates the transmission of ideas, rumors, and diseases. Other things being equal, the greater density the more likely is a network to be considered a cohesive   community, a source of social support, and an effective transmitter.

A small snapshot of Stevenson's social network at the Savile

A small snapshot of Stevenson’s social network at the Savile

Even within this small selection of agents, the density of the Savile Club’s network is clear, testifying to its usefulness in aiding the progression of members’ careers, as well as providing a supportive environment in the heart of the London literary world. Being part of such a community was particularly important for Stevenson at this early stage of his career. In the 1870s, before Treasure Island and Jekyll & Hyde made him a commercial success, Stevenson was operating within, as Bourdieu terms it, ‘the field of restricted production’, a ‘system producing cultural goods […] objectively destined for a public of producers of cultural goods’:

In contrast to the field of large-scale cultural production, which submits to the laws of competition for the conquest of the largest possible market, the field of restricted production tends to develop its own criteria for the evaluation of its products, thus   achieving the truly cultural recognition accorded by the peer group whose members are both privileged clients and competitors.

Stevenson’s status as an author was not being defined in this period by the number of copies sold, but through a process of ‘co-optation, understood as the circular relations of reciprocal recognition among peers’.

The Savile Club is still in operation today - it claims that 'artists' still form the backbone of its membership

The Savile Club is still in operation today – it claims that ‘artists’ still form the backbone of its membership

Indeed, the ‘prodigious row’ (as Stevenson’s put it) of the critics over his first book, An Inland Voyage, came in no small part from his well-placed friends and acquaintances. One of the book’s most emphatically positive reviews appeared in the periodical, London; although unsigned, many scholars have suggested it was most likely written by Henley, who edited the publication at the time. The review asserts that ‘An Inland Voyage is a book among ten thousand’, written by an author who dares ‘to be as much of a sensualist as an exquisite intellect will let him’. Colvin, in his anonymous review in the Athenaeum, is more restrained, less hyperbolic. Nevertheless, in the guise of a potentially impartial critic he expresses great hope for Stevenson’s future, agreeing ‘that he has both gifts and promise, and one inestimable gift in especial—charm’. Yet it is the review from P. G. Hamerton, founder of The Portfolio, that offers the most interesting example of co-optation at work. Writing in The Academy, Hamerton appeared equally inclined towards hyperbole, asking:

I wonder how many people there are in England who know that Robert Louis Stevenson is, in his own way […], one of the most perfect writers living, one of the very few who may yet do something that will become classical?

Following a visit to Hamerton’s home in France, Stevenson told his mother that the literary man would ‘send [him] his cuts and cuffs in private, after having liberally administered his kisses coram public’. Here is an acknowledgment of the significance of peer recognition in the British literary circle at this time: Hamerton reserved his critique of the young author’s first book for a private audience, while his public commendation contributed to determining the work’s literary value.

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4 comments

  1. A very interesting post on the importance of the Savile Club in Stevenson’s career. I like the ideas of dense network and of restricted production. Your diagram does give one a good idea of the kind of community the Savile Club was (and its rules also encouraged members to speak to each other too). (There’s a good article on Stevenson and the Savile by R-L Abrahamson in the Journal of Stevenson Studies 8 (2011).) One occasion when the Club was the place where Stevenson was co-opted for some writing was in November 1878: was living in the Club because he didn’t want to be subpoena-ed in a divorce case involving Katherine De Mattos (Letters 2: 286, 289) and fellow-member Charles Appleton must have met him there after Bough’s death on 19 November and asked him to write the obituary in the Academy. Earlier, we get an idea of informal contacts: in June 1874 fellow-member Andrew Lang passed on a message: ‘Appleton wanted to know if you were likely to care to write in the A[cademy].’ (DeMoor, Dear Stevenson, 34).

    1. Thanks for your comment Richard, and thanks for pointing out that specific occasion – interesting!

  2. Another great article, Harriet, and I’m really impressed with what the network graph is looking like. It already suggests lots of interesting dynamics regarding Stevenson’s circle, and I’m really looking forward to see how it shapes up when you start extending the timeline and the layers of agents. Keep up the good work and see you soon!

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