From Edinburgh to the South Seas
metaphorical illness Stevenson had had since his youth. His success was mixed: four years later, Clarke would officiate at his funeral. But, as Joseph Farrell notes in this illuminating study of Stevenson’s last years, in that time he made a profound impression on Samoa’s inhabitants, who mourned him as “Tusitala” – “writer of tales”.
Stevenson, author of Treasure Island (1883), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886), was perhaps the most admirably un-Victorian of all the great Victorian writers. He believed there were no such thing as foreign lands, only foreign travellers. When he came to Samoa, he elected it to be “my home while I live and my grave when I am dead”.
Dying had been on his mind since childhood. His sickness, possibly tuberculosis, cannot have been eased by a fierce love of tobacco, which he laid aside only “for kissing and conversation”. But although he told a friend that he went to Samoa “only to die… you will see it is a fair place for the purpose,” he had other motives.
A decade earlier, in praise of the idea of “el Dorado”, he had written: “There is always a new horizon for onward-looking men, and though we dwell on a small planet, immersed in petty business and not enduring beyond a brief period of years, we are so constituted that our hopes are [and should be] inaccessible, like stars”. Novelty obsessed him, and a new adventure was as irresistible as a new literary project; by the time of his death, Stevenson had begun some 393 works, only 27 of which are considered “finished”.
Stevenson noted bitterly how ill-health could prevent one from taking in beauty: it was like seeing “through a veil” or touching things “with muffled hands”. The intense pleasure he found on Samoa must have come as a joyful surprise: its landscape “much green and peaceful”, its people “among God’s best – or at least God’s sweetest works”. Here, the glorious utopian daydreams of his early essays are made flesh: “good people laughing, drinking and making love as they did before the Flood or the French Revolution”.
Stevenson got closer to the native people than any of the established white colony, save the more active missionaries, cared to come. The fascination seems to have been mutual. As Stevenson related in a letter to Arthur Conan Doyle, the Samoan translation of his story “The Bottle Imp” – about a glass-bound spirit that grants wishes – was taken as gospel by some local readers. Stevenson could quite understand why: they knew he kept a steel safe in his villa on the island of Upolu, where the imp was presumed to reside; and although he seemed extremely wealthy, no-one had ever seen him do any work of an obviously practical value.
That villa, where Stevenson lived with his wife Fanny, seemed to one pompous European visitor as squalid “as a railroad navvy’s board hut”. Its grand staircase, though, was the first of its sort on Upolu. When Fanny asked one of the native servants to take a pail of water upstairs, he took the
What drove the dying Robert Louis Stevenson to sail 10,000 miles to Samoa, asks Robert Leigh-Pemberton