From Ed­in­burgh to the South Seas

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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

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