Robert Louis Stevenson's Pacific Impressions: Photography and Travel Writing, 1888-1894.
When, in the last years of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson began writing about his experiences in the South Pacific, intervening in Samoan politics and dedicating much of his energy to a history of the 'South Seas', a number of his supporters were puzzled and concerned. This group included not only his London literary mentor, Sidney Colvin, deeply worried about the direction of Stevenson's activities, but also his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. Colvin feared that the anthropological and ethnographic project which Stevenson had engaged in would simply be descriptive and informative, while Fanny was anxious that although he had 'enchanting material' he 'was going to spoil it While these concerns had financial, aesthetic and (in Colvin's case) racial underpinnings, they nevertheless point to the challenges of understanding Stevenson's broader cultural project in these last years and how it related to his literary identity. The material that emerges from the 1890s is rich and varied: fiction, poetry, historical accounts, personal recollections, theatrical activities, travel diaries, drawing and photography. This was not only produced by Stevenson but his wife, his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, his step-daughter Isobel (Belle) and her (later divorced) husband Joseph Strong. How might all these activities be situated and contextualised? What do they offer in terms of literary and visual aesthetics and how do we position them ideologically? To what extent and in what ways can they be read as documentary sources? And how might these different perspectives be reconciled?
Carla Manfredi's book, which focuses on photography and writing from Stevenson's years in the South Pacific both engages with and embodies these challenges. This addition to Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture series contributes to growing interest in Stevenson's relationship with visual culture and to excitingly interdisciplinary explorations of the Stevenson community in Samoa. Through the work of Vanessa Smith (1998), Ann C. Colley (2004), Julia Reid (2006) and Roslyn Jolly (1009), Stevenson's positioning in the transmission of print culture in the Pacific Islands and his role as anthropologist and ethnographer have become more clearly situated in relation to nineteenth-century colonialism. Emerging from the International Stevenson Conference held in Sydney in 2013, Richard Hill's edited collection, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Great Affair: Movement, Memory and Modernity (1017) further re-situated Stevenson in an Australasian context and identified him as a key figure for tracing relationships between modernity and mobility. Hill and Colley have both contributed to renewed interest in Stevenson and visual culture: Colley through her focus on photography in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination (1004); and Hill in Robert Louis Stevenson and the Pictorial Text: A Case Study in the Victorian Illustrated Novel (2017). The success of Joseph Farrell's Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa (2017) further testifies to broader interest in this part of Stevenson's life.
Carla Manfredi's project is part of these increasingly wide-ranging approaches but is also quite specific. She focuses primarily on Stevenson's four photograph albums held at The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh, which are too fragile to be displayed. Her book also draws on Stevenson's Samoan Scrapbook, held at the Beinecke, which relates to, but does not include Joseph Strong's photographs. Other images and texts, including unpublished passages from Stevenson's Pacific diaries, are discussed but the book's main aim is to bring these photographs to a wider audience and give appropriate contexts in which to read them.
Like Peter H. Hoffenberg in Oceania and the Victorian Imagination (2016), Manfredi takes issue with Colley's more Foucauldian reading of Stevenson's photographic activities as assertions of power. Instead she presents them as complicated processes of spectacle, in which relations between photographer, camera, subject and audience become 'contested sites of encounter and cultural exchange' (p. 16). Both Hoffenberg and Manfredi take the Stevensons' photographic project seriously, locating it within a broader agenda for documenting the South Pacific. Both suggest this was not 'playing' with a camera or simply a search for illustrative material but rather a means of entering into relationships with the locals. From its opening analysis of Fanny watching Lloyd and Louis trying to take a photograph while being watched by Islanders in 'a parody of foreign curiosity' (p. 2), some of this book's most compelling passages occur when the author teases out the dynamics and implications of a photographic 'moment: Chapter 5 offers a particularly good example of this in its discussion of a photograph of Islanders on board ship taken during the voyage of the Janet Nicoll. In Chapter 4, 'Attempting to start a dance in open air, which depicts the figure of Lloyd or Joe trying to organise a group of dancers in re-enacting the kaunikai before an audience which watches dancers, organiser and another photographer, is suggestively read in terms of the complicated confluence of gazes and relationships between supposedly central and marginal figures.
As Manfredi acknowledges, the photographs themselves raise significant challenges about the ways in which the photographic activities of Stevenson, Joe Strong, Lloyd Osbourne and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson might be understood. In its attempts to contextualise this material while maintaining awareness of its ideological, aesthetic, affective but also 'indexical' functions, the book takes a particular series of photographs, related to specific places or voyages, as the starting point for each chapter. Seeking to present a full historical context for each of these disparate areas, the book can at times appear over-freighted with the information necessary for each reading and with references to it. The archival research is impressive but again challenging to integrate; in the attempt to catalogue resources, there are in-text references, footnotes, and archival sources, primary texts and secondary sources cited at the end of every chapter. The diversity of approach in each chapter --cannibal performance; Hawaiian nationalism; atoll landscape; trade and movement of Islanders; relationship between the Samoans and indentured Melanesian labourers--means that a different series of debates over the historical background have to be set out before the readings can be developed. This can leave intriguing readings--around, for example, the conflation of Gothic haunting and ethnically-inflected labour disputes around Vailima--a little underdeveloped. For the reader, assimilating all the necessary detail around each photograph or piece of text can be a little overwhelming and at the expense of an over-arching narrative.
This book nevertheless makes a strong case for the seriousness of the photographic endeavours of the Stevenson family and for understanding them as a collaborative project. More importantly it offers a fresh perspective on the dynamics and ideological possibilities of colonial photography. It challenges and complicates the dominance of the intruding photographer and instead suggests more sophisticated plays of power. It also gives considerable historical grounding to a rich range of photographs. Perhaps inevitably the quality of reproduction poses its own challenges. But, as Belle Strong wrote at the time to Charles Warren Stoddard, 'they are very weak and faint but you may find them interesting' (Huntington, MS 37991, cited p. 10).
Liverpool John Moores University
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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