Why read sixteen books by Robert Louis Stevenson? I ask this, because I have done so, more or less in the last six months. Are there sixteen books worth reading?
No, not really. I have read too much. Later this year I’ll do a Stevenson omnibus and sort him out a bit. Preview: the second-best thing he ever wrote is buried in one of those books that is not (otherwise) worth reading.
If I had not read too many Stevenson books, I would never have gotten near The Ebb-Tide (1894), a short novel about Englishmen on the bum (or “on the beach”) in colonial Polynesia that turns out to be intelligent, exciting, complex, intense, and on like that. It’s excellent, even aside from its most shocking feature.
The three layabouts luck into a ship. The cargo turns out to be a little complicated. They stumble upon an unknown atoll, full of pearls, that is ruled by Kurtz. You know, Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, which was published five years later.
Attwater is not exactly Kurtz, obviously. He is openly religious (“a fatalist”), a missionary turned pearl-fisher. He is not dying, although his employees or slaves are, from smallpox. His empire is a lot smaller than Kurtz’s swath of the Congo jungle. But the similarities are obvious – the larger than life tyrant who governs through some combination of magnetism and violence. As with “The Beach at Falesá,” The Ebb-Tide shares some similarities of voice with Conrad, even if Stevenson’s purpose is not so close to Conrad.
I don’t want to put too much on the Conrad connection, although I have no doubt that Conrad knew Stevenson’s Polynesian stories, including this one (and please compare Stevenson’s anarchist bomber in The Dynamiter (1885) with The Secret Agent (1907)), it hardly matters. Petty tyrants like Kurtz and Attwater and “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888) presumably established their little fiefs all over the colonial world, and the symbolic and narrative benefits of exaggerating their power would have been obvious to any decent writer. While reading, I had to actively ignore the parallels, because The Ebb-Tide, although hardly as powerful or thematically rich as Heart of Darkness, is excellent in its own right. A sample, a first glimpse of Attwater’s eerie, uninhabited empire:
The place had the indescribable but unmistakable appearance of being in commission; yet there breathed from it a sense of desertion that was almost poignant, no human figure was to be observed going to and fro about the houses, and there was no sound of human industry or enjoyment. Only, on the top of the beach and hard by the flagstaff, a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow was to be seen beckoning with uplifted arm. The second glance identified her as a piece of naval sculpture, the figure-head of a ship that had long hovered and plunged into so many running billows, and was now brought ashore to be the ensign and presiding genius of that empty town. (70)
Besides some clear symbolic functioning, that figure-head is also a nod by Stevenson to his difficulty creating women characters. The Ebb-Tide is another example of his specialty, the novel without women.
I’ve been cheating a bit. The Ebb-Tide was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson, but by “Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne,” a complication I want to touch on tomorrow.
I read the Edinburgh University Press edition of the novel, eds. Peter Hinchcliffe and Catherine Kerrigan, 1995. The title of this post is the first sentence of the novel.