Julia Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle

Julia Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). 241pp. £18.99 pb. ISBN: 978-0-230-23032-3.

Julia Reid’s Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle has this year been published in paperback, no doubt partly as a result of very favourable reviews when it first appeared in 2006. We should be glad that it has: its affordability, and therefore accessibility, will give it new readers, and these readers will be exposed to an excellent example of the fine work that can be achieved by literature and science scholars. It is on the contribution of Reid’s work to literature and science scholarship that this review will focus. There have already been several reviews which have concentrated on its significance generally and its work on Robert Louis Stevenson more specifically.

For BSLS members and other readers who are not familiar with the book’s contents and remit, Reid sets out to investigate Stevenson’s contribution to ‘evolutionist thought’ (5) across a range of his fictions, romances, essays, and short works. In particular, Reid is interested in Stevenson’s fascination with the primitive: in the individual human subject, the nations of Britain, and foreign cultures. The book is organised into three parts. The first focuses on romance and evolutionary psychology, with an emphasis on both genre and Stevenson’s adventure narratives. The second deals with degeneration, specifically at the fin de siècle and in Stevenson’s gothic fiction. The third looks closely at anthropology, situating Stevenson’s Scottish historical fiction as well as his South Sea tales in this context. For Reid, Stevenson’s engagement with evolutionary ideas reveals that ‘rather than simply reflecting scientific theories, his writings resist confident assumptions about evolutionary progress’. Instead they ‘expose the divergent, often conflicting, nature of evolutionist thought and conduct a radical revaluation of contemporary notions of primitive life’ (176).

In the introduction which precedes the three parts of the book, Reid argues that her own methodological approach to literature and science consciously disrupts any ‘two cultures’ assumptions. Stevenson’s fictions (and non-fictions) are not passive recipients of scientific knowledge in classic diffusionist terms but rather active participant narratives in the construction of evolutionary knowledge. For Reid, Stevenson and the various scientific figures whose works persist as inter-texts for his are involved in a series of ‘transactions’ (6) where knowledge is created through being shared, debated and re-imagined in new contexts. At times the influence of Gillian Beer’s approach is clearly evident, as when Reid discusses Stevenson’s scientific discourse, or the influence of his fictionalising imagination on scientific figures and their work. Certainly, as the introduction makes plain, Reid views Stevenson’s relationship with science as a conscious and dynamic process of resistance, affirmation and influence in both directions.

The first of the three parts exemplifies this articulation of an interwoven, interrogated knowledge through an examination of the work of evolutionary psychologists and Stevenson’s romance writings. This works well in the first chapter, which deals with the interchange of ideas of the primitive in Stevenson’s essays and the scientific writing of Sully, Myers and Lang. This is not carried through to the same extent in Stevenson’s adventure fiction (his other romance narratives) where the fictional text rather dominates the discussion. Despite an alertness to the work of evolutionary psychology uncovered in the earlier chapter the science is largely left behind here, giving the impression of a chapter that is more traditionally a close-reading with primitivism as its context.

The second part – focussed on degeneration – begins with a wonderfully evocative letter from Stevenson to August Rodin, playfully dealing with Stevenson’s own conception of his split personality and the brutish ‘other’ that dogs his more ‘real’ self. Reid uses this letter to open a series of discussions on Stevenson’s gothic fiction as well as his interest in fin de siècle nervous disorders. While, like the previous part, the scientific material is loaded into the first of two chapters, here it works rather better. This is due in part to Reid’s focus on Stevenson’s use of ‘the language of evolutionist psychiatry’ (55): where the shape of the chapters – revealing the specific language of science followed by a detailed discussion of fictional articulations of that language – seems more appropriate to the nature of the argument.

The third and final part turns its attention to anthropology. This is the most successful section of the book, hugely original in both conception and execution, and the most confident of its purpose. Here, Reid carefully reveals Stevenson’s involvement in the milieu out of which much classical anthropology emerged: the Scottish intellectual groups centred around McLennan and Robertson Smith (as well as Lang and Frazer). Uncovering Stevenson’s fascination with both this home-grown anthropology and the nature of Scottish culture, Reid argues that Stevenson turned his anthropological eye on Scotland to interrogate the ‘foreigner at home’ (the title of the first of two chapters in this part). This work, and the chapter on the South Seas which follows, are especially interesting for what they say about the roles of local science in local contexts. Additionally, however, Reid makes an implicit claim – the most radical of the book – for Stevenson’s work almost as anthropology: as fiction that ‘sheds light on the discipline at a pivotal stage in its development, pointing forward intriguingly to the twentieth century’s more relativist anthropology’ (173).

In such arguments Reid certainly does avoid constructing Stevenson’s work as a reflection of science and successfully argues for fiction and science’s ‘creative dialogue’ (176), which in this instance ‘amounted to a collective endeavour to understand humankind’s evolutionary heritage’ (176). With recent histories of science stressing in new ways the engagement of scientific writers with literary genre and fictional narrative categories, Reid’s work reminds us that there can also be scientific objectivity in fiction, however problematic that sense of the objective might be.

Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan