Linda Dryden (Edinburgh Napier University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Locating Robert Louis Stevenson: Reputation, Genre and Influence’

Within the canon of English Literature Robert Louis Stevenson’s position has oscillated between celebrated man of letters and popular writer of boys’ adventure fiction. This paper will situate Stevenson in patterns of genre and influence that challenge his status as a popular writer of boys’ adventure fiction, and demonstrate his wider appeal and considerable literary power and influence.

Much of Stevenson’s fiction arises out of a Scottish romantic tradition. However, tales such as Jekyll and Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae (1889), “The Body Snatcher” (1884), “Olalla” (1887), and “Markheim” (1885) also emerge from the gothic tradition of duality and the macabre, bringing to mind Hoffmann, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Treasure Island falls within boys’ adventure romances, a tradition established by James Fenimore Cooper, Captain Marryat, R. M. Ballantyne, W. H. G. Kingston and G. A. Henty, and in turn helped generate the imperial romances of H. Rider Haggard, like King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887).

Stevenson’s critical delimitation within imperial romance arises in part from his friends’ desire to preserve a more sanitized reputation for the author, and ignores the darker side of his fiction. Since the 1990s, scholars have recognized the traditions from which this work emerged and now explore the reasons for his enduring popularity and influence. For example, Jekyll and Hyde has become part of our cultural heritage and its presence is felt in adaptations for film and television, and in references in newspapers and magazines. Its influence on detective fiction and on science fiction narratives of mad scientists, experiments gone wrong, and dreadful transformations of the human body is undeniable.

It was ever thus with Stevenson: his writing always moved effortlessly between genres and narrative modes, often involving more than one genre. Peter Keating explains why: ‘The attractiveness of Stevenson rested on his possession of two highly-developed qualities which are rarely found together. He was an Aesthete and a writer of exciting stories. In an age which was becoming obsessed with the need to separate Art from Entertainment, Stevenson spoke and acted on behalf of both’ (The Haunted Study, p. 347). Indeed, Stevenson combined art and entertainment to dramatic effect; so much so that his influence over subsequent Gothic and detective fictions remains undiminished, and his contribution to the tropes of science fiction endures to this day. The discussion that follows, therefore, will locate Stevenson’s reputation within genre and influence, and suggest ways to demonstrate for students his role in the past and present of genre fiction.

Categorized as Abstracts

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To contact the conference organisers:

Scott Hames
Tel:+44 (0)1786 466205

Adrian Hunter
Tel:+44(0)1786 467507


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