The Oxford History of the Novel in English, or It’s OK to Like Reading Stevenson
A graduate student stopped me in the hall the other day to say she’d recently been reading Stevenson. Her pleasure was great, her surprise even greater. A budding scholar of sixteenth-century poetry, she had read Treasure Island as a child but nothing since. She was delighted to discover that Stevenson was, as she put it, “a real writer.” Not entirely trusting her own response, however, she typed “Is it OK to like reading Robert Louis Stevenson?” into Google. (After all, one doesn’t want to be caught approving of writers one’s peers and mentors disparage.) The results evidently reassured her.
Stevenson’s long academic rehabilitation took a couple of big steps forward this year with the appearance of The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940, the first of the twelve projected volumes of The Oxford History of the Novel in English to be published. Edited by Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek, and checking in at 36 chapters and just over 600 pages, The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel maps with admirable thoroughness the terrain of the novel during a period of often exhilarating transformation. Among the volume’s welcome features is its commitment to inclusivity. Borders are widened to take in what earlier critics exiled as subliterary, while internal boundaries are kept permeable. The landscape is shown to be diverse but not segregated. Ley lines traverse the literary field, connecting high to low, center to margin. An entire section of the volume—seven chapters—is given over to what is rather clunkily termed “Sub-generic and Specialized Fictional Forms” in the period 1880-1914, but the whole book is committed to taking the wide view, refusing to quarantine high culture figures such as James and Woolf from their more popular contemporaries.
Stevenson appears in 19 of the volume’s 36 chapters. Some are mere cameos, but taken all in all those 19 chapters show him in a wider array of guises than has usually been the case. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, appropriately and unsurprisingly, featured in David Punter’s chapter on Gothic and supernatural fiction. Just as appropriately, just as unsurprisingly, Treasure Island is woven into the discussions of no fewer than three chapters: David Glover’s on the male romance, Nicholas Daly’s on fin de siecle adventure fiction, and Norma Clarke’s on the children’s novel. The two chapters that take up Scottish writing, by David Goldie and Cairns Craig, provide ample evidence of Stevenson’s importance and of his influence on both contemporaries and successors.
Stevenson the theorist of fiction is likewise a touchstone in multiple chapters. Glover devotes some astute paragraphs to Stevenson’s theorizing of romance in opposition not just to Jamesian realism but to the more florid stylizings of Walter Scott. For Craig, Stevenson’s “refusal of the art of representation” in “A Humble Remonstrance” “underlines the impact of scientific ideas that put in question the nature of the real and therefore of . . . realism.” Following a similar line, Jesse Matz sees Stevenson attempting “to replace empirical experience altogether” as the basis of narrative art, “making the artist’s imagination everything.”
Thanks to Andrew Nash (whose essay on “The Production of the Novel, 1880-1940, is among the strongest and most informative in the volume), Stevenson even appears on the dust jacket of The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel. The dust jacket features the covers of five novels of the period. In the bottom left corner, the 1935 Oydssey Press edition of Ulysses is paired with 1907 Cassell edition of The Black Arrow, photo courtesy of Nash. Stevenson and Joyce make an interesting pairing. Food for thought.