Humanly speaking, it is a more important matter to play the fiddle, even badly, than to write huge works upon recondite subjects.
This is the third of Stevenson’s short autobiographical travel books, following An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).
Stevenson had met in France and fallen in love with the short, feisty American, Fanny Osbourne, ten years his senior and married to a feckless American prospector and philanderer, who she’d separated from in order to come and learn to paint in France. Stevenson was totally smitten by Fanny, this tough-talking shrewd independent lady, completely free from the airs and graces of polite British society, and so when she decided to return to California to try and patch things up with her husband, she left Stevenson feeling dejected and rejected in France.
He travelled south and spent August 1878 deeply miserable in a village near Le Puy in southern France – then conceived the idea of going on a walk with a donkey as material for another book, looked around for a likely donkey and finally set off on a 12-day walk, which lasted from late September to early October 1878.
Although it has plenty of Stevensonian fancy, the donkey book feels more oppressed than the Inland Voyage – and a number of references to unrequited love and how things are better experienced as part of a loving couple, alert the reader to Stevenson’s lovelorn condition.
After concluding the donkey book, Stevenson spent a long year mooning about in France, then back in London, visiting friends round the Home Counties, travelling back to Edinburgh to see his parents, trying and failing to write anything, before he finally came to a momentous decision: in August 1879 he decided that he must see Fanny again and bring the relationship to a head. He would travel to California and force a decision: did she want reconciliation with her no-good husband or would she choose him – a shabby, unhealthy, unknown Scottish author?
In this determined spirit Stevenson bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, to New York and went aboard on 7 August 1879.
(An Amateur Emigrant should, logically, have been the third of his published travelogues and followed fairly quickly on the heels of the other two, but his friends, and especially his family, were so shocked by his descriptions of conditions among the rough working class steerage passengers, and Stevenson’s shameless hobnobbing with them, that they suppressed the book during his lifetime; it was only published after his death, in 1895.)
An Amateur Emigrant
Stevenson is a great one for chucking you right into the action at the start of his texts. All three of the travel books get stuck right in, with no long-winded Victorian preparations. The first sentences are:
We made a great stir in Antwerp Docks. (An Inland Voyage)
In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. (Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes)
and so with Emigrant:
I first encountered my fellow-passengers on the Broomielaw in Glasgow.
No preliminary remarks, just straight in, the Broomielaw being the ferry boat which takes Stevenson and his fellow passengers from the Glasgow docks down the River Clyde to where the transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, is anchored.
Some critics (Andrew Noble is mentioned as one in the Wikipedia article about The Amateur Emigrant) think this is Stevenson’s best book because it confronts the squalor and economic tribulations of Victorian working class life – epitomised by the thin walls through which Stevenson can hear the chavs of his day being seasick, eating their meals, smacking their children and having drunken fights – ‘the usual sounds of a rough night at sea, the hateful coughing and retching of the sick and the sobs of children’, and so on.
At the other end of the scale, his biographer, Claire Harman, thinks it is one of Stevenson’s worst books (pp.171-173) because his attempts to rough it, to blend in with the genuine working classes, so obviously fail. She thinks the ‘pose’ of detached bohemian which worked so well in the first two travel books, is unsuitable in this context.
That aspect comes as no surprise to this reader. The young man who had spent years perfecting a bohemian nonchalance, playing the part of the knowing littérateur, of the Parisian flâneur, the alert and witty observer, was never going to blend in with illiterate Irish peasants and scouse navvies he found himself among. He is interested in the whimsies of character, in flights of fancy, not in economic plights, social theory or political analysis – as he goes to some lengths to explain.
We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass.
So: no facts and figures; instead japing paras about the ship-borne beverages:
At breakfast we had a choice between tea and coffee for beverage; a choice not easy to make, the two were so surprisingly alike. I found that I could sleep after the coffee and lay awake after the tea, which is proof conclusive of some chemical disparity; and even by the palate I could distinguish a smack of snuff in the former from a flavour of boiling and dish-cloths in the second. As a matter of fact, I have seen passengers, after many sips, still doubting which had been supplied them.
Stevenson presents himself, at least initially, as a witty, self-sufficient man of letters talking directly to other witty, well-off men of letters about the oddities of the crazy world – with the occasional moment of sublimity and nature worship thrown in just so everyone can confirm the superiority of their finer feelings.
Is was a bleak, uncomfortable day; but at night, by six bells, although the wind had not yet moderated, the clouds were all wrecked and blown away behind the rim of the horizon, and the stars came out thickly overhead. I saw Venus burning as steadily and sweetly across this hurly-burly of the winds and waters as ever at home upon the summer woods. The engine pounded, the screw tossed out of the water with a roar, and shook the ship from end to end; the bows battled with loud reports against the billows: and as I stood in the lee- scuppers and looked up to where the funnel leaned out, over my head, vomiting smoke, and the black and monstrous top-sails blotted, at each lurch, a different crop of stars, it seemed as if all this trouble were a thing of small account, and that just above the mast reigned peace unbroken and eternal.
He is a student with a student’s shallow flashiness, his lack of human experience revealed in his lack of empathy and understanding. Soon enough he has paired off with a preposterous Welshman named Jones, the equivalent of his sidekick Simpson in the Inland Voyage, and they take to strolling the decks pointing out the oddities and absurdities of their fellow passengers:
If he had one taste more strongly than another, it was to study character. Many an hour have we two walked upon the deck dissecting our neighbours in a spirit that was too purely scientific to be called unkind; whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day’s experience.
In this mood, other people aren’t hell, or fellow pilgrims – they are a source of unending entertainment. They are a God-given source of material on which Stevenson can practice his prose pirouettes. Hence an entire chapter titled, simply, Steerage Types:
We had a fellow on board, an Irish-American, for all the world like a beggar in a print by Callot; one-eyed, with great, splay crow’s-feet round the sockets; a knotty squab nose coming down over his moustache; a miraculous hat; a shirt that had been white, ay, ages long ago; an alpaca coat in its last sleeves; and, without hyperbole, no buttons to his trousers. Even in these rags and tatters, the man twinkled all over with impudence like a piece of sham jewellery; and I have heard him offer a situation to one of his fellow-passengers with the air of a lord. Nothing could overlie such a fellow; a kind of base success was written on his brow. He was then in his ill days; but I can imagine him in Congress with his mouth full of bombast and sawder. As we moved in the same circle, I was brought necessarily into his society. I do not think I ever heard him say anything that was true, kind, or interesting; but there was entertainment in the man’s demeanour. You might call him a half- educated Irish Tigg.
Emigration – myth and reality
However, as the days go past Stevenson is prompted to be a bit more reflective. Quite early on there is an honest attempt to contrast his own, youthful (naive and shallow) images of emigration with the reality he found around him.
As I walked the deck and looked round upon my fellow-passengers, thus curiously assorted from all northern Europe, I began for the first time to understand the nature of emigration. Day by day throughout the passage, and thenceforward across all the States, and on to the shores of the Pacific, this knowledge grew more clear and melancholy. Emigration, from a word of the most cheerful import, came to sound most dismally in my ear. There is nothing more agreeable to picture and nothing more pathetic to behold. The abstract idea, as conceived at home, is hopeful and adventurous. A young man, you fancy, scorning restraints and helpers, issues forth into life, that great battle, to fight for his own hand. The most pleasant stories of ambition, of difficulties overcome, and of ultimate success, are but as episodes to this great epic of self-help. The epic is composed of individual heroisms; it stands to them as the victorious war which subdued an empire stands to the personal act of bravery which spiked a single cannon and was adequately rewarded with a medal. For in emigration the young men enter direct and by the shipload on their heritage of work; empty continents swarm, as at the bo’s’un’s whistle, with industrious hands, and whole new empires are domesticated to the service of man.
This is the closet picture, and is found, on trial, to consist mostly of embellishments. The more I saw of my fellow-passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty; many were married, and encumbered with families; not a few were already up in years; and this itself was out of tune with my imaginations, for the ideal emigrant should certainly be young. Again, I thought he should offer to the eye some bold type of humanity, with bluff or hawk-like features, and the stamp of an eager and pushing disposition. Now those around me were for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days. Mildness was the prevailing character; mild mirth and mild endurance. In a word, I was not taking part in an impetuous and conquering sally, such as swept over Mexico or Siberia, but found myself, like Marmion, ‘in the lost battle, borne down by the flying.’
Labouring mankind had in the last years, and throughout Great Britain, sustained a prolonged and crushing series of defeats. I had heard vaguely of these reverses; of whole streets of houses standing deserted by the Tyne, the cellar-doors broken and removed for firewood; of homeless men loitering at the street-corners of Glasgow with their chests beside them; of closed factories, useless strikes, and starving girls. But I had never taken them home to me or represented these distresses livingly to my imagination.
A turn of the market may be a calamity as disastrous as the French retreat from Moscow; but it hardly lends itself to lively treatment, and makes a trifling figure in the morning papers. We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass. It is by the scenic accidents, and the appeal to the carnal eye, that for the most part we grasp the significance of tragedies. Thus it was only now, when I found myself involved in the rout, that I began to appreciate how sharp had been the battle. We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.
‘A shipful of failures’. It is a sustained critique of his own romantic delusions and, in that third paragraph, a vivid depiction of the economic hard times which had fallen on Britain, which so few other writers of the time seem even to have been aware of.
Aspects of Victorian society
In fact Stevenson’s entire writing career took place against a prolonged depression across the industrialised world, which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted twenty years in Britain. (The Long Depression Wikipedia article) This book is a rare concession – or description – of the economic calamity which affected millions.
Stevenson must also have been aware of the steady trickle of ‘small wars’ which characterised the later Victorian period, British colonial wars on the periphery of India and the stirrings of what would become the Scramble for Africa i.e. the ruthless competition among European powers to gain control of as much of Africa as possible. This is generally dated to the 1880s but Stevenson read the papers and was aware of its tremors. Here, they only impinge insofar as the emigrants he meets might have been involved or suffered in them.
Nearly all with whom I conversed upon the subject were bitterly opposed to war, and attributed their own misfortunes, and frequently their own taste for whisky, to the campaigns in Zululand and Afghanistan.
If there’s a spectrum between Harman (this is a bad book) and Noble (this is his best book) I find myself at the Noble end. Stevenson’s writing is so attractive, so sharp and quick, that it always wins you over. And slowly, through a patchwork of observations and through a gallery of characters which he paints with depth and insight, a picture of the wrong end of 1870s British society emerges.
Take the chapter titled ‘The Sick Man’. It starts off with RLS and chums coming across a man half conscious in the scuppers and chronicles their earnest attempts to get him seen by the pretty indifferent ship’s doctor. But next day, when RLS seeks out The Sick Man, and finds him quite recovered, the tone completely switches, as Stevenson gives a long account of the man’s emblematic career – born in Ireland, worked as a trawlerman out of Newcastle for 25 years, married a Scots lass, he has saved enough to have a house of his own and is on a pleasure trip to visit his brother in the States.
This slow accumulation of biographical detail makes it all the more powerful when Stevenson goes on to describe The Sick Man’s political opinions: he thought the masters selfish and greedy, but also the unions who carried out so many strikes nowadays. In fact, he despaired of England under its current masters and dispositions and Stevenson ends the chapter with a kind of bombshell summary of the man’s astonishingly apocalyptic belief that only a full-scale violent revolution could save Britain.
He had so little faith in either man or master, and so profound a terror for the unerring Nemesis of mercantile affairs, that he could think of no hope for our country outside of a sudden and complete political subversion. Down must go Lords and Church and Army; and capital, by some happy direction, must change hands from worse to better, or England stood condemned. Such principles, he said, were growing ‘like a seed.’
From this mild, soft, domestic man, these words sounded unusually ominous and grave. I had heard enough revolutionary talk among my workmen fellow-passengers; but most of it was hot and turgid, and fell discredited from the lips of unsuccessful men. This man was calm; he had attained prosperity and ease; he disapproved the policy which had been pursued by labour in the past; and yet this was his panacea, — to rend the old country from end to end, and from top to bottom, and in clamour and civil discord remodel it with the hand of violence.
When I read this kind of thing in the mouths of people from so long ago, I am struck all over again that one of the most remarkable things in history is that there wasn’t a violent revolution in Britain in the subsequent 140 years – as there was almost everywhere else in the world with, generally catastrophic, results. The history of Britain for the last 200 years is a history of the flexibility, the arts of accommodation, which managed all the social stresses and inequalities generated by the industrial revolution, and yet contained and defused them.
Working class talk versus literary writing
The penultimate chapter is a long meditation on what it is to be a ‘gentleman’. It starts with the ways Stevenson managed to get himself accepted into the society of working men on board, so much so that he was disconcerted to find himself looked down on by the posh passengers in 1st class when they came tour the ship’s ‘slums’.
Stevenson gives a dispassionate analysis of the people he met and so – maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it fits with his Tory mind-set – that one of his most striking findings is how lazy and work-shy the average working man is, epitomised in the story of the ‘tapper’.
More interesting from a literary point of view is his meditation on why working people are often such good talkers and storytellers.
There were many good talkers on the ship; and I believe good talking of a certain sort is a common accomplishment among working men. Where books are comparatively scarce, a greater amount of information will be given and received by word of mouth; and this tends to produce good talkers, and, what is no less needful for conversation, good listeners. They could all tell a story with effect. I am sometimes tempted to think that the less literary class show always better in narration; they have so much more patience with detail, are so much less hurried to reach the points, and preserve so much juster a proportion among the facts. At the same time their talk is dry; they pursue a topic ploddingly, have not an agile fancy, do not throw sudden lights from unexpected quarters, and when the talk is over they often leave the matter where it was. They mark time instead of marching. They think only to argue, not to reach new conclusions, and use their reason rather as a weapon of offense than as a tool for self-improvement. Hence the talk of some of the cleverest was unprofitable in result, because there was no give and take; they would grant you as little as possible for premise, and begin to dispute under an oath to conquer or to die.
I was struck by the implication that what literary writing has that non-literary talking doesn’t have, is ‘an agile fancy… [which throws] sudden lights from unexpected quarters.’
There’s a lot of different literature and definitions and traditions of what literature is. But the ‘agile fancy’ which throws ‘sudden lights from unexpected quarters’ is a good definition of the core, appealing element of Stevenson’s own writing.
This is another very good book. I think it taught me a basic lesson that the novelist proceeds through people, characters, human types, rather than generalisations. The generalisations (and there are lots) are generally the icing on top of the real bulk, which is the real observation of people.
And so you close the book a bit better informed about the economic depression which prompted so many to emigrate from the British Isles in the 1870s and 80s, about the squalid conditions in ‘steerage’, and with a much better idea of what ’emigration’ actually meant, and who it affected.
But overwhelmingly what we have experienced is a gallery of late Victorian characters – Jones the purveyor of a miracle snake oil, the Sick Man who has done well out of life but still reckons there should be a revolution, the stowaway Alick who can charm the birds out of the trees, the amateur fiddler who can make anyone get up and dance a jig, the stern but fair bosun, and so on and on.
It is completely different in feel from the two previous travel books, but just as good in the speed and penetration of his perceptions. He was a travel writer of genius.
- An Amateur Emigrant on the Adelaide Univesity website
- An Amateur Emigrant Wikipedia article
- Robert Louise Stevenson website
- Robert Louis Stevenson titles available online
A Stevenson bibliography
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.