‘With a mind divided’: Degeneration and National Identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide

‘With a mind divided’: Degeneration and National Identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide

This week, PhD student Verity Burke (University of Reading) examines Robert Louis Stevenson’s work on national identity through a four nations lenses.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s works provide a fascinating window into distortions of national identity in representations of place and self. What does a Scottish writer have to say about English identity, reading, writing and fears of degeneracy at the fin-de-siècle? When Jekyll and Hyde (1886) is set in London, why does it evoke that other nineteenth-century medical capital, Edinburgh? How does Treasure Island (1883) reflect imperial ideals of Englishness and conquest? And most specifically for this post, what does the portrayal of Englishness, reading and degeneracy in The Ebb-Tide (1894) suggest about this national identity? Written not long after he had himself moved to the South Seas for health reasons, Robert Louis Stevenson’s casual assertion that English subject Robert Herrick dutifully departs his country ‘with a mind divided’ (p.9) underlines much of The Ebb-Tide’s prevailing sense of the formation of self.[i]A tale about three dishonoured men who have departed their home countries is surprisingly revealing about the perception of national identity at the end of the nineteenth century: a surface reading suggests that Herrick and Stevenson share many similarities, with both man and character sharing a love of reading and literature, and escaping to the South Seas to rejuvenate. Yet Herrick’s English nationality appears to speed his breakdown, while Stevenson uses his Scottish identity to adapt to his new life abroad.

 The plot of the The Ebb-Tide is illuminating on this point (so look away now to avoid spoilers!): having fled their countries of origin, Herrick, Huish and Davis are charged with taking a cargo of champagne to Sydney – the previous officers having been killed by smallpox and nobody else desirous of taking such a risk of infection. Huish, a barely literate cockney, and Davis, a drunken American sea captain, formulate a plan to swindle money through an insurance scam, and later to throw acid in the face of a successful English pearl collector, Attwater, when their original plan is thwarted. Throughout, Herrick’s better and classically ‘English’ characteristics of honour and conscience, with which he is indoctrinated through his education, cause him to dither, fail to adapt and eventually come close to a mental breakdown.

Our initial introduction to Robert Herrick is quick to highlight his Western education as an Oxford graduate (p.9), an English institution designed in part to develop the ‘consistency and intellectual manhood’ in which he is ‘deficient’ (p.9). Although ‘the ideal of heroic masculinity [in an adventure novel] promised to regenerate an effeminate modern world,’ Herrick, as a character in an adventure novel, seems preoccupied by the dangerous and feminising pastime of reading.[ii] In his preliminary description of Herrick, Stevenson leaves him nameless; the first information given about this figure is the ‘tattered Virgil in his pocket’ (p.8). While Herrick’s attachment to his reading material contextualises him as educated and civilised, the pocketed position of this book and its damaged pages are suggestive of the negative physical and mental effect reading might have on active English masculinity. The book is figured as a part of his self, for the ‘classic writers, with whom we make enforced and often painful acquaintanceship at school … pass into the blood and become native in the memory; so that a phrase of Virgil speaks not so much of Mantua or Augustus, but of English places and the student’s own irrevocable youth’ (p.8, italics mine). That Virgil’s Mantua is mentally colonised as ‘English’ might initially reinforce imperial identity, but this conflation of the natural body, the mind and “native” language figure a reverse colonisation, with Herrick’s very blood contaminated by literature.

While Herrick is infected by conflicting national ideologies through his reading, Stevenson believed that his Scottishness allowed him a stronger appreciation of Polynesian peoples, most specifically because of what he conceived of as a shared language. Anne Maxwell notes that in the first essay of In the South Seas, ‘Making Friends’, Stevenson cites his view that:

the two cultures shared a number of important characteristics … [including] ‘their common elision of medial consonants and that prevalent Polynesian sound, the so-called catch, written with an apostrophe, and often or always the gravestone of a perished consonant’ … The second is their common grounding in what Stevenson himself called ‘savage’ customs and superstitious beliefs. Stevenson says, ‘When I desired any detail of savage custom, or of superstitious belief, I cast back in the story of my fathers, and fished for what I wanted with some trait of equal barbarism.’[iii]

Stevenson shows no issue with the similarities between Scottish and more supposedly ‘savage’ nationalities, instead seeking to close the gap through invoking ‘shared’ language and belief systems. This paralleling of national ‘savagery,’ while problematic in itself, figures a strengthening of his own Scottish identity, and creates a place for this identity within Polynesian society. A sharp contrast can be drawn with the English Herrick; although Herrick interiorises Virgil’s Aeneid, a tract about imperial power and domination, as part of his own cultural background, Virgil’s writing has infected him, distorting internalised ideology from ‘youth’ that is ‘irrevocable’ (p.8). It is not simply imperialist dogma that has formed much of Herrick’s identity, but language itself, for as secondary character Captain Davis notes, ‘“it’s all in your inside as plain as print”’ (p.33). Herrick may embody English ideals of civility, education and improvement, but it is these inflexible attributes that contribute to his degeneration and inability to flourish in the South Seas.

Writing in a period which Helen Carr argues invented ‘distinct national identities,’ Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide suggests the negative somatic and psychological result on the Englishman unable to embody imperial standards.[iv]Yet Stevenson’s conformation to the importance allotted to these ideals of duty and masculinity which were the primary cause of Herrick’s breakdown, and his own paralleling of Scots and Polynesian identities, of ‘savage customs’ and ‘superstitious beliefs’ also validates Carr’s statement that ‘much travel writing shows … complicity with imperialism.’[v]The text splinters our own certainty about identity, raising further questions about the conflicting ideals of English national identity. In Herrick’s rehabilitation through the acceptance of these ideals of manliness, however, imperial ideology is bolstered; through the same means that Herrick internalises Virgil, Stevenson may inadvertently perpetuate the virtues of the English imperial identities that he claims to repulse.

[i]Robert Louis Stevenson, Tales of the South Seas, ed. Jenni Calder, (Canongate Classics, 1987), p.9. All further references to this text will be from this edition unless otherwise specified, and given parenthetically by page number, in the main body of work.

[ii]Reid, p.32

[iii]Anne Maxwell, ‘Building Friendships: “Civility” and “Savagery” in R. L. Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesa and The Ebb-Tide’ in International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue 9, Autumn/Winter 2013, p.39

[iv]Helen Carr, “Modernism and Travel (1880-1940)” in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing ed. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.71

[v]Carr, p.71

Verity Burke is a doctoral student at the University of Reading, working on the Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology. Her project is an interdisciplinary study of anatomies in nineteenth-century science, medicine and literature, and their effect on both epistemology and the popular imagination. Her wider research interests include Charles Dickens, surgery, forensics and the body. She loves a good taxidermy squirrel. Come say hi on Twitter @VerityBurke or on https://reading.academia.edu/VerityBurke


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