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Books: Skulduggery Robert Louis Stevenson and the Beach of Falesa

4 minute read
Paul Gray


Sometime in 1891, Robert Louis Stevenson completed a novella-length narrative about the South Pacific called The Beach of Falesa. By this time, the Scottish-born and immensely popular author was living in Samoa, at a far remove from his publishers in London and New York City; an answer to a letter sent by steamer mail took three months to return. As a result, Stevenson delegated loose authority over his manuscripts to several confidants, to speed up both the process of getting into print and the payment of his royalties. But editors on both sides of the Atlantic were perturbed by certain aspects of The Beach. Changes were made by several hands to protect Victorian readers from tropical immoralities. When Stevenson finally saw the serialized version in a London newspaper, he complained of “the slashed and gaping ruins” of what he had written.

The tale of how this censorship occurred is the first and by far the longer part of this volume. Editor Barry Menikoff, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, promises to reveal plenty of melodrama and skulduggery: “A story of stylistic abuse by printers and proofreaders, of literary abuse by publishers, editors, and friends, and finally of the abuse of art by Stevenson himself in sanctioning the publication of a corrupt text.”

Unfortunately, the evidence does not live up to these lurid claims. Menikoff devotes 23 closely printed pages to the nefarious fiddling that went on with Stevenson’s punctuation and spelling; the imposition of “house styles” by various publishers was, of course, common during Stevenson’s lifetime, and is not entirely unheard of today. On a more substantive level, some sexual undertones in the story were muffled, and some mildly profane or irreligious sentiments were excised or rendered inoffensive. These changes now seem fatuous, but they did not accomplish what Menikoff asserts: “A finished and artistically sophisticated novel was reduced to a vulgar and meretricious shadow of itself.” Henry James read this supposedly mutilated text and praised “an art brought to a perfection.” Critic George Lyman Kittredge went further, calling the work as published “almost as good a story as ever was written.”

Fortunately, Menikoff includes the original version of The Beach of Falesa, which is roughly half as long as his scholarly preface and many times as interesting. The story Stevenson intended is a bit grittier and more pungent than the one that appeared. A vagabond British trader named Wiltshire tells of being assigned to reopen a defunct post on a remote island. He is befriended at first by a man called Case, who enjoys a trading monopoly. Case persuades the newcomer to take up with Uma, a beautiful, half-naked native girl, and arranges a sham wedding ceremony. Before long, Wiltshire falls in love with his concubine and marries her properly; he also realizes that he and Case are deadly enemies.

The plot resolves itself in an explosive manner worthy of the author of Treasure Island. But this novella was not aimed at children. Wiltshire is an intriguingly flawed hero, blunt of speech, violent in behavior and filled with prejudices against the “kanakas,” or natives: “It’s easy to find out what kanakas think. Just go back to yourself anyway round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average kanaka.” By putting such thoughts in such a character, Stevenson subtly questioned the white man’s fitness to invade and colonize the Pacific. The author’s popularity prevented him from making this point as firmly as he wished; and the year after The Beach of Falesa appeared in book form, he was dead. It seems fitting that now, nearly a century later, he has the last word.

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