After being obscured for 92 years by Victorian modesty, the original text of one of the great works by Robert Louis Stevenson has been published for the first time by Stanford University Press.
The book, a 50,000-word novella called "The Beach of Falesa," is said to be among the best fictional works by the author of the children's classics "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped." It is the first time that the text has appeared in print as the author wrote it.
In the Stanford publication, the original text is given in full, along with a line-by-line account of how it was bowdlerized in the 19th century.
Permission to publish the manuscript, as well as Stevenson's correspondence cited within the text, was granted by Alan Osbourne, executor of the Stevenson estate. The book is titled "Robert Louis Stevenson and 'The Beach of Falesa': A Study in Victorian Publishing."
In an introduction to the story, Barry Menikoff, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, explains his interest in the project:
" 'Falesa' never appeared in print as Stevenson wrote it," he writes. "Of all his texts, this was the most mutilated and corrupted. Punctuation was systemically altered; language was revised, distorted or deleted; entire passages were garbled or bowdlerized.
"How this came to be is the subject of this study: a story of what happens to a work of art when it is converted into a commodity to satisfy the taste and prejudices of the period -- 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."
Why was the novella never published as the author wanted it to appear?
Says Menikoff: "The book ran counter to some of the most deeply held political, sexual and religious convictions of those responsible for its publication.
"Set in the Western Pacific, using the pidgin and rough slang of the region, and told by a white trader who sleeps with and later marries a stunning native girl, 'Falesa' undermined the ethos of imperial England. It took for its subjects miscegenation, colonialism, the exploitation of brown people and, indeed, the very idea of the white man's presence in the Pacific."
According to a Stanford spokesman, the story of "The Beach of Falesa" is unlikely "to disturb even the most refined taste of anyone today."
The novella, as Stevenson originally wrote it, tells the story of a white trader who arrives at a South Seas Island and picks out a lovely native girl for an overnight diversion. As was the custom of the time and place, a "wedding" was arranged with a fake minister and a false marriage certificate.
There are no sex scenes in the book. Rather, the description of the "bridal" night focuses on the innocent devotion of a girl and the guilt of the man who has exploited her. As the story unfolds, the man falls in love with her and, despite fierce opposition by both the traders and the natives, insists on being married legally. Yet, in an ironic twist at the end, he worries about their own daughters "taking up" with the natives.
Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, essayist and poet who focused much of his writing on the Western Pacific, where he went to live with his American-born wife in 1888 until his death in Samoa in 1894. Although many of Stevenson's works were highly praised during his lifetime, those about the Pacific were not.
"As long as Scotland served as subject, historic yet comfortable Scotland, the fiction was eulogized," Menikoff writes. "The moment Stevenson turned to the modern world, to a Pacific of shipwrecks, derelict whites and natives speaking broken English, the novels were received with suspicion and distaste."
It is apparent from his own correspondence that "The Beach of Falesa" had been one of Stevenson's most prized works, despite his obvious disdain for the way the editors had altered it for publication.
Stevenson referred to the printed version as "the slashed and gaping ruins" of his art. What he had actually written, he said in 1892, seemed to him "to be nearer what I mean than anything I have ever done -- nearer what I mean by fiction."
His friend Henry James shared his admiration of the work.
"Primitive man doesn't interest me, I confess, as much as civilized -- and yet he does when you write about him," James told Stevenson in a letter.