The problem of how to reconcile romance with truth-telling increasingly preoccupied Stevenson in the later years of his short life (he died in 1894 at 44). Two key factors were his marriage to Fanny Osbourne in California in 1880 and their robust and dangerous travels together in the South Pacific, where he broke decisively with the stifling respectabilities of late 19th century Scotland and England. The relationship with Fanny had from its outset been opposed by his parents and by most of his friends, who dreaded losing him and were shocked--it's not clear in what order--by the facts that Fanny was going through a divorce, that she was 10 years older than Louis, that she was American and also, perhaps, that her complexion was, as one friend put it, "darker than one would expect in a woman of Dutch American race." (Stevenson whimsically riposted "What if she be, sir? It is better to be a negress than a pessimist.")
By traveling, and ultimately settling, in Polynesia, Stevenson was of course continuing the bohemian nomadism that had begun with his journeys by canoe and donkey through parts of Belgium and France, the subjects of "An Inland Voyage" and "Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes." But he was also making a powerful statement about human relations in a part of the world where the workings of colonialism were particularly transparent.
Stevenson's investigations into and criticisms of colonialism, which are an important theme of his later letters, were largely ignored by his English contemporaries and are still undervalued today. Few readers know that the best-selling author of "Treasure Island," "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Kidnapped" devoted much of his time in the 1890s to writing a deeply researched work of historical anthropology, "In the South Seas" (to be reissued this fall by Penguin), and a polemical account of the effect of Great Powers intervention in Samoan politics, "A Footnote to History." These books showed prophetically how destructive was the impact not only of northern hemisphere economic and military rivalries in the region but also of supposedly benign forces such as Christian missions. Their exploration of the interrelations of Europeans, Americans and native Polynesians was continued imaginatively in a novel written with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, "The Ebb-Tide," and at a political level in a series of angry letters to the Times in London as well as in personal correspondence. These were unwelcome developments to many readers. Oscar Wilde commented, "I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa he wrote letters to the Times about Germans." The vivid and moving "In the South Seas" so disappointed its magazine editors that they discontinued serialization. The work didn't appear in book form until after Stevenson's death. The publishers of "The Ebb-Tide" required it to be softened and bowdlerized. Stevenson's trenchant, if obsessive, harangues to the Times were largely ignored--and even today, with one very short exception, they don't make it into Mehew's selection.
This absence leaves readers without some of the evidence by which to gauge the increasing seriousness of Stevenson's many statements in his letters dating from the mid-1880s on, about his concern for facts and for truth. The discovery that life could be even more vivid than literature was exhilarating for a man whose appetite for fictions of adventure and romance had been fed by long periods of illness. At Vailima, his house in western Samoa, he was to claim that "[n]othing is so interesting as weeding, clearing and path-making." But there was more than an improvement in physical health behind such assertions, as is shown by some powerful philosophical exchanges with Henry James and William Archer in which the correspondents slug it out over the rival claims of escapism and realism.
Not the least of the complexities of the issue was how divided Stevenson himself was about it. On one hand, there was a sense in which gilding the lily was his vocation, a key aspect of what he described in a poem as "my great task of happiness," a task that had been forced on him by illness but also by the need to counteract the depressiveness of his father and of Fanny. As late as 1885, in a letter to Archer, whose own view of artistic duty had been formed by his respect for Ibsen, Stevenson claims that because the world is full of poverty, illness and death, the artist is obliged to improve on things:
"In my view, one dank, dispirited word is harmful, a crime of lese-humanite, a piece of acquired evil; every day, every bright word or picture, like every pleasant air of music, is a piece of pleasure set afloat; the reader catches it and, if he be healthy, goes on his way rejoicing; and it is the business of art so to send him, as often as possible."