Stevenson’s pirate in powerful sequel

Treasure Island location
Treasure Island location

Francis Bryan
Jim Hawkins and the Curse of Treasure Island
Orion 2001

Jim Hawkins is no longer ‘Jim, lad’ as he was in Treasure Island. A decade on, in his mid-twenties, he has used his share of the treasure retrieved from his adventure to invest in the Admiral Benbow, the coastal Devon inn somewhere west of Minehead which he now runs following the death of his father. Here he is happy to regale listeners about his experiences without, of course, mentioning the silver that remains on the island. His boastfulness however has dire consequences as he is now drawn into an enterprise which involves a return to that ill-fated island and the loss of any remaining childhood innocence.

Francis Bryan is the pseudonym of Frank Delaney, taken from the first names of his two oldest sons. For his own “private enjoyment and satisfaction” and without any intention of publishing he aimed to write a novel that “might test how much language had changed”. Having plumped for Treasure Island by his “beloved” Robert Louis Stevenson he attempted, at the end of the twentieth century, to replicate the idiom of a nineteenth century novelist writing in an eighteenth century persona. The result of this exercise proved to his satisfaction that the English language had “changed surprisingly little”, while the subsequent publication in 2001 of Jim Hawkins and the Curse of Treasure Island gave us a chance to gauge how successful he was. (Though not, perhaps, in the case of the German translation, Jim Hawkins und der Fluch der Schatz Insel.)

To my amateur eye his evocation of the language of the novel is spot on, though I can’t say how successful it is in capturing 18th-century idioms. The only time it verges on parody is with the re-appearance of John Silver, and I suppose that’s to be expected: Silver’s turn of phrase seems to me to be distinctively his and any moderation of that is likely to overthrow our willing suspension of disbelief. At least Delaney doesn’t attempt to convey dialects, whether Scottish or West Country, in his orthography; it may have been beyond him, or merely part of his personal remit, but his restraint does him credit.

Delaney also keeps to the structure of the original, with its schema of ‘there and back again’. Not only does he retain the partition of Treasure Island in six parts but he also includes the same number of chapters. As before, Jim’s narrative begins at the Admiral Benbow, there is a journey to Bristol, a voyage to Treasure Island and murderous deeds on land; Jim has a solo sea voyage around part of the island, treasure is eventually found and Silver manages to return to the “nearest port in Spanish America” where he had slipped ashore in Stevenson’s novel.

And yet, within the familiar outlines Delaney packs a wealth of new details that refreshes and intensifies what might otherwise be a tired and well-worn tale. Where before there was scant female input here, for example, Jim’s mother has more of a role as well as being a character in her own right, and there is even some love interest, though I fear that this remains a man’s world and this young woman remains an enigma right to the end. Here too there is more casual and bloody violence than in the original, much of it both shocking and gruesome; and though the narrator at one point tells us he has spared our sensibilities, young adult readers may still need a strong stomach. Still, this much is faithful to Stevenson’s own premise that pirates were simply thieves at sea, desperate and lawless men with little to lose and much to gain.

We also get to see a little more of the world in that we spend some time in Silver’s home port. Unlike Hawkins’ map in Treasure Island, Delaney’s endpapers map gives us co-ordinates, with five degrees north and forty-five degrees west close to where Jim’s landing party come ashore on their way to Spyeglass Hill. This would place the island due east of Cayenne in French Guiana, to the northeast of where the River Amazon debouches into the Atlantic. It’s pointless, however, speculating which port Jim Hawkins gets to re-meet John Silver, as we’re given precious little details other than a generic description of a Latin American port. On the other hand there is a little more of a sense of Bristol than in Stevenson’s novel in that we are told of merchant houses and Bristol’s infamous hills, but as usual the most vivid of locations is the island itself, especially its central and western areas, and the Hispaniola, the brig on which Hawkins first sailed to adventure and which re-appears here.

For all its realism – the nautical details seem authentic to me, and the historical background, with its attention to inheritance issues, procedures both legal and judicial, and the etiquette regarding correct modes of address all appear well researched and understood – there are aspects that to me smack more of magic realism. The unfortunate castaway who is picked up by the only other ship of significance in the story, the faceless cast of sailors and militia who often feel like part of some theatrical scenery, the dreamlike choreography of the final battle – while these may only reflect the mannerisms of Delaney’s model, the charm perhaps that makes of Stevenson a “beloved” author, I find these less of an asset in this sequel. Unless, of course, I am missing something more subtle. On the other hand, the main protagonists are all strongly drawn, through their words and actions if not always by their physical descriptions, displaying fair play, pragmatism, humour or loyalty by turns.

Delaney’s Jim Hawkins and the Curse of Treasure Island is powerful though, as it happens, not the only sequel to Treasure Island: whether on the page or on the screen, many of them somehow include the phrase ‘Return to Treasure Island’, which speaks of the power of Stevenson’s concept and Delaney’s taste in avoiding it (though the present title is more appropriate to a Disney film or theme park ride). It will be interesting to compare another more recent sequel by a litterateur, Silver by Andrew Motion, though I note that this doesn’t manage to eschew ‘Return to Treasure Island’ as its subtitle.

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6 thoughts on “Stevenson’s pirate in powerful sequel

  1. Interesting, indeed.
    I do find myself rather jaded regarding the rash of sequels, although the accepted challenge behind this one does appear to lift it beyond accusations of not being creative enough to build unique situations and characters. I think a better response, though, was that of H Rider Haggard, who, if I recall correctly, wrote King Solomon’s Mines as his answer to the success of Treasure Island.

    1. Yes, interestingly I too was reminded of King Solomon’s Mines while ploughing through this, though I haven’t read that since I was a teenager. I’m tempted to dig that out now!

      And then there’s The Lost World, isn’t there, and Tarzan of the Apes, whose centenary in book form is next year. Where to stop with all this derring-do?

      1. I was a precocious reader, and did KSM when most kids would still be on picture books – consequently it made a massive impression. However I then moved on to Dickens and Jeffrey Farnol! Followed by Dornford Yates, which I loved. Only later did I regress to Enid Blyton and *shudder* Franklin W Dixon.

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