Smuggling and skullduggery


J Meade Falkner: Moonfleet.
Puffin Classics 1994 (1898).

Chesil Beach in Dorset is a spectacular bank of pebbles stretching for nearly twenty miles along the Dorset coast, running in a north-easterly direction from south of Weymouth. Behind it for part of its length is a freshwater lagoon called the Fleet. I have happy memories camping near Fleet village with my young son in the early nineties, exploring the area and visiting Portland Bill and Weymouth. But it hasn’t always been known solely as a holiday area: in the 18th century smuggling was rife, as elsewhere on the British coast, and Moonfleet portrays — with only a little romanticism — the kind of activities in which smugglers were involved in this part of Dorset.

Written fifteen years after Treasure Island Moonfleet superficially resembles that earlier adventure story: both are set in the 18th century, both have a young protagonist falling under the spell of a charismatic father-figure, both involve a search for ill-gotten treasure — the location of which is indicated by the chance discovery of a document — and feature an inn and an overseas voyage, though one features pirates and the other smugglers.

But there are differences: for example, while Treasure Island includes first-person narrative from Dr Livesey as well as Jim Hawkins, Moonfleet is told entirely from the point of view of John Trenchard, who is just fifteen when the story opens; and though Stevenson sets his tale in fictional locations (I don’t count Bristol because its description lacks any real local colour) Falkner bases his settings on real localities with fictional names — Moonfleet is East Fleet, the Snout is Portland Bill, the castle on the Isle of Wight is Carisbrooke — though I’ve not yet been able to discover if Ymeguen near the Dutch town of The Hague is entirely made up.

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