R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)
There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.
Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?
Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.
Treasure Island‘s plot is so well-known it scarcely needs detailing: in six parts we move from a Cornish or North Devon setting, where young Jim Hawkins first acquires the pirate’s treasure map (one of Stevenson’s innovations, apparently), to Bristol (from where the schooner set sail), thence to the unnamed Caribbean island where mutiny, battles and double crossings do for a good many of the crew before the final resolution. Not only did Stevenson, like many a fine author, borrow many ideas from his predecessors (the character Ben Gunn from Robinson Crusoe for example), but he also added his own inventions to the common stock (‘X marks the spot’ is the most well-known). What makes the whole plot work for the modern reader, as much as it did for those first Victorians who clapped eyes on it, is Stevenson’s ability to push the action forward, almost before we have time to draw breath, and his facility in fleshing out characters.
We don’t always need strong visual clues for the main personages (though there are plenty enough of these) to gain a strong impression of their presence: Dr Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollett and, of course, John Silver himself. Real life people were the inspiration of some individuals, such as Stevenson’s friend the poet W E Henley for Silver, while other individuals are closer to mere ciphers: some of the expendable pirates, Jim Hawkins’ parents and, a few would argue, Hawkins himself. And yet it is these characters who, in their speech and thoughts, propel the plot as much as their actions.
There really is little point in continuing to favourably review a book that has justifiably stood the test of time, so all I can add is a couple of salient points that have struck me. The first is to do with settings. It is curious that the real places that Stevenson introduces, the West Country and Bristol, are so vaguely though vividly described; is Hawkins’ home at The Admiral Benbow in Cornwall or Devon, as the action suggests but which is never explicitly stated? We have characters with a Cornish flavour, namely Squire Trelawney and his gamekeeper Redruth, but even North Cornwall seems a little too far for an overnight trip to 18th-century Bristol. And his depiction of the bustling port of Bristol, with its sights and smells and sounds, lacks so many of the particular physical details (such as its distance from the sea and the necessity for a pilot) that distinguish it from any other generic seaport that we wonder if the author had ever, despite his widespread travelling, visited the place in person.
On the other hand, the island of the title is so carefully described that it is hard to believe that it only exists in the mind of Stevenson and his readers. Four of the six parts of the novel are set in and around the island, and the topographic details are so precise that we hardly need a map.* Though many sites are posited as an inspiration for the island, one that seems to have escaped notice is the island that provided the name of the novel’s schooner. Nowadays split into the two polities of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the island of Hispaniola (between the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico) is of course too large to be the original Treasure Island.
But if you take the cartographical shape of Hispaniola and rotate it ninety degrees to the left, the overall outline bears some resemblance I think to Stevenson’s island, even to the extent of Ile de la Gonave corresponding to Skeleton Island, Haiti’s Port-au-Prince to the Stockade and the Dominican Republic’s port of Santo Domingo standing in for the North Inlet harbour. The match is not exact, of course, but it’s as good a theory as any of the others I’ve seen, and it’s supported by the correspondence of name and location in the Caribbean.**
* The map that Stevenson drew for publication doesn’t always appear in modern reprints. It’s not included in the Collins Classic 2010 edition, for example, nor in the US Airmont 1962 edition, nor even in the Kindle edition. Why this should present a problem for publishers I don’t know, but it is certainly an irritation and an omission that requires an explanation.
** Another possible source of inspiration for the shape of the island of course is Scotland itself, Stevenson’s country of birth: it has a similar outline and naturally doesn’t need reorienting as the island of Hispaniola does. But it lacks the addition of Skeleton Island — unless that’s the author’s crafty allusion to the old enemy, England. One solution is to claim that Treasure Island is a subtle conflation of both Scotland and Hispaniola.
Repost of review first published 13th May 2012