Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

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.

Continue reading “Hispaniola ahoy”

A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. Continue reading “A fine weird imagination”

Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”

Looking Both Ways

Janus on a 3rd-century coin (Wikipedia Commons)
Janus on a 3rd-century coin (Wikipedia Commons)

Traditionally when approaching year’s end and anticipating the new a janiform attitude is called for. To celebrate a year of reading I’ve decided to highlight twelve posts, one for each month and chosen more or less at random, which I hope you might enjoy reading for the first time (or re-reading if you’re already familiar with them).

First is a discussion Continue reading “Looking Both Ways”

Smuggling and skullduggery

Chesil2

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: Continue reading “Smuggling and skullduggery”

Pushing the right buttons

Islands
Islands

Enid Blyton Five on a Treasure Island
Knight Books 1975 (1942)

Enid Blyton’s fiction remains extraordinarily popular. Despite the disdain of literary critics much of her vast output remains in print because, as publishers know, her work sells. I was brought up on the Noddy books, migrated to the Famous Five and then on to the Secret Seven. I never got onto Malory Towers or St Clare’s (girl’s stuff, of course) or anything else that wasn’t part of a series. Re-reading Five on a Treasure Island as an adult it’s clear why Blyton is criticised, made fun of and parodied: the writing is stilted, employs a limited vocabulary (anything out of the ordinary is ‘queer’) and frequently mundane. But it does appeal to young readers, mainly because it is told from their point of view – their passions, their fears, their expectation that every morning holds the promise of adventure.

You have to hand it to Blyton – she knew how to push the right buttons. Continue reading “Pushing the right buttons”

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. Continue reading “Stevenson’s pirate in powerful sequel”