Treasure Island was the first full-length book I read. Taking from my shelves that very copy, and seeing with a smile that it is indeed slightly foxed, I also note from the date of the printing, 1955, that I was 11, within a few months of leaving Primary, and had only just begun to read, other than what I had been made to read in school. So Treasure Island was my first late introduction, as a willing reader, to prose fiction.
I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn.
Jim Hawkins, the narrator, tells of events that took place in his boyhood some time in the eighteenth century. His mother keeps the Admiral Benbow Inn somewhere on the English coast, and the
excitement begins when Billy Bones, an old sea-dog, appears one day and asks Jim to keep a look-out for a seafaring man with one leg. He doesn’t come, but there are other terrifying appearances – by Black Dog and Blind Pew – and the haunted Billy Bones finally collapses stone dead, leaving a sea-chest containing, among other things, the map of an island where pirates have buried their treasure.
From then on the story becomes a quest, as Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney fit out a ship, the Hispaniola
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Treasure Island was the first full-length book I read. Taking from my shelves that very copy, and seeing with a smile that it is indeed slightly foxed, I also note from the date of the printing, 1955, that I was 11, within a few months of leaving Primary, and had only just begun to read, other than what I had been made to read in school. So Treasure Island was my first late introduction, as a willing reader, to prose fiction.I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn. Jim Hawkins, the narrator, tells of events that took place in his boyhood some time in the eighteenth century. His mother keeps the Admiral Benbow Inn somewhere on the English coast, and the excitement begins when Billy Bones, an old sea-dog, appears one day and asks Jim to keep a look-out for a seafaring man with one leg. He doesn’t come, but there are other terrifying appearances – by Black Dog and Blind Pew – and the haunted Billy Bones finally collapses stone dead, leaving a sea-chest containing, among other things, the map of an island where pirates have buried their treasure. From then on the story becomes a quest, as Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney fit out a ship, the Hispaniola, to find the treasure, with the one-legged seafaring man, Long John Silver, as cook, and Jim as cabin boy. They are not long under way when Jim overhears Silver plotting with other hands to kill the captain and the faithful crew and keep the treasure for themselves. The book then follows Jim’s adventures as he stands between the good and evil parties, sometimes in the hands of the buccaneers, and struggles through strange encounters, fights, murders and acts of betrayal and danger to win the gold and escape with his life. One thing did strike me with peculiar force at the time of that first reading. The characters of the book were not far removed from possibility. Our village of a thousand souls in East Fife was almost an island, swept by the stormy North Sea on one side and fields on the other, all the way to the skyline, shut in like Crusoe by the bolts and shackles of land and ocean. For twelve years I never left that island, nor ever wanted to, never even thought about it, or that there was anywhere else to go. The radius of my travels rarely exceeded one mile in any direction (none at all on the seaward side), and marriages were mainly between couples from the same village, most of whom were vaguely related to one another in a kind of unconscious tribal incest. We did not suffer from grinding poverty but we had no spare cash. It all opened up in the Sixties, but I read Stevenson in the Fifties, when the place was still fossilized, geographically, historically, socially, theologically. Television came to us in the year I shut the Bible and turned to books. Before that entertainment lay in the streets. There was a one-legged man who used to haunt the harbour with a spyglass, which he gave me, and which I still have. Sound familiar? He was the local barber. But when trade was slack he’d hobble out looking for ships, and tell me sea stories. Another eccentric, an ancient ex-sailor with a gold earring and a white beard, used to delight in telling me: ‘I’ve seen monsoons and typhoons and baboons – and teaspoons!’ My grandfather talked of islands where he’d fought in the first war, though the May Island lay even closer to home, only a few miles out to sea, a place of childhood mystery to me, as was the Bass Rock, where the hero of Kidnapped and Catriona was incarcerated. Both my grandfather and my uncle took sea-chests with them when they went out on long hauls. They also took charts, maps, and came back laden with half crowns that tumbled out of their blue spotted handkerchiefs and clattered on the table. So Stevenson’s world not only fitted into mine exactly, it grew out of it. I lived on Treasure Island. All the more amazing then that, by the time I came to Stevenson, familiarity had not bred a particle of contempt, and the figures of the book took on a vivid life of their own. They leapt from the page fully formed, straight from Stevenson’s head, and they took fast root in my mind: if I’d met one of them on the bouldered beaches or in the cobbled closes of my surroundings, I might have been frightened but I should not have been surprised. They were more tellingly alive in my head than the real people I lived among, now shadows by comparison. When I looked into the water and saw the flatfish lazing on the clear green sunbed of the bottom, there lay Israel Hands, all hunched up, two bullet-holes in his head, his brains oozing out, staining the water, and the quick glinting fishes nibbling him down to the bone. When I took stores down into the belly of my sea-cook uncle’s boat, Long John sat waiting for me in the galley, to fry me up an egg. The cries of seagulls converted easily into those of Captain Flint, perched on Silver’s shoulder, just like the seagull my grandfather had tamed with scraps of fish to land on his, and to sit there and be fed. And the booming of the Caribbean surf about the coasts of Fife, I heard it day-long, night-long, and in my dreams. Just like Jim Hawkins. How did this miracle of storytelling originate? On a simplistic level it began with Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s 13-year-old stepson, who boasted that but for him and a childish box of paints, there would have been no Treasure Island. There is a germ of truth in his account. In wet windy weather in a holiday house in Braemar in 1881, with Queen Victoria trundling past in an open carriage, the two of them concocted the map of an imaginary island, idly drawn to beguile the rainy hours. Naturally Lloyd insisted it was he who actually did the drawing and so gave his stepfather the idea for the book, a claim that Louis later denied (indeed he was heartbroken when his publishers lost his original). Whatever the trigger, the fact is that on a bleak September morning in the Braemar cottage, by a brisk fire and with the wind-driven rain drumming on the window, Stevenson started work on Treasure Island, originally entitled The Sea Cook, having got the idea from the map. Fifteen chapters leapt from his pen. Then he entered the doldrums, fell ill, went to Davos to recover, had his hand forced by the fact that the book was being serialized, and rocketed away again, completing it in a further two weeks. It first saw the light of day, therefore, in serial form in a publication called Young Folks from October 1881 to January 1882. Unaware that he had written a masterpiece, the author protected his potential reputation under the pseudonym of Captain George North. He called it ‘awful fun’, no question of real writing, simply spanking along, following the scratching pen wherever it led, and no need for psychology either. He does himself a double injustice there. Psychologically it’s full of buried nuggets, and as for the writing, there is not a scrap of spare flesh on the bones of the plot. Its author insisted it was boys’ stuff, but it is also a fine fable, enduring because of its naked simplicity and universality. Not that it set the heather on fire as a serial, in spite of the fan letters, but as soon as it appeared as a book, it hit a readership that was increasingly disillusioned with its Victorian version of the dark satanic mills, and provided an escape from an age which, in spite of Tennyson, had obstructed the path of the romantic dream as the route to happiness. Louis had arrived. It was his first full-length narrative and it was a winner. Not long afterwards a Spectator reviewer wrote: ‘Boys who have lived since Treasure Island was published are boys who have a right to look back on all previous boyhoods with compassion.’ And this in spite of the fact that it was conventional, highly derivative, even plagiaristic, with Stevenson himself acknowledging debts to Washington Irving among others, of whom there are many – Defoe, Ballantyne, Marryat, Kingsley, Poe. But for Stevenson his story was still his own, ‘as original as sin’. Somehow the blind beggar, the black spot, the rum-raddled Billy Bones and his eerie song, the sea-chest map, the mad marooned sailor – all had a startling new life breathed into them by a master new storyteller. But the true origins of Treasure Island go much deeper than the conceit of Lloyd Osbourne. For years Stevenson had had a tempestuous relationship with his father, who railed against his bohemian son’s lifestyle and beliefs (or lack of these), and the book may well have been an attempt at bonding with the pious patriarch, who in spite of his temper was a loving, decent man, himself the victim of an oppressive and repressive upbringing. As to his literary tastes, a book like Treasure Island was just his cup of tea, and the sort of tale he would have read to a sick and sleepless boy, giving comfort by a lamp-lit bedside twenty years earlier. There is a surface plausibility in this. But family relationships are complex, Stevenson’s were a minefield, and the truth goes even deeper. Of course it may be argued that Treasure Island became possible because he had already achieved a more harmonious relationship with his parents and was now free to indulge his imagination to the full, leave belles-lettres behind him, and write the adventure stories for which he was to become famous. I don’t believe this. There is a sense in which you never escape your upbringing, and I don’t believe Louis ever got far, travel as he might. Far from his adventure stories revealing a happy relaxation, I think they express a constant need to ‘rise and go/Where the golden apples grow/Where below another sky/Parrot islands anchored lie’ – free, in other words, from the repressive moralities of Eden or Edinburgh. And this is precisely where the author takes his little hero, his young self, and where he took his older self in the end – to Samoa, where he became his own god. Furthermore it has to be said that fathers, in Stevenson’s stories, tend to be absent, ineffectual, dead, or indeed all too alive, to the extent that they have to be killed off. It can also be argued – and has been – that Jim’s father has to die so as to allow the boy to emerge from the chrysalis of dependency and suddenly grow up and become a hero. But the action of the book, mostly far removed from home in any case, would have taken care of that. The blunt reality is that Stevenson just can’t let fathers live, or live well. The heroes of Kidnapped and The Black Arrow are orphans. In The Master of Ballantrae, the two sons are estranged from their father in different ways, and he doesn’t last the length of the book. In his last unfinished book, Weir of Hermiston, Stevenson is still at it. Archie Weir is violently estranged from his father, the formidable hanging judge, who sentences his own son to death and later dies of the shock, while the son survives. That at least is how the book, which famously stops in mid-sentence, was to have ended. The filial clash here is a black and furious one, as is that between James, the Master of Ballantrae, and his father, who says to him: ‘Never a good hour have I gotten out of you since you were born; no never one good hour.’ This echoes Thomas Stevenson’s chilling remark to his son that Louis had rendered his father’s whole life a failure, and that he’d ten times rather see him lying in his grave than bringing ruin on the houses of others as he had on his own. So there is an anti-patriarchal subtext to Treasure Island. And the book has no lack of maimed father figures, all of whom say they have taken a fancy to Jim, and have therefore in a sense, however briefly, adopted him. Billy Bones, the blustering buccaneer, is badly scarred. Black Dog, who fathers him fleetingly and grotesquely, has two fingers missing, and would have been split to the chine but for the signboard of the Admiral Benbow, that stayed Billy’s slashing cutlass. As for Long John, he comes closest to being a surrogate father to Jim, but he too, like the others, is a maimed man, and slips off into a sort of self-imposed exile, never to be seen again. These physically marred and mutilated specimens possess a nightmarish power that goes back to Stevenson’s childhood dreams. The treasure of Treasure Island is of no literary importance, in spite of the blood that is spilt around it. Some of it is even abandoned on the island to be collected later, and as for its effect on the lives of those who won it so sorely, this is referred to in a single sentence: ‘All of us had an ample share of the treasure and used it wisely or foolishly according to our natures.’ It’s not the money that matters, in other words, but the venture itself, the excitement, the means, not the end. Of course the book’s real hero is its villain. Silver’s presence is felt before he even enters the story, as the seafaring man with one leg, of whom even the fierce Billy Bones is afraid. Jim absorbs this terror and turns it into the stuff of nightmare, quite literally: ‘How that personage haunted my dreams.’ So an aura of horror hangs round Silver from the start. Magnetic, murderous, Machiavellian, a deep flatterer, Silver is also fearless and intelligent, able and eloquent, and it’s these qualities that make it impossible for you to shake him from your shoulder. He stays there like the parrot, breathing in your ear and ready to bite. Jim’s relationship with him hovers between attraction and repulsion, and long after he sees through the man, and the reader sees through him too, something of the charm continues to work, as a testament to the insidious attraction of evil. Stevenson does not allow you a simplistic last word on Silver and you are left in ambiguity. It is entirely fitting that the author allows him to slip away before the end, escaping the certainty of categorization. And there is something appropriate also in the echo of his name in the silver that was left behind on the island. Wherever there is an island, something of him will be there. What is it about islands? They can be places of incarceration and nightmare, outposts of violence, injustice and vice – both history and literature abound with examples – as well as havens of security andpeace, the perfect territories for the exclusion of any aspects of reality with which you are uncomfortable. From the fabled Atlantis and the New Atlantis, through More, Shakespeare, Bacon and the rest, there are islands of alienation, liberation, idealization, civilization and the destruction of civilization. After Defoe, Ballantyne’s The Coral Island presented the best of British and of childhood, till Richard Hughes (A High Wind in Jamaica) severely dented those Victorian myths. Much later Golding weighed in with Lord of the Flies against Rousseau and the Romantics. Since writing began, writers have had a whale of a time with islands. Any sea-girt isle, from Pincher Martin’s rock to Pitcairn Island, Blood Island, Devil’s Island, not to mention ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’, is a place of exploration or retreat, attack or defence, and either way offers the ideal, an opportunity for the individual, Papillon, Monte Cristo, Jack or Simon, to show the best or worst he can do. Authors create their own islands. Each book, each literary work, is a world of its own; characters dance attendance; and the creator works out the dialectic between good and bad. In Stevenson’s case islands offered the embodiment of his juvenile fantasies: escape from parents, illness, responsibility, God. And the means of becoming monarch of all you survey. He always wanted to get up and go in search of an island Eldorado, the pure gold-dust of a healthy mind in a healthy body. The fictional plot of Treasure Island was already, in 1881, foreshadowing its author’s biography, art pushing towards life, perhaps even directing it, articulating its deep desires. This is clear right from the first page of the novel. Billy Bones, an uncouth character, disreputable in his behaviour and upsetting to the decent (and boring) domestic routine of the inn which is Jim’s home, clearly represents the call of the wild, the bohemian, the amoral and unknown, and embodies Stevenson’s desire to escape his douce dull origins and seek adventure, to leave not just for treasure but for leaving’s sake. As he had already written (in Travels with a Donkey), ‘I travel not to go anywhere but simply to go.’ Why has Treasure Island lasted? As an adventure story for children? I don’t think so. I have tried it out on my own three children, all of them avid story-hearers, with limited success. Jim inspires less interest than Harry Potter, for he is the mere scribe of the story, in spite of his rite of passage. He fades from the mind the moment his last sentence is written. What remains are not his actions and attitudes but his memories – and ours too – of Billy Bones and Black Dog and Blind Pew and Ben Gunn, of Captain Flint, parrot and ghost, and pieces of eight. Of a buried treasure on an uncharted island where anything could happen, and did. And the booming of the surf in dreams about its coasts and coves. The fact is that in writing Treasure Island Stevenson was getting certain things both out of his system and into his system, and on an unconscious level so perhaps are many of his adult readers. So certainly was I, half a century ago, but I have found that today is as good as yesterday. As a wiser man, I hope, I understand that the book is better, infinitely better, than I first thought. When Stevenson realized what he’d written, he said: ‘If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day.’ It did fetch the kids. I’m not sure that it does now to the same extent, but that has been the fate of many a great book in an age of text messages and e-mails and iPods. All the more reason for the adults to show that they’ve not gone rotten – to bring it down from the loft, blow away the dust, and set sail on the Hispaniola, bound for Treasure Island.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Christopher Rush 2008
About the contributor
Christopher Rush’s memoir of his childhood in St Monans, Hellfire and Herring, has just been reissued in paperback.