Treasure Island

Extract of a piece originally written for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

…Although a recognised essayist and travel writer, Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first novel, discounting some unfinished juvenilia which he had burned. This was in the hope of making his craft pay, because, as he later wrote in ‘My First Book’:

By that time I had written little books and little essays and short stories, and had got patted on the back and paid for them – though not enough to live on. I had quite a reputation. I was the successful man. I passed my day in toil, the futility of which would sometimes make my cheeks to burn, – that I should spend a man’s energy upon this business, and yet could not earn a livelihood.

‘My First Book’, published in the UK magazine the Idler in 1894 and McClure’s Magazine in the US and often appended to early editions of Treasure Island, offers a candid insight into the novel’s influences and inception, as well as some of Stevenson’s views on writing in general. (This is the essay in which he recommends writing with an Almanac to avoid compositional ‘croppers’ regarding phases of the moon, often cited in creative writing guides and classes.) The idea was conceived on a wet weekend in Braemar in 1881, the year after Stevenson had married the charismatic American writer Fanny Van de Grift, when he was drawing with his stepson, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, who was then thirteen:

On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’

As a seasoned traveller, Stevenson, like Conrad’s ‘Marlow’ in Heart of Darkness, found maps to be completely magical:

…here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopence worth of imagination to understand with! No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies. Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

‘And then,’ he continued, ‘I had an idea for John Silver…’ He would base him on an ‘admired friend’ (the writer William Ernest Henley), and ‘deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament,’ leaving him with ‘nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality,’ and to ‘try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin.’ Henley had lost a leg to TB when he was twenty but was not a man to let disability get the better of him. Lloyd Osbourne described him as ‘a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet.’ Stevenson later confessed to Henley that ‘the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.’ Henley was like Silver in other ways, too. As a literary player, he had a reputation among his peers as a blatant opportunist, to the point of ethical ambivalence.

Stevenson thus began ‘The Sea Cook’, as the project was initially called, and proceeded to steal like an artist:

No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds. The stockade I am told, is from ‘Masterman Ready.’ It may be, I care not a jot. These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another—and I was the other! It is my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther.

(Masterman Ready, or the Wreck of the Pacific was an 1841 novel by Captain Marryat concerning a shipwrecked family aided by the veteran sailor ‘Masterman Ready’. Poe’s pointing skeleton comes from his story ‘The Gold-Bug’, 1843, about the search for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure.) He goes on to admit that on glancing through an old copy of Irving’s Tales of a Traveller, by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1824), he realised the entire first act of Treasure Island, the ‘Billy Bones’ episode, had been unconsciously lifted from Tales of a Traveller Part IV ‘The Money Diggers’, specifically the segment entitled ‘Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams’ in which a salty old sea dog dragging a locked sea chest appears at a rural seaside inn and takes over the bar, terrorizing the locals, while obsessively watching the comings and goings of ships through a telescope, drinking heavily, and telling piratical tales that ‘were enough to make a peaceable man’s hair stand on end.’ As his residency continues, it becomes obvious that he played a part in his ghastly anecdotes and that he is a real buccaneer. Like Billy Bones, he bears a livid scar from a cutlass upon his face and comes to a similarly gothic and sticky end. Stevenson goes onto tell how an emissary from the British newspaper and magazine proprietor and publisher James Henderson just happened to visit around that time, charged with finding new contributors for Henderson’s Young Folks penny magazine, which was aimed at what would nowadays be termed the ‘Young Adult’ audience (boys and girls). Its motto was ‘To Inform, To Instruct, To Amuse’. Stevenson read out his opening chapters and soon the serial was running, entitled Treasure Island or the mutiny of the Hispaniola by ‘Captain George North’, while the complete novel was still a work-in-progress.

‘It was to be a story for boys,’ wrote Stevenson, with ‘no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded.’ (It’s notable that aside from Mrs. Hawkins in the first act and a couple of references to Silver’s ‘mulatto’ wife, the story is completely masculine.) And as Lloyd Osbourne fed back, so did Stevenson’s father, contributing odds and ends to the novel’s setting. ‘I had counted on one boy,’ wrote Stevenson, but ‘I found I had two in my audience. My father caught fire at once with all the romance and childishness of his original nature.’ The serial ran through 1881 and 1882 and was published as a novel the following year by Cassell and Company. Given the monolithic cultural status of this text, you might be surprised to learn that the serial was not a hit with the Young Folks readers. As its editor, Robert Leighton, later recalled: ‘The boy readers did not like the story. As a serial it was a failure. Boys like a story to plunge at once into the active excitement.’ Nonetheless, Stevenson went on to serialise Kidnapped, and The Black Arrow in the magazine. It was the 1883 novelised edition that caused a stir, largely through an adult audience, gaining Stevenson a modest profit and national recognition. International fame would come with Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde three years later. 

Picasso famously said ‘Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal’ – which Steve Jobs was apparently fond of quoting. Picasso, in turn, was paraphrasing a comment by Stravinsky, who’d probably borrowed it from T.S. Eliot, which rather proves the point. In The Sacred Wood, Eliot had written: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.’ Such is the case with Treasure Island, which I think Stevenson knew, given his admissions in ‘My First Book’ and the light tone of the piece. He recombined some elements from lesser and even forgotten works by Cooper, Irving, Maryatt et al, and produced one of the greatest and most entertaining novels of the nineteenth century, if not ever. (He also notes the 1724 Newgate Calendar A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates as a source, as well as Robinson Crusoe, and that he got ‘The Dead Man’s Chest’ from At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies, a travel narrative by Charles Kingsley which gives this as the name of a tiny Caribbean island.) Stevenson took all these influences, known – and in the case of Irving, unconsciously – and created something entirely original and unique, so much so that Treasure Island must now be acknowledged as the wellspring for all subsequent pirate fictions. Captain Jack Sparrow would be unthinkable without Long John Silver. That is the measure of this modest man’s genius…

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