Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Treasure Island or, the mutiny of the Hispaniola’ was serialised in 18 instalments in the children’s magazine Young Folks between 1881–82, before being published in book form in 1883. Stevenson used the pseudonym Captain George North. It was the magazine’s editor, James Henderson, who suggested he change the title from The Sea Cook to Treasure Island.

Plot Presumably most people know the story. What makes the text so gripping is the speed with which the sequence of sensational incidents unfolds, and the vividness of characterisation – the boy hero Jack Hawkins, Long  John Silver, marooned Ben Gunn,  sinister Blind Pew, sterling Dr Livesey, stout Squire Trelawney – what a cast! And matching speed, incidents and character, Stevenson’s style is intently focused on moving quickly and effectively from one node of action to the next, with a storyteller’s natural touch of suspense.

“Every man on board seemed well content, and they must have been hard to please if they had been otherwise, for it is my belief there was never a ship’s company so spoiled since Noah put to sea. Double grog was going on the least excuse; there was duff on odd days, as, for instance, if the squire heard it was any man’s birthday, and always a barrel of apples standing broached in the waist for anyone to help himself that had a fancy.

“Never knew good come of it yet,” the captain said to Dr. Livesey. “Spoil forecastle hands, make devils. That’s my belief.”

“But good did come of the apple barrel, as you shall hear, for if it had not been for that, we should have had no note of warning and might all have perished by the hand of treachery.

“This was how it came about.” (Chapter 10)

Style Stevenson’s sentences might be long, with numerous subordinate clauses but, unlike Conrad’s sentences, each clause adds new information and so the prose feels pacey. In Conrad the atmosphere is stagnant, impotent, smothered by tautologous repetition. In Stevenson you are continually learning new information at each step.

“ALL that night we were in a great bustle getting things stowed in their place, and boatfuls of the squire’s friends, Mr. Blandly and the like, coming off to wish him a good voyage and a safe return. We never had a night at the Admiral Benbow when I had half the work; and I was dog-tired when, a little before dawn, the boatswain sounded his pipe and the crew began to man the capstan-bars. I might have been twice as weary, yet I would not have left the deck, all was so new and interesting to me—the brief commands, the shrill note of the whistle, the men bustling to their places in the glimmer of the ship’s lanterns.” (Chapter 10)

The three clauses at the end of this last sentence amplify the ‘all’ of the previous phrase. But each one describes something new, something factual and something well-selected to give a panoramic overview of dockside activities. They are like cutaways in a film. In this purely syntactical respect, quite apart from the sensational storyline, Stevenson’s style is cinematic. Also cinematic is RLS’s brisk way with detail:

“‘That?’ returned Silver, smiling away, but warier than ever, his eye a mere pin-point in his big face, but gleaming like a crumb of glass. ” (Chapter 14)

‘The rest of the arms and powder we dropped overboard in two fathoms and a half of water, so that we could see the bright steel shining far below us in the sun, on the clean, sandy bottom.’ (Chapter 16)

‘Just then, with a roar and a whistle, a round-shot passed high above the roof of the log-house and plumped far beyond us in the wood.’ (Chapter 18)

For Stevenson, poetry is in the lucid detail. Opposite of Conrad, with his murk of synonyms.

Dialogue In Conrad there is often an unintentionally comic mismatch between the lurid, nihilistic thoughts of the angst-ridden protagonists, dwelt on at great length – and their stiff-upper-lip, stiffly English, and generally brief dialogue. By contrast Stevenson’s dialogue is of a piece with the characters; their speech reveals them in an almost Shakespearian way. He did, after all, write half a dozen plays. Stevenson’s dialogue is wonderfully salty and dramatic, ready to go straight into the screenplay:

‘I saw him dead with these here deadlights,’ said Morgan. ‘Billy took me in. There he laid, with penny-pieces on his eyes.’

‘Dead—aye, sure enough he’s dead and gone below,’ said the fellow with the bandage; ‘but if ever sperrit walked, it would be Flint’s. Dear heart, but he died bad, did Flint!’

‘Aye, that he did,’ observed another; ‘now he raged, and now he hollered for the rum, and now he sang. “Fifteen Men” were his only song, mates; and I tell you true, I never rightly liked to hear it since. It was main hot, and the windy was open, and I hear that old song comin’ out as clear as clear—and the death-haul on the man already.’

Origins I came across this excellent account of the book’s origins on a website called Referautile:

—Stevenson was 30 years old when he started to write Treasure Island, and it would be his first success as a novelist. The first fifteen chapters were written at Braemar in the Scottish Highlands in 1881. It was a cold and rainy late-summer and Stevenson was with five family members on holiday in a cottage. Young Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, passed the rainy days painting with watercolours. Remembering the time, Lloyd wrote:

‘… busy with a box of paints I happened to be tinting a map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words Treasure Island at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too —— the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island … “Oh, for a story about it”, I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment … ‘

Within three days of drawing the map for Lloyd, Stevenson had written the first three chapters, reading each aloud to his family who added suggestions: Lloyd insisted there be no women in the story; Stevenson’s father came up with the contents of Billy Bones’s sea-chest, and suggested the scene where Jim Hawkins hides in the apple barrel. Two weeks later a friend, Dr. Alexander Japp, brought the early chapters to the editor of Young Folks magazine who agreed to publish each chapter weekly.

As autumn came to Scotland, the Stevensons left their summer holiday retreat for London, but Stevenson was troubled with a life-long chronic bronchial condition that put an end to his work on the novel at about chapter fifteen. Concerned about a deadline they travelled in October to Davos, Switzerland where the clean mountain air did him wonders and he was able to continue, and, at a chapter a day, soon finished the story.—

Adaptations A chapter a day! The brisk pace, the focus on incident and the striking characterisation explain why over 50 movie and TV versions have been made of ‘Treasure Island’. The only one I’m familiar with is the great 1950 Disney version with the fabulous Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

The Disney production of ‘Treasure Island’ on YouTube

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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  1. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) « Books & Boots

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