The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson (1892)

The auctioneer was surrounded by perhaps a score of lookers-on, big fellows, for the most part, of the true Western build, long in the leg, broad in the shoulder, and adorned (to a plain man’s taste) with needless finery. A jaunty, ostentatious comradeship prevailed. Bets were flying, and nicknames. The boys (as they would have called themselves) were very boyish; and it was plain they were here in mirth, and not on business.
(Chapter IX – The Wreck of the Flying Scud)

Robert and Fanny and Lloyd

Fanny Stevenson Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne in France in 1876 and became deeply attached to her. She was ten years older than him (b.1840 compared to Stevenson’s 1850) and had three small children by her husband Samuel Osbourne, who she had married at the tender age of just 17. Samuel was an adventurer who headed to California to take part in the silver rush, brought his family out to stay with him, but was consistently unfaithful to Fanny until she decided to cut loose and took her children for a prolonged trip to Europe.

Fanny’s choice In 1876 Fanny returned to America prepared to reconcile with her husband. So infatuated was Stevenson that he saved up for three years to have the fare to travel out to California there to woo her (the journey described in his travel book The Amateur Emigrant) and poor Fanny was faced in 1879 with the choice between unfaithful husband and ardent devotee – who just happened to be a literary genius into the bargain. Eventually she chose the sickly Scotsman and they were married in 1880, Stevenson acquiring two step-children Isobel (b.1858) and Lloyd (b. 1868), the third, Hervey, having died as a child in Paris. They spent two months in the Napa Valley near abandoned mine workings, an experience fictionalised into the novel The Silverado Squatters.

Stevenson’s travels They moved back to Britain for a while for Robert to patch up relations with his scandalised parents. For the next seven years they moved around England and Scotland, Devon, Bournemouth, spending the winter months in the south of France or Switzerland. These were the years of his masterpieces – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, as well as The Black Arrow and much poetry.

The South Seas In 1887 his father died and Stevenson returned to America, wintering in New York state. In 1888 he was in California charting a yacht to take him, Fanny and Lloyd to the islands of the South Seas and there began an extensive period of travel among the islands of the Pacific, getting to know customs, traditions, languages and politics. Lloyd was now 20 and very close to RLS. Stevenson restlessly wrote wherever he went, and in a wide variety of forms, children’s and adult poetry, adventure stories and romances, short stories, novels, travel books, essays and letters.

Collaborations with Lloyd Osborne It was here during his south sea travels and after he settled on an island of Samoa that Stevenson collaborated closely with his step-son Lloyd on three novels: The Wrong Box, The Wrecker and The Ebb-Tide. And, whereas he wrote two more novels and a number of south sea stories which are part of the ‘canon’, it is maybe no coincidence that most people haven’t heard of these three collaborations.

The Wrecker

The Prologue of The Wrecker, titled In The Marquesas, describes the litter of whites, beach bums and local South sea natives who live near the harbour of Tai-o-hae, ‘the French capital and port of entry of the Marquesas Islands’. It has colour and flavour and promises much.

Outside, the night was full of the roaring of the surf. Scattered lights glowed in the green thicket. Native women came by twos and threes out of the darkness, smiled and ogled the two whites, perhaps wooed them with a strain of laughter, and went by again, bequeathing to the air a heady perfume of palm-oil and frangipani blossom.

A schooner enters the harbour and the captain, Mr Loudon Dodd, is invited along to the whites-only club, where they drink and roister and the inebriated captain finds himself boasting about all kinds of scrapes and semi-crimes he’s been involved in. His host, back at his house, says surely that was all bluff. Oh no, says Dodd, it was all true. ‘Pray tell’, asks his host. Alright, says Dodd.

Dodd’s life story At which point the novel cuts away to become a completely different book from the one promised – a long, humorous, self-deprecating first-person narrative of Dodd’s life and times. Dodd’s dad was a typically boosterish American businessman who sends his son to college to  learn how to gamble on the stock market. But the young boy wants to be an artist! They square the circle by sending Loudon to Paris to study sculpture – so that he can provide the statues needed for the new state capital the father is crookedly involved in.

Student in Paris Loudon’s adventures in student Paris are all firmly tongue-in-cheek, told with a drollness which is completely at odds with the pithy, psychologically acute style Stevenson demonstrated in his classic adventures, The Black Arrow or Ballantrae.

At this time we were all a little Murger-mad in the Latin Quarter. The play of the Vie de Boheme (a dreary, snivelling piece) had been produced at the Odeon, had run an unconscionable time–for Paris, and revived the freshness of the legend. The same business, you may say, or there and thereabout, was being privately enacted in consequence in every garret of the neighbourhood, and a good third of the students were consciously impersonating Rodolphe or Schaunard to their own incommunicable satisfaction. Some of us went far, and some farther. I always looked with awful envy (for instance) on a certain countryman of my own who had a studio in the Rue Monsieur le Prince, wore boots, and long hair in a net, and could be seen tramping off, in this guise, to the worst eating-house of the quarter, followed by a Corsican model, his mistress, in the conspicuous costume of her race and calling. It takes some greatness of soul to carry even folly to such heights as these; and for my own part, I had to content myself by pretending very arduously to be poor, by wearing a smoking-cap on the streets, and by pursuing, through a series of misadventures, that extinct mammal, the grisette.

San Francisco In Paris he meets a fellow American art student, Jim Pinkerton, who is lousy at art but addicted to doing dodgy business deals, he nicknames him ‘the Irrepressible’ or ‘the Commercial Force’. This man is to loom large in his life because, when Loudon’s father dies after one business crash too many, Loudon, deprived of daddy’s monthly stipends, falls on very hard times and after trying all available options, is forced to travel back to the States and out to California where he becomes a side-kick and cultural fig leaf for Pinkertson’s numerous scams and cons: selling counterfeit brandy, organising a preposterous regular sea-side picnic, wild speculations on all and every business venture.

A taste of the South Seas Suddenly in chapter eight we learn that Loudon has taken to exploring San Francisco, the secret slums and hidden places – there are rich descriptions of its multi-cultural shops and bars and dives.

My delight was much in slums. Little Italy was a haunt of mine; there I would look in at the windows
of small eating-shops, transported bodily from Genoa or Naples, with their macaroni, and chianti flasks, and portraits of Garibaldi, and coloured political caricatures; or (entering in) hold high debate with some ear-ringed fisher of the bay as to the designs of “Mr. Owstria” and “Mr. Rooshia.” I was often to be observed (had there been any to observe me) in that dis-peopled, hill-side solitude of Little Mexico, with its crazy wooden houses, endless crazy wooden stairs, and perilous mountain
goat-paths in the sand. Chinatown by a thousand eccentricities drew and held me; I could never have enough of its ambiguous, interracial atmosphere, as of a vitalised museum; never wonder enough at its outlandish, necromantic-looking vegetables set forth to sell in commonplace American shop-windows, its temple doors open and the scent of the joss-stick streaming forth on the American air, its kites of Oriental fashion hanging fouled in Western telegraph-wires, its flights of paper prayers which the trade-wind hunts and dissipates along Western gutters.

And in amid these he starts listening to tales of sailors and seafarers of the remote romantic south sea islands, visits a seafarer who has a collection of south sea island artefacts, gets bitten by the bug. So he enthusiastically falls in with Pinkerton’s latest scheme to bid for a ship which they hear has been shipwrecked on Midway Island, the brig Flying Scud. It’s meant to be a rigged auction i.e. Pinkerton has arranged to buy the ship from the auctioneer at the nominal sum of $100, so everybody is surprised when a well known, seedy lawyer, Bellairs, starts bidding against Pinkerton and the bidding climbs to the absurd and giddy heights of $30,000 then $40,000.

By now our boys have realised something very suspicious is going on – maybe the brig must have been packed full of Chinese opium! Loudon notices that the captain of the wrecked ship – Captain Trent – is at the auction, looking very nervous. Our boys eventually win the ship but at a budget-breaking cost of $50,000. In the corridor Loudon overhears Bellairs telephoning the man whose instructions he was obeying, a certain Mr Dickson. But when Loudon gets hold of his address and goes to visit and question Dickson, he finds he has beaten a hasty retreat from his boarding house. Why?

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Voyage to Midway Pinkerton and Dodds hire a schooner, the Nora Creiner, appoint a Captain Nares and hire a dodgy-looking crew. Pinkerton appoints Dodds his agent for the mission – which is to find the brig, find the opium, take it on to Honolulu to sell, and return to San Francisco with the profits. There is a brisk clear good humour about the narrator’s tone which seems different from any other Stevenson I’ve read. It has an often modern sense of comic timing and a brisk easy pace. Stevenson’s sentences are generally more broken up with semi-colons and edgy angular additions and clauses; The Wrecker‘s sentences run on smooth and debonair.

I was presented to the commissioner, and to a young friend of his whom he had brought with him for the purpose (apparently) of smoking cigars; and after we had pledged one another in a glass of California port, a trifle sweet and sticky for a morning beverage, the functionary spread his papers on the table, and the hands were summoned. Down they trooped, accordingly, into the cabin; and stood eyeing the ceiling or the floor, the picture of sheepish embarrassment, and with a common air of wanting to expectorate and not quite daring. In admirable contrast, stood the Chinese cook, easy, dignified, set apart by spotless raiment, the hidalgo of the seas.

The Flying Scud Eventually they reach the site where Captain Trent said The Flying Scud ran aground and, sure enough, find it. The captain, crew and Loudon spend days ripping the poor brig apart and, sure enough, do eventually find boxes hidden in the mats of rice – and they do contain opium – but only a few hundred pounds of the stuff – value, at the absolute maximum, maybe $10,000. Whereas Pinkerton had bid $50,000 for the ship! It looks like a complete bust. Sadly captain Nares and Dodd conclude they’ve done everything they can, set fire to the hulk and sail on to Honolulu.

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

The mystery Here I didn’t quite understand some scenes but I think Loudon disposes of the opium to two agents Pinkerton has arranged to meet him. He then bumps into the captain of the British warship which found and rescued the crew of the Flying Scud, is invited to a party aboard, and quizzes the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. From all this he discovers that the survivor of the Scud, who later paid Bellairs to bid against Pinkerton, and who gave his name as Dickson, was in fact one Norris Carthew, an Englishman from a noble family. What the devil is this all about? Dr Urquhart gives the impression of knowing but Loudon fails to wangle it out of him and is left as completely perplexed about the mystery of the wrecked brig as we the reader, and the narrator is the intrusive kind who comes right out and confronts the reader with it:

I have never again met Dr. Urquart: but he wrote himself so clear upon my memory that I think I see him still. And indeed I had cause to remember the man for the sake of his communication. It was hard enough to make a theory fit the circumstances of the Flying Scud; but one in which the chief actor should stand the least excused, and might retain the esteem or at least the pity of a man like Dr. Urquart, failed me utterly. Here at least was the end of my discoveries; I learned no more, till I learned all; and my reader has the evidence complete. Is he more astute than I was? or, like me, does he give it up?

Pinkerton’s bankruptcy So Loudon sails back to San Francisco and confronts Jim and his new wife, Mamie, with his failure to find treasure on the ship. Pinkerton, for his part, explains about his bankruptcy – an official receiver was called in, who could only secure 7 cents in every dollar for the creditors.  Jim was thoroughly pilloried in all the newspapers and now lives in a shabby apartment with shabby clothes and is working as the meanest type of clerk.

Loudon inherits a fortune Which is why, when Loudon receives a telegram telling him he’s inherited a fortune from his doting grandfather in Scotland, they all celebrate wildly with a champagne dinner and pack up and head to the country for a rest and recuperation. Within days Pinkerton is back to his classic best, a wheeling-dealing shyster, going to the office of the local newspaper, investigating mining operations, sniffing for new business ventures.

More Flying Scud mystery Loudon leaves him and returns to San Francisco where he dines with Captain Nares who he got to like and respect during the long voyage. Nares says they still haven’t got to the bottom of this Scud business. Loudon is then buttonholed by the lawyer Bellairs, who reveals himself as a weedy, uneducated shyster but who menacingly says he knows all about Loudon’s inheritance and makes vague threats to undermine him or Pinkerton or both. In addition, Bellairs says he knows all about the fake mate on the Scud, Norris Carthew. What? Loudon is puzzled: what fake mate? Who is Carthew? Why does is matter?

Bellairs goes on that Carthew comes from a venerable family in England, in Dorset, aha yes you can’t fool old Bellairs. Loudon wonders what on earth he’s babbling about.

Chasing Bellairs Next day, in a passage which I read twice but still didn’t understand, Loudon discovers that Bellairs has left his hotel and set off East, presumably to go to England and find Carthew, and decides to follow him. Why? I know the narrative has to take us to England and Carthew but Loudon’s decision to do so is extremely flimsy.

Across the Atlantic Loudon and Bellairs find themselves on the same transatlantic ship and get to know each other more, Bellairs alternating between wanting to be friends and show off his miserably uneducated mind, and sudden bursts of aggression and threat. Loudon finds out the whole of the poor man’s life story, which I won’t bother repeating here.

Stallbridge-le-Carthew From Liverpool the odd couple find themselves making American tourist day trips to local towns and then heading further south, to Gloucester, Bath and so by stages to Dorset. Bellairs disappears, presumably to get to Carthew first – and Loudon races to the fine ancestral pile of the Carthews arriving before the lowlife lawyer. Here Loudon is treated to a guided tour of the grand Carthew mansion, the gardens and stables and prize-winning horses and flower beds, and then the local village and the local inn kept by ex-servants of the Carthews.

From these people he learns that Norris was the black sheep of the family, the second son, wanted to be an artist (don’t they all) argued with the father and was packed off to the colonies. He has, apparently, only recently returned, promptly had a big fight with his mother, and has disappeared again. Through the roundabout method of examining the inn-keeper’s daughter’s stamp collection, Loudon gathers that Norris has gone to Barbizon, a village in France a little north of Paris and a popular hang-out for would-be artists. (In fact a place Stevenson knew well and visited when his cousin, the artist Bob Stevenson, was a regular visitor there in the 1870s.)

Barbizon Loudon sets off straight away, across England to London and then across the Channel to France and so on to Barbizon. He arrives to find the place packed with art students as in his day, and even knows some of the older-timers who show him round. And as there aren’t many Anglos he is almost immediately introduced to the dapper Carthew, who is going under the false name of Madden. Loudon recognises him as one of the sailors rescued from the Scud and Carthew admits it and admits using a fake name in San Francisco.

They talk late into the night, with Loudon giving his side of the long convoluted story of The Flying Scud – rather wearing the reader’s patience by this time – beforeCarthew says he will tell his side of the story.

And now,” said he, “turn about: I must tell you my side, much as I hate it. Mine is a beastly story. You’ll wonder how I can sleep. (Chapter XXI)

Carthew’s life story Once again, as in the switch right at the start of the text to Loudon Dodd’s point of view, we don’t get anything like a crisp narrative focused on explaining whatever the secret is behind the wrecked ship. The exact opposite: we get a long, long, long account of Carthew’s childhood and teenage years and prolonged arguments with his father about his wish to become an artist, the family force him to go to Oxford where he is kicked out with huge debts, after which he is packed off to Europe and makes even more debts gambling, before the disgusted family sent him even further away, all the way to Sydney Australia, to contact a lawyer who would pay him a living allowance only if he regularly visited the office. It is a strange kind of echo or just repeat of the life story of loudon which we had to crawl through in the early chapters.

Carthew puts up with this treatment in Australia for a while, spending all the money before he has it and ending up a homeless bum in a Sydney park, before he gets a tip to go and work on the railways where he discovers the joys of manual labour and rough proletarian company.

Scheme to do business in the South Seas Back in Sydney with his pay saved up, he bumps into a well-known speculator, Tom Hadden, who gets him interested in the vast profits to be made trading in the south seas. They recruit a legendary old sea captain, Bostock, ‘a slow, sour old man, with fishy eyes’, who introduces them to another captain, one Wicks who was indicted for murder when he struck down a mutineering crewman and has been in hiding as a cabman in Sydney for three years. He says he knows a good schooner that’s been laid up rotting while a massive lawsuit fights around it which has finally settled and they can get her cheap.

The deal is done, they pool their money, buy the schooner, rename her Currency Lass, hire a Chinese cook, Carthew has a final interview with the lawyer who’d been paying him his stipend to inform him he’s off for six months trading in the south seas, and they set sail.

Business success and nautical disaster After ten days sailing they come to an island where they are steered in by the drunk pilot and the captain makes a good deal with a susceptible white trader, enough to pay off the price of the boat and make a handsome two grand profit. The businessmen celebrate and are merrily sailing on towards San Francisco, when they are caught in a severe storm. The main boom swinging round hard cuts off the foremast at the root and then is blown overboard shattering the main mast. The ship now has no power of movement at least 1,000 miles for the nearest port.

Journey to Midway One of them has been reading the maritime guidebook by Hoyt which claims there is a coaling station only forty or so miles away at Midway Island, so they pack the whaling boat with food, all their gods and the money, and row there, arriving next day to find no station, no people, no civilisation, just a low coral island haunted by gulls and driftwood. Here they settle in, building a fire, cooking meals and slowly despairing.

Rescue Five or six days in they are in the middle of a despairing card game when they spy a sail. It is the Hull brig The Flying Scud which the second part of this yarn has all been about. They light a big fire with driftwood and to their amazed relief the ship comes up and anchors outside the reef. They take their whaling boat out to it and are helped aboard, asked questions, fed, to their great relief.

A hard bargain But then the captain, Trent, invites them all down into his cabin along with the big Scandinavian first mate, Goddedaal, and the mood changes. Thoughtfully he puts it to them that there is a price for their rescue. Once he’s heard the story of the big profit they made at the island, he says his offer is this: hand over the entire £2,000 profit and he’ll take them to San Francisco; refuse, and he’ll dump them back on the island. Even his own first mate is appalled and sinks his head in his hands. But as he insists and even threatens them, Mac, the unstable passionate Ulsterman in the Lasses crew, whips out a clasp knife and in the ensuing scuffle it ends in Captain Trent’s neck, he collapses onto the table and bleeds out. At which the huge Scandianavian goes berserk, whipping up a stool, bashing out Hemstead’s brains at one stroke, breaking Mac’s arm at the next, at which point Carthew draws his pistol and shoots him, then a crew member puts his face round the door and they shot him and then – in a pitiful scene, unlike anything else in the book and destroying forever its sense of humorous deprecation – our crew hunt down and methodically slaughter the whole crew of the Scud, refusing their pleas for mercy but shooting them like animals and throwing them overboard. This has all the horror of a very modern sensibility, like something as cruel and amoral as a contemporary movie, but all told in incongruously Victorian prose. Our crew throw the bodies overboard, make an effort to clear away the blood, getting drunk on raw gin until they pass out.

Saved The next morning they awake with terrible consciences and the psychological damage is described in depth by passages which must surely have been by Stevenson. They dispose of the last bodies, clear more blood, are going through the ship’s papers when they spot the smoke of a coal-fired ship approaching. In a mad panic they try and hide all evidence of the slaughter, search for the ship’s papers and dispose of as many as possible. Wicks comes up with the mad idea of stabbing his writing hand as if in an accident to explain why the most recent parts of the ship’s log were written by Goddedaal. And as the steamer anchors and a jolly boat rows towards them, Wicks hurriedly assigns them all identities from the slaughtered crew: he himself will impersonate Trent, Carthew with be Goddedaal, and so on.

Almost caught All goes sort of well as the young officer sent to investigate accepts their story and takes them, with their chests containing the treasure, back to the ship which turns out to be a Royal Navy boat, the Tempest. Here they start like guilty things at the least questioning, Wicks is permanently trembling and the climax comes when someone taps Carthew on the shoulder and recognises him as Carthew; he faints clean away. Their saviour is the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. he realises Wicks’s stabbed hand is self-inflicted, he hears Carthew mentioning the dead shipmates in his delirium and eventually the two guilty men confess what happened. Surprisingly the doctor helps them cover it up, helps smuggle Carthew off the ship in San Francisco and carries on covering for them, even when Loudon tracks him down to question him.

Tied up threads And thus almost all the mysteries of The Flying Scud, the ship Pinkerton and Loudon set out so innocently to buy and do a little trading with, are sorted out, from the nervous appearance of the crew in the Frisco bar where Loudon first saw them, to the crazy auction, where Bellair was under instructions from Carthew – masquerading as Dickson – to pay any sum to ensure nobody else came into contact with it. And when Loudon overheard Bellairs speaking to Dickson/Carthew on the phone and then rang the same number and asked him why he wanted to buy the Scud so badly – the conspirators in their paranoia took it as a sign that the authorities were onto them and scattered to the four winds, Carthew travelling back to England, revealing something of  his disaster to his appalled mother, before hurrying on to France.

Where Loudon finally tracked him down to hear the whole of this long and grim narrative.

Epilogue The final few pages consist of a letter to one Will H. Low, who I don’t think we’ve heard of before. The narrator of the letter seems to be a newspaperman (?) who has helped arrange the publication of this whole narrative. (There is a sarcastic aside where he claims to be ‘wholly modern in sentiment, and think nothing more noble than to publish people’s private affairs at so much a line’, a thought which sheds light on Henry James’s contemporary story, The Aspern Papers). He describes what became of all the participants. Pinkerton is now in business with Captain Nares, who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’s bought a newspaper and has plans to become state senator. Dodds is in partnership with Carthew: Carthew bought another schooner and Dodds manages it, going on the voyages as super-cargo. Hadden and Mac (whose hot temper caused all the trouble) took a turn at the gold fields in Venezuela, and Wicks went on alone to Valparaiso. Why is he writing this letter?

Why dedicate to you a tale of a caste so modern;—full of details of our barbaric manners and unstable morals;—full of the need and the lust of money, so that there is scarce a page in which the dollars do not jingle;—full of the unrest and movement of our century, so that the reader is hurried from place to place and sea to sea, and the book is less a romance than a panorama—in the end, as blood-bespattered as an epic?

And he describes how the authors were discussing recent nautical tales and disasters – so maybe this letter is being written by Stevenson in his own character (?). Stevenson then explains how he and his collaborator thought to make the story into that modern genre,

the police novel or mystery story, which consists in beginning your yarn anywhere but at the beginning, and finishing it anywhere but at the end;

The risk of these is they often appear mechanical contrivances. Hence the decision to give such a very very long lead-in to the main characters – hence Loudon and his pa back in the States, and the long section about being an art student in Paris, and the long sections about Pinkerton’s preposterous schemes.

All this is meant to draw the reader in – but I defy any modern reader of this book who wouldn’t have found it do exactly the opposite and eventually tire and exhaust them so much that they give up reading the book before the mystery proper even appears.


Stevenson’s speciality is derring-do and adventure, risks and perils and threatening – often Gothic horror – tension. By contrast, this long book is written in a tone of urbane drollery. Once in Honolulu, Loudon goes to visit one of the men contacted by Pinkerton to take receipt of and fence the opium, a Mr Fowler.

This gentleman owned a bungalow on the Waikiki beach; and there in company with certain young bloods of Honolulu, I was entertained to a sea-bathe, indiscriminate cocktails, a dinner, a hula-hula, and (to round off the night), poker and assorted liquors. To lose money in the small hours to pale, intoxicated youth, has always appeared to me a pleasure overrated.

The last sentence is not exactly Wilde, but it is a deliberate epigram, intended to be dry and witty. The books is full of this kind of effect, far from the style used in KidnappedThe Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae. Whereas the narrators of those books talk up the action, and contrive an atmosphere of tension and melodrama, the narrator of The Wrecker takes a self-deprecating view of himself and everything around him, with a steady stream of epigrams, witticisms and a self-conscious punning attitude to words.

In such a mixed humour, I made up what it pleases me to call my mind, and once more involved myself in the story of Carthew and the Flying Scud. The same night I wrote a letter of farewell to Jim, and one of anxious warning to Dr. Urquart begging him to set Carthew on his guard; the morrow saw me in the ferry-boat; and ten days later, I was walking the hurricane deck on the City of Denver. By that time my mind was pretty much made down again, its natural condition.

For all the thousands of times I’ve heard people having their mind made up, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the fairly obvious joke claim that their mind is made down, and it is typical of Loudon to go on and joke that this is pretty much his mind’s natural condition.

In his humorous mode, the narrator is well aware that he is writing rubbish. When Loudon and Captai Nares are ransacking the shipwrecked Scud, they find some artists’ pencils which gives Loudon a moment’s pause.

“Yes,” I continued, “it’s been used by an artist, too: see how it’s sharpened–not for writing–no man could write with that. An artist, and straight from Sydney? How can he come in?”
“O, that’s natural enough,” sneered Nares. “They cabled him to come up and illustrate this dime novel.”

One small moment particularly struck me: Loudon creeps up behind him to eavesdrop on the lawyer Bellairs as he makes a telephone call to his client from the auctioneer house:

I scarce know anything that gives a lower view of man’s intelligence than to overhear (as you thus do) one side of a communication.

How prophetic, now that all of us have multiple moments on any bus or train where we are forced to listen to half a conversation as someone natters on their mobile phone and are invariably drawn to conclude that both participants are imbeciles.

Psychological acuity

A feature of Stevenson’s successful books is their psychological insight. Jekyll and Hyde is a sustained investigation of the human mind, but his other successes throw out all kinds of insights into human nature. In my review of The Master of Ballantrae – itself a sustained contrast between the two psychological types of the feuding brothers – I’ve mentioned the scene where the servant Mackellar tries to kick the wicked Master over the edge of the ship they’re sailing on in a storm – the acuteness comes in from the way the Master actually respects Mackellar for trying to kill him and Mackellar, in turn, can’t help admiring the master’s largeness of spirit, even while still detesting him. Peculiar insights into human behaviour like this litter the better books.

And so – through the essentially light and mostly dry ironic style of The Wreckers – there are occasional moments of something deeper, more visionary. Safely back in San Francisco Loudon takes captain Nares to dinner and both of them find it hard to reconcile the intensity of their hard labour dismantling the Scud in the harsh glare of Midway Island, amid the screeching seagulls and the crash of the waves, with the polite restaurant they now find themselves in, formally dressed and waited on hand and foot.

The same night I had Nares to dinner. His sunburnt face, his queer and personal strain of talk, recalled days that were scarce over and that seemed already distant. Through the music of the band outside, and the chink and clatter of the dining-room, it seemed to me as if I heard the foaming of the surf and the voices of the sea-birds about Midway Island. The bruises on our hands were not yet healed; and there we sat, waited on by elaborate darkies, eating pompano and drinking iced champagne.
“Think of our dinners on the Norah, captain, and then oblige me by looking round the room for contrast.”
He took the scene in slowly. “Yes, it is like a dream,” he said: “like as if the darkies were really about as big as dimes; and a great big scuttle might open up there, and Johnson stick in a great big head and shoulders, and cry, ‘Eight bells!’—and the whole thing vanish.”

If the plot and dialogue are given in an almost entirely even, sensible, sober, rather ironic style, it is the ‘strange’ moments like this which keep the reader reading… Just about.

Until the final grisly scenes. The massacre at the climax of the book comes in chapter 24 of the book’s 25 chapters. I.e. it is only at the very very bitter end of the text that we have anything like Stevenson’s characteristic psychological depth and this itself is a little overwhelmed by the amount of blood and gore. Still, the feelings of the sailors as they land on Midway and realise they are doomed to starve to death – and then their feelings in the aftermath of the massacre – are completely at odds with everything which preceded them and leave an odd, damaged taste in the mouth.

Old words and phrases

One of the main appeals of reading old books is they have a different way with the English language: individual words are used in a different sense from our contemporary meanings, and entire phrases appear which you can puzzle out but which have long disappeared. Therefore, reading old books gives you a sense on the wider possibilities of the English language and, even if only momentarily, expands your mind.

That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.”

‘A home word’? Presumably meaning, a particularly telling or accurate saying.

“Just let me get down on my back in a hayfield,” said he, “and you’ll find there’s no more snap to me than that much putty.”

‘Snap’? Presumably meaning vim, vigour, zest, energy.

It was blowing fresh outside, with a strong send of sea.

‘Send’ being, apparently, the heave of the sea, the motion of the sea against a vessel.

Just before the battle, mother

In a typically comic touch, Loudon not only finds himself made the reluctant front man for Pinkerton’s surprisingly successful business venture of organised trips to have picnics on boats out of San Francisco, but after humming it once finds himself called upon to sing the full version of the classic American tune ‘Just before the battle, mother’ until his performance is advertised on the posters and becomes a regular part of the excruciating routine. Listening to it gives a sense of how long long ago this society, its values and morals, its fundamental beliefs and values, are from our own.


Very broadly speaking there are two Stevensons: Bad Stevenson rambles without focus, his plots unravelling into increasing preposterousness and he exhausts the reader in endless peregrinations which eventually make you vow never to read one of his justly-forgotten books ever again. The classic example is the awful New Arabian Nights and, I’m afraid, this novel jostles into that group.

Then there is Brilliant Stevenson – as in Kidnapped and Treasure Island – works which make you think you must track down and read every word this genius of atmosphere, pace and incident ever wrote.

Until you find yourself reading another long, gruelling, amusing but ultimately inconsequential folly like The Wrecker. And so the would-be fan finds themself ping-ponging from one pole to the other.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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—-
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.
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.
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.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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