Julia MacRae refuses to set sail on the Hispaniola.
Once upon a time I had three great cultural blind spots: Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Then a luminous performance of the Bach Mass in Christ Church, Spitalfields converted me to the first, and working with Anthony Browne on an edition of Alice opened my eyes, through his, to the real delights of the second. There remained Treasure Island. My first reaction on being asked to write about it was, `Oh Lord, I’ll have to read the wretched thing again’, coupled with a sneaking suspicion that perhaps this third and last bastion would fall in the light of a supposedly more mature reading (I was ten when I first learned to loathe it).
So I read it again and nothing has changed – I still dislike it intensely. It’s not easy to be negative about a `classic’, nor indeed is it very easy to define just why I don’t like this book, since it is a gut reaction and not an academic one. But here goes…
In the very opening pages I came across something which I clearly remembering bothering me all those years ago. `The old sea dog’ who comes clumping into the `Admiral Benbow’ says, `This is a handy cove … and a pleasant sittyated grog shop’. Sittyated? What sort of a word is that? Even at ten I was a fanatical speller (with not much sense of humour) and. I remember being thoroughly irritated by this grating word. If the child is father to the man, then at an early age I was apparently very much a blue pencil person, already wanting to `edit’ what seemed to me contrived and unconvincing speech patterns. I must have been an impossible little prig but I can’t help that – I didn’t like the way Stevenson wrote, and I didn’t like the way he seemed to rely on conveying character by changing speech patterns and not much else.
At that stage I recall liking my characters to be silent men of action. Usually men – in the `forties the bulk of my reading was not really written for children at all, very little of it featured women, and most of the `heroes’ were adults, notably, for me, Tarzan and a fighter pilot improbably named Rockfist Rogan (in the pages of Champion). Tarzan (in the film version) was certainly a man of very few words; all he ever did was emit a bloodcurdling sexy yodel at which elephants would drop everything and come running from all over. Rockfist Rogan gave out a bit of RAF slang now and then, but mostly he just hit people. Whereas Jim Hawkins – Jim went on and on and on, never sounding the least like anybody real to me, neither child nor man. I did not care a fig what happened to him. He talked too much.
And there were (are) other problems. What is one to make of Long John Silver? Is he a goodie or a baddie? I never knew and I still don’t. I did not like this ambiguity. It may be a sign of Stevenson’s genius, but I wanted to know one way or the other and could never really make up my mind, which I resented. As a pirate he failed to convince, and his parrot drove me mad. (Rafael Sabatini, a writer who entranced me and is virtually unheard of today, created The Sea Hawk, every word of which thrilled – that was how a swashbuckling pirate story should be written!) Silver was an enigma, and he didn’t frighten me in the least.
But old. blind Pew did – terribly. He was the stuff of nightmares as he came tap-tapping his way to the Inn. I was truly frightened by this character, and it was a while before I could view blindness with compassion and not with horror. On re-reading Treasure Island I was struck by the fact that much of the revulsion engendered by Stevenson’s villains is triggered by his description of physical disability – Long John Silver has only one leg, Black Dog is missing two fingers, Pew is blind. The child/ adult in me still feels Stevenson relies on speech and physical characteristics to delineate character – for me, his people have no convincing inner depth. It is all external.
And I remember being bothered by Squire Trelawney. Growing up in Australia gave me no first-hand experience of the English class-structure, but I had become aware through my reading that most English rural communities had a squire and that the squire was usually rich, frequently pompous and spoke better English than everybody else. Squire Trelawney seemed to me to be a blithering idiot. How could one take seriously a character who, upon learning that some of the crew are treacherously inclined, expostulates, “`And to think they’re all Englishmen!”‘ Really, this book is peopled with stereotypes, but perhaps Stevenson invented the stereotype.
But the main reason I dislike Treasure Island is that it bored me then and it bores me now. It was written as a serial, and only achieved popularity after its publication in book form, but to me it still reads as a serial, with that artificial and disjointed attempt to find a suitable cliffhanging incident for each instalment. It does not flow. Yet it has been called `the greatest adventure story ever written’. Good heavens! What about She, or Beau Geste, or The Thirty-Nine Steps or even – perish the thought! – Susannah of the Mounties, each of which gave me a far greater sense of adventure and excitement than the long-winded goings-on of all those people on the Hispaniola? They roar about from one incident to the next, woodenly playing out their roles. I never felt, nor wanted to be, a part of it.
But others clearly did. Some time ago I went to see an exhibition of works by America’s dynastic painting family, the Wyeths, at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. There, before my truly astonished eyes, were the original N C Wyeth illustrations for the Scribner edition of Treasure Island. They defy description. To begin with, they are as big as billiard tables, and I fail utterly to understand how the printers of the time coped with them. And they have such power: the painting of the demonic Pew must surely be one of the most remarkable portraits ever made to illustrate a book. I do not believe a boring text could have inspired so great a picture and so I must concede, albeit reluctantly, that the failure to appreciate Treasure Island is my blind spot, and no fault of Robert Louis Stevenson. But don’t ask me to read it again.
After training as a children’s librarian, Julia MacRae left her native Australia in 1960 and came to London. She worked for Constable, Collins and Hamish Hamilton before launching Julia MacRae Books twelve years ago with her colleagues. Delia Huddy and Linda Summers. Both, along with her present Managing Editor. Susie Reid, moved with her to Random Century in 1990. Julia is adamant that her imprint owes its strength to team enterprise rather than any one individual.
Illustrations here are by Ralph Steadman and Mervyn Peake. Details of these and other versions of Treasure Island are given in Shirley Hughes’s `Picturing Treasure Island’ on page 24.
Also available are Puffin (0 14 035.016 0) £2.50; and Collins (0 00 693437 4) £2.25 pbks.
For audio tapes, see page 13.