In reply to letter from a student at Sydney University (W. L. Curnow, son of the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald) inviting him to address a club meeting and simultaneously apologizing for the boyishness of his enthusiasm, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote reassuringly:
Thanks for your letter. If boyish at all, it was so in the good sense of which a young man need not be ashamed, and an old man (if he can preserve it) has cause to be proud. I am glad to have interested you; I will tell you in confidence—I only care to be read by young men; they alone can read. I read now, yes and with pleasure; but some years ago I read with the greed and gusto of a pig, sucking up some of the very paper (you would think) into my brain. And that is the only kind of reading for which it is worthwhile to support the pains of writing…[i]
As on each of the other three visits he made to Sydney, Stevenson’s health broke down and he was never able to give his address. However, from what he has said here (even allowing for the hyperbole with which he flatters his correspondent) it is clear that he is reaffirming his passionate belief in the fiction of adventure—stories directed at youthful readers whose priorities were incident, colour and involvement. It is a genre in which he became one of the finest practitioners in the English-speaking world. ‘Surely’, writes W. W. Robson of Treasure Island, ‘[it] is the best pirate story ever written.’[ii]
Nearly a decade before his letter to Curnow, Stevenson had given a very similar description of his ideal reader at considerably greater length. In his essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’ he had written:
In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.
To be taken over by the tale, our imagination stirred by a dazzling array of images, is the reason why ‘we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of our boyhood’. Then, in this same essay, he invokes again the animal image of sheer, instinctual, sensuous pleasure as against a more intellectual response: ‘Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles.’ Later in the essay he adds ‘The desire for knowledge…is not more deeply seated than this demand for fit and striking incident’, and he concludes ‘it is not character but incident that woos us out of our reserve’.[iii]
Two years later, in his debate with Henry James, Stevenson returns to his defence of the novel of adventure, which he describes as appealing to ‘certain almost sensual and quite illogical tendencies in man’. He goes on to adumbrate several other ingredients: ‘Danger is the matter with which this class of novel deals; fear, the passion with which it idly trifles; and the characters are portrayed only so far as they realise the sense of danger and provoke the sense of fear.’ Then he sounds a word of warning: ‘To add more traits, to be too clever, to start the hare of moral or intellectual interest while we are running the hare of material interest, is not to enrich but to stultify your tale.’[iv]
This last quotation raises the question of the age of Stevenson’s ideal reader. Clearly, those in later adolescence are well able to take, even to demand, a fair degree of moral complexity in their tales of adventure, so long as it is done unobtrusively. But even Treasure Island, which addresses a readership aged somewhere between nine and thirteen, harbours a strong (and by no means simple) moral interest in the entanglement of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, while the latter’s character invites a quite complex reading. Kidnapped appeals to a slightly older reader and there considerable prominence is given to the fact that David Balfour’s ordeal is psychological as well as physical. For all his delight in porcine truffling, Stevenson is well aware of the necessity for moral ballast in his adventure stories: ‘There is no quite good book without a good morality’, he writes, adding altogether characteristically, ‘but the world is wide, and so are morals.’[v]
The broad nature of the adventure story for Stevenson is now becoming clearer. Of central importance is its dramatic appeal: what we pursue as youthful readers is, essentially, ‘some quality of the brute incident’, which has, however, to contain ‘a touch of the romantic’ to add the necessary colour, passion and imaginative enlargement. The stories of ‘the great creative writer’, in his view, ‘may be nourished with the realities of life but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader and to obey the ideal laws of the daydream’.[vi]
The essential point still remaining is narrative technique. Stevenson was one of the most assiduous literary craftsmen of his era—which is saying a good deal—and he laid the greatest store on narrative style, so that the tale and the telling were more or less of equal importance in his eyes. The organization of the tale demands the greatest literary tact, however casually he may put it:
The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration.[vii]
So he sets out what we may call the organizing principles of the properly constructed adventure story, and his practice more than lives up to his theory.
Two outstanding qualities that distinguish him from most other writers in this genre are his narrative control and the altogether arresting brilliance of many of his scenes. No-one who has read The Master of Ballantrae, for example, will ever forget the duel in the black and frosty night, the only illumination the candle flames burning straight in the windless cold. But what is it that is responsible for the irresistible pressure on us when we begin Treasure Island to finish it at a sitting—and what is it that continues to grip our imagination years after we have done with it?
The book’s narrative structure is so tightly and cunningly organized that, from the moment we submit to its furious pace, we are given no chance of escape. The account of Blind Pew’s death almost literally leaves us breathless:
in half a minute not a sign of [the buccaneers] remained but Pew. Him they had deserted, whether in sheer panic or out of revenge for his ill words and blows, I know not; but there he remained behind, tapping up and down the road in a frenzy, and groping and calling for his comrades. Finally he took the wrong turn, and ran a few steps past me, towards the hamlet, crying: ‘Johnny, Black Dog, Dirk’ and other names, ‘you won’t leave old Pew, mates—not old Pew!’
Just then the noise of horses topped the rise, and four or five riders came in sight in the moonlight, and swept at full gallop down the slope.
At this Pew saw his error, turned with a scream, and ran straight for the ditch, into which he rolled. But he was on his feet again in a second, and made another dash, now utterly bewildered, right under the nearest of the coming horses.
The rider tried to save him but in vain. Down went Pew with a cry that rang high into the night; and the four hoofs trampled and spurned him and passed by. He fell on his side, then gently collapsed upon his face, and moved no more.
The isolated inn (with the completely apt name of The Admiral Benbow) could not be bettered as the cradle of the tale—a place where paths cross in a random, or perhaps not so random, manner. The representation is deft with an almost miraculous sureness of touch in the detail. The characters, who appear with the minimum of delay, are drawn with no superfluity of particulars, yet they contrive to be memorable—particularly the succession of buccaneers, maimed and sinister father-figures all. Young Jim, though initially fearful of these visitors, copes well—better, we are led to believe, than his father who is, in any event, quickly dispatched, giving Jim even more freedom and responsibility. And here we come to the crux of the eternal appeal of the boys’ adventure tale.
If all literature is travel literature, the boys’ adventure story, in particular, is a voyage of self-discovery. In contrast with a lot of adult ‘travel literature’ where the reader’s objective is often to escape from himself, the young reader is looking to find himself. Part of the appeal of the adventure story, which Stevenson doesn’t actually mention (though he caters for it better than most), lies precisely in the way the hero’s courageous and ingenious exploits are directed at securing an independent identity.
What is particularly gratifying to the young reader about Jim Hawkins’ escapades is that they show a boy taking control through a series of actions that involves defiance of the father-figures. Such an achievement, I would contend, is what brings lasting satisfaction to those who immerse themselves in this class of fiction. The excitement of the quest—an essential element in itself—with all its dangers and opportunities may hold the reader in thrall, but the chief pleasure in savouring the after-effects is got from basking in the reflected glory of the hero who has, through his actions, struck a blow for independence. Jim is a wonderful role-model; he even ends up as the author of the tale we are reading, author and authority becoming one.
The reader’s identification with Jim Hawkins, who is resourceful to an almost mutinous degree, represents a vicarious empowerment. We should also remember, however, Stevenson’s reference to boyhood being a troubled period. The vivid scenes he sets before us in Treasure Island—Jim overhearing the pirates’ murderous plans from his hiding-place in the apple barrel, or Israel Hands’ dead body lying under the clear waters of the lagoon where ‘sometimes, by the quivering of the water, he appeared to move a little, as if he were trying to rise’—are complemented by the brilliantly drawn figure of the man who persuades the gullible squire to recruit him as a ‘sea- cook’, Long John Silver. Youth is a time of fears and anxieties, many of which are centred on the figure of the father, to varying degrees someone to be loved and to be feared. Silver focuses these tensions in a way that ensures that they register strongly, if often subliminally, on the minds of the readers. Jim is deeply drawn to him, responsive to his flattery and too naive in the ways of Freudian father-figures to suspect the worst: hence his deep shock when he realizes that Silver is perfectly prepared to kill his protégé.
That Jim should have nightmares about Silver based on Billy Bones’ unsettling description of him even before he makes his acquaintance would be well understood by young readers. Equally authentic in the way it stirs anxieties is the fact that Silver escapes at the end, free to continue practising his deceit and betrayal in the world at large. There is therefore nothing strange about the fact that the book should conclude with an account of another nightmare, as Jim dreams that he is again in the presence of Silver’s surrogate, Cap’n Flint.
One of the distinguishing features of Stevenson’s writing is its diversity. Even in his adventure stories this willingness to experiment (which is one of the things that helps to identify him with emergent modernism) is evident. Thus he combines in The Black Arrow, set in fifteenth-century England, a boys’ adventure tale with a historical romance. Stevenson regarded it as ‘tushery’ but the eminent historian G. M. Trevelyan commented that it ‘reproduces a real state of society’. St Ives is about a French aristocrat taken prisoner in the Napoleonic wars who escapes from Edinburgh Castle and after many adventures gains his rightful inheritance. The Master of Ballantrae, which starts by dealing with the events of the 1745 Jacobite rising in Scotland, develops into a powerful account of the plausibility of evil and the self-deluding righteousness of the ‘good’. Then there is The Ebb-Tide, a morally complex tale set in the South Seas that deals with three desperadoes and the sinister evangelist pearl-fisher they discover on an uncharted island. This still leaves out The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is difficult to pigeonhole but might be described as a psychological thriller or even a kind of early science fiction—Jekyll creating the monster Hyde from the warring forces within his own personality.
Kidnapped (and Catriona its sequel) is another work that might have been written with Curnow in mind. Set in the Highlands of Scotland in the troubled aftermath of the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, it tells of the adventures of the seventeen-year-old David Balfour and the dashing Jacobite renegade Alan Breck. David Balfour is older than Jim Hawkins but once again the story is about travelling to grow up, and once again the father dies before the story gets under way, giving David (who is as off-hand about that event as Jim had been) his freedom. Silver’s equivalent here is the perfidious Uncle Ebenezer who, in trying to cheat David of his inheritance, attempts to kill him. The scene in which he attempts to do so by sending him at night on an errand up the unfinished staircase is the most vivid in the whole book and it is rich in metaphoric possibilities. Almost equally memorable is the fight in the ship’s roundhouse:
It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and a sound of blows and someone crying out as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr Shuan in the doorway, crossing blades with Alan.
‘That’s him that killed the boy!’ I cried.
‘Look to your window!’ said Alan; and as I turned back to my place, I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body.
Though the adventures of the two companions, David and Alan Breck, are as gripping as you would expect (the cinematic quality in the suspense reminds the contemporary reader of Alfred Hitchcock), there is a darker strain in Kidnapped than had appeared in Treasure Island. When David gets marooned on an islet all the associations are negative in the extreme. The mainland is so close that he can clearly identify buildings, but they are as effectively beyond his reach as is the spar that drifts towards him, seemingly offering him the chance to escape, but remaining in water just too deep to allow him to reach it, since he cannot swim. Unlike Jim (and Robinson Crusoe to whom he compares himself), David is depressed to the point of paralysis by his situation—and nearly dies when he fails to distinguish the edible from the inedible shellfish. Then, to his chagrin, after all his self-pitying torment, he makes the humiliating discovery that it had all along been possible to walk off the island via a narrow strand, at low tide.
From then on David is constantly on the verge of giving up and the environment he moves in is characterized by words like ‘desolate’, ‘dismal’, ‘desert-like’. Finally, overcome by ‘a groundless horror of distress of mind’, David suffers a physical and nervous collapse and is nursed back to health by Alan Breck.
All of this enriches the texture of the work and, in doing so, acknowledges many of the tensions that afflict the teenager for whom the much more buoyant Treasure Island may be just a little too uniformly brightly coloured, and its hero just a little too self-assured. At the heart of the story is David’s relationship to Alan Breck. Aspiring to an adult self-sufficiency, David is loath to admit dependence on the companion of his travels; at the same time he is deeply pessimistic about his ability to make his own way, and doubts his readiness for man’s estate. At a crucial moment David is given the chance to return immediately to Edinburgh and claim his inheritance—or become Alan’s fellow fugitive and share the fortunes of a man whom he suspects, with revulsion, may be a murderer. He chooses the latter course. The ambivalence in the relationship is underscored by the author’s curious specificity about their respective ages, David being described in the ‘wanted’ poster as ‘about eighteen’ and Alan as ‘thirty-five or thereby’. The latter is not quite old enough to be a father-figure, yet too old to be altogether a brotherly equal.
When they finally have to part, David’s failure to make real progress towards self-sufficiency and maturity is clearly exposed: ‘I felt so lost and lonesome that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke and weep like a baby.’ As he returns alone to Edinburgh, all his thoughts are still with Alan and his reaction is telling: ‘there was a cold gnawing in my inside like a remorse for something wrong’. It is a remark that wall bear much scrutiny, suggesting as it does both hunger and a moral deficiency that is his fault. And there, enigmatically, with only two lines remaining, the tale effectively ends.
At a time when young readers might be thought more likely to look to the future than to the past, adventure stories dealing with space travel would seem to offer stiff competition to pirates and eighteenth-century rebels against the Crown. Yet that is to overlook the comfort one gets from the past, which is complete, circumscribed and under historical lock and key. The adventure story located in the past is insulated from the present in a way science fiction can never be, the latter being always at risk of invasion by reality and the sanctuary of the imagination destroyed. A space-rocket, instead of acting as a vehicle for transporting the imagination to an ideal dimension, blows up on the launch-pad and is shown on the television news. Thus the freedom of space-fiction adventure ‘to obey the ideal laws of the daydream’ is vulnerable to the very technology that inspires it. All in all, it would seem that the Hispaniola is good for a fair few voyages yet to come.
Image credit: Ji-Elle
[i] January or February 1891. See Booth and Mehew (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 7 (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994), p. 82.
[ii] W. W. Robson, The Definition of Literature and other Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 101.
[iii] ‘A Gossip on Romance’, in R. L. Stevenson, Memories and Portraits, Tusitala Edition (Heinemann, London, 1924), pp. 119, 128.
[iv] ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, in R. L. Stevenson, Memories and Portraits, pp. 137, 138.
[v] ‘A Gossip on Romance’, p. 115.
[vi] ‘A Gossip on Romance’, pp. 120, 123.
[vii] ‘A Gossip on Romance’, p. 123.