Sunday, January 28, 2024

Fortnightly Book, January 28

 In August 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson was on an extended vacation in Braemar, Scotland with his family, including his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. While there, he started writing one of the most famous stories of the modern era, reading the first chapters to Lloyd and even working out a map for him. He wrote a letter about it at the time to W. E. Henley:


Of course I am a rogue. Why, Lord, it's known, man; but you should remember I have had a horrid cold. Now, I'm better, I think; and see here -- nobody, not you, nor Lang, nor the devil, will hurry me with our crawlers. They are coming. Four of them are as good as done, and the rest will come when ripe; but I am now on another lay for the moment, purely owing to Lloyd, this one; but I believe there's more coin in it than in any amount of crawlers: now, see here, The Sea Cook, or Treasure Island: A Story for Boys. 

If this don't fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day. Will you be surprised to learn that it is about Buccaneers, that it begins in the 'Admiral Benbow' public-house on the Devon coast, that it's all about a map, and a treasure, and a mutiny, and a derelict ship, and a current, and a fine old Squire Trelawney (the real Tre, purged of literature and sin, to suit the infant mind), and a doctor, and another doctor, and a sea-cook with one leg, and a sea-song with the chorus Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum' (at the third Ho you heave at the capstan bars), which is a real buccaneer's song, only known to the crew of the late Captain Flint (died of rum at Key West, much regretted, friends will please accept this intimation); and lastly, would you be surprised to hear, in this connection, the name of Routledge? That's the kind of man I am, blast your eyes. Two chapters are written, and have been tried on Lloyd with great success; the trouble is to work it off without oaths. Buccaneers without oaths -- bricks without straw. But youth and the fond parient have to be consulted. 

 And now look here -- this is next day -- and three chapters are written and read. (Chapter 1. The Old Sea-dog at the 'Admiral Benbow.' Chapter II. Black Dog appears and disappears. Chapter III. The Black Spot.) All now heard by Lloyd, F., and my father and mother, with high approval. It's quite silly and horrid fun, and what I want is the best book about the Buccaneers that can be had -- the latter B's above all, Blackbeard and sich, and get Nutt or Bain to send it skimming by the fastest post. And now I know you'll write to me, for The Sea Cook's sake. 

 Your Admiral Guinea is curiously near my line, but of course I'm fooling; and your Admiral sounds like a shublime gent. Stick to him like wax-he'll do. My Trelawney is, as I indicate, several thousand sea-miles off the lie of the original or your Admiral Guinea; and besides, I have no more about him yet but one mention of his name, and I think it likely he may turn yet farther from the model in the course of handling. A chapter a day I mean to do; they are short; and perhaps in a month The Sea Cook may to Routledge go, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! My Trelawney has a strong dash of Landor, as I see him from here. No women in the story, Lloyd's orders; and who so blythe to obey? It's awful fun, boys' stories; you just indulge the pleasure of your heart, that's all; no trouble, no strain. The only stiff thing is to get it ended -- that I don't see, but I look to a volcano. O sweet, O generous, O human toils. You would like my blind beggar in Chapter III, I believe; no writing, just drive along as the words come and the pen will scratch! 

 R. L. S. 
 Author of Boys' Stories

With the help of a visitor at Braemar, Dr. Alexander Japp, who heard the first few chapters and promised to recommend it to some friends, the novel was serialized under a pseudonym ("Captain George North") in Young Folks magazine under the title, Treasure Island, or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola. It did not make much of a splash, and the editor received letters from boys criticizing how slowly the first chapters moved. (In this it is a contrast with two later novels that Stevenson serialized in Young Folks, namely, The Black Arrow and Kidnapped, both of which were very popular with its readers.) It was published in book form in 1883 under the title by which it has since been known, Treasure Island, and that was the beginning of its undeniable success. Stevenson's goal of making it "the best book about the Buccaneers that can be had", even despite the formidable difficulty of writing pirates who don't use strong language, seems to have been achieved; there is no question that the tale knocked out all competition to become the pirate story.

Treasure Island has a number of radio adaptations, so I will be trying to listen to one or two of those, as well.