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Robert Louis Stevenson

X marks the spot. The traditional way the secret cache is marked, But in the book, Treasure Island, from which it is thought the mark came, there are three crosses. Beside the last one are the words Bulk of Treasure Here. There is a hill called Spy Glass, sandy bays and islets are named, along with latitude and longitude figures, because this is a map. And on the back are detailed instructions and the initials J.F.
As one commentator has said ‘If there had been no Robinson Crusoe, there could surely have been no Treasure Island’, and I would like to add, no Swallows and Amazons (it was a 1930’s version of Treasure Island which launched Arthur Ransome’s career as a children’s writer).

December 3rd is the anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1894 the age of 44.
He wrote the book to amuse his step-son during a spell of bad weather while on holiday.
Therefore it is mainly written form the view-point of a boy, Jim Hawkins, the only son of the landlord of the Admiral Benbow, an inn just up the coast from the seafaring port of Bristol.
Jim says of the seaman with the cut face I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the door, his sea-chest following behind him in a handbarrow – a tall, strong, heavy nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat. His hands ragged and scarred, with black broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek a dirty livid white. He looked around the cove and then broke into that old sea song that he sang so often afterwards: ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’ in the high voice that seemed to have been tuned at the capstan bars. It turns out his name is Bill Bones.

Thus begins the fast paced adventure story which with Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verses will keep Stevenson’s name remembered forever. He has connections with the Pacific not just because his uncle built a mini lighthouse in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland.
He spent his last four years in what is now Western Samoa and where he finished the book Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped.
This novel combined with his output over earlier years of essays, short stories and poems, led to the Samoans calling him ‘Tusitala' – the story teller.
When he was buried in the grounds of his house Vailima in Apia, the tomb was inscribed with his own words:-
                              ‘Here he lies where he longed to be;
                               Home is the sailor, home from sea,
                                   And the hunter home from the hill’

The previous five lines of the verse are:-
                               Under the wide and starry sky
                               Dig the grave and let me lie.
                               Glad did I live and gladly die,
                                   And I laid me down with a will.
                               This be the verse you grave for me:

                                                                            Verse xxi. Requiem

Memories are notoriously faulty, but I remember our teacher when I was at primary school reading Treasure Island to us.  He was a wonderful reader with different voices for each character and I think we were spellbound.  But I don't think I have read it since.  Or any other Stevenson novels.  The only one that appeals now, perhaps, is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Cheers, Caro.

Stevenson was one of the most fascinating might-have-beens of literature. His relatively early death is one of the great tragedies of literature: given the very high quality of what did write, we may only speculate on what he may have gone on to achieve.

As it is, he is surely unsurpassed when it comes to children's adventure stories. Treasure Island and Kidnapped were my favourite childhood books, and I find it hard now to evaluate them objectively.

Yesterday I finished reading Stevenson's "The Master of Ballantrae" and enjoyed it hugely.  A couple of years ago I read "Kidnapped" followed by its sequel "Catriona" and thought they were terrific.  I also read the unfinished "Weir of Hermiston" which is brilliant and like to have been Stevenson's best book so far. One of the great unfinished books like "Edwin Drood". I recommend it to anyone. The hero's father is a hanging judge. Hero commits a murder!  Who's going to preside at the trial? But we never find out what happens! Apart from the great "Treasure Island" and "Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde" there are a lot of marvellous short stories. I especially like "The Body-Snatchers" and "The Bottle Imp".  Lots of essays and travel books like "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes" and "The Silverado Squatters" and the ever enjoyable and delightful "A Child's Garden of Verses".  I think he's seriously underrated and sometimes patronisingly dismissed as merely a children's writer. He's also a great letter-writer.

"The Master of Ballantrae" is the story of a lifelong feud between two brothers told by their dour, commonsensical and faithful servant, MacKellar. The feud begins with a foolish incident when they are young and has ongoing ramifications.  Henry, the younger brother, is a hardworking laird while James, the Master of Ballantrae is an adventurous, traitrous, vindictive scoundrel who sponges off the estate and causes trouble for all. To complicate matters Henry is married to the woman who should have married James. From this situation Stevenson conjures up a continually entertaining tale, full of incident, that moves from Scotland to America. RLS keeps the story going right to the last page where the novel ends with a terrific, macabre and unexpected piece of theatre which it would be churlish to reveal.  Stevenson is a wonderful writer, managing great setpieces, beautiful descriptive passages, and brilliant conversation equally well. The book is so vivid it might have been written yesterday.  In this extract  Henry believes, and hopes, he has killed James in a duel. He is talking to his servant.

"Where have you buried him?"
I could not make one sound in answer.
"Where have you buried him?" he repeated.
I conceived I had best take the bull by the horns. "Mr Henry", said I, "I have news that will rejoice you exceedingly. In all likelihood, your hands are clear of blood. In my heart I think it very probable he is alive."
"Ah," says Mr Henry; and sudddenly rising from his seat with more alacrity than he had yet discovered, set one finger on my breast, and cried at me in a kind of screaming whisper, "MacKellar" - these were his words - "nothing can kill that man. He is not mortal. He is bound upon my back to all eternity - to all God's eternity!" says he, and sitting down again, fell upon a stubborn silence.  

Great stuff...........

I was in Edinburgh at the weekend and visited the small but perfectly formed Writers museum.  It only featured Stevenson, Scott and Burns but the section on Stevenson was quite interesting.  There were lots of photographs of him too, especially after he began his travels.

I have to say my dalliance with Treasure Island when I was young only lasted a few pages (not enough pictures of Kenny Dalglish in it!) and I didn't find my recent read of J&H too enjoyable either.  As I recall I didn't find his style of writing to my liking.  However I would like to give Treasure Island another crack.

I absolutely loved Jekyll and Hyde when I read it not too long ago. Even despite knowing the story through countless adaptions, it seemed so fresh and original. Treasure Island is very dear to me too, but the Muppets have a large part to play in that...

Scousedog. I was in Edinburgh at the weekend and visited the small but perfectly formed Writers museum.  It only featured Stevenson, Scott and Burns but the section on Stevenson was quite interesting.  There were lots of photographs of him too, especially after he began his travels.

I visited that museum over 40 years ago so it's good to hear that, despite Stevenson and Scott being out of fashion, they are still honoured. Long may it continue.

Opening an unread short life of Stevenson I saw on the back of the contents page the following:

I wonder exceedingly if I have done anything at all good; and who can tell me? And why should I wish to know? In so little a while, I, and the English language, and the bones of my descendents, will have ceased to be a memory! And yet - and yet - one would like to leave an image for a few years upon men’s minds - for fun.

I was immediately motivated to find out when he wrote these words and what caused such pessimism. An e-search indicated it was from one of the Vailima letters written between 1890 and 1894 to Sir Sidney Colvin who included them in his Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson and who may still be the authority on all Stevenson’s letters. I think that despondent letter was written in the last year of his life when his financial worries were over (the Edinburgh Edition of his works was a success), he had literary recognition from abroad, the Samoan Chiefs were devoted to him and his daily life was comfortable enough for him to cope with his ill health. So he had worldly success but what upset him was that his power of writing imaginative literature was deserting him. And then he resumed work on Weir of Hermiston in October 1894 and all his joy of writing came back, his inspiration flourished and he considered it would be one of his best. Sadly it remained unfinished at his death.

If he had lived a few more years I am sure he would have sent a more positive letter to Colvin.

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