Kids Gone Rotten

Matthew Bevis

  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by John Sutherland
    Broadview, 261 pp, £10.95, December 2011, ISBN 978 1 55111 409 5
  • BuySilver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion
    Cape, 404 pp, £12.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09119 0
  • Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
    Tonga, 172 pp, £10.99, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 60945 061 8
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ (1885).
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ (1885).

The first return to Treasure Island was made by Robert Louis Stevenson himself. Fourteen years after the novel was published, Longman’s Magazine published ‘The Persons of the Tale’, in which Captain Smollett and Long John Silver step out of the narrative after the 32nd chapter to have a chat ‘in an open place not far from the story’. Stevenson has the two men wonder whether there is ‘such a thing as an Author’, and – if there is – whose side he’s on. The captain berates Silver for being a ‘damned rogue’; the rogue retorts: ‘Now, dooty is dooty, as I knows, and none better; but we’re off dooty now; and I can’t see no call to keep up the morality business.’ The captain is sure that the author is ‘on the side of good’ (he means on his side). ‘“And so you was the judge, was you?” said Silver, derisively … “What is this good? … by all stories, you ain’t no such saint … Which is which? Which is good, and which bad?”’ As the captain starts to denounce Silver again, the piece ends with the captain saying: ‘“But there’s the ink-bottle opening. To quarters!” And indeed the author was just then beginning to write the words: chapter xxxiii.’

‘The Persons of the Tale’ isn’t a sequel in the conventional sense, and it doesn’t rely on the reader’s interest in something ‘to be continued’ (we know how the story continues). Instead it entertains possibilities that lie within or behind the pages of the original book, in the gaps between words and chapters. The characters take orders from the storyteller, but the tale can’t contain their whole story: after all, ‘the ink-bottle opening’ also led to this ‘open place not far from the story’. In one sense, all spaces and characters are open places in Stevenson’s writing. ‘The reader never does feel quite at home with Stevenson’s characters,’ Chesterton observed. ‘He cannot get rid of an impression that he knows too little about them; though he knows that he knows all that is important about them. His tragedy is that he knows only what is important.’ It’s true that we’re rarely at home with these people – in part because home is one of the places they are least interested in – but this needn’t be a tragedy. Henry James saw Stevenson as ‘the writer who has most cherished the idea of a certain free exposure’, adding that, ‘to his view the normal child is the child who absents himself from the family circle.’ Stevenson’s most valued version of the normal is the intrepid or the agitated: if the author is at home with anybody, it’s with those who can’t be house-trained. Sargent’s portrait of Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, captures this mood.

Stevenson saw ‘comicality’ and ‘wit’ in the painting, writing appreciatively to Sargent about the ‘caged maniac lecturing about the foreign specimen in the corner’. But there are possible escape routes from the cage (Fanny said the painting was like ‘an open box of jewels’): the door which leads to other doors, or the pictures on the wall which offer portals to partially glimpsed elsewheres. Our eyes, like the eyes we see in the image, are encouraged to search for what is absent from it or just out of view. Stevenson had hoped that Treasure Island – a story of strange absences and absentings – would appeal to a similar need to go looking for adventure, or for trouble. He said that the tale was ‘as original as sin … If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day.’ Gone rotten, he meant, by not being nearly rotten enough.

The difficulty we have with Stevenson’s people and places is often related to a weird precision in his writing. Take one sentence from early in the book, just after Long John Silver makes his first entrance ‘with a face as big as a ham’, all ‘intelligent and smiling’. Silver has left the room and the squire shouts after him that all hands should be on deck by four in the afternoon: ‘“Aye, aye, sir,” cried the cook, in the passage.’ Grumbling to his publisher about emendations to a manuscript, Stevenson wrote: ‘I must suppose my system of punctuation to be very bad; but it is mine; and it shall be adhered to with punctual exactness.’ A proofreader might have been tempted to cut the comma before ‘in the passage’, but then readers would have been less likely to notice the oddity of the phrase, one that seems to keep Silver in our mind’s eye for a shade longer than is necessary. Perhaps we are being asked to imagine how he might look as he acknowledges the order, or even simply to think about why we are given this detail at all. (Is Silver somehow different in the passage? Should we pay closer attention to him when we can’t see him?) In its very assiduity to locate the man, the phrase arouses the feeling that he can’t be located. The comma is like the wall between the characters, or like the half-open door in Sargent’s painting – a barrier that obscures and lends significance to the view.

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