Lest my yesterday’s sonnet give anyone the idea that I did not like Treasure Island, please allow me to disabuse you: of course I did! It’s just, you know, a little bit lighter than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Ebb-Tide, or what have you.
And lest anyone think that a “boy’s book” is not for girls, let me disabuse you of that too—I, for one, am just such a girl, and I don’t think there would be many takers for the notion that adventure stories hold no appeal for females. But what makes this really and truly a boy’s book in my mind is that it is told by a boy, and a rather young one. Jim Hawkins, the narrator of nearly all of the tale, has been asked by his elder companions after the fact to write down all that happened. I don’t believe it’s clear exactly how much time passes between the events of the novel and his writing of them, but he at least still seems to be young when he writes it, and certainly does his best to be faithful to his boyish feelings and reactions of the time.
This is, I think, what stops it being among Stevenson’s very best work, but there are still bits and pieces of lovely writing that reasonably do come from young Jim and his natural childish impressions. Here he is early on, when Doctor Livesey comes to Jim’s parents’ inn to attend to Jim’s father, and sits at table with a pirate staying there at the time.
I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow
Continue reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
I’ve been reading a lot, and writing noticeably less, although I think some credit is deserved for serious runs at both The Savage Detectives and War and Peace. I’ll try to go a bit lighter this week, and start, as I sometimes like to do after a break, with a poem.
R.L. Stevenson, hack extraordinaire (At least according to some) Is known for novels worthy of some real fanfare But also some things better described as “fun.”
Treasure Island, for one, is a “boy’s book” surely Or at least the tale of a boy: young Jim Hawkins Finder of quite a map—and a crew more surly Than his benefactors could possibly have imagined.
The poor squire Trelawney, not ready for such a trip Outfits their ship with a pirate of the first degree. Doctor Livesey and Captain Smollett are given quite the pip When little Jim finds out the danger they cannot even flee.
As ship’s cook, Long John Silver is no barbecutie And brings down on all their heads mutiny—and calumny.
Yesterday I said, somewhat flippantly, that Attwater, one of two excellent characters in R.L. Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne’s The Ebb-Tide was Mr. Kurtz, transplanted to the South Seas. That’s playing a little fast and loose. Attwater is not a government agent, but a very lucky man who has found what is still a totally private island in the South Pacific, whose lagoon is lousy with pearls. It’s just him and some natives there harvesting them, and he’s become incredibly wealthy. I mean “incredibly” literally—Herrick and his fellows don’t really have a conception of just how much wealth this man can have amassed here, but they know it must be a lot.
Attwater isn’t like Kurtz only in his relationship with natives, which is strange and a bit unsettling. He’s also an ideologue and a zealot, though of a different sort. Herrick, in fact, was expecting someone more like Kurtz, but realized instead that Attwater is also a deeply religious man, desperate to save Herrick. He is both a man of the world and a Christian, and he puts his “fingers…on the screws,” pushing Herrick “beyond bearing” in his effort to get Herrick to accept Jesus as his personal savior. When Herrick finally rejects this in no uncertain terms, Attwater leaves off, somewhat curiously.
The men are very different from each other. Herrick has spent his life incompetent and ashamed of it. He has no self-respect left, he’s dishonored himself, and took the ultimate step of changing his name and trying to escape his old life. He’s a man who has hit rock bottom and could use some saving. And when he finds himself locked in an immoral plan of questionable judgment with his shipmates Davis and Huish, he decides he will not be the cause of that plan’s failure—this is
Continue reading “Religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates”
Like Alan Heathcock’s Volt, another book I failed to write about anywhere near reading it is The Ebb-Tide, co-written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his step-son, Lloyd Osbourne. When I first read Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesá, I discussed how much South Sea romances had changed between the time of Melville’s Typee and Stevenson’s career. Here, the Melville novel that comes most to mind is Omoo, where a mildly mutinous crew is relegated to a fairly comfortable open-air prison for a while in Tahiti.
The crew here, which also starts out in Tahiti, is more genuinely villainous, and Herrick, the main character, is less rebellious innocent abroad and more hard-nosed Englishman. Herrick is in on a scheme with the other officers of his ship—only one of whom actually has any experience at sea—which goes quite expectedly and powerfully awry, landing them at an isle “undiscovered, scarce-believed in” where Stevenson brings out the remaining beauty and delicateness of the now tainted South Pacific:
The beach was excellently white, the continuous barrier of trees inimitably green; the land perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more. Every here and there, as the schooner coasted northward, the wood was intermitted; and he could see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man looks over a wall) to the lagoon within—and clear over that again to where the far side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees against the morning sky. He tortured himself to find analogies. The isle was like the rim of a great vessel sunken in the waters; it was like the embankment of an annular railway grown upon with wood: so slender it seemed amidst the outrageous breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have wondered to see it sink and disappear without a
Continue reading The Ebb-Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne
Just one of the wonderful things about the Art of the Novella challenge is that I had been loving, buying, and reading these babies (yes, in that order) long before Frances threw down her gauntlet, and with the addition of titles I read in other editions (oh, Friday humor), I have plenty of material to keep up my revisiting Fridays for the month (and help me reach at least “unstoppable” level). This week, I chose two that would go well with each other as well as with my opening salvo on The Man Who Would Be King.
I first read Joseph Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles just over a year ago, and my strongest vision of it is still this wonderful woman banging away at a piano on a lush lonely island in the South Seas. Freya’s strength runs through the whole novella, along with the serenity and wisdom that come from it. While her beloved, Jasper, “soar[s]” on the “white pinions” that are the sails of his brig, “Freya, being a woman, kept a better hold of the mundane connections of this affair.” Far be this from any kind of put-down—it’s just that Freya is the perfect manager of her own life:
I can’t say I felt sorry for Freya. She was not the sort of girl to take anything tragically. One could feel for her and sympathize with her difficulty, but she seemed equal to any situation. It was rather admiration she extorted by her competent serenity. It was only when Jasper and Heemskirk [the two men competing for her affection] were together at the bungalow, as it happened now and then, that she felt the strain, and even then it was not for everybody to see. My eyes alone could
Continue reading Revisiting: Art of the Novella edition, Conrad and Stevenson
Kevin asked yesterday whether I thought Edward Hyde was “purity of evil/selfishness incarnate,” and whether he had “*any* redeeming qualities.” Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The first time we hear about Hyde involves a description of one of the two violent crimes he commits that are witnessed and described in the novel. This first one involves him running into a little girl on the street, upon which he “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.” And this is exactly what, for me, was off or generally disappointing in the book: the evil sounds like little to hear, though everyone keeps insisting it is hellish to experience.
Everyone who encounters Hyde, from Mr Utterson to Dr Lanyon to Dr Jekyll’s servants to strangers in the street, seems to have a physical reaction to his evil. Their blood runs cold, they can feel it in their marrow, they are repulsed, they are disgusted. They can tell there is something not right about this man. Jekyll recognizes this:
I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.
But what does that mean? Yes, we witness two violent crimes, where there is no doubt of the malevolence of the criminal and little question of remorse. Self-preservation is the closest Hyde comes to regret, or so it appears. But these are, as far as I can tell, the only real examples of “evil.”
Continue reading On Hyde’s purity of evil
Back in October, as part of the Scottish literature reading challenge, Amateur Reader and Kevin of Interpolations had a series of posts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book I had hoped to have read by that time, especially because of my love of The Beach at Falesá and the fact that I’d already been jonesing for more Stevenson. Now I’ve filled in this reading hole and…well let’s not say I was disappointed.
I didn’t like it as much as Falesá. That’s all. It is better, probably “the best thing he ever wrote,” as AR says. And anyway there is lots in it for me.
As Kevin notes, “one of the most important vehicles of action in the story are letters and written documents,” and we know I’m beyond on board with this sort of thing. This is the epistolary tale done, at least for me, super right. The documents that form part of the narrative itself are deeply important to the plot, and there are loads of other documents embedded in the story that create an environment where such papers are generally important. Stevenson is good; this is sophisticated, not superficial, stuff.
And I’d like to take a shot at Kevin’s question about the three sets of three windows, or at least at a very minor part of it. One thing rather noticeable (and unsurprising) in the book is the doubling. There is Jekyll/Hyde, of course. There are two violent crimes committed by Hyde and witnessed. There are two letters Utterson must read to learn of what has gone on. There are two wills made out by Henry Jekyll, in nearly identical language but with different beneficiaries. There are even two envelopes containing the letter from Dr
Continue reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Almost 50 years after Herman Melville wrote Typee, which drew from his own experiences in Polynesia a few years earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Beach of Falesá, one of its recognizable but much-altered descendants.
In many ways the two books seem nearly opposite. Typee‘s Tommo is afraid of the natives and bent on escape, but considers them basically charming. Wiltshire, the narrator of Stevenson’s novella, knows they can be dangerous but considers himself so comfortably superior, in every possible measure, that he has hardly any regard for the natives at all. Tommo wins Fayaway with romantic outings at the lake; Wiltshire picks his bride out of a crowd upon landing at the beach and weds her with a certificate to be “illegally married…for one week.” Tommo can never read the natives, always frustrated by unfamiliar expressions and exotic tattoos; Wiltshire believes:
It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think. Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka. There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.
The funny thing is, Tommo knows the same things about the natives on Nukuheva; there and in Omoo the Melville-narrator holds just about that exact opinion. He’s just not quite so blunt about it all.
By 1892, Wiltshire qua white man is a much older hand in the South Pacific. For one thing, he’s not a sailor, but a trader. He’s not there to explore or to see the world but to sell Western goods to the natives. He disdains the missionaries, blaming them even for the cheapness of
Continue reading “I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá