Great Europeans

The Man Who Discovered Treasure Island

Exactly 170 years ago, on November 13, 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was born. The internationally respected author was a favourite with young and old lovers of literature.

The author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was a romantic but reclusive as are many great thinkers. The son of wealthy parents and a consummate workaholic, he was an ardent Scottish patriot and passionate lover of tropical islands.

Humanity remembers the man who wrote the main book for boys for the second century already.

Stevenson is considered to be the main (or one of the main) neo-romanticist in literature. He was a writer who deliberately led his reader away from the rough naturalism of his contemporary literature and further into the depths of eras, into the distant seas.

This is, of course, a correct, although far from the complete definition. There was something captivatingly realistic in Stevenson. He was an every-day kind of gentleman, down to earth and endearingly human. If one cannot say about him that he knew life well, then he knew people very well.

This is partly due to the origin, family. Robert Louis Stevenson had, without exaggeration, an outstanding father. Thomas Stevenson was an inventor, engineer and entrepreneur, but he chose such a boring thing as lighthouses as the main object of his engineering and construction talents. His son, apparently, has absorbed this wonderful combination of pragmatism and romance since childhood.

Photo: Getty Images/Universal History Archive

Robert, of course, received a decent education: first, he studied to be an engineer, then to become a lawyer. But in general, until almost 30 years old, he led the life of the indulged son of wealthy parents. The yet to be author travelled much and as he did so he tried to set down his thoughts as he traipsed through life.

At 26, the aspiring writer met an American Francis (Fanny) Osborne.  She was 10 years older than him, married (although she broke up with her husband) and she had two children.

This meeting, at first glance, appeared to be without a future. Fanny’s husband did not grant her a divorce), yet she became a landmark or better described, a lighthouse, a beacon for Robert L. Stevenson.

The young author, trying to forget the love of his life, took up his pen in earnest. His stories about Prince Florizel were published in 1878.

Photo: Global Look Press/Mary Evans Picture Library

A year later, he dropped everything and rushes to America. According to some sources, he had learned that his beloved Fanny was terminally ill. According to others, she is about to get a divorce. Sadly, the former was the truth. The disease turned out to be serious, but not fatal, yet not so sadly the divorce was a reality.

In May 1880, the lovers were married and in August they went to Great Britain. The young Mrs Stevenson, her two children from her first marriage and the young writer finally became completely happy. Stevenson was now ready to write a novel, that famous novel.

Like many great books, Treasure Island appeared out of nothing, almost an anecdote. On a rainy day in 1881 in a village in Aberdeenshire, Stevenson noticed his stepson, 13-year-old Lloyd Osborne, drawing a map of an island from nothing. The idea to write a book for boys, in which there would be no woman but the mother of the main character, was born in Stevenson’s imagination instantly.

He wrote with the same speed, one chapter a day. Having finished about half of the book, he left for London to finish his writing there. Originally titled The Sea Cook, Stevenson donated the story to the Young Folks children’s magazine.

The novel failed: the readers accused the author by parents of promoting the cult of profit, excessive naturalism, praising, in modern terms, crime. 

Strictly speaking, they were not so wrong. There is more than enough gloomy violence in the text. The motives of the main characters are completely materialistic. And, John Silver and Billy Bones look much more charming and human than Squire Trelawney.

No, there were absolutely no positive lessons the young reader should have learned from Treasure Island. However, he completed it and Treasure Island was published at a time when reading was a pursuit followed by everyone.

The novel is as captivating and indeed, as famous today as it ever was. This love affair with his story provided the main Stevenson novel with immortality, and not literary, but quite a reader’s, inspiration too. Even the best examples of adventure prose of that time, like that of Jules Verne, are now a subject of very special interest. Only a very bookish boy may want to read about Captain Nemo. Yet, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson for almost 140 years has not become out-dated by a single paragraph.

It is precisely because the bad people in the book (as well as in real life) are bad not in themselves, but because of certain circumstances and are never completely bad, to the bone marrow. The same is true for good people.

Treasure Island (the name Ship Chef was published in the first separate edition) is not just the best book by Stevenson (which is understandable). It is not only one of the main adventure novels in history. This book, (along with, maybe, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jack London’s Martin Eden) is the pinnacle of that very neo-romanticism. The book in which the protagonist performs actions based solely on his ideas of honour, duty and friendship.

Of course, any other writer of Treasure Island would have had enough head for glory, place in encyclopaedias and memory of descendants.  But Stevenson then closer to 40-years of age, as it turned out, was just beginning to create masterpieces. In 1886, he released two works at once, forming, together with the Island wreath of his main creative achievements.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ was probably read by all or almost all. His novel Kidnapped is most likely only read by those who chanced upon it. Meanwhile, this is not youthful literature at all. In terms of adventure and level of intrigue, the novel titled Kidnapped is almost as good as Treasure Island, and in terms of depth of psychology, superior.

Like many Europeans, Robert Louis Stevenson was lured to the South Sea Islands, attracted by their pristine nature, free from the oppressive influence of European civilization. Stevenson, however, lived with European comfort and still worked hard.

The author with his wife and their household in Vailima, Samoa, c. 1892

The natives worshipped him, his material situation was stable. Fanny’s children grew up and became reliable helpers. Isabelle was rewriting or copywriting his works, Lloyd became a full time collaborator. Stevenson’s last major novel, The Wrecker was written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson died practically at the desk. It was an ideal ending for a biographer, but extremely sad for the reader. When he passed, Robert Louis Stevenson was only 44 years old.  No one in would dare to say that there is nothing more to expect from the author of Treasure Island.

Source 1, Source 2  The article by Igor Litvinenko, edited by Michael Walsh.

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6 replies »

  1. Wonderful article, Mike. As a child, I grew up on the books of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Victor Hugo. And, though movies and television programs are no substitute for literature, I did enjoy the great actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver. Again, you have brought back wonderful memories, and I thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, dear fellow traveller…. me too, this novel and others like Coral Island determined me on a career at sea, which was so important and formative for all seamen.


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