The old buccaneers

Silver: Return to Treasure Island, by Andrew Motion, Jonathan Cape, £12.99, 404 pages

One fateful day in 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson went to fetch a bottle of wine from his cellar and was cut down by a stroke. Word of his collapse came over the wires like the worst of news. Henry James refused to believe it; Rudyard Kipling was so upset that he could not write for a month. Wretchedly, RLS had died at the age of 44.

More than a century later, RLS’s importance as a writer remains in question. Is Treasure Island a fabulous moral allegory, or merely the trimmings of an old costume-chest? And what of RLS, this consumptive Edinburgher in his velveteen smoking jacket? The surviving photographs suggest a man who struck poses. By the time Graham Greene came to write a biography of RLS in 1949, the author of Treasure Island had been dismissed as a buccaneer-fantasist. (The biography was never completed.)

For all his dandified sensibilities, a dark apprehension lay beneath much of what Stevenson wrote. The terrible scene in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where the monster tramples over a child’s body in the street still evokes pity. A moralist of Calvinist allegiances, Stevenson nevertheless brought a lightness of touch to his literary craft. Italo Calvino included a character from Treasure Island (Squire Trelawney) in his 1952 novel The Cloven Viscount, by way of homage.

Silver, Andrew Motion’s no less admiring sequel to Treasure Island, captures something of the old magic. The thrilling flight across moor and heather that Henry James admired in Kidnapped (and which influenced Greene’s The Power and the Glory) finds expression in Silver’s action scenes set amid Caribbean waters. The book chronicles a return to the island 40 years on, and reprises Stevensonian themes of boyhood adventure and swashbuckling derring-do.

The novel is told by the son of the original narrator, Jim Hawkins. It opens in 1802 in the marshlands of Wapping, where Hawkins and his son (also called Jim) run the Hispaniola tavern. The boy Jim roams the edgelands of the Thames (just as young Stevenson liked to “go Crusoeing” in the wilds of Scotland). Jim craves adventure and at night listens spellbound to his father’s tales of a one-legged “demon” pirate called John Silver (Long John Silver to his friends).

One day, a teenage girl named Natty turns up at the tavern with a proposal for Jim. Will he sail with her to Treasure Island and retrieve the horde of silver left by Captain Flint four decades earlier? Natty turns out to be Silver’s daughter. Though a pale shadow of his former pirate self, Silver has assembled a ship’s crew for the voyage. Yet Treasure Island is not what the crew had expected; it is transformed into a slave settlement, where the field-hands are cruelly maltreated by their overseer-owners. (“Here was the old world still”, Jim comments, “stupid and brutal”.) Pitched battles ensue between slavers and shipmates.

The narrative is brocaded with dulcet-toned descriptive passages (“the rain became a slowly falling dew”) and a sensuous weave of words. But though beautifully realised, Silver is mere pinchbeck imitation. One can see why the book was written. Stevenson himself was interested in sequels (his 1893 novel Catriona is a continuation of Kidnapped): had he lived longer, would he have gone back to Treasure Island? We cannot know for sure. By the time Stevenson began to write his last (unfinished) Scottish novel, Weir of Hermiston, the old “velvet-coated” dandified prose had begun to disintegrate, as Graham Greene observed, and “the granite was coming painfully through”. Stevenson had moved on from the youthful exoticism of Treasure Island and returned to the Lowlands of his Edinburgh childhood, and the prose had become correspondingly more spare.

I suppose I would rather reread Robert Louis Stevenson than Andrew Motion’s version of him. Literary pastiche of this sort often reads like the reverse of a tapestry – a frayed, ragged version of the original.

Ian Thomson is author of ‘The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber)

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