A treasured story

Robert Lewis Stevenson (Wikipedia)

One of my favourite and enduring memories from childhood is being nine or ten years old and creating maps of the back garden with my sister that transformed our medium sized suburban garden into an unfamiliar land; promising an afternoon of adventure and intrigue in the pursuit of buried treasure.

Our map was always incredibly authentic in detail and aesthetic; frayed edges hinted at past adventure and lengthy handling, burn holes (always administered by mum or dad) suggested mystery and concealment, immersion in cold coffee created an aged look of animal skin that crackled and creaked, and a large X always marked the spot.

Our adventure would begin by disembarking ship (the back door), crossing the green lagoon (our lawn), up the islands steep hill (the mildest garden incline imaginable), through the wild wood (a few well-kept conifers) and across the dangerous stepping stones (rockery), only then had we reached the desired X on the map and could dig for the buried treasure (some spare change which mum and dad had hidden in the soil). There was sometimes mention of ‘Long John Silver’, ‘shiver me timbers’ or ‘pieces of eight’ but the origins of these phrases were unknown to me as a child and it was not until much later that I learnt they had entered the cultural lexicon from the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Treasure Island Map (Wikipedia)

Born on 13 November 1850 in Edinburgh, Stevenson was an only child born into a family of civil engineers who owned a lighthouse building company. With ambitions of becoming a writer rather than following the family trade, it was agreed Stevenson would study Law at university, so he was in possession of a respectable trade if a writing career did not emerge. In pursuit of an adventure to write about, Stevenson undertook a canoe trip from Antwerp to Northern France where he would meet the woman who would become his wife.

The American, Fanny Osborne, was a decade older than Stevenson, married and had two children, but after a brief reconciliation with her first husband, the two married in California and returned to Britain where they lived for several years. During this time Stevenson suffered periods of ill health, but also produced many of his greatest literary achievements such as Treasure Island (1883), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). Following the death of his father, Stevenson and his family set sail once more and in 1890 he bought an estate in Apia, Samoa. This unfortunately was Stevenson’s last adventure as four years later he collapsed and died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 44.

It was on a rainy afternoon in Scotland, not unlike the many my sister and myself had enjoyed, that a map of an imaginary island was conceived by Stevenson and his stepson which became the catalyst for Treasure Island, a coming of age adventure featuring buccaneers, murder, double crossing and buried treasure. The map for Stevenson was an essential part of the story and in the original preface to Treasure Island he states that “an author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary … the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.” He believed that if an author was faithful to his map he will avoid any geographical errors which have consequences upon the narrative. It is only through knowing the landscape intimately that the “tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words.”

Stevenson’s characters traverse this landscape remaining faithful to the map, but they do not always remain faithful to one another. The character of Long John Silver endures as one of Stevenson’s best literary creations as the morally ambivalent buccaneer double crosses his way around the island. Switching allegiances between his own party of mutineers and that of the young protagonist Jim Hawkins, comprised of Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawny, Silver manages to manipulate every situation to his own advantage. Critical of the middle-class Victorian gentleman, Stevenson locates Treasure Island in the eighteenth century tradition of sea tales and pirates, subverting the expectation that Jim will follow the moral example of a middle-class man such as Dr Livesey; instead in Silver, Jim finds excitement, spontaneity and adventure, qualities that arguably reflect Stevenson’s own values.

The enduring tale of Treasure Island continues to captivate readers today, perhaps through a nostalgic desire for childhood adventures, maps and the promise of buried treasure. There have been numerous cinematic adaptations of the novel spanning the last 70 years and the recent television prequel Black Sails has demonstrated that the mythopoeia of Treasure Island will continue to thrive and find new audiences.

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