And finally... definitely my favourite of the three; I loved this book (and not just because it was a bargain at £2.00)!
Obviously, it's not completely new to me - I've known about it since I was a child. I suppose I didn't read it, (a) because it's billed as an adventure story for boys (Stevenson himself, discussing it in the appendix, states that 'women were excluded' (p.193)); (b) because it's written by a Victorian and I find (or I have found) many Victorian novels quite difficult to read - in all their flowery prose. But I have been reading a lot in the past year, and I've come across a few people who rate Stevenson very highly. A little while ago, I read Seashaken Houses, by Tom Nancollas - all about lighthouses - (see this post) and discovered that Stevenson came from a family of lighthouse builders, which kindled my interest in him. Of course, Stevenson himself bucked the family trend: he was tubercular and not physically suited to civil engineering, so he became a writer instead.
At any rate, if I was expecting something childish or boringly verbose, I soon found I was mistaken. In the first place, Treasure Island, whilst embodying many of my childhood ideas about pirates (indirectly, I suppose, it was probably the source of them) - parrots on shoulders, cutlasses held in teeth, drunkenness, bad language, violence, knotted headscarves, treasure chests, etc, etc - is probably one of the most dramatic books I've read. I love the bit where the 'hero' (a boy) is paddling after the ship, the Hispaniola, in his little coracle, and it fetches one way then the other, changing course every few moments. '"Clumsy fellows," said I; "they must still be drunk as owls."' (p.128) It turns out that there's no one in the driver's seat for the two pirates aboard have fought, and one is dead, the other unconscious. I wonder where 'drunk as owls' comes from; and I like the idea - perpetuated elsewhere - that pirates may actually be very bad sailors.
When the hero (Hawkins) realises that there's no one steering the boat, he decides to board it. Whilst he's onboard, the unconscious pirate, Israel Hands, comes to, and they talk, and cagily decide that working together to ground the ship would be in both their interests. In the instant they achieve this tricky manoeuvre however, Hawkins lets his guard down momentarily. 'I might have fallen without a struggle for my life, had not a sudden disquietude seized upon me, and made me turn my head. Perhaps I had heard a creak, or seen his shadow moving with the tail of my eye; perhaps it was an instinct like a cat's; but, sure enough, when I looked round, there was Hands, already halfway towards me, with the dirk in his right hand... We must both have cried out aloud when our eyes met...' (p.140)
Thrilling stuff! I don't really read thrillers, so perhaps this was just new terrain for me, but I don't think I've read another description of the fear of someone creeping up behind you - not for a long time anyway (probably not since I was a child, in fact). A little further on, Hawkins springs up 'into the mizzen shrouds' (whatever they might be), and Hands follows him, dirk between his teeth, groaning as he drags his wounded leg. When Hawkins threatens to shoot him, he stops, appears to reconsider - then suddenly flings the dirk at him, pinning him by the shoulder to the mast! It's all terribly exciting.
Regarding the tendency of the Victorians towards long-winded prose, Treasure Island reminded my of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (which was of course an exception to the general rule of Victorian windiness). The writing was very precise and controlled (although Stevenson does break into excitable nautical jargon at times), with only limited references to scenery. There's also a funny sort of... what I want to call (not very pithily) 'British armchair adventurousness' about it. The narrator writes as one who is himself in no imminent danger; also as one who is clear, complacent and unchallenged in his own values (an olde British kind of attitude? Surely no one's values go unchallenged nowadays). It's strange: there is much to regret in Britain's history of imperialism, but the arrogance of its practitioners produced some very dry, sturdy, and terribly appealing prose - much like this.