Sequels to much-loved novels that are more than a century old are apt to disturb those who have a very clear and cherished picture in their minds of the characters, pictures that are fixed almost like flies in amber. Who wants to read of David Copperfield in the nursing home when he is old and cannot look after himself, or of Pip when he gets his knighthood for services to self-knowledge? It seems almost an act of literary lèse-majesté to write such a sequel: even if, as critics say in the case of Andrew Motion’s sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, it is a good one.
Long John Silver is the central character of Motion’s sequel, for in Stevenson’s book the pirate disappears into South America with a little of the treasure, not to be heard of again. This would have seemed natural enough to the original readers of the tale because, in the days when Stevenson wrote, South America was the bolt-hole of every dubious character and dishonest rascal in Europe; but modern inquisitiveness and literal-mindedness demands to know what happened to him once he disappeared into that vast continent.
Like many other characters in Stevenson (who died of a stroke at his villa in Samoa on December 3 1894) Silver is of great medical interest, for he was modelled on or inspired by Stevenson’s friend W E Henley, the poet and journalist, now mainly remembered for his poem Invictus, the last stanza of which is: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”
This is not mere Victorian uplift: Henley knew whereof he spoke, having spent nearly two years in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary having his one remaining leg – the other already having been amputated for tuberculosis of the knee – saved by the great surgeon Joseph Lister, at the expense of immense personal suffering. His wooden leg and expansive personality led Stevenson to write to him: “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver.”
It is possible that Henley was not altogether flattered by being made the model for Silver; after all, the wounded buccaneer is not depicted in the book exactly as a moral paragon; indeed, he is a murderer, however much he appeals as a character to the reader and remains forever in his mind. At any rate, Henley’s friendship with Stevenson cooled considerably after publication, though initially Henley championed the book.
Stevenson’s life and work is always of great interest to doctors. He grew up in the most medical of all British cities, Edinburgh, he was surrounded by doctors and medical students, and he was ill from childhood. He was driven abroad not only by romantic, bohemian restlessness, but by the search for a curative climate for his chronic ill-health.
He spent months on the island of Abemama, in the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific, where I once worked for three years. Abemama, which in Stevenson’s day was under the sway of a petty tyrant, is still very remote today; and it inspired some of his later writing.
Like Henley, Stevenson overcame chronic illness and suffering to do a formidable amount of work. For many years he was thought to have suffered from tuberculosis, but it has more recently been suggested that he had bronchiectasis instead. So firmly etched in my mind, however, is Stevenson’s TB that the new diagnosis, however true to life, is to me like a sequel to Treasure Island – not quite authentic. It isn’t surprising, then, that many important characters in Stevenson’s work are doctors.
Dr Livesey, in Treasure Island, gives an eternal lesson in medical ethics when he treats his wounded enemies, the pirates, all wicked men who have tried to kill him, with the same medical consideration as his friends. “At whatever risk to my own carcass,” he says, “[I would] take them the assistance of my skill.”
Not all the doctors in Stevenson are quite so admirable, of course. The protagonist of his greatest book, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a doctor, a man of the greatest kindness in the ordinary course of life but with the darkest possible underside that gradually overwhelms the better part of his nature. In the age of Dr Harold Shipman, this baroque tale seems almost bare realism.
Doctors are scattered elsewhere in Stevenson’s extensive oeuvre, most scandalously in The Body-Snatcher. In this short story, Stevenson virtually accuses Queen Victoria’s erstwhile surgeon, Sir William Fergusson, of having been a murderer, or at least an accessory to murder, in his youth.
Fergusson (1808–1877) was dead by the time Stevenson wrote and published the story, so there was no fear of libel; the surgeon appears as Dr Wolfe Macfarlane who, early in his career, knowingly accepted from Burke and Hare murdered bodies for dissection.
There could hardly have been a more sensational accusation against a figure of the greatest respectability. The identification is clear. In the story, Macfarlane has moved from Edinburgh to London to become a great figure there; Fergusson moved from Edinburgh to London to become one of the greatest medical figures of his age. In the story, Macfarlane is a dandy; Fergusson was a dandy. In the story, Macfarlane was assistant to Dr K…, the owner of the anatomy school to which the murdered bodies were brought; Fergusson was assistant to Dr Knox, the owner of the anatomy school to which Burke and Hare brought their murdered bodies.
Sensation, romance, adventure, quiet reflection, scandal, love of nature, Stevenson seems to have it all. Perhaps that is why he is among the most widely translated authors of all time.
First published in The Telegraph.
I, too, spent a couple of years in Kiribati and did indeed visit Abemama. I read everythign I could find that Stevenson wrote about the Gilbert Islands. In Steveson's day, Abemama was ruled by a tyrannical chief. If Iremember correctly the name of the island translates as 'Isle of Moonlight'. It's not surprising doctors figure so stronglyu in Stevenson's work, Edinburgh was the most advanced centre of medical learning in his time, neither am I surprised about Dr Fergusson. I read a book about the Resurrectionist a couple of years ago, and all the medical schools were in cohoots with the bodysnatches. Fresh corpses were at a premium.