Friday, May 01, 2009

What makes a Classic Sailing Story?

The awfully dated nature of "The Treasure Trove of the Southern Seas" got me wondering about what makes a classic sailing story, one that will stand the test of time.

What is it about "Treasure Island" for example that has allowed it to survive as an eternally popular story, that seems to gain new life with each generation that finds it?

Two answers spring to mind, depth and universality.

Depth first. One of the problems of Treasure Trove is the lack of depth of the characters. Goodies are all good, and have just one of two emotions:
a) Gosh this is ripping!
b) I wonder I'll be up to the challenge of the storm / cliff edge / sharks / another storm / native running amok with a sword / pirates etc etc etc (the answer is of course yes to all of them)

The baddies too are pure nasty - pantomime characters to call out booo! hiss! to.

Compare this to young Jim and Long John Silver, with the complexity and nuances of the relationship between them. Silver has a back story of a pub and a sweetheart - an interesting example of a mixed race relationship in literature of the time. A ruthless pirate he was, but also wise, intelligent, a leader of men and confident to Jim. And he was rewarded by Stevenson who let him escape not just with his life but three or four hundred guineas.

Then there's the universality. Treasure Trove is a product of a very definitive time, class, and world view, and one that is very different from the universal values that will bring recognition and connection to readers over the centuries.

Yes, Treasure Island had a specific background, but consider the role of class within it. While the squire is landed gentry socially far above the likes of Ben Gunn, they are written as being very similar characters: both lack self control, so that the Squire blabs the mission all over Bristol and Ben Gunn spends his share of the treasure "in nineteen days".

So there is a degree of psychology that drives the characters in Treasure Island, rather than characterised and rigid roles specified by a persons race or position in the class structure of inter-war Britain.

A truly creative original, Treasure Island is a quest and a coming of age story, with characters that ring true and for those reasons deserves a place on the bookshelves of the 21st Century as it did in the 19th.


Carol Anne said...

Something else about a classic -- it may not be recognized as such when it first comes out, but later on the factors that you cite, depth and universality, give the book a new life.

Case in point: the works of Herman Melville. At the time they were published, Omoo and Typee were successful with the public; Moby-Dick was not.

Now, Moby-Dick is recognized as a classic, while those other two (and I have read them -- they're interesting but not gripping) are relegated to the vocabulary of crossword-puzzle aficionados.

JP said...

That's a very good point.

A book that is very specific to one time might indeed initially do better than one that is more universal, but in the long run the latter will be more enduring.

Bursledon Blogger said...

I have a similar book, it's called Derelict Gold by W E Stanton Hope. it was a Sunday School prize awarded to my Dad in 1936 and is frankly one of the most bigoted, racest, banal things I've ever read

ironically dedicated to "all the red bloded British boys who love the sea and take pride in the glorious Royal Navy"

JP said...

Yes, neither are exactly British literatures finest hour

What's the basic plot (given unlikely to read it)?