island troubles


Stevenson, as has been said, was disarmingly candid about the material he borrowed for Treasure Island. One name, however, is missing from the extensive catalogue of self-confessed “plagiarisms”. That one missing name was brought to public attention by Robert Leighton (1858–1934). Later in life a respected novelist and literary editor of the Daily Mail, Leighton was, in 1881, an assistant editor to James Henderson on Young Folks. Writing in the Academy in March 1900, Leighton recalled that early in 1881 – sometime, allegedly, before late August – James Henderson had offered to consider a story from Stevenson and, “as indicating the kind of story he desired for Young Folks, he gave to Stevenson copies of the paper containing a serial by Charles E. Pearce, entitled Billy Bo’swain”. Pearce’s novel, as Leighton notes, had a chart and buried treasure: “its whole plan and construct were similar”. Leighton’s version wholly contradicts the received view that the story originated, entirely, at Braemar, within the family, with the famous map drawn up at Lloyd’s easel, and no thought of the London market. From what he knew, Leighton maintained that “I have always believed that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island with an eye on Young Folks”. It was conceived not as family entertainment, but as a product to be sold in the literary marketplace. Leighton’s bombshell was thrown after Stevenson’s death and after “My First Book” had recorded a radically more romantic account of Treasure Island’s genesis.

more from John Sutherland at the TLS here.