The Map that Inspired Treasure Island by Celia Blue Johnson

Posted on January 5, 2012 
Filed Under Language Arts, Reviews, Teach Literature


Today’s guest post is a gift from Celia Blue Johnson, the author of a delightful new book, Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway: Stories of the Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature. It’s a book I enjoyed reading as both a lover of literature and a writer.

If you’re a book lover or writer, you’ll especially enjoy seeing how small things such a raven, a map, or even a blank sheet of paper inspired enduring literary works. The book looks at fifty well-known works, ranging from the very old (Don Quixote) the the relatively new (To Kill a Mockingbird), and includes many books you’ll study in Excellence in Literature. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Guest Post by Celia Blue Johnson

One cold winter day, I finished reading Mrs. Dalloway for the third or fourth time and decided to investigate what happened before page one. I traced the steps that Virginia Woolf took to create her polished socialite and soon discovered that there was a real-life Mrs. Dalloway, a woman just as complex as her fictional counterpart. Then I began to speculate about the origins of all my favorite books. So I set out to track down the bright sparks of inspiration that prompted great writers to pen their famous works of literature. Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway is the result of that quest, and the following is an essay from the book about a classic novel that has captivated young adults for decades.

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883

Robert Louis Stevenson dipped his brush into the watercolor paint and added the finishing touch to a remote island. He stepped back to admire his handiwork. It was a beautiful map, carefully rendered and exquisitely colored. And then he saw them, a series of characters looking up through the newly painted woods. They were equipped with weapons and, as Stevenson recalled, “they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection.” Soon a great adventure story began to take shape in Stevenson’s mind. He promptly dropped the paintbrush, picked up a stack of papers, and wrote a chapter outline for Treasure Island.

The map was the product of a dreary vacation. In August 1880, Stevenson, his father, Thomas, his wife, Fanny, and his twelve-year-old stepson, Samuel Lloyd Osbourne, all traveled to Braemar, a village tucked away in the Scottish Highlands. It was an ideal holiday setting, surrounded by impressive mountains that were perfect for hiking. Stevenson hoped the elevated climate would help cure his sickness. He had been coughing up blood and, though he was never officially diagnosed, it is believed he suffered from tuberculosis. Unfortunately, it rained constantly in Braemar that season, so Stevenson rarely had a chance to breathe in the mountain air and his activities were limited to the confines of his cottage. Though Stevenson never considered painting one of his hobbies, it was a favorite pastime for Sam. Since there were few options for entertainment, Stevenson sometimes picked up a brush and painted alongside him. Despite Stevenson’s lukewarm interest, the watercolor map led him to write his first successful work of fiction.

The aspiring writer had tried to write a novel at least ten times, only to stop once under way. Yet there was something different about the tale evoked by the map. Stevenson began writing Treasure Island on a cold September morning in Braemar while sitting by the fire. His pen zipped along, filling page after page. Each afternoon Stevenson read the latest installment to his family. Sam and Thomas were particularly invested in the pirate story. Thomas spent half a day compiling a list of the contents of Billy Bones’s sea chest, which Stevenson loyally replicated in the book.

Long John Silver was inspired by poet William Ernest Henley, a friend of Stevenson’s. After contracting tuberculosis of the bone, Henley had suffered the amputation of a lower leg, but he dealt with the loss courageously. Sam remembered Henley as “a great, glowing, massive- shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music.” Stevenson removed all of Henley’s refined traits to carve out a tough seafaring man, though he carefully left in some of his most admirable qualities. As a result, Silver is not simply a cutthroat pirate; he also displays Henley’s trademark warmth and charisma.

Stevenson wrote with great gusto until he reached the beginning of chapter 16, and then he stopped. He suddenly lost steam and could not think of another word to add to the book. As time passed, this failure caused Stevenson to question himself completely. He observed, “I was thirty-one; I was the head of a family; I had lost my health; I had never yet paid my way.” But in October 1881, just over a year after Stevenson traveled to Braemar, the book was being serialized in a children’s publication called Young Folks. The paper had already played an important role in shaping the story, with editor James Henderson changing the title, originally The Sea Cook, to Treasure Island. Henderson, along with many readers, would have been severely disappointed if the tale was left unfinished.

With a deadline looming, Stevenson traveled to Davos, Switzerland, for the winter, but he resolved not to worry about his swashbuckling adventure. He would immerse himself in reading and cast aside the stress of writing. To Stevenson’s surprise, the moment he stopped fixating on his writer’s block, his creativity flowed freely once again. Stevenson wrote a chapter a day, hurtling toward two words that he had never written before in a novel: “The End.”

In November 1883, Treasure Island was published in book form by Cassell and Company. The  novel included a map, but it was not the same image from Braemar. Stevenson’s precious painting was lost en route to the publisher. He tried to replicate the original version, calling upon his father to remind him of specific details. Yet, as Stevenson recalled, “Somehow it was never ‘Treasure Island’ to me.” The lost map had acted as a guide for the author’s imagination, sending him across new terrain and right into the middle of bloody battles. Gristly characters did not peek through the trees in the new topography, but luckily that original spark had already been transferred onto the pages of Treasure Island, where pirates, sailors, and a young boy all raced to find buried treasure.

Reprinted from Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway by Celia Blue Johnson by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2011 by Celia Blue Johnson.

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