"How dare you?"
No one actually said that, when I told them I was writing a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, but I could see lots of people thinking it. How dare I interfere with an acknowledged masterpiece? How dare I imply it was somehow incomplete? Wasn't I bound to fail? Or to seem insulting?
Well, far from arming himself to repel sequel-writers, Stevenson in fact beckons to them. He tells us on the very first page of Treasure Island that a good deal of the booty - all the "bar silver" - is left behind on the island when the Hispaniola sails away with the gold and other sorts of loot. And close to the end he allows Long John Silver to escape - perhaps to be re-united with his wife, the "woman of colour" who is mentioned here and there in the book but never seen. And he maroons three really wicked pirates to moulder on the island - so what happened to them? Stevenson obviously expects something pretty dreadful: "It went to all our hearts, I think, to leave them in that wretched state; but we could not risk another mutiny; and to take them home for the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness. The doctor hailed them and told them of the stores we had left, and where they were to find them. But they continued to call us by name, and appeal to us, for God's sake, to be merciful, and not to leave them to die in such a place."
Given all these loose ends (or perhaps it's better to describe them as open doors and windows), it's tempting to think Stevenson might have gone back to Treasure Island himself, had he lived longer (he died young - aged 44). He was certainly interested in sequels, and wrote one to another of his best-selling novels, Kidnapped, which is called Catriona. Furthermore, he knew very well that all story-making is a combination of original plot-making and the assimilation of existing elements. To produce Treasure Island, he took details from Washington Irving, WHG Kingston, Daniel Defoe, Captain Marryat and others, and cheerfully admitted in his essay "My First Story" that in completing the book "plagiarism was rarely carried further."
Purists might gib at this; others will think it describes a natural process, which parallels in literary terms exactly the kind of referencing, lifting, quoting, mashing and echoing we find in the other arts. But natural or not, the would-be writers of sequels and prequels do well to remember the business is still fraught with dangers. Especially, I'd say, if they pitch their own works too close to the original - which the heat and flare is likely to burn them up. Better, in fact, to take a big step away, then come at the original from a surprising angel. Like Tom Stoppard does in his treatment of the Hamlet story in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Or Jean Rhys in her brilliant novel Wide Sargasso Sea, about the first Mrs. Rochester, "the mad woman in the attic" in Jane Eyre.
That's what I thought, anyway, when I wrote Silver [Crown, $24.00]. I wanted to honor Treasure Island, but I wanted to tell my own story as well. So I moved it forward a whole generation - it's set in 1802, roughly forty years on - and sent the children back (Jim Hawkins's son and the daughter of Mr. Silver and the woman of color). These children think they've been born into a better world - a world lit by the radiance of the European Enlightenment - and the hard lesson they have to learn is: large parts of the bad old world are unchanged, waiting to hurt them.
One of the hard lessons, anyway. There are others that stem from the tussle between the generations, from the corruptions of colonialism, from coming of age. But all that's for you to find out independent of me. Just as it was for me to develop such things independent of Stevenson.
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