The Sea Cook


From Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 2002 edition. Illustrated by Milo Winter

From The Times Literary Supplement:

The circumstances in which Robert Louis Stevenson came to write Treasure Island are legendary. The legend originates with the author himself in the essay “My First Book” (1894), written in the last year of his life but recounting events of a dozen years earlier. He, his new wife, Fanny, and her thirteen-year-old child, Lloyd Osbourne, had returned from America to Edinburgh, Stevenson’s birthplace, in September 1880. Edinburgh was a city he loved but whose weather, as he said, did not love him. The summer months of 1881, when Treasure Island came into being, were particularly “atrocious” – “worse than March” (Scottish March).

Edinburgh – “Auld Reekie” – had been pronounced by doctors to be hazardous for Stevenson’s chronically weak chest. A cottage was leased for the family (at Stevenson’s father’s expense) in Braemar from August 1. It was spacious enough for Lloyd Osbourne to spend his school holiday with them and have his own room, which the boy, aspirant artist that he was, called his “studio”.

The weather remained “absolutely and consistently vile”. Confined to the house, Stevenson and Fanny consoled themselves with books. Lloyd found drawing a more welcome indoor pastime. With his shilling tin of paints he whiled away wet afternoons creating pictures to display in his studio. As Stevenson recalled, in mid-to-late August, when tired of writing or reading:

“I would sometimes unbend a little, joining the artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings. On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance “Treasure Island” . . . . As I paused on my map of “Treasure Island”, the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods . . . . The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list.” 

Map of Treasure Island, from the first German Edition

In later life, Lloyd claimed himself to have drawn it. Whichever of them did, the map released the latent novelist. After batting piratical fancies to and fro with Lloyd a tale, first called “The Sea Cook” (i.e. Long John Silver) flowed from Stevenson’s pen at the rate of a chapter every morning.

“Stevenson’s other island”, John Sutherland, The Times Literary Supplement