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Adventure: Robert McCrum

Adventure: Robert McCrum

The classic adventure story is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Stevenson's thrilling first paragraph, an exquisitely crafted single sentence, which could profitably adorn the seminar rooms of any number of American campus writing schools, is a model of how to hook the reader's attention with the promise of drama to come.

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the ‘Admiral Benbow’ inn, and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

I remember …

Treasure Island was published in 1883. Victorian England was then the centre of the greatest, most far-flung empire the world had ever known, covering almost a quarter of the globe. Its newspapers were full of imperial adventure stories (many of them featuring the activities of heroic Scots) in exotic parts of the world, from ‘darkest Africa’ to the uncharted Antipodes. It's somehow apt that Treasure Island, which was originally entitled ‘The Sea Cook’, should have been written by a young Scot whose family had designed lighthouses to protect seafarers navigating the rocky seas around the British Isles. Stevenson understood that a first-class adventure story needed a cast of credible, but also lovable, villains. In addition to the gripping tale young Jim Hawkins has to tell of the recovery of Captain Flint's treasure, Stevenson populates his tale with a cast of extraordinary characters, some of whom passed straight into the culture: Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Israel Hands, and Ben Gunn.

Stevenson said that his book was ‘for boys’. Many of these came from the great Victorian public schools, Rugby, Marlborough, Winchester, Eton, and Harrow, harsh private educational institutions set up to supply classically trained young men for colonial service. For many years, until the turn of the century, the greatest ‘adventure stories’ found an enthusiastic audience in these schools because the adventure novel reflected the drama of empire quite explicitly. Some splendid examples of late-Victorian adventure are to be found in the works of Rider Haggard, a fine, once-popular writer now unjustly neglected.

Haggard, who was a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, had a worldwide readership for his adventure stories which were notable chiefly for weird invention and spellbinding narrative. The most famous are She (1887) and King Solomon's Mines (1886) which combine story-telling verve with Haggard's fascination for African landscape, primitive society, wildlife, and the mysterious tribal past.

Haggard was a literary craftsman with many imitators. Another late-Victorian adventure writer, now almost forgotten, was G. A. Henty, a former journalist whose military-historical series, which includes With Clive in India (1884) and Under Drake's Flag (1883), dramatize the imperial saga through the eyes of a series of young English boys who find themselves caught up in a decisive historical moment. Henty did not flinch from expounding the virtues of empire and his adventures rely on the glorification of mainly male, historical figures, backed up by a strong narrative, and a good line-up of supporting characters spiced with plenty of historical verisimilitude.

Both Henty and Haggard came from a metropolitan world of amateur public school imperialists. Another fin de siècle adventure writer, Anthony Hope, in real life the successful lawyer A. H. Hawkins, represents the last gasp of the Victorian adventure story. Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is set in ‘Ruritania’ with splendid villains, a virtuous heroine, and a swashbuckling English gentleman-hero.

By the turn of the century, the adventure story had become sufficiently established as a genre to attract the attention of serious novelists. Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1900) is, from this perspective, an imperial adventure story with a high moral purpose. Jim, who might have stepped from the pages of a Henty novel, is the chief mate on board the Patna, a poorly manned ship carrying a party of pilgrims in Eastern waters. Jim is young, idealistic, a dreamer of heroic deeds. When, in a storm, the Patna threatens to sink, the officers decide to escape in one of the few lifeboats. Jim refuses to follow their cowardly example, but at the last minute his resolve weakens and he joins them. The ship does not sink and the pilgrims are rescued. But Jim remains haunted by his moment of weakness and searches for ways to find redemption. Much of the narrative is told by an observer, Marlow, who is also the central figure in Conrad's masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899).

The dramas of empire lost their shine with the Boer War, but in the first decade of the new century the threat of war with Germany mesmerized people's attention and found its way into the adventure writing of the time. Now the threat to the empire, for so long concentrated in exotic villains in faraway lands, could be located across the North Sea, in the Kaiser's Germany and his expanding navy of fearsome battleships. Erskine Childers, who was eventually to be shot for his support of the Irish republican movement, was the first to capitalize on this British nationalist neurosis with his masterpiece The Riddle of the Sands (1903), in which two amateur yachtsmen sailing in the Baltic uncover German preparations for an invasion of England.

Another young writer who captured the public mood and successfully dramatized the fear of a war with Germany was John Buchan who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while recovering from flu in 1915. Here too the plot turns on the unmasking of a dangerous invasion plot by unscrupulous foreigners, a device that came to feature in many twentieth-century thrillers. Buchan, who went on to write Greenmantle (1916) and Mr Standfast (1918), became the interwar writer of adventure stories par excellence.

When the Great War actually came, the thrill of imperial adventure came to a sticky end in the mud and horror of Flanders. Once the war was over, there was no longer much taste for derring-do. In the 1920s and 1930s, then, this kind of fiction became transmuted into something more realistic and contemporary. It never lost sight of its duty to entertain. One writer, whose father was a headmaster of an English public school, whose education was full of Haggard, Henty, and Childers, and who was actually related to Stevenson, was Graham Greene. By the end of his life, Greene had been elevated (by his publisher, Penguin) to the status of ‘greatest living English writer’, but his work was always rooted in the adventure story. He acknowledged this explicitly in the novels he called ‘entertainments’, the first of which, Stamboul Train (1932), was a subtle reworking of many of the elements described so far.

Greene went on to write many novels of far greater moral consequence, but adventure lies at the heart of his best work, much of which is set in former British colonies and exotic foreign parts: Sierra Leone—The Heart of the Matter (1948); Vietnam—The Quiet American (1955); the Congo—A Burnt-Out Case (1961); Mexico—The Power and the Glory (1940).

Another adventure writer, almost a contemporary of Greene, but badly overshadowed by him, was Eric Ambler, who died as recently as 1998. His work is characterized by all those qualities—strong narrative drive, intelligent writing, and powerful atmosphere—that are the hallmark of the classic adventure story. The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) is among Ambler's finest yarns, the story of a crime novelist holidaying in Istanbul who is drawn into a spiralling world of assassination and double-dealing. Ambler's fictional world is no longer located in the outposts of the British empire, but closer to home in the Europe of the pre-Second World War dictators. Ambler's work prefigured and certainly influenced a generation of spy-thriller writers, from Len Deighton and Philip Kerr to John Le Carré and Jack Higgins.

Elsewhere, the adventure story languished. None has matched the literary imagination (or genius) of Stevenson or Haggard. The genre passed into the hands of pulp entertainers of whom the most distinguished, Nevil Shute, is remembered (and still in print) for books like No Highway (1948), a gripping tale of suspense concerning the effect of metal fatigue on a mid-flight transatlantic passenger jet. Shute was always concerned with contemporary issues—his last work, On the Beach (1957), is a post-nuclear apocalyptic tale set in his native Australia—and it was this focus that also inspired the immensely popular writings of Arthur Hailey, whose implausible, best-selling yarn Airport (1968) was also made into a blockbusting film. Shute and Hailey, in turn, have many imitators, from Wilbur Smith to Desmond Bagley.

Truer to the Victorian idea of the adventure story, however, are the pageturning works of Bernard Cornwell (whose ‘Sharpe’ series of historical adventures is set during the Napoleonic Wars) and the historically meticulous, comic novels of George MacDonald Fraser, whose hero, first seen in Flashman (1969), cuts a swathe through the opposite sex and imperial history alike.


See also SPY

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction