Poison Island: a study


Poison Island  is an adventure novel in the style of R.L. Stevenson. It was published in 1907. It followed the publication of Sir John Constantine and The Mayor of Troy in 1906, and was followed by Major Vigoureux later in the year. All four novels have a distinctly nautical flavour, with three involving islands. This must be seen as Q's most creative period, with novels, short stories and poems flowing from his pen. The creativity is remarkable in that he was deeply involved in Liberal politics, the administration of Fowey harbour and the development of the Cornwall Education Authority following the Balfour Education Act of 1902. On the domestic side he had a happy family life supported by relative financial security.

It is possible that Q found writing in his study overlooking Fowey harbour a refuge from his other activities, although he neither sought nor required isolation for his creative processes. From his family and from his classical education he had absorbed the idea of citizenship and responsibility. He rejected escaping from social and political responsibilities into artistic and moral irresponsibility, although others of the Edwardian period embraced it. That Q was able to achieve so much in so many areas is a sign of his ability to focus concentration on a specific point, free from distracting thoughts and emotions. Superficially, Poison Island appears to have no connection to Q's other activities and concerns. Yet the novel raises moral issues of some importance: moral and social responsibility; the corrupting influence of wealth and power; the ethical use of scientific knowledge; and the correct and incorrect use of wealth and its pursuit for antisocial ends.

The preface to the Duchy Edition of Poison Island, published in 1928, argues that from the publication of Harry Revel in 1903, Q was endeavouring at 'story' in the mode of R.L. Stevenson and Charles Dickens. Yet in using the word 'yarn', he is looking back to the 'droll' tradition of Cornish story-telling, an ancient tradition which only died out with the advent of radio and television. The endeavour was in opposition to the Russian novel of introspection and inaction and what he saw as the stereotyped Edwardian novel dominated by the mechanics of the craft.

14 years after the publication of Poison Island in 1907, in the Cambridge lecture 'Shelley I', Q remarked on the freedom of thought generated by the Victorian Age. In every area—politics, science, the arts—old shibboleths were being overturned and conventions questioned. Yet such freedoms were being increasingly restricted following the First World War, as had happened after the Napoleonic War.

The ossification of political thought had become apparent in the Liberal administration of Lord Rosebery and even more in the reactionary Conservative one of Lord Salisbury, with the call to 'protection' as an insidious example of it. Lloyd George was the enfant terrible who challenged the establishment, and whose fiery speeches even angered the king. Q belonged to the same radical wing of the Liberal party. According to Lloyd George: 'There are conditions of poverty, destitution and squalor that would make the rocks weep.' Thirty per cent of the urban population lived on or below the poverty line, yet: 'All the wealth of this great city (London) has been created by the industry, the energy and the enterprise of the people who dwell in it.' (Owen, 1954, p.142). The radical liberals wanted radical reform so as to prevent the double catastrophe of working class degeneration and the class warfare it invited.

The central danger to radical reform, once the Liberal Party had been elected with a large majority in 1906, was a Conservative-dominated House of Lords with the power to block legislation. While Q was writing Poison Island, the Liberals were trying and often failing to push legislation through the Lords, with a constitutional crisis approaching. The second danger in 1906, no bigger on the horizon than a man's hand, was Germany. In Twenty-five Years, 1892-1916, Sir Edward Grey, later Viscount Grey, the Foreign Secretary, detailed the growing discord and suspicion undermining Germany's relationship with Britain, France and Russia at this time. If a radical transformation of the country was to be effected, peace was essential. Q was close enough to power to be cognizant of events.

Poison Island deals directly with none of the above issues; yet it deals with moral questions that impinge upon them, especially in the later chapters. The influence of R.L. Stevenson is paramount through most of the novel, but in the later chapters the influence of Shakespeare predominates. Beauregard's island of Mortallone, the haunt of pirates becomes Prospero's isle from The Tempest, except that where Prospero uses his natural and supernatural powers for good, Beauregard uses his for evil. Initially seeming an old-fashioned gentleman, the disguise is gradually stripped away to reveal a man who employs art and science for nefarious purposes. He is an individual without conscience. Beauregard is linked directly to Napoleon, with the German Kaiser somewhere offstage. Grey says of 1906 and 1907: 'In looking through old papers ...The impression given is of an atmosphere so miserable and unwholesome that nothing healthy could live in it.' (Grey, 1925, p. 143). In Chapter XXXIII of Poison Island, Harry Brooks finds the atmosphere on Mortallone that of 'tuberoses' and 'corruption' , where the breath of Beauregard's 'Metta causes everything it touches to wither and die’. Q was drawing no direct parallel between Beauregard and the Kaiser, although he was between Beauregard and Napoleon, but an indirect one is possible, even if not consciously intended. Beauregard seeks power through wealth and scientific knowledge. Even medical science, which should of all subjects be for the benefit of humankind, is perverted.

Beauregard is one of Q's most evil characters, the more so because he is outwardly attractive, but ultimately he achieves nothing and self-destructs before the forces of good. That good triumphs over evil, and innocence over sophistication, is not an idea favoured by literature today, let alone the secular media. The idea came to Q from his Anglicanism; and in the face of two world wars, the death of his son in the flu epidemic of 1919, and the demise of the Liberal Party, it sustained him until the end of his life. In his Memoirs the Rt Hon Viscount (Herbert) Samuel says of Lloyd George: 'The outstanding success of his dazzling career, without any initial advantages and often in face of the most formidable opposition, gave him a Napoleonic faith in his own “star”. In the one case as in the other, the superstition only helped to bring disaster.' (Samuel, 1945, p. 89). Q believed not in a 'star' but in a benevolent divinity, as he says in Memories and Opinions. Even Q's biographer A.L. Rowse, an atheist and a materialist, never doubted the sincerity of Q's religion. It is possible that Q saw evil, as did St Augustine and others, as the absence of good, a negative force incapable of creating anything other than a void. Mortallone ends as a void.

Links with Other Novels

In one respect, Poison Island is the most personal of Q's novels. The character of Harry Brooks is that of the youthful Q, as any reading of Memories and Opinions shows. Brooks' youthful innocence, his sense of schoolboy honour, his quick temper in the face of perceived injustice, his ability to argue a case before adults and his sense of life as an adventure, all speak of young Q. While other youthful characters in Q's stories reveal one or more aspects of the writer, only Harry Brooks gives the full picture.

In certain respects Poison Island is an extension of Harry Revel, although Harry Brooks and Harry Revel are very different in character. The location Minden Cottage, on the Torpoint to Liskeard Road, is common to both novels. Also common are four characters: Major James Brooks, Lydia Belcher, Amelia Plinlimmon and Jack Rogers. The plot of  Poison Island can stand alone but a knowledge of Harry Revel is useful in some respects. The narratives of both give a fascinating insight into the later Napoleonic period. The lack of a national education system, the danger for women of death in childbirth, the existence of charitable foundations for foundlings and the existence of poverty even if hidden beneath a cloak of respectability. Life was shorter and less predictable, yet people were without the neuroses and maladies ubiquitous to modern society and endlessly and futilely discussed on the media.

Mortallone, the poisoned island, also appears in Mortallone and Aunt Trinidad. Tales of the Spanish Main of 1917. The novella mentions the trading stations of Cape Corse Castle and Whydah on the Gold Coast and the Ivory coast of West Africa, Port Royal, Campeachy Bay and Roatan in Central America, and Mortallone in the Bay of Honduras. The treasure sought by Roger Handfast of Bristol is that of Captain Hornygold and its location is to the north of Mortallone on the islands or keys. Otherwise there is no meaningful connection to Poison Island.

There is a fleeting connection between Poison Island and Fowey. In the log of Captain Coffin the reader is informed of a schooner called the Rosaway built at Marblehead in Massachusetts, whose crew is imprisoned for illegally cutting logwood in Campeachy Bay. Marblehead had another name, Foy, with a community from Fowey in Cornwall, where Q was writing the novel. Hugh Peter of Fowey was a farmer and a pastor in the Marblehead area from 1635 to 1641. He then returned to England, taking the parliamentary side in the English Civil War as a puritan divine.

An interesting feature of Poison Island and Harry Revel is its investigation of adolescence, unsurprisingly as Q was a member of the Cornwall Education Authority. Q believed children had a right to grow up on the basis of an internal dynamic, only needing from adults a secure environment. This did not entail rigid conformity or social and educational pressure. Absorbing information without the critical faculty he dismissed as the German model which produced good scientists, technologists and militarists. Critical and creative thinking involved challenging received opinions, theories and dogmas, not what is now called 'exam-cram' for the purpose of passing an examination. Children will learn because they have an instinct to explore and observe, which the cramming of information stifles. Harry Brooks may have lacked direction but he did not lack initiative, memory or the powers of observation. As he was not oppressed by received opinions he was articulate and capable of arguing a case. Harry Brooks and Harry Revel had minds of their own and matured quickly.

Contemporary Relevance

Poison Island raises a number of subsidiary issues of relevance today. Dr Beauregard is a chemist who invented a new procedure for curing skins. He is also a doctor who trained in the hospitals of Havana, thus acquiring a good standing amongst the wealthy in the city. Yet his science provided him with no moral basis for his life, any more than it did for Dr Harold Shipman. There are those who claim the values of science to be a basis for the values of society, but the figure of Beauregard brings this into question. His work on poisons, brilliant as it was, is the equivalent of work on weapons of mass destruction and germ warfare, brilliant as it is, in the world of today. Sir Humphry Davy argued that science needs to be for the good of humanity, but this belief came from outside of science and arguably from the influence of Anglicanism.

The novel also confronts the reader with the issue of hunger. Even someone of the social standing of Captain Branscome knows hunger. It is easy to forget that until relatively recently, hunger was common in British society. Although the rush to the recruiting offices in 1914 is often presented by historians as the result of patriotism, and Q helped raise a regiment in Cornwall, many saw army life as an escape from hunger and poverty. And many were turned down because malnourishment had unfitted them for service life. Part of the reason individuals such as Glass and parties such as those aboard the Espriella were attracted to treasure was because of financial insecurity. This did not apply to Lydia Belcher and Jack Rogers, but it did to George Goodfellow who was not rich enough to marry.

Q's novels, such as Poison Island and Harry Revel, refuse to romanticise and sexualise the past. For all but the relatively wealthy, a sparse diet and heavy manual work determined the priorities for men and women. Added to this was the prevalence of disease, most fully explored by Q in the novella Ia, and the high incidence of death during childbirth, as with Jonathan Couch's first wife, Jane Prynn Rundle. People married for the sake of children, their one insurance, until the coming of Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions provision in 1908, against destitution in old age. Until the twentieth century, at least in Cornwall, pregnancy was a necessary requirement for marriage amongst the working population, irrespective of religious commitment. A sexualised romanticism was unknown until the advent of popular novelists. 

Q lumped Freudianism with Marxism and Darwinism, interpreted as struggle-for-life competition, as pseudo-sciences. Q came from a family background of empiricism, which draws a clear line between direct observation and theory; testable hypotheses remain hypotheses no matter how often they are tested. A theory can never be taken as a fact. Nor can it predict. Q would have fully agreed with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto when he wrote in the Literary Review of February 2019, in a review of Origins. How the Earth made us, 'Environmental determinism is a falsehood easily disproved … Yet popular science inflicts determinist books on us...'. Jonathan Couch was aware of the damage being done by popular science long before Q was born.

The Historical Basis of the Novel

Q's writings, no matter how imaginative they seem, look to oral history for their foundations, or to written histories that use the accounts of observers and participants. The writings of Francis Parkman underlie Fort Amity and William Napier the Peninsula War tales. Many of Q's Cornish stories rely on material narrated directly to him or through his father. This present commentator has just discovered that the murder of the Jewish dealer of Plymouth in Harry Revel is not a Plymouth tale, as he expected, but a Fowey one which was transferred to Plymouth for the sake of the plot. 

Q would probably have known Sir Edward Grey, later Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Foreign Secretary in 1914. Grey wrote an account of his time in politics in Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916 (vol I) where he says, or rather cautions, the reader of academic histories with:

'Even in looking back with full knowledge of the event it is impossible to trace the indirect consequences of a past act beyond the earlier stages: after that they are merged in the great movement of consequences of other acts; and the mind, in endeavouring to trace them, loses itself as it does in the attempt to conceive infinity. Even historians with knowledge of the event, and with the materials before them on which to form a judgement, see but a little way into the causes and consequences of the great events of history.'

(Grey, 1925, p. 25)

Q, as with Dumas, Scott and Tolstoy, paints a canvas of the rational and the irrational, the personal and the impersonal, action and belief, providing the reader with real history, not an abstraction based upon a theory of history, as with the academic historians.

Some time ago, during a radio discussion on the 'Holocaust', we the listeners were informed that our understanding of events needed to be based on reason not dogma. That a dogma was being stated failed to strike the speaker. Recently, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard Evans has been published. Hobsbawm was a Marxist who came in for severe criticism from fellow historians for his Marxism. The advantage readers have with Hobsbawm is in knowing where he is coming from. One wonders whether the historians who criticised him publish their theory of history in the introductions to their books. Instead, they assume the pose of objectivity, thus depriving the reader from making a realistic assessment of their works. In The Whig Interpretation of History, Sir Herbert Butterfield exposed the underlying assumptions behind a whole body of historical writings. Historians claim to be dealing in facts. Novelists are more modest, understanding the word fact to be problematic. They are trying to paint the full canvas, life as it is actually lived, not just draw a few hard and arid lines between events, ignoring Grey's reservations. It is instructive that when Edward Gibbon, the writer of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, became MP for Liskeard, and entered the realm of real politics he was a failure.

Q's novels also include the irrational, those shades and shadows academic histories miss: fate, providence and chance, the conflicts between innocence and experience, the vagaries of human character. Countless historians have spent countless words in investigating German strategy during the Second World War; why Hitler failed to destroy the British army on the sands of Dunkirk, why Hitler refused to order a retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1941-2, why he ordered an advance through the Ardennes in 1941 and again in 1944, why he refused to shorten his line on the Eastern front in 1944 and evacuate the Baltic enclaves. B. Liddell Hart's interviews with Hitler's generals in The Other Side of the Hill and the autobiographies of the generals themselves reveal the nature of Hitler's mind, as far as it can be revealed. The minds of the central figures of history are better explored by novelists than by academic historians. Dumas and Walter Scott accommodate the intuitive and the irrational, and that is what Q endeavours to do. Beauregard is a very complex character, which Q uses to provide an insight into Napoleon, and maybe beyond that into the likes of a Hitler. Far from being a simple adventure novel, Poison Island is a work that can be explored on a number of levels.

In the second volume of his memoirs, Grey makes some penetrating observations relating to the war in 1914. He remarks that Germany nearly precipitated  war in 1905 and 1911 (1925, p. 54), but 'All preparations had been made for 1914. In dealing with the German government, the British government was negotiating with the powerless because the “organized authority was the military one” ' (ibid., p. 26) but 'the records of their views and work will not be found in official documents. No revolution will unearth them; perhaps there are none.' (ibid., p. 24). In other words, writing a history based on official documents is worthless. Written records are inherently unreliable as decisions are invariably made by unidentifiable individuals in oral discussion. What is true of 1914 must also be true of history in general. The best method, flawed as it is, is to interview those individuals closest to the historical event or, as with Napier and Tolstoy, to be at the event. Parkman, Napier, Dumas and Tolstoy all follow this method when possible. Yet how many historians of the two world wars went to Germany to interview participants? Very few.

Secondly, as Q had political lines of communication with the governing Liberal establishment, what is found in Grey's memoirs gives us a flavour of what he heard. The danger of war in 1905 and 1911, either side of the writing of Poison Island, and seven years later the actuality. Q belonged to the anti-imperialist, anti-war, socially radical wing of the Liberal party, as did Lloyd George. In Chapter 17 of his memoirs, Grey details the changing stance of this wing from pacifism to military involvement.

Grey unambiguously states that initially the change was not the result of rational reflection because 'So much of the workings of the mind is subconscious rather than conscious.' As a consequence of which 'If it is difficult to be sure of one's own mind, one can only guess at the processes in the minds of others.' At the beginning of August 1914, a change occurred in the minds of the 'anti-war quarter and was based, first, simply on the grounds of feeling and sentiment.' (Grey, 1925, pp. 1-2).

Q's early novels and short stories had described the horrors of war which from 1905, in Grey's words, '..men began to picture to themselves (as) the probable scenes and events of it (war).' (ibid., p.1). Q was not a writer, unlike many, who glorified in a life of bohemian irresponsibility or precious isolation. Behind his works the world moved. Poison Island may be viewed as adventure fiction written as a temporary escape from a gathering storm, but the clouds are all too evident. Many readers still see Q in relation to Troy Town and The Splendid Spur, but by 1905 the age of peace and security had begun to pass. The Beauregards, the Glasses and the Coffins were positioning themselves in a Europe of 'struggle-for-life competition' and scientific warfare.

Q and James Joyce

One of the novels Q published in 1906 was Sir John Constantine, arguably his best and most complex. Sir John Constantine and Poison Island are linked in their use of Greek myth. In Sir John Constantine Greek myth, as can be seen from Chapter XXIV, 'How by means of her swine I came to Circe', is centred on Homer's Odyssey, although Greek myth is used in conjunction with Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In Poison Island, the last twelve chapters are informed by Shakespeare's The Tempest, Homer's Odyssey and Orpheus and Eurydice. Q is using a technique being developed by James Joyce, coming to fruition in the novel Ulysses. The novel first came out in the Little Review in 'Episode' form, starting in March 1918.

By June 1915 Joyce had moved from Trieste to Zurich, adopting an increasingly anti-Allied stance and in March 1918, in the words of Richard Ellmann ' ...praised the German offensive, and the restiveness in his native Ireland.' (Joyce,1922). Q's son Bevil was in the British forces confronting the offensive, as were many Irish soldiers. Joyce and Q were diametrically opposed as people and writers, except for this one similarity of technique. In his Introduction to James Joyce, Ellmann refers to a comment by T.S. Eliot that unlike Tolstoy, James Joyce 'tells us nothing'. According to Richard Ellmann, Joyce reveals the 'commonplace'. Joyce could not understand, therefore, why in dealing with the 'lower middle class' ...'Marxist critics leaped to attack him …'. Maybe Q and the Marxists agreed on one thing about Joyce, his unsatisfactory detachment from social and political responsibility.

Nor would they have looked upon Joyce's analysis of human nature more favourably. Joyce divided human nature into 'brute body' and 'mental components', because 'pure minds find bodies remorselessly stuck to them.' (Ulysses, Introduction). Q would have dismissed 'brute body' as Social Darwinian, while defining mind in relation to the spiritual and the transcendent, as he says in Some Seventeenth Century Poets. This spirituality raises humanity from the commonplace, giving him vision beyond the material and the every day. Poison Island appears to give the reader little of the spiritual and transcendent, treasure being all too material, but it is always worth keeping Q's overall view in mind. Myth itself, as used by Q, leads the reader into a more than material or secular understanding of the action.

James Joyce seems to have used Homer partly for structural purposes, with the structure of Ulysses explained by Ellmann in his biography (1959, p.456). Q's use is somewhat different. In the short story The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem and the unfinished novel Castle Dor, Q investigates the idea of time existing in two dimensions, linear, as in Hebrew thought, and cyclical, as in Greek thought. Most characters live in linear time. In The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem, Joseph Laquedem and Julia Constantine live in cyclical time and '...the soul of Julia Constantine will come to birth again and know the soul of the Jew (Laquedem)..'. In Castle Dor, Linnet Lewarne née Constantine (Iseult), wife of the aged Mark Lewarne (King Mark of Cornwall) falls in love with young Amyot Trestane (Tristan), in a re-enactment of the Medieval Cornish Legend, Tristan and Iseult, with the actions taking place in the legendary locations. While Joyce uses myth statically, Q uses it dynamically, seeing it as a repository of human experience which repeats itself throughout history. Poison Island only uses linear time, as with R.L. Stevenson and James Joyce. Yet when Beauregard  talks of 'Fate', which he does three times in as many paragraphs in Chapter XXXII, he is possibly suggesting that his soul is following a predetermined pathway.

Q differs from Joyce not only in terms of time, but also of place. Whereas Joyce based Ulysses in Dublin, in Harry Revel and Poison Island, lines of action stretch out from the village of Antony in south-east Cornwall to Portugal, the west coast of Africa, and the coasts of North and Central America. This geographical dimension indicates the nature of coastal communities where communication takes place across seas and oceans. Being a writer living by and fascinated with the sea, Q had only to look out of his window at Fowey to see vessels going to and from distant locations. Q makes many British writers appear parochial.

Although writing Poison Island might have provided Q with an arbour of tranquillity in a turbulent world, the sounds of winds and waves can be discerned in the writings. Q was incapable of writing a superficial novel or simply a novel of adventure. The commentator is advised to approach the work with eyes open.




Bibliography: Poison Island

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Quiller-Couch, A. and Wilson, J.D. (Eds)
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James Joyce.

Ellmann, R.
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Samuel, H.