The Coral Island- R M Ballantyne (1857)

I was reminded of R M Ballantyne (1825-94) by Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors.”  This prolific Scottish writer was most celebrated for this work which was significant as one of the earliest books intended for younger readers with juvenile characters as its heroes. Narrator Ralph Rover, aged 15, alongside two other cabin boys Jack Martin aged 18 and 13 year old Peterkin Gay find themselves marooned on an island in the South Seas and get up to all sorts of adventures.

I remember having a children’s classic version of this but never got round to reading it.  I don’t know whether that version had been edited for tender sensibilities or not I think had I read it I would certainly have remembered the parts where this book veers into dark territory.

It predates “Treasure Island” by some 25 years and Robert Louis Stevenson acknowledged its influence.  Reading both books as an adult Stevenson’s classic was less exciting than I had imagined whereas this was more exciting.  The inspiration here is likely Defoe’s ancient even at the time Ballantyne was writing “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) but the author certainly ramps up the excitement for his audience.

To begin with it is all rather sedate, once the boys are shipwrecked (I’m not plot-spoiling, you knew that was going to happen, surely) it all gets rather cosy as they thoroughly explore their environment, set themselves up domestically and do not appear to miss home too much.  There’s a lot about cocoa-nuts and coral reefs and they go off to see penguins, all of which would be quite a novelty for a Victorian juvenile readership but is not always exactly accurate (criticism which, according to Fowler, saw Ballantyne only writing from direct evidence from then on which may have actually been to the detriment of his other 80+ novels which did not achieve the same lasting success).  However, mid-way through he gives the then very popular Penny Dreadfuls a run for their money as we get Ballantyne’s literary take on piracy, sacrifice and cannibalism.

Of course, none of this is politically correct today but the good-natured heroes in their wide-eyed admiration of their environment feel less Victorian than we might expect (there is one use of the most unacceptable word and that is uttered by a ruthless pirate).  It’s also less preachy and moral than I was expecting for a book aimed at youth- although the value of Christianity does take more precedence as the book progresses it’s not a major issue for our three heroes.  There is a cat involved which always causes me more than a modicum of stress as cats in fiction seem to have a poor survival record.

Given its age and its outdated world view I found myself getting quite a bit from this book.  There were moments of genuine tension, real terror and I also enjoyed the more humdrum domestic moments from these youths.  It’s no wonder this book is seen as a direct ancestor of “Treasure Island”, “Lord Of The Flies” (where the protagonists view of desert island life becomes warped) and also of the Willard Price books beloved by my generation.  And how much I enjoyed it was actually a surprise.  But it is a different perspective which readers might today find too off-putting.  As Christopher Fowler says “it remained a hit for over a century and was translated around the world.  It was considered appropriate for primary school children despite blood-gushing descriptions of death and sacrifice.” I wouldn’t recommend passing this over to a nine year old without reading it first but as a piece of old-fashioned, thrill-seeking fiction this still resonates.

The Coral Island was first published in 1857 and there are many editions out there.  I read it as an e-book Delphi Classic which I recently bought at the excellent value price of £1.99 where it is the second of almost 100 of Ballantyne’s published novels,  novellas, non-fiction and nursery tales in the Compete Works of R M Ballantyne.  Should I choose to do so there is certainly a lot more of this author to discover.