I remember Miss Collins, who was in charge of the junior library when I was a little girl, used to get quite confused and puzzled at my choice of reading. She actively tried to discourage me from borrowing Jane Eyre when I was about ten, telling me I would not undertand it. Well of course I didn't but I did enjoy the first part about Jane's childhood and her wicked Aunt Reed and all the trials and tribulations she underwent. Later on when I was older I returned to it and this time understood more.
She was also rather alarmed when I borrowed and read Old St Pauls and The Tower of London - two novels by W Harrison Ainsworth and, looking back, I am not surprised. Full of horrid gory details about the Black Death and other ghastly things and when I tried to re-read them years later found them turgid beyond belief. The Waterbabies by Charles Kingsley, a rather odd book to say the least, made me avoid chimneys for a while and At the Back of the North Wind by George Macdonald made me check that my bedroom window, in the fourth floor flat we then lived in, was firmly closed at night. The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth was another Victorian delight as was Black Beauty though I wept buckets when poor Ginger died. Seems I was wedded to this era of writing even then.
And now I come to The Coral Island which puzzled Miss Collins even more. 'But it's a boy's book!" she cried. No matter I loved every single page of it. How exciting I thought to be stranded on a coral island, to shelter under the coconut trees, to live off bread fruit and fish and to dive into the lagoon every morning and see the glories of the underwater world.
I have just re-read a new edition of this title issued by Hesperus Press and my thanks to them for being so kind in sending me a copy. It must be fifty years since I last read it but I loved it all over again and the first part describing the beauty of the island was still as magical as I remember:
"I shall never forget my surprise and delight on first beholding the bottom of the sea....we found ourselves in what appeared to be an enchanted garden....the branching coral was a lovely pale pink colour...seaweed of the most graceful forms while innumerable fishes, blue, red, yellow, green and striped, sported in and out among the flowerbeds of this submarine garden"
The castaways are Jack, a manly, brave boy of the Play up Play the game school of heroes, the narrator Ralph more serious and of a religious turn of mind and Peterkin the jester of the three and though totally different, form a close unit throughout all their adventures.
The first half is pure Boy's Own stuff as they learn to climb trees, build a shelter, then a boat in which to explore, hunting wild boar and piglets and cooking them on their fire and swim in the clear waters every morning and generally seem to have such a wonderful time that the reader wishes they could be castaway with them. I know I did when I first read it.
Second half is a bit more bloody when a pirate ship comes ashore and kidnaps Ralph and he becomes involved in the warfare between them and the natives who live on the other islands. Cannibalism and torture are rife and Ballantyne certainly does not hesitate to give the gruesome details of the battles.
The Coral Island is very much a 19th century novel. Boys like Jack, Peterkin and Ralph just don't exist any more and would not last five minutes in such a situation especially if they found they had lost their iphone or there was no internet. However, as is pointed out in a very good introduction by John Boyne, this story had a direct influence on William Golding's Lord of the Flies in which we had a group of boys in a similar situation but with a totally different result. I discovered that the two protagonists in this title are Ralph and Jack and the two books could not provide a more perfect illustration of how the world has changed and how hedged about young people are today.
Terrific read and if you love Victorian literature as I do, then this is for you. Hesperus Press reissued one of my all time favourite L M Montgomery titles, The Blue Castle, last year and I understand will also be publishing A Tangled Web in April so keep an eye out for that one too.