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The allure of islands in literature

From the buried treasure and pirates in literature to the drama of total isolation when renting a private island, Erica Wagner explores why islands exude such allure

“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote. And yet we are drawn to them all the same. When the great poet and cleric wrote those words in the 17th century he spoke to a culture that had truly compassed the world. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” his meditation continues, and it is worth recalling that it was only a few decades before that the great seaman Sir Francis Drake had circumnavigated the globe; English men and women, denizens of this “precious stone set in a silver sea” as Shakespeare had it, could perceive their own island nation as one jewel among many.

Yet when it comes to literature, not all islands count as such. You might try to make the claim that any book set in Britain, Australia, or indeed Manhattan counts as “island literature”, but it’s best to acknowledge that would be going a bit far.

No — when we’re talking about island stories we have Robert Louis Stevenson in mind: “the map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores. It was about nine miles long and five across, shaped like a fat dragon standing up, and had two fine land-locked harbours, and a hill in the centre part marked ‘The Spy-glass’”.

That’s the map which leads, of course, to Treasure Island, Stevenson’s iconic adventure. From wooden-legged pirates with parrots, to yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, Stevenson’s yarn created the pattern for island exploits, and illustrious writers have followed in his footsteps. Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate in the UK, sent Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver’s daughter, Natty, off on their own adventure in his follow-up to Treasure Island, called Silver (Vintage), which also now has a sequel, The New World (Jonathan Cape).

Speaking of footsteps, one can’t ignore Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719; Crusoe has been the model for every castaway since, including Tom Hanks’s marooned character in Cast Away. Filmed in Monuriki, Fiji, the island is now one of the most popular movie locations to visit on a luxury yacht. Defoe’s tale was based, it is said, on the story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who, in 1704 – after an argument with his captain – left his ship for the isolation of Más a Tierra (known today as Robinson Crusoe Island), 400 miles off the coast of Chile. In Selkirk’s Island, Diana Souhami returned to Selkirk’s tale, but with a twist: “The hero is the island, not the man marooned there.”

Even if we are not marooned, islands cast us back on our own resources. Not long ago I was in Shetland – the wild setting for Ann Cleeves’ sequence of mysteries which began with Raven Black (Pan) in 2006. When island-hopping, I’ve always got the high north in my heart; I’ll never forget standing by the graves of explorer John Franklin’s men on Beechey Island, Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by John Geiger and Owen Beattie is a book to make seafarers glad marine technology has moved on since the 1840s and enabled the remains of Franklin’s ships to be found at the bottom of the sea.

“Islands are metaphors of the heart, no matter what poet says otherwise,” wrote Jeanette Winterson in answer to Donne; and it’s true. We want to sail away from ourselves to find others with whom we may connect; we build bridges, but still our souls are set in the sea of ourselves, and we are always cast away.

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