Sailing the South Seas with Henry De Vere Stacpoole
It’s weird this way in which the world of adventure seems to be connected.
What with the latest posts about Corto Maltese and all the rest, I went and started re-reading A Ballad of the Salt Sea, and instantly found a connection with Folco Quilici’s documentaries about the Pacific (and 1955’s The Last Paradise), and other bits and pieces of that adventure-oriented culture in which we children of the Apollo-Missions-generation found ourselves immersed – and quite fun it was.
And also, I found a name I vaguely remembered, but could not place – then I read Umberto Eco’s article included in the hardback 2006 reprint of Pratt’s graphic novel ante litteram, and all lights turned on all of a sudden.
The name of Henry De Vere Stacpoole.
Who was this guy anyway?
Henry De Vere Stacpoole was born in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, that back then was called Kingstown, back then being 1863.
He served as a ship’s doctor in the South Pacific for a while, and then he turned his hand at writing. He wrote a huge number of novels and one of these, published in 1908, was such a bestseller, that Stacpoole was able to live the good life, first in Essex, and later on the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1951.
His bstselling 1908 novel was turned into a movie in 1923, then in 1949, then in 1980.
It was called The Blue Lagoon.
And yes, you have heard about it – but here’s the plot anyway: stranded on a Pacific island after their ship sank, two children, cousins Dicky and Emmeline, grow alone after the ship’s cook that brought them to safety dies. The two kids grow up alone, explore their island, and finally fall in love. They discover sex, have a baby, and then are stranded in a lifeboat adrift in the ocean.
If the set-up, with kids growing up in the wilderness, is similar to both The Jungle Book and Tarzan, Stacpoole’s exploration of the Good Savage and of the joys of the state of nature takes a much more risqué approach1, featuring lots of nudity and – for the time – sex. Stacpoole explores what could be the lifestyle of kids growing up without moral education – but whether he’s doing this as a thought experiment or just to cash in on the audience’s voyeurism, is open to debate.
And yet, considering Stacpoole’s first-hand experience of the South Seas, The Blue Lagoon is quite interesting, if admittedly short on adventure and long on romance. It can be found as a free ebook on the Project Gutenberg page together with a nice selection of other titles from the author. The two sequels – The Garden of God (1923) and The Gates of Morning (1925) – are not freely available.
Because of one of those strange connections that pop up in my brain when I am in this mood, the whole The Blue Lagoon thing reminded me of Thor Heyerdahl, and his two-years stay on an island in the Marquesas, together with his wife, in 1937-38, as described in Heyerdahl’s non-fiction book Fatu Hiva.
A good subject for another post.
And of course, I am familiar with the 1980 movie, that was a big commercial success, cashing in on the sensation and scandal of showing a 14-years-old Brooke Shields naked (but actually it was her body double). It also contained quite a bit of sex between cousins. Ten years later the movie also had a sequel – based on Stacpoole’s The Garden of God – in which a Brooke Shields analogue was played by Milla Jovovich. Make of this what you will.
The character had been previously played by Molly Adair in 1923 and by Jean Simmons in 1949.
The 1980’s movie was annihilated by critics (most famously by Roger Ebert), was basically marketed like high-end soft porn, and was much-talked about by my schoolmates – some of which had found a way to sneak into the cinema and see it despite being 13 at the time. I saw it two or three years later, in a seaside drive in.
And there is also a nice tidbit, pilfered from IMDB…
After seeing the movie, John Gibbons, a herpetologist (reptile scientist) at the University of the South Pacific, realized that the iguanas that appeared in the film were a distinct species that had never been seen or documented by scientists before. Afterwards, Gibbons visited Nanuya Levu, the Fiji Island where the movie was made, and named the species the Fiji Crested Iguana.
Which goes to show that even frankly bad movies can serve the cause of science. Heyerdahl and Quilici would have approved.
But wait… we got here because of Corto Maltese.
Because you see, Hugo Pratt said he learned all he knew about the South Seas by reading Henry De Vere Stacpoole2 – and A Ballad of the Salt Sea opens with two kids stranded after their ship sinks. Two cousins, a boy and a girl…
But we’ll talk about that another day.