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From Treasure Island to Beau Geste: why has the classic adventure story been left on the shelf?

An illustration from the 1911 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island
Out of favour: an illustration from the 1911 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island Credit: Granger/Alamy

When I used to be in a book club, I would sometimes suggest that the group try, by way of a change, a classic adventure story. King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by H Rider Haggard, perhaps, or Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). 

These books did not appeal much to the others and were always vetoed. Fair enough: book clubs are for discussing themes, issues and character arcs, and in an adventure novel, these are beside the point. The purpose of such books is to increase their readers’ heart rates and, if possible, take their breath away. Discussing their artistic qualities is a bit like rating a roller-coaster on its paint job rather than the vigour with which it tosses you about.

The best of them make you believe that you are living the hero’s adventures with him. The appropriate aesthetic response is not to sit on a sofa while you gab about the book: it is to jump up and down on it while you re-enact the hand-to-hand combat between Sir Henry Curtis and the tyrannical King Twala that results in the latter’s decapitation, or Rudolf Rassendyll’s pursuit of Rupert of Hentzau – “forgetting everything in the world except him and my thirst for his blood” – through the forest of Zenda. 

The classic adventure novels seem to have fallen by the wayside of literary fashion. Not so long ago, they were part of that large, disparate mass of literature, encompassing everything from Henry James to PG Wodehouse, that civilised Britons felt they should read, or at least know something about; but they have lost their place in the national consciousness. This golden age of the adventure novel begins, in my opinion, with the first of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels in 1814 and ends almost exactly a century later, with John Buchan embarking on his great Richard Hannay sequence during the Great War.

Teatime classic: a scene from the BBC's 1971 adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans Credit: BBC

This was also the period of the great adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne; of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle (who regarded his Sherlock Holmes mysteries as potboilers that subsidised the time he spent on books such as his roistering tale of the Hundred Years’ War, The White Company). There were also one-off masterpieces: Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, P C Wren’s Beau Geste and A E W Mason’s The Four Feathers.

These swashbuckling tales of derring-do used to be filmed over and over again for every generation as Sunday teatime serials intended for the whole family. Is it the case that the decline of programming with multi-generational appeal precipitated a loss of interest in adventure classics or vice versa?

The dramatisation of Ivanhoe in 1997 was probably Walter Scott’s last hurrah on the Beeb; I suspect more people honour him by climbing his monument than reading his books nowadays. It is true that The Musketeers is a rompingly enjoyable show – but how many people have read Dumas’s original novel?

I got my first taste of Kipling and Haggard, Dumas and Stevenson, from poking around my dad’s bookcases when I was small – a gateway from Tintin and the Famous Five to adult literature. Their authors intended them to be read by both adults and children, as suggested by the ditty prefacing Conan Doyle’s The Lost World: “I have wrought my simple plan/ If I give one hour of joy/ To the boy who’s half a man/ Or the man who’s half a boy.”

These days the dividing line between fiction for adults and boys is much clearer. There are lots of terrific adventure stories written for boys at the moment – Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels, the Artemis Fowl books of Eoin Colfer – but the heroes are boys too. The current trend for older teenage boys is not to read adult fiction so much as the new wave of intelligent, emotionally literate books about teenagers – works by Stephen Chbosky, John and Hank Green, Tommy Wallach and Erin Lange. Perhaps the days of the book with multi-generational appeal are an anachronism.

It is a shame, in my opinion, that in the Fifties, the adventure story started to deteriorate into the “kiss bang” fantasies of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, with their brand name-obsessed, satyromaniacal serial killer “hero”. I don’t suppose reading Bond has ever done any child much harm, but it is nice to know that Hannay or Haggard’s Allan Quatermain exist as alternative role models. 

They may be less sophisticated than Bond – and I don’t deny that that may be a euphemism for being slightly dim – but they show that you can win the day by sticking to your values and trying to be brave (their upper lips are often a lot less stiff than the caricature would suggest), without being an omnicompetent know-all. 

Of course, these stories have their absurdities; plenty of people thought so. The poet J K Stephen looked forward in 1891 to a time when “The Rudyards cease from Kipling/ And the Haggards Ride no more”. 

The modern reader will snigger at unintended instances of homoeroticism (nearly all the heroes’ love interests in Buchan’s novels, for example, seem to be described as being boyish in appearance, and Hannay says of his future wife Mary: “I didn’t even think of her as pretty, any more than a man thinks of the good looks of the friend he worships”). These may be a consequence of the novels’ emotional reticence. Although in the past, women and girls have read them avidly, and far more readily than men have tended to tackle Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, perhaps they are now out of tune with a literary culture that has become more feminised and emotionally literate. 

They seek him here: a still from the 1934 film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel Credit: Alamy

What damns them most, though, is their political incorrectness. These stories of European men seeking fortune and adventure flourished along with the empire, and although they are rarely as racist and jingoistic as their reputation might suggest, their white-saviour heroes invariably patronise any natives they encounter, as well as embodying a benevolent version of colonialism that never worked so well outside of fiction.

But the flipside of this is that these books have an optimistic flavour – a sense that so much of the world was still left to explore and pluck could overcome any adversary – that makes them exhilarating. After the First World War, it was no longer possible to have such faith in the future or believe that civilised values would always triumph. That is part of the reason why reading these books feels so salutary – like breathing gloriously fresh, unpolluted air.

Five classics: swashbuckling, spies and suspense

Waverley (1814)

Once Walter Scott’s novel gets going, it is as exciting as any of its offspring. Like many great adventure stories, it is about the clash between the “civilised” world and older, more elemental societies – in this case, England v Scotland.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

Dumas’s behemoth of a book describes Edmond Dantès’s attempts to revenge himself on those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment for treason. It’s inspired many copycats – Stephen Fry even wrote an update – but nothing beats the original.

King Solomon’s Mines (1885)

Dedicated to “all the big boys and little boys who read it”, Haggard’s tale of white men exploring the African interior started a vogue for “lost world” novels.

Kim (1901)

Kipling’s story of an orphaned Irish street boy living in Lahore and recruited by British Intelligence to spy on the Russians is magical.

Greenmantle (1916)

The sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps is John Buchan’s real masterpiece, showing an enlightened understanding of Islam as Hannay tries to thwart a German plot to stir up a jihad against the Allies.