This paper is about a book by Henry de Stacpoole (1863-1951), The Garden of God published in 1923. Stacpoole’s is perhaps not a familiar name. He is remembered, if at all, as the author of The Blue Lagoon (1908), a massively popular book, which has been filmed a number of times. But Stacpoole was a widely talented writer with a considerable range. He wrote a number of books set in France, reminiscent of the work of Anatole France, another unjustly neglected writer. Stacpoole translated Sappho. He translated François Villon and wrote a biography of him which John Fox, an exacting and judicious later biographer of Villon speaks well of and praises for its accuracy and detail. But, to my purpose, Stacpoole wrote of Oceania – the South Seas – specifically in his case the Eastern Pacific and he wrote with knowledge. He was trained as a doctor and sailed the Pacific in his early years, as a ship’s doctor. The Blue Lagoon, though crucial to his career as a writer, is nowhere near his best book. Stacpoole’s style and mind matured and deepened with age, perhaps as the pressure to make it as a writer was lifted from him by his popular success. The Garden of God is part of that later strength. It became the second element in The Blue Lagoon Trilogy and even though published fifteen years after The Blue Lagoon it starts at the point in the story where The Blue Lagoon finishes.
Stacpoole can write. The restricted but emphatic beauty of the Pacific and its islands dictates a way of writing that in various degrees of ability reappears in all Pacific writing from Melville on. It has something of the recurrent formulaic dignity of heroic writing – the antipodean equivalent of Homer’s ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ and ‘wine-dark sea’ – and is, I think, best read like that. From a different point of view, Stacpoole’s coloured but considered style makes him seem like a Mrs Radcliffe of the South Seas, endlessly dealing with a range of scenic effects and extravagant action where the problem is to render dawn by dawn, day by day, twilight by twilight, island by island, book by book, the perpetual ideal of a particular beauty. It is a locale difficult to render other than at full stretch. And the fully stretched may before long lose its zip. Stacpoole overcomes this problem, to the degree that he does, simply and cleverly, by writing very short chapters – vignettes with action – which always tempt you to read another and then another, because they are so short and no trouble. Mrs Radcliffe might sensibly have done the same thing.
To develop this sense of what the locale asks
of the writer, I would wish to suggest that both locale and the South Seas
genre itself are specific and not gratuitously to be assimilated to some
myth of islands reconstituted from or embroidered upon The Tempest
or Defoe or on Rousseau’s approbation of Robinson Crusoe as a source
of instruction in Émile or his use of Anson’s Voyages
in La Nouvelle Héloise or again on Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s account
of Mauritius in Paul et Virginie. Such a myth has three main
forms: either white men recreate in the islands the structures, paternal
or tyrannic, of the West, or else they rediscover radical innocence or
else they lapse into a supposedly ‘primitive’ savagery. From any of these
versions of the myth, island writing can become, in these latter
days, a negative constituent in post-colonial interpretation, since all
such constructions can be seen as European impositions upon the islands
themselves. It seems often to escape the zeal of post-colonial critics
that their own position is another such construction and imposition, European
in its source, its form and its desires. This will not necessarily
invalidate it but it should, at least, give it caution. That being
said, clearly in Stacpoole there is a knowing kinship with his predecessors
and his peers. In the particular case of The Garden of God
Stacpoole presents children isolated on Pacific islands and observes them
as they grow older. There is, I suppose, an implied contrast with
what might have happened to them in the West, which, Rousseau-like, tells
against the West. That the story is of children reminds us, but not
much more than that, of Paul et Virginie. That they eventually come
into their kingdom has a touch, but not much more than that, of Crusoe.
Stacpoole seems rather more interested in the role of particular conditions
of environment and culture as they shape and nurture character and of the
effect of land- and sea-scape on the young mind, how far they determine
not just the physical, but the psychic conditions of lives. For the
most part these questions are raised delicately not obtrusively.
He does not hector us with his views. But it is clear that for this
particular story-teller the islands he chooses are not just another and
interchangeable island milieu but specific laboratories in which to examine
the human condition.
It’s time now to tell the story since it will probably not be familiar. I should say that however much what follows may sound improbable, it does not read improbably, so securely does Stacpoole prepare the steps in his narrative. There are causes, effects, intelligible agencies for what happens, motives. And more sceptical readers, given to impatience with romance, can always willingly suspend their disbelief – it’s worth it. There is certainly occasional Hardyesque convergence – as there is in Hardy – involving both characters and natural happenings but no more, I think, than we are used to not only in literature but in life, where most marriages, for example, traced to their roots, are improbable convergences.
At the end of The Blue Lagoon and the beginning of The Garden of God, Lestrange, following a credible lead, is searching a particular part of the Pacific, in the hope of finding his son and niece, lost at sea twelve years before. He finds them mysteriously floating, dead in an open boat and near Palm Tree Island, with their own baby son who is still alive. ‘Grown, mated, dead’ is Stacpoole’s clipped summary of the plot of The Blue Lagoon. Under a benign sense that he will meet the children again on the island where that had grown up, Lestrange decides to stay on Palm Tree with their child and a sailor, Jim Kearney – a well-drawn character who, when he is first introduced, is described as a ‘long lantern-jawed son of perdition’ but turns out to be pretty agreeable. The child is called Dick-em, after the first words he says after rescue, Dick and Emmeline being his parents’ names. And he is indeed in many ways an amalgam of them. In course of time, Lestrange, worn out, dies, and Dick-em (or Dick as he is usually called in the book) and Kearney flourish. Then Katafa, a girl from an island, Karolin, near but not normally in contact with Palm Tree, because the inhabitants of Karolin fear it as ghost-ridden – Katafa – is blown off course while fishing from a canoe and arrives on the island. She is herself the sole survivor of a Spanish ship attacked by the people of Karolin and, though Spanish herself, is brought up from earliest childhood on Karolin and as a Polynesian. However it is not a normal upbringing in that the priestess on the island, seeing the child as a potential danger, effectively isolates her by putting a tapu on her against physical contact so that Katafa has never in her life been touched nor has touched anyone. (Tapus against contact such as this did exist within Polynesian society but related normally to kings.) When Kearney tries to touch her on the shoulder, though she evades him, she is deeply shocked. Later, in anger, he throws a ball at her which hits her on the back. She conceives a hatred of him – important because the development of hatred is in fact a response to another person and so a stage in the breaking of her tapu. Kearney is killed by a decapod, a sort of calamari from hell, one of the spectacular creatures which invigorate the pages of South Seas stories. Katafa’s tapu is finally broken when the fighting men of Karolin invade Palm Tree and she springs on the back of one of them to help Dick. The Karolin warriors manage to slaughter each other in a mix-up in the forest at night, all of them under the impression that they are battling ghosts. Dick – now with a Polynesian name Taori – and Katafa fall in love, if I may so express it. When a boatload of New Hebrideans, Melanesians who have been blackbirded – effectively enslaved – arrive on the island and mutiny against their captors, Taori and Katafa decide to sail for Karolin and in the absence of all its fighting men, the widows and children there accept them as their new sea-sent rulers.
This is a very bare account of the story and I want now to expand on some aspects of the book and to develop some questions it raises. First, there is, to a degree, in Stacpoole’s treatment of his material a contrast drawn between Europe (in which America is included) and Polynesia, or, as Stacpoole presents it, between ‘civilised’ – he would agree with the quotation marks – and primitive, but it is not a simple contrast, nor is it one of European superiority either moral or by the grace of God. European civilisation is seen as complex in fact and in effect and, as it impacts upon the Pacific, spoiling and degrading. The strongest statement of this is within Stacpoole’s brief foreword ‘A Plea for the Islands’ which prefaces The Gates of the Morning, the third volume in The Blue Lagoon Trilogy.
Never in the history of the world has ruin fallen on a people as it
has fallen upon the natives of these far islands; nowhere else will
find the remains of a once noble race left in its original setting of
pure air, yet stinking of gin and petrol and exhibited at times to the
world between the finger and thumb of Romance or Realism. Could
it speak, this remnant, would it not say:
“White man, you have taken from us all good things but Death;
you have given us all but things but Pride; make one return –
Silence. Do not write about us; or, writing, remember only
what we were?” (421)
The context for this passionate plea is the 1920s when the imminent demise of the Pacific peoples under the stress and degradation of European contact was widely forecast. However, in Stacpoole’s writing individual members among those who enter the Pacific are redeemable. Kearney, the ‘lantern-jawed son of perdition’, is one such and in general Stacpoole seems to see an essential innocence and capacity for commonsense which in this world is much like wisdom in the working class, represented by the crew of the boat that brings Lestrange to Palm Tree. The view is a little paternalistic but Stacpoole sees the men as ‘good’ when not subject to the intake of rum or the brutalities of ‘enterprise’ and the actions of capital which turn the islands into ‘trade’ and men into brutes. There is also in Stacpoole some sense that the European races have achieved an advanced level of technology which is perhaps accompanied by a capacity for invention. It is not clear to me whether this is seen as a universal European attribute of which the boy Dick is representative or whether he is just an apt and inventive lad. But he, for instance, astonishes Kearney, when, untaught, he appears to allow for the refraction of the image in the water when spearing a fish. One of the chief evidences for this level of technology are the model boats that the sailor Kearney makes as instructive toys, which fascinate Dick, but are seen by Katafa as fetishes and then as inimical gods. But Stacpoole also celebrates the achievements, grace and efficiency of the sea-going Polynesian canoes, with which the Pacific was first colonised, and, in The Gates of the Morning, the outrigger.
In other matters, mental processes, religion, the development of language, the understanding of death, some distinctions are made and generalisations hazarded, but these are most often comparative in the sense that that links are sought rather than differences. In this Stacpoole does seem to presuppose that there is ‘a primitive condition’ from which there has been change, but that condition is not, I think, felt as inferior, rather as prior, natural and derived from the logic of the environment. There is no sense that the Christian God is a superior god. Indeed the Christian God does not appear. The gods that are new to the South Seas are Jim’s boats. At the level of contrast between Europe and the South Seas the point is rather of the assimilation of Dick and indeed Katafa to a position within Polynesian society and culture, and although it is assimilation at the top of the Polynesian hierarchy this is more a matter of the requirements of romantic fiction than of any residual Europeanism they might have. It is their exotic nature that marks them out, both fictionally and actually, when they reach Karolin at the end of the book, but they are absorbed according to Polynesian norms and into a Polynesian not a Western way of life. The destruction of Karolin’s warriors in the night battle on Palm Tree had created a gap in the island hierarchy and Dick and Katafa are fit to fill it.
But before the assimilation to the culture of Karolin there has been for both Dick and Katafa a prior absorption – to the natural world, the land- and sea-scape of the Pacific. For Stacpoole there is no simplistic island myth in which all islands are petty kingdoms. Dick’s relationship to Palm Tree is in learning the attributes of an environment which instructs him in both the hazardous and the benign. For Katafa, the island – a different one, Karolin – is equally ‘given’ and it is a reflection of the human condition that is first forced upon her and then in a more positive way becomes a renovating condition for both her and for Dick.
Stacpoole’s understanding of the islands is based upon his knowledge of what Pacific islands were like and not on a literary myth of what all islands might mean. This is clear from the way he first distinguishes the two prevailing types of Pacific island and then assigns his hero and heroine to a representative example of each. He begins in a geographical reality to which later he will be able to attach symbolic meaning. Pacific islands are best described by reference to the way they came into being. The theory was first advanced by Darwin in 1842 and has since been proved correct by experimental drilling. ‘Darwin began by noting that there were only three types of oceanic islands, namely, volcanic, coral, and combinations of the two. He simply proposed that there was only one sequence of development of all oceanic islands. Volcanoes grow up from the sea floor to form high islands and then die. Coral grows in the shallow water fringing the shoreline. The volcano subsides and the coral grows upward, leaving a gap between a barrier reef and a central volcanic island. The subsidence continues until the volcanic island disappears and nothing remains but an atoll.’ (Menard, 129) and on the same page he describes atolls as ‘great rings of wave-girt coral around calm lagoons in the deep Pacific.’
Dick’s island, Palm Tree, is a high island and, I would suggest, corresponds to the mythic type of the South Sea island. The myth is formed on islands like Tahiti, the Marquesas and the Samoan Islands. In literary terms it has gained currency from books like Pierre Loti’s Le Marriage de Loti, set on Tahiti and full of verdant and spectacular description, and the more stylistically judicious writings of Robert Louis Stevenson who lived and died at Vailima in Samoa. But it is Stevenson who in The Ebb Tide gave us equally one of the most compelling descriptions of the surprise of the atoll – ‘the undiscovered, the scarce-believed in.... strange and delicate.’
The beach was excellently white, the continuous barrier of trees
inimitably green; the land perhaps ten feet high, the trees thirty more
....he could see clear over the inconsiderable strip of land (as a man
looks over a wall to the lagoon within – and clear over that again
to where the far side of the atoll prolonged its pencilling of trees
against the morning sky.... The isle was like the rim of a great vessel
sunken in the waters....so slender it seemed amidst the outrageous
breakers, so frail and pretty, he would scarce have wondered to see
it sink and disappear without a sound, and the waves close smoothly
over its descent. (Stevenson, Jolly: 187-88)
Within Dick’s high island he has all the means of survival and all the circumstance of interest. It is not however idyllic, in that sense, not simply the island of the myth. It shelters or is occasional witness to intruders that come from the sea or the air – sometimes, as with the hurricane, are the air itself. Some of these are the stock-in-trade and set-pieces of the adventure story; the hurricane, the whaler, the copra trader, the shark. But it’s important to remember that they were, before that, the realities of Pacific life, climatically and historically.
Once he is fostered, Dick has very little other than his own innate
qualities – which are either ascribed to himself or seen as
received from his parents – rather than some set of supposedly European
gifts. He has his model boats. But in most other respects he is immediate,
spontaneous, reactive - and, as Stacpoole constantly stresses, almost
without memory. Everything else in his life is an intimacy
with an environment, received and unquestioned.
But this changes – and the idea of Palm Tree Island too changes with the arrival of Katafa. Her life has been an island life but of the life of the atoll, a place seen by Stacpoole as reflective of and peculiarly attuned to the whole Pacific environment. She is disturbed by the high island, especially by its abundance of trees and its consequent claustrophobia. She knows the expanses that Baudelaire’s voyagers seek as they ‘get drunk on space and light and the flames of skies.’
There is another element in Katafa’s existence that reflects and reinforces the strange life of the atoll – the tapu called ‘Taminan’ that has been placed upon her. The isolation of the atoll, of Pacific island communities, of Dick, of Stacpoole’s human laboratory (what if....?) is quintessential with Katafa. It is not merely environmental but mental. A religious and psychological process is used to ensure in her a total displacement, a maximum 'outsiderness'. And it is Stacpoole as well as his priestess who uses it.
The love theme, required by literary romance, is the means to break down an isolation , so total as to symbolise all human isolation. Katafa connects with a wider world first through shock, then enmity and hate, and eventually through an instinct to protect and finally through love. It is a move from shadow to flesh.
Tapu, which seems to have been a feature of all societies, is a prohibition placed upon something, some person or some action, by a competent sacral figure in order to prevent exposure of others to too fiercely sacred or too polluting a power. It is a means, therefore, of structuring, directing and placing safety limits on a dialogue with power, most frequently, power seen as sacred. As such it has been seen as the basis from which law, social structures and religion all derive.
So far I have not come across any other account of the particular form of tapu called by Stacpoole ‘Taminan’ that Le Juan, the priestess of Karolin, places upon Chita, the Spanish child she renames Katafa – the frigate bird. He writes:
How, how can you isolate a person from her fellows so that
whilst living, talking, eating and moving amongst them she is as
much apart as though ringed round with a barrier of steel? It
seems impossible, but it was not impossible to Le Juan. She
imposed upon Chita the rarest of all the forms of tabu, Taminan.
.... the terrible tabu of Taminan debarred its victims from touching
any human creature or being touched.
From earliest infancy the mind of the Spanish child had been worked
upon by Le Juan until the tabu had taken a firm hold and become part
and parcel of her brain processes, and evasion an instantaneous reflex
act; you might suddenly have put out your hand to grasp or touch
Katafa – you would have touched nothing but air; like an expert
fencer she would have evaded you if only by the fiftieth part of an
inch. To understand the tremendous grasp of this thing upon the
mind, it is enough to say that, had she wished you to touch her,
desired with all her heart that you should touch her, wish or desire
would have been fruitless before the impassable barrier erected by
the subliminal mind. (285)
Tapu is not normally manipulative in this way, but safeguarding. But tapu against contact certainly did operate in Polynesian society, particularly in relation to isolating kings or chiefs. I suspect though that in this use of tapu as brainwashing, Stacpoole is extending the concept beyond what had actually been recorded and doing so for the purposes of his plot. But however that may be, it is a great imaginative stroke. Symbolically it makes Katafa a shadow. She then is the perfect echo and expression of the Pacific lagoon world where the water is so clear that fish swim in time to their shadows, where the disc of lagoon water reflects as a mirror-like blaze in the sky and where Palm Tree Island is seen as mirage. She is shadow and it is the role of romantic love to bring her to full existence. It is the role of such love equally to bring Dick from a state of unthinking natural action to fulfilment or – better – fullness.
To invoke Baudelaire once more, Katafa lives in a world of correspondences. a structure of resemblances and connections wrought in the natural world. The correspondences exist prior to her arrival as a child on Karolin but once under her tapu she reflects and expresses them, a shadow in a world of shadows and reflections. Le Juan’s attempt to isolate her, in fact, makes Katafa part of an elusive nature, while separating her from human contact. It’s the role of love to bring about the fruitful reintegration of these two, formally perfect, but humanly incomplete children who have both become children who reflect their islands, that is to say, who are formed by their environments.
In terms of the literary relationships of such a book, clearly
there are connections to be made. Literary criticism as framed at
the moment is likely to see Rousseau here and Robinson and go as
I did at first to Paul et Virginie and Pierre Loti to seek parallels
and so to place Stacpoole in a tradition which can be viewed as Western
and viewed inimically – either because it falsely romanticises
or implicitly exploits its subject matter under the voracious
gaze of Western eyes, as if to write of any place from the outside, however
sympathetically, is to subvert it. Stacpoole is well aware of these
possibilities and there are enough signposts in the book to show that he
is more knowing than that. He invokes piratical melodrama and
Robinson Crusoe, compares Hercules’ crude Homeric club unfavourably with
Polynesian war clubs and so on. He knows the contexts in which he
writes but he extends those contexts and does new things with them.
To simply project him back wholesale into them is facile. Besides
when we write and whatever we write we are all outsiders.
Stacpoole can be fitted in, and would not have worried about it, to the genre of the much abused adventure story. But there is a distinction to be made. Lord Pembroke - who travelled in the South Seas in the 1860’s - made it in the introduction to a collection of Louis Becke’s stories in 1894. He suggested that those who knew the Pacific didn’t write and those who wrote didn’t know. Fortunately this was not entirely true and there is a sufficient genre of the South Seas tale, concerned mainly with the period of 19th and 20th century expansion into the area, and including Melville, Stevenson in his Pacific writings - (not Treasure Island), Louis Becke, Jack London, Stacpoole himself, John Russell, and on the geographical and ethnic fringes, Somerset Maugham and Conrad, and on the historical and cultural fringe, the Americans Michener and Nordoff and Hall. Between them they establish a literary milieu which writers like Albert Wendt in Samoa John Pule in Niue, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera and slightly offbeat Keri Hulme in New Zealand, as well as the Indo-Fijians, Subramani and Raymond Pillai can re-view and bring to new light in a post-colonial way. Where there is falsification in the European writers it is more in the direction of romanticising the primitive in a patronising way so that it fulfils a European need for a world the writers feel themselves to have lost, which is somehow theirs, and which the world is losing. It is a sort of celebration of longed-for origins. At the turn of the century, for example, John Russell speaks of the Polynesian race which ‘among all the rowdy populations of the earth was so strong and so stalwart, so kind and so gentle, so magnificently supplied with all the primitive virtues and so few of the apparently native vices of mankind’. Of course this is equally imposition since it over-positions a people, and specifies a role for them that they indeed may not wish to occupy. The place they are allocated is simply to satisfy a need felt by the writer and the Western world he speaks for. It is the tourist’s view of the exotic. But there is space, I think, for genuine feeling and understanding in such a view, as when the 20th Century New Zealand poet R.A.K.Mason, in introducing Hone Tuwhare’s first book, spoke of the Maoris as ‘a people equipped for life.’ Adam Kuper argues in The Invention of Primitive Society that the idea of primitive society as developed in Western anthropology from the 1860s on was in any case an illusion. In it the anthropologists posited and then described something which had never existed. ‘Primitive society proved to be their own society (as the understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. ... They looked back in order to understand the nature of the present, on the assumption that modern society had evolved from its antithesis.’ (5)
Stacpoole would I think see the value of Mason’s description and that is why he tests Dick and Katafa against the stresses of island life, both natural and cultural, and wishes to find them capable - equipped - within it. But, further to that, in the conclusion to the book, he differentiates precisely between the romantic falsification of the high island, - Loti’s Tahiti, the Pacific island of the tourist - and the strange existence of the atoll, its isolation shadowing a reality of sea and sky, a reflecting disc, enigmatic but actual, the high island mirage reduced to what it had become, a mirage of the West:
Katafa, turning with the last of the sunset lighting her face,
followed his gaze to where, far away above the unbroken skyline,
something floated that was not cloud, that was not land, that was
not sea. The ghost of an island, lovely and elusive as the land
where Lestrange in his dream had met his vanished children.
Palm Tree, far lifted above all things earthly – by mirage. (417)
The focus of Wendt and his contemporaries writing now is to give back
reality to the mirage. For them it was never mirage nor could be.
But it is no less than just to see that Stacpoole and others of those who
had seen the islands and written of them from an outside perspective had
also perceived a part of that reality. The European tradition
of the South Seas was not all Loti-land, white man and brown woman
and Conrad’s claustrophobic shadow-world of The Secret Sharer, the
inner account of white endeavour mirroring white endeavour.
It is Stacpoole’s ability in The Garden of God, writing from within
the heart of the romance genre, to expose its key delusion, the island
of mirage and myth, with its nostalgia for an improbable past of our own,
and to propose instead another reality, the quasi-abstract minimal
world of the atoll - a world equipped for life and symbolically echoing
the terms of life.