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The man who inspired Long John Silver


The Daily Telegraph writes on Robert Louis Stevenson and enlightened me regarding the inspiration for Long John Silver from Treasure Island – poet and journalist WE Henley.

Henley was a friend of the author, and had a wooden leg and a booming personality. He also edited an edition of Robert Burns’ poetry and wrote an afterword for an edition of Treasure Island. The tale of pirates and adventure is back in the news because Andrew Motion is bringing out a sequel to the classic novel.

Like many other characters in Stevenson, Silver is of great medical interest, for he was modelled on or inspired by Stevenson’s friend W E Henley, the poet and journalist, now mainly remembered for his poem Invictus, the last stanza of which is: “It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll. / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”

This is not mere Victorian uplift: Henley knew whereof he spoke, having spent nearly two years in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary having his one remaining leg – the other already having been amputated for tuberculosis of the knee – saved by the great surgeon Joseph Lister, at the expense of immense personal suffering. His wooden leg and expansive personality led Stevenson to write to him: “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver.”

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Richard Davies

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