THE CALL OF THE WILD By Jack London Illustrated by Philippe Munch, Viking Pounds 7.99
TREASURE ISLAND By Robert Louis Stevenson Illustrated by Francois Place, Viking Pounds 9.99
AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS By Jules Verne Illustrated by James Prunier, Viking Pounds 9.99
The first question for any reviewer, "What are these books for?" is usually answered without even thinking. Here, though, is a series where one really has to puzzle quite hard.
The Whole Stories seem founded on a premise which needs examination. Our res-ponse to literature of another age suffers through not living in that age ourselves, so we cannot enter into the experience brought and the assumptions made by both author and the contemporaneous reader. So surely if the texts are accompanied not only by sumptuous illustrations but also maps, plans, diagrams, contemporary prints, facsimiles of articles and reports together with detailed background notes then we can share the understanding and enjoyment of those first readers. The compilers of those Royal Shakespeare Company programmes that one desperately tries to skim before the play starts have the same idea.
It's a case worth arguing. And when the texts are as beautifully presented as these - superior trade paperback format with comfortably wide spines so pages open flat at once, high quality paper and standard of illustration, reproduction of old photographs, maps and prints which is quite exceptional - then the case seems won. But there have to be cavils.
These four books are among the archetypal "ripping yarns for boys". Is there a concealed target - the reluctant boy reader? Is the theory that they don't like fiction but, perhaps, that detailed information on ropework, a potted history of the compass, details for extracting gold, constitutes the sort of hard information that will bring them to the stories by the back door? Again, arguable, but frankly doubtful.
Besides, why these particular books for the series? Ignoring the clues that they are part of an international co-production, I was much struck by what Mary Hilton had to say in Voices Off a selection of papers published by Cassell last year, from the 1995 Homerton College conference on children's literature. Hilton argued that boys' literature which grew in Victorian England was that of colonisation and male superiority. Boys are still surrounded by the worn-out dregs of that tradition and they unwittingly suffer because of it.
Her analysis is, I am sure, correct - yet here are books which represent that tradition. They were among the staples for recommendations to schools in every report, in every list in every teachers' book from the start of the century until the Fifties. There are many reasons why these lists suddenly became obsolete. But one, surely, was the end of Empire. And though a debased form of the tradition lives on - and even flourishes - can that particular mindset be restored? And should it? No matter how good the background materials are, can we match these stories with the sensibilities of today's readers?
If we look at the texts simply as value-free stories, the Stevenson, London and Kipling will live on because these are wonderful writers in any age. I cannot see Verne's heavy-handed verbosity keeping a new reader's attention beyond the third page: the story now appears no more than a mildly engaging curiosity.