The Mysterious Island – Jules Verne (1874)
Like other Verne novels, this does take God’s own time for the plot to get underway.
Five men and a dog escape from their incarceration as prisoners of war by Southern forces in the American Civil War. They commandeer a balloon and set off during a storm.
The storm takes them off across the sea, and having shed all possible ballast they finally come to land on a seemingly deserted island.
Much of the novel is the standard fare along ‘survival on desert island’ lines. Verne’s twist on this idea is to have along Captain Hardy, an engineer who can build a barometer from two quail eggs and the string from a sailor’s vest. (He doesn’t actually do this, but given sufficient encouragement I am certain he could).
Along with the Captain’s free ‘Negro’ servant Neb, there is Pencroft, a sailor and carpenter, Gideon, a reporter, and Herbert, a teenager who seems to have spent his entire life studying vegetables.
The castaways quickly transform their environment into a functioning farming/manufacturing society, eventually smelting iron, casting pottery and making glass.
The group is extended by the addition of the dog, Top and a tame ourangoutang named Jup. Later, a castaway is rescued from a neighbouring island; a character from an earlier Verne novel.
During their stay they occasionally receive unexpected help from a mysterious source but it is not until the finale that we discover who their benefactor may be.
It’s basically an extended masterclass on applied science, demonstrated by the fact that Verne goes into pages of mind-numbing descriptions of:-
a) the construction of the forge/basketlift/windmill and
b) the scientific processes behind the concept and
c) what the mechanism actually does, which is handy to know.
What will appal many readers today is that Verne clearly shows the relationship between humanity and the natural world at the time.
No sooner are the group of survivors set up with a base of operations and some home-made weaponry than they embark on a rampage of wholesale slaughter against the island’s wildlife. No doubt people of the mid-nineteenth century saw the world as an endlessly self-replenishing breadbasket and one which should be plundered at will.
On a more positive note, Verne gives a very positive portrayal of Neb, which other than Othello, is one of the first appearances of a black person as a major character in Western literature. I feel Verne does him good service, despite not giving him a great deal of dialogue.