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Born on April 9, 1863, in Kingstown, Ireland, Henry de Vere Stacpoole grew up in a household dominated by his mother and three older sisters. William C. Stacpoole, a doctor of divinity from Trinity College and headmaster of Kingstown school, died some time before his son's eighth birthday, leaving the responsibility of supporting the family to his Canadian-born wife, Charlotte Augusta Mountjoy Stacpoole. At a young age, Charlotte had been led out of the Canadian backwoods by her widowed mother and taken to Ireland, where their relatives lived. This experience had strengthened her character and prepared her for single parenthood.
Charlotte cared passionately for her children and was perhaps overly protective of her son. As a child, Henry suffered from severe respiratory problems, misdiagnosed as chronic bronchitis by his physician, who in the winter of 1871 advised that the boy be taken to Southern France for his health. With her entire family in tow, Charlotte made the long journey from Kingstown to London to Paris, where signs of the Franco-Prussian War were still evident, settling at last in Nice at the Hotel des Iles Britannique. Nice was like paradise to Henry, who marveled at the city's affluence and beauty as he played in the warm sun.
After several more excursions to the continent, Stacpoole was sent to Portarlington, a bleak boarding school more than 100 miles from Kingstown. In contrast to his sisters, the Portarlington boys were noisy and uncouth. As Stacpoole writes in his autobiograhy Men and Mice, 1863-1942 (1942), the boys abused him mentally and physically, making him feel like "a little Arthur in a cage of baboons." One night, he escaped through an adjacent girls' school and returned to Kingstown, only to be betrayed by his family and dragged back to school by his eldest sister.
When his family moved to London, he was taken out of Portarlington and enrolled at Malvern College, a progressive school with refined students and plenty of air and sunshine. Stacpoole thoroughly enjoyed his new surroundings, which he associated with the description of Malvern Hills in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857): "Keepers of Piers Plowman's visions / Through the sunshine and the snow." This environment encouraged his interest in literature and writing.
The idyll ended, however, when Stacpoole began his medical training. At his mother's prodding, he entered the medical school at St. George's Hospital. Twice a day, he had to traverse a park frequented by perambulating nursemaids, and he became romantically involved with one of them. When his mother discovered their affair, she insisted that he transfer to University College, and he complied.
More interested in literature than corpses, Stacpoole began to neglect his studies and miss classes, especially the required dissections. Finally, the dean of the medical school confronted him, and their argument drove Stacpoole to St. Mary's Hospital, where he completed his medical training and qualified L. S. A. in 1891. At some point after this date, Stacpoole made several sea voyages into the tropics (at least once as a doctor aboard a cable-mending ship), collecting information for future stories.
Stacpoole's literary career, which he once described as being "more like a Malay fishing prahu than an honest-to-God English literary vessel," began inauspiciously with the publication of The Intended (1894), a tragic novel about two look-alikes, one rich, the other poor, who switch places on a whim. Bewildered by the novel's lack of success, Stacpoole consulted his friendly muse, Pearl Craigie, alias John Oliver Hobbes, who suggested a comic rather than tragic treatment. Years later, Stacpoole retold the story in The Man Who Lost Himself (1918), a commercially successful comic novel about a down-and-out American who impersonates his wealthy look-alike in England.
Set in France during the Franco-Prussian War, Stacpoole's second novel, Pierrot (1896), recounts a French boy's eerie relationship with a patricidal doppelganger. Like its predecessor, it was a commercial failure, and it was at this point, perhaps, that Stacpoole began to view literary success only in terms of sales figures and numbers of editions.
A strange tale of reincarnation, cross dressing, and uxoricide, Stacpoole's third novel, Death, the Knight, and the Lady (1897), purports to be the deathbed confession of Beatrice Sinclair, who is both a reincarnated murderer (male) and a descendant of the murder victim (female). She falls in love with Gerald Wilder, a man disguised as a woman, who is both a reincarnated murder victim (female) and the descendant of the murderer (male). Despite its originality, the novel was killed by "Public Indifference" (Stacpoole's term), which also killed The Rapin (1899), a novel about an art student in Paris.
Stacpoole spent the summer of 1898 in Sommerset, where he took over the medical practice of an ailing country doctor. So peaceful were his days in this pastoral setting that he had time to write The Doctor (1899), a novel about an old-fashioned physician practicing medicine in rural England. "It is the best book I have written," Stacpoole declared more than forty years later. He could also say, in retrospect, that the book's weak sales were a disguised blessing, "for I hadn't ballast on board in those days to stand up to the gale of success, which means incidentally money." He would be spared the gale of success for nine more years, during which he published seven books, including a collection of children's stories and two collaborative novels with his friend William Alexander Bryce.
In 1907, two events occurred that altered the course of Stacpoole's life: he wrote The Blue Lagoon and he married Margaret Robson. Unable to sleep one night, he found himself thinking about and envying the caveman, who in his primitiveness was able to marvel at such commonplace phenomena as sunsets and thunderstorms. Civilized, technological man had unveiled these mysteries with his telescopes and weather balloons, so that they were no longer "nameless wonders" to be feared and contemplated. As a doctor, Stacpoole had witnessed countless births and deaths, and these events no longer seemed miraculous to him. He conceived the idea of two children growing up alone on an island and experiencing storms, death, and birth in almost complete ignorance and innocence. The next morning, he started writing The Blue Lagoon. The exercise was therapeutic because he was able to experience the wonders of life and death vicariously through his characters.
The Blue Lagoon is the story of two cousins, Dicky and Emmeline Lestrange, stranded on a remote island with a beautiful lagoon. As children, they are cared for by Paddy Button, a portly sailor who drinks himself to death after only two and a half years in paradise. Frightened and confused by the man's gruesome corpse, the children flee to another part of Palm Tree Island. Over a period of five years, they grow up and eventually fall in love. Sex and birth are as mysterious to them as death, but they manage to copulate instinctively and conceive a child. The birth is especially remarkable: fifteen-year-old Emmeline, alone in the jungle, loses consciousness and awakes to find a baby boy on the ground near her. Naming the boy Hannah (an example of Stacpoole's penchant for gender reversals), the Lestranges live in familial bliss until they are unexpectedly expelled from their tropical Eden.
The parallels between The Blue Lagoon and the Biblical story of Adam and Eve are obvious and intentional, but Stacpoole was also influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which he invokes in a passage describing the castaways' approach Palm Tree Island:
"One could see the water swirling round the coral piers, for the tide was flooding into the lagoon; it had seized the little dinghy and was bearing it along far swifter than the sculls could have driven it. Seagulls screamed about them, the boat rocked and swayed. Dick shouted with excitement, and Emmeline shut her eyes TIGHT.
"Then, as though a door had been swiftly and silently closed, the sound of the surf became suddenly less. The boat floated on an even keel; she opened her eyes and found herself in Wonderland."
This direct reference to Wonderland prepares the reader for the many parallels that follow. When their adventures begin, both girls are about the same age, Alice seven and a half, Emmeline exactly eight. Just as Alice joins a tea party in Wonderland, Emmeline plays with her tiny tea set on the beach after they land. Emmeline's former pet, like the Cheshire Cat, "had white stripes and a white chest, and rings down its tail" and died "showing its teeth." Whereas Alice looks for a poison label on a bottle that says "Drink Me," Emmeline innocently tries to eat "the never-wake-up berries" and receives a stern rebuke and a lecture about poison from Paddy Button. "The Poetry of Learning" chapter echoes Alice's dialogue with the caterpillar. Like the wily creature smoking a hookah, Paddy smokes a pipe and shouts "Hurroo!" as the children teach him to write his name in the sand. The children lose "all count of time," just as the Mad Hatter does. Whereas Alice grows nine feet taller, Dick sprouts "two inches taller" and Emmeline "twice as plump." Like the baby in the "Pig and Pepper," Hannah sneezes at the first sight of Dicky. The novel is artfully littered with references to wonder, curiosity, and strangeness—all evidence of Stacpoole's conscious effort to invoke and honor his Victorian predecessor.
Stacpoole presented The Blue Lagoon to Publisher T. Fisher Unwin in September 1907 and went to Cumberland to assist another ailing doctor in his practice. Every day from Eden Vue in Langwathby, Stacpoole wrote to his fiancee, Margaret Robson (or Maggie, as he called her), and waited anxiously for their wedding day. On December 17, 1907, the couple were married and spent their honeymoon at Stebbing Park, a friend's country house in Essex, about three miles from the village of Stebbing. It was there that they stumbled upon Rose Cottage, where Stacpoole lived for several years before he moved to Cliff Dene on the Isle of Wight in the 1920s.
Published in January 1908, The Blue Lagoon was an immediate success, both with reviewers and the public. "[This] tale of the discovery of love, and innocent mating, is as fresh as the ozone that made them strong," declared one reviewer. Another claimed that "for once the title of `romance,' found in so many modern stories, is really justified." The novel was reprinted more than twenty times in the next twelve years and remained popular in other forms for more than eighty years. Norman MacOwen and Charlton Mann adapted the story as a play, which ran for 263 performances in London from August 28, 1920, to April 16, 1921. Film versions of the novel were made in 1923, 1949, and 1980.