The Amateur Emigrant by Robert Louis Stevenson (1895)

Humanly speaking, it is a more important matter to play the fiddle, even badly, than to write huge works upon recondite subjects.

Introduction

This is the third of Stevenson’s short autobiographical travel books, following An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879).

Stevenson had met in France and fallen in love with the short, feisty American, Fanny Osbourne, ten years his senior and married to a feckless American prospector and philanderer, who she’d separated from  in order to come and learn to paint in France. Stevenson was totally smitten by Fanny, this tough-talking shrewd independent lady, completely free from the airs and graces of polite British society, and so when she decided to return to California to try and patch things up with her husband, she left Stevenson feeling dejected and rejected in France.

He travelled south and spent August 1878 deeply miserable in a village near Le Puy in southern France – then conceived the idea of going on a walk with a donkey as material for another book, looked around for a likely donkey and finally set off on a 12-day walk, which lasted from late September to early October 1878.

Although it has plenty of Stevensonian fancy, the donkey book feels more oppressed than the Inland Voyage – and a number of references to unrequited love and how things are better experienced as part of a loving couple, alert the reader to Stevenson’s lovelorn condition.

After concluding the donkey book, Stevenson spent a long year mooning about in France, then back in London, visiting friends round the Home Counties, travelling back to Edinburgh to see his parents, trying and failing to write anything, before he finally came to a momentous decision: in August 1879 he decided that he must see Fanny again and bring the relationship to a head. He would travel to California and force a decision: did she want reconciliation with her no-good husband or would she choose him – a shabby, unhealthy, unknown Scottish author?

In this determined spirit Stevenson bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, to New York and went aboard on 7 August 1879.

(An Amateur Emigrant should, logically, have been the third of his published travelogues and followed fairly quickly on the heels of the other two, but his friends, and especially his family, were so shocked by his descriptions of conditions among the rough working class steerage passengers, and Stevenson’s shameless hobnobbing with them, that they suppressed the book during his lifetime; it was only published after his death, in 1895.)

An Amateur Emigrant

Stevenson is a great one for chucking you right into the action at the start of his texts. All three of the travel books get stuck right in, with no long-winded Victorian preparations. The first sentences are:

We made a great stir in Antwerp Docks. (An Inland Voyage)

In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. (Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes)

and so with Emigrant:

I first encountered my fellow-passengers on the Broomielaw in Glasgow.

No preliminary remarks, just straight in, the Broomielaw being the ferry boat which takes Stevenson and his fellow passengers from the Glasgow docks down the River Clyde to where the transatlantic steamer, the Devonia, is anchored.

Steerage

Some critics (Andrew Noble is mentioned as one in the Wikipedia article about The Amateur Emigrant) think this is Stevenson’s best book because it confronts the squalor and economic tribulations of Victorian working class life – epitomised by the thin walls through which Stevenson can hear the chavs of his day being seasick, eating their meals, smacking their children and having drunken fights – ‘the usual sounds of a rough night at sea, the hateful coughing and retching of the sick and the sobs of children’, and so on.

Maybe.

At the other end of the scale, his biographer, Claire Harman, thinks it is one of Stevenson’s worst books (pp.171-173) because his attempts to rough it, to blend in with the genuine working classes, so obviously fail. She thinks the ‘pose’ of detached bohemian which worked so well in the first two travel books, is unsuitable in this context.

That aspect comes as no surprise to this reader. The young man who had spent years perfecting a bohemian nonchalance, playing the part of the knowing littérateur, of the Parisian flâneur, the alert and witty observer, was never going to blend in with illiterate Irish peasants and scouse navvies he found himself among. He is interested in the whimsies of character, in flights of fancy, not in economic plights, social theory or political analysis – as he goes to some lengths to explain.

We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass.

So: no facts and figures; instead japing paras about the ship-borne beverages:

At breakfast we had a choice between tea and coffee for beverage; a choice not easy to make, the two were so surprisingly alike. I found that I could sleep after the coffee and lay awake after the tea, which is proof conclusive of some chemical disparity; and even by the palate I could distinguish a smack of snuff in the former from a flavour of boiling and dish-cloths in the second. As a matter of fact, I have seen passengers, after many sips, still doubting which had been supplied them.

Stevenson presents himself, at least initially, as a witty, self-sufficient man of letters talking directly to other witty, well-off men of letters about the oddities of the crazy world – with the occasional moment of sublimity and nature worship thrown in just so everyone can confirm the superiority of their finer feelings.

Is was a bleak, uncomfortable day; but at night, by six bells, although the wind had not yet moderated, the clouds were all wrecked and blown away behind the rim of the horizon, and the stars came out thickly overhead. I saw Venus burning as steadily and sweetly across this hurly-burly of the winds and waters as ever at home upon the summer woods. The engine pounded, the screw tossed out of the water with a roar, and shook the ship from end to end; the bows battled with loud reports against the billows: and as I stood in the lee- scuppers and looked up to where the funnel leaned out, over my head, vomiting smoke, and the black and monstrous top-sails blotted, at each lurch, a different crop of stars, it seemed as if all this trouble were a thing of small account, and that just above the mast reigned peace unbroken and eternal.

He is a student with a student’s shallow flashiness, his lack of human experience revealed in his lack of empathy and understanding. Soon enough he has paired off with a preposterous Welshman named Jones, the equivalent of his sidekick Simpson in the Inland Voyage, and they take to strolling the decks pointing out the oddities and absurdities of their fellow passengers:

If he had one taste more strongly than another, it was to study character. Many an hour have we two walked upon the deck dissecting our neighbours in a spirit that was too purely scientific to be called unkind; whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day’s experience.

In this mood, other people aren’t hell, or fellow pilgrims – they are a source of unending entertainment. They are a God-given source of material on which Stevenson can practice his prose pirouettes. Hence an entire chapter titled, simply, Steerage Types:

We had a fellow on board, an Irish-American, for all the world like a beggar in a print by Callot; one-eyed, with great, splay crow’s-feet round the sockets; a knotty squab nose coming down over his moustache; a miraculous hat; a shirt that had been white, ay, ages long ago; an alpaca coat in its last sleeves; and, without hyperbole, no buttons to his trousers. Even in these rags and tatters, the man twinkled all over with impudence like a piece of sham jewellery; and I have heard him offer a situation to one of his fellow-passengers with the air of a lord. Nothing could overlie such a fellow; a kind of base success was written on his brow. He was then in his ill days; but I can imagine him in Congress with his mouth full of bombast and sawder. As we moved in the same circle, I was brought necessarily into his society. I do not think I ever heard him say anything that was true, kind, or interesting; but there was entertainment in the man’s demeanour. You might call him a half- educated Irish Tigg.

Emigration – myth and reality

However, as the days go past Stevenson is prompted to be a bit more reflective. Quite early on there is an honest attempt to contrast his own, youthful (naive and shallow) images of emigration with the reality he found around him.

As I walked the deck and looked round upon my fellow-passengers, thus curiously assorted from all northern Europe, I began for the first time to understand the nature of emigration. Day by day throughout the passage, and thenceforward across all the States, and on to the shores of the Pacific, this knowledge grew more clear and melancholy. Emigration, from a word of the most cheerful import, came to sound most dismally in my ear. There is nothing more agreeable to picture and nothing more pathetic to behold. The abstract idea, as conceived at home, is hopeful and adventurous. A young man, you fancy, scorning restraints and helpers, issues forth into life, that great battle, to fight for his own hand. The most pleasant stories of ambition, of difficulties overcome, and of ultimate success, are but as episodes to this great epic of self-help. The epic is composed of individual heroisms; it stands to them as the victorious war which subdued an empire stands to the personal act of bravery which spiked a single cannon and was adequately rewarded with a medal. For in emigration the young men enter direct and by the shipload on their heritage of work; empty continents swarm, as at the bo’s’un’s whistle, with industrious hands, and whole new empires are domesticated to the service of man.

This is the closet picture, and is found, on trial, to consist mostly of embellishments. The more I saw of my fellow-passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty; many were married, and encumbered with families; not a few were already up in years; and this itself was out of tune with my imaginations, for the ideal emigrant should certainly be young. Again, I thought he should offer to the eye some bold type of humanity, with bluff or hawk-like features, and the stamp of an eager and pushing disposition. Now those around me were for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days. Mildness was the prevailing character; mild mirth and mild endurance. In a word, I was not taking part in an impetuous and conquering sally, such as swept over Mexico or Siberia, but found myself, like Marmion, ‘in the lost battle, borne down by the flying.’

Labouring mankind had in the last years, and throughout Great Britain, sustained a prolonged and crushing series of defeats. I had heard vaguely of these reverses; of whole streets of houses standing deserted by the Tyne, the cellar-doors broken and removed for firewood; of homeless men loitering at the street-corners of Glasgow with their chests beside them; of closed factories, useless strikes, and starving girls. But I had never taken them home to me or represented these distresses livingly to my imagination.

A turn of the market may be a calamity as disastrous as the French retreat from Moscow; but it hardly lends itself to lively treatment, and makes a trifling figure in the morning papers. We may struggle as we please, we are not born economists. The individual is more affecting than the mass. It is by the scenic accidents, and the appeal to the carnal eye, that for the most part we grasp the significance of tragedies. Thus it was only now, when I found myself involved in the rout, that I began to appreciate how sharp had been the battle. We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.

‘A shipful of failures’. It is a sustained critique of his own romantic delusions and, in that third paragraph, a vivid depiction of the economic hard times which had fallen on Britain, which so few other writers of the time seem even to have been aware of.

Aspects of Victorian society

In fact Stevenson’s entire writing career took place against a prolonged depression across the industrialised world, which began with the Panic of 1873 and lasted twenty years in Britain. (The Long Depression Wikipedia article) This book is a rare concession – or description – of the economic calamity which affected millions.

Stevenson must also have been aware of the steady trickle of ‘small wars’ which characterised the later Victorian period, British colonial wars on the periphery of India and the stirrings of what would become the Scramble for Africa i.e. the ruthless competition among European powers to gain control of as much of Africa as possible. This is generally dated to the 1880s but Stevenson read the papers and was aware of its tremors. Here, they only impinge insofar as the emigrants he meets might have been involved or suffered in them.

Nearly all with whom I conversed upon the subject were bitterly opposed to war, and attributed their own misfortunes, and frequently their own taste for whisky, to the campaigns in Zululand and Afghanistan.

Politics

If there’s a spectrum between Harman (this is a bad book) and Noble (this is his best book) I find myself at the Noble end. Stevenson’s writing is so attractive, so sharp and quick, that it always wins you over. And slowly, through a patchwork of observations and through a gallery of characters which he paints with depth and insight, a picture of the wrong end of 1870s British society emerges.

Take the chapter titled ‘The Sick Man’. It starts off with RLS and chums coming across a man half conscious in the scuppers and chronicles their earnest attempts to get him seen by the pretty indifferent ship’s doctor. But next day, when RLS seeks out The Sick Man, and finds him quite recovered, the tone completely switches, as Stevenson gives a long account of the man’s emblematic career – born in Ireland, worked as a trawlerman out of Newcastle for 25 years, married a Scots lass, he has saved enough to have a house of  his own and is on a pleasure trip to visit his brother in the States.

This slow accumulation of biographical detail makes it all the more powerful when Stevenson goes on to describe The Sick Man’s political opinions: he thought the masters selfish and greedy, but also the unions who carried out so many strikes nowadays. In fact, he despaired of England under its current masters and dispositions and Stevenson ends the chapter with a kind of bombshell summary of the man’s astonishingly apocalyptic belief that only a full-scale violent revolution could save Britain.

He had so little faith in either man or master, and so profound a terror for the unerring Nemesis of mercantile affairs, that he could think of no hope for our country outside of a sudden and complete political subversion. Down must go Lords and Church and Army; and capital, by some happy direction, must change hands from worse to better, or England stood condemned. Such principles, he said, were growing ‘like a seed.’

From this mild, soft, domestic man, these words sounded unusually ominous and grave. I had heard enough revolutionary talk among my workmen fellow-passengers; but most of it was hot and turgid, and fell discredited from the lips of unsuccessful men. This man was calm; he had attained prosperity and ease; he disapproved the policy which had been pursued by labour in the past; and yet this was his panacea, — to rend the old country from end to end, and from top to bottom, and in clamour and civil discord remodel it with the hand of violence.

When I read this kind of thing in the mouths of people from so long ago, I am struck all over again that one of the most remarkable things in history is that there wasn’t a violent revolution in Britain in the subsequent 140 years – as there was almost everywhere else in the world with, generally catastrophic, results. The history of Britain for the last 200 years is a history of the flexibility, the arts of accommodation, which managed all the social stresses and inequalities generated by the industrial revolution, and yet contained and defused them.

Working class talk versus literary writing

The penultimate chapter is a long meditation on what it is to be a ‘gentleman’. It starts with the ways Stevenson managed to get himself accepted into the society of working men on board, so much so that he was disconcerted to find himself looked down on by the posh passengers in 1st class when they came tour the ship’s ‘slums’.

Stevenson gives a dispassionate analysis of the people he met and so – maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it fits with his Tory mind-set – that one of his most striking findings is how lazy and work-shy the average working man is, epitomised in the story of the ‘tapper’.

More interesting from a literary point of view is his meditation on why working people are often such good talkers and storytellers.

There were many good talkers on the ship; and I believe good talking of a certain sort is a common accomplishment among working men. Where books are comparatively scarce, a greater amount of information will be given and received by word of mouth; and this tends to produce good talkers, and, what is no less needful for conversation, good listeners. They could all tell a story with effect. I am sometimes tempted to think that the less literary class show always better in narration; they have so much more patience with detail, are so much less hurried to reach the points, and preserve so much juster a proportion among the facts. At the same time their talk is dry; they pursue a topic ploddingly, have not an agile fancy, do not throw sudden lights from unexpected quarters, and when the talk is over they often leave the matter where it was. They mark time instead of marching. They think only to argue, not to reach new conclusions, and use their reason rather as a weapon of offense than as a tool for self-improvement. Hence the talk of some of the cleverest was unprofitable in result, because there was no give and take; they would grant you as little as possible for premise, and begin to dispute under an oath to conquer or to die.

I was struck by the implication that what literary writing has that non-literary talking doesn’t have, is ‘an agile fancy… [which throws] sudden lights from unexpected quarters.’

There’s a lot of different literature and definitions and traditions of what literature is. But the ‘agile fancy’ which throws ‘sudden lights from unexpected quarters’ is a good definition of the core, appealing element of Stevenson’s own writing.

Conclusions

This is another very good book. I think it taught me a basic lesson that the novelist proceeds through people, characters, human types, rather than generalisations. The generalisations (and there are lots) are generally the icing on top of the real bulk, which is the real observation of people.

And so you close the book a bit better informed about the economic depression which prompted so many to emigrate from the British Isles in the 1870s and 80s, about the squalid conditions in ‘steerage’, and with a much better idea of what ’emigration’ actually meant, and who it affected.

But overwhelmingly what we have experienced is a gallery of late Victorian characters – Jones the purveyor of a miracle snake oil, the Sick Man who has done well out of life but still reckons there should be a revolution, the stowaway Alick who can charm the birds out of the trees, the amateur fiddler who can make anyone get up and dance a jig, the stern but fair bosun, and so on and on.

It is completely different in feel from the two previous travel books, but just as good in the speed and penetration of his perceptions. He was a travel writer of genius.

the Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)

The Last of England by Ford Maddox Brown (1855)


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

1. I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers…

2. Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints…

3. The auberge of Bouchet St. Nicolas was among the least pretentious I have ever visited; but I saw many more of the like upon my journey. Indeed, it was typical of these French highlands. Imagine a cottage of two stories, with a bench before the door; the stable and kitchen in a suite, so that Modestine and I could hear each other dining; furniture of the plainest, earthern floors, a single bedchamber for travellers, and that without any convenience but beds. In the kitchen cooking and eating go forward side by side, and the family sleep at night. Any one who has a fancy to wash must do so in public at the common table. The food is sometimes spare; hard fish and omelette have been my portion more than once; the wine is of the smallest, the brandy abominable to man; and the visit of a fat sow, grouting under the table and rubbing against your legs, is no impossible accompaniment to dinner…

In 1877, having had some success with his first book, An Inland Voyage, but racked with unhappiness that the woman he had fallen in love with – the married but separated American Fanny Osbourne – had returned to the States without him, Stevenson took himself off to the inaccessible countryside west of Avignon in the south of France, on a madcap scheme to walk 120 miles with a donkey and write another travel book about it. It took him 12 days (Monday September 23rd to Friday 3rd October, according to the text, which is written in diary format).

This book is more famous that An Inland Voyage but, in my opinion, less enjoyable. The Voyage was undertaken with a like-minded friend and the simple fact that there are two of them gives the narrative all sorts of dynamics, as one experiences setbacks which the other one fixes or falls around laughing at, as one goes off to find accommodation while the other is stared at by half a dozen mute peasant children, and so on.

But travelling by yourself in a foreign country is a much more intense and existential experience and Travels is, accordingly, a lot less light and funny. In fact some of it comes close to conveying a sense of misery. This is because:

a) the donkey Stevenson buys for the trip, Modestine, turns out to be as stubborn as… well, a mule, and a source of endless delay and frustration
b) so the early part of the book is littered with descriptions of how Stevenson learns to beat Modestine mercilessly to make her move, has a goad made which he uses to spike her rump and draw blood, or how his inexperienced packing of the bags over her back similarly cause chafing and the drawing of the poor beasts’ blood
c) but there is an underlying thread of melancholy because – as I learned from Claire Harman’s biography (pp. 160-164) – Stevenson was himself unhappy and fretful both during the trip itself and during the writing up of this account

And it shows.

It began to be dusk in earnest as I reached a wilderness of turf and stones. It had the air of being a road which should lead everywhere at the same time; and I was falling into something not unlike despair…

All seemed right at last. My thoughts began to turn upon dinner and a fireside, and my heart was agreeably softened in my bosom. Alas, and I was on the brink of new and greater miseries!

It was the most pointless labyrinth. I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills. The failing light, the waning colour, the naked, unhomely, stony country through which I was travelling, threw me into some despondency…

Over all this the clouds shed a uniform and purplish shadow, sad and somewhat menacing, exaggerating height and distance, and throwing into still higher relief the twisted ribbons of the highway. It was a cheerless prospect…

A naked hill commands the monastery upon one side, and the wood commands it on the other. It lies exposed to wind; the snow falls off and on from October to May, and sometimes lies six weeks on end; but if they stood in Eden, with a climate like heaven’s, the buildings themselves would offer the same wintry and cheerless aspect; and for my part, on this wild September day, before I was called to dinner, I felt chilly in and out…

The Trappist monastery

About half way through the trip Stevenson comes to a Trappist monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. For a start, he is surprised to discover himself physically afraid at approaching an outpost of Popery.

I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have had a Protestant education.

In the event, he finds the monks manly, healthy and friendly, but is subject to a campaign to convert him to Catholicism waged by a retired military man training to become a monk and the priest of a nearby village. It’s bad enough that he’s a Protestant, but when they discover that he is actually an infidel, with no Christian faith, they unleash all the Catholic descriptions of the torments of hell which he is scheduled to suffer.

Again, this feels harsh and confrontational and even the laid-back Stevenson finally loses his temper – and none of this puts the reader in a good frame of mind.

The Camisards

In fact this long sequence turns out to be an hors d’oeuvre, because the second half of the book devotes a lot of time to the history of a religious revolt here in central south France – the Camisard revolt. Around 1700 (after putting up with 15 years of intense persecution following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes on 1685, which effectively made Protestantism illegal in France) the Protestants of the region rose up in a bloody revolt, inspired by the religiously-inspired prophesying of their leaders. They massacred soldiers sent to attack them and leaders of the local Catholic Inquisition, before embarking on a prolonged guerrilla campaign, basing themselves in five strongholds in the trackless forests. Eventually, the French king was forced, much against his will, to grant them amnesty in 1715.

Stevenson discovers that the local population is still overwhelmingly Protestant, the local churches Protestant churches, and all of them still ready and able to discuss specific incidents, heroic stands, ambushes and betrayals from the revolt – very much as Scottish Highlanders recall incidents to do with the Covenanters, the extreme Protestants of the 17th and 18th centuries who were involved in similar battles a century or more earlier.

Stevenson’s Protestantism

Stevenson presents his own thought about God and nature as non-denominational – in fact, on numerous occasions he displays a bloodless theism, a Nature worship which would have been acceptable to young Wordsworth or Thoreau. But deep down (and sometimes not so deep) he realises he is helplessly Protestant by virtue of his Scots Presbyterian upbringing and culture.

Which explains why, in the polar opposite of the physical fear he felt approaching the Catholic monastery, he finds himself relaxing as he fully enters the overwhelmingly Protestant Camisard country.

I own I met these Protestants with a delight and a sense of coming home. I was accustomed to speak their language, in another and deeper sense of the word than that which distinguishes between French and English; for the true Babel is a divergence upon morals. And hence I could hold more free communication with the Protestants, and judge them more justly, than the Catholics.

Once introduced – in chapter 14 of the book’s 22 chapters – the history of the Camisards comes to dominate the whole of the rest of the text. (The mean-spirited might be tempted to think that Stevenson had so little actual incident of his own to write up that a thorough account of the Camisard revolt, and reference to every single one of the important Camisard villages, towns, mountain hideouts, rivers, bridges and so on that he passed, helped to significantly pad the book out to the required length.)

Poland and politics

It’s a small point but I was interested that Stevenson three times uses Poland as the epitome of a nation torn apart by civil dissension, worrying that France, still dismayed and demoralised after its comprehensive defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, risks similar civil collapse.

There are adherents of each of the four French parties—Legitimists, Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans—in this little mountain-town; and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. Except for business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl, they have laid aside even the civility of speech. ’Tis a mere mountain Poland.

An interesting indication of how Joseph Conrad’s homeland was viewed at this time, a completely forgotten cultural reference.

Fanny Osbourne

I was alerted by Claire Harman’s biography to the thread of unrequited longing for his lady love, Fanny Osbourne, which occasionally rears its head. After a particularly lyrical description of the profound freedom and independence of spending the night sleeping in the open air, Stevenson adds a lovelorn note.

The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house. I thought I had rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists: at the least, I had discovered a new pleasure for myself. And yet even while I was exulting in my solitude I became aware of a strange lack. I wished a companion to lie near me in the starlight, silent and not moving, but ever within touch. For there is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect. And to live out of doors with the woman a man loves is of all lives the most complete and free.

The joy of the outdoors

I felt a noticeable lifting of mood in the second half of the book. He seems to have shaken off the feeling of misery and oppression which clouded the opening, and the latter chapters contain several long passages describing the joy of sleeping outside, and remarking particularly upon the changing light and sounds of night time. Take this joyous description of bathing in a river:

The valley looked even lovelier by morning; and soon the road descended to the level of the river. Here, in a place where many straight and prosperous chestnuts stood together, making an aisle upon a swarded terrace, I made my morning toilette in the water of the Tarn. It was marvellously clear, thrillingly cool; the soap-suds disappeared as if by magic in the swift current, and the white boulders gave one a model for cleanliness. To wash in one of God’s rivers in the open air seems to me a sort of cheerful solemnity or semi-pagan act of worship. To dabble among dishes in a bedroom may perhaps make clean the body; but the imagination takes no share in such a cleansing. I went on with a light and peaceful heart, and sang psalms to the spiritual ear as I advanced.

Later in his life, and even more so after his death, a mystique grew up around Stevenson’s ill health, portraying him as a kind of heroic invalid. But in both these travel books he comes across (eventually) as radiating unquenchable good health and bright humour.

By the second half of Donkey, the narrator has regained the confident buoyancy of An Inland Voyage, enviably ready to look on the bright side, to see humour in every situation, and quick to rejoice in the sheer wonder of walking, strolling, eating, sleeping and being alive, travelling the good earth.

Map of the route

Map of Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes(source: Wikipedia)

Map of Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (source: Wikipedia)


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

An Inland Voyage by Robert Louis Stevenson (1878)

1. Partly from the fact that there were no fewer than fifty-five locks between Brussels and Charleroi, we concluded that we should travel by train across the frontier, boats and all. Fifty-five locks in a day’s journey was pretty well tantamount to trudging the whole distance on foot, with the canoes upon our shoulders, an object of astonishment to the trees on the canal side, and of honest derision to all right-thinking children.

2. For this is a fashion I love: to kiss the hand or wave a handkerchief to people I shall never see again, to play with possibility, and knock in a peg for fancy to hang upon.

3. I am pretty well acquainted with the ways of French strollers, more or less artistic; and have always found them singularly pleasing. Any stroller must be dear to the right-thinking heart; if it were only as a living protest against offices and the mercantile spirit, and as something to remind us that life is not by necessity the kind of thing we generally make it… There is nobody, under thirty, so dead but his heart will stir a little at sight of a gypsies’ camp. ‘We are not cotton-spinners all’; or, at least, not all through. There is some life in humanity yet: and youth will now and again find a brave word to say in dispraise of riches, and throw up a situation to go strolling with a knapsack.

Stevenson’s first published book was a travelogue describing a canoe trip he and his friend Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson made in August 1876. The pair had already been on several walking holidays and also a sailing holiday in the Inner Hebrides (Harman, pp.142-145). The word ‘canoe’ obviously means something different from how we use it today, since the type the guys used had sails – maybe something like a slender paddle-able dinghy.

They set out from Antwerp in two ‘canoes’, Stevenson in the Arethusa and Simpson in the Cigarette. They paddled thirty miles down the Willebroek Canal to Brussels, took a train to Maubeuge, then canoed the rivers Sambre and Oise south to Pointoise in the Val d’Oise. He actually wrote the book over a year after the event, in the winter of 1877.

Striking a pose

Claire Harman’s biography gives a good sense of how Stevenson, in his student days and early twenties, adopted the pose of Bohemian and wit – in Edinburgh, France and Switzerland, wherever his rich parents sent him to study or for his health. And that is exactly the pose he adopts here, announcing his amused and ironic attitude in the short Preface to this slender work.

To equip so small a book with a preface is, I am half afraid, to sin against proportion. But a preface is more than an author can resist, for it is the reward of his labours. When the foundation stone is laid, the architect appears with his plans, and struts for an hour before the public eye. So with the writer in his preface: he may have never a word to say, but he must show himself for a moment in the portico, hat in hand, and with an urbane demeanour.

Charming

Very little actually happens as the pair of literary ragamuffins sometimes sail, sometimes actively canoe, south through the canals of Belgium, but, like Three Men In A Boat a decade later (1889), the whole point is precisely the inconsequentiality of the thing.

‘The Incident of the Etna Portable Stove’ gives a good flavour of Stevenson’s surprisingly modern sense of the absurd. (N.B. Stevenson never uses the two men’s names; he humorously refers to himself and Simpson by the names of the boats they’re paddling i.e. Stevenson is ‘the Arethusa‘ and Simpson is ‘the Cigarette‘.)

Half-way between Willebroek and Villevorde, in a beautiful reach of canal like a squire’s avenue, we went ashore to lunch. There were two eggs, a junk of bread, and a bottle of wine on board the Arethusa; and two eggs and an Etna cooking apparatus on board the Cigarette. The master of the latter boat smashed one of the eggs in the course of disembarkation; but observing pleasantly that it might still be cooked à la papier, he dropped it into the Etna, in its covering of Flemish newspaper. We landed in a blink of fine weather; but we had not been two minutes ashore before the wind freshened into half a gale, and the rain began to patter on our shoulders. We sat as close about the Etna as we could. The spirits burned with great ostentation; the grass caught flame every minute or two, and had to be trodden out; and before long, there were several burnt fingers of the party. But the solid quantity of cookery accomplished was out of proportion with so much display; and when we desisted, after two applications of the fire, the sound egg was little more than loo-warm; and as for à la papier, it was a cold and sordid fricassee of printer’s ink and broken egg-shell. We made shift to roast the other two, by putting them close to the burning spirits; and that with better success. And then we uncorked the bottle of wine, and sat down in a ditch with our canoe aprons over our knees. It rained smartly. Discomfort, when it is honestly uncomfortable and makes no nauseous pretensions to the contrary, is a vastly humorous business; and people well steeped and stupefied in the open air are in a good vein for laughter. From this point of view, even egg à la papier offered by way of food may pass muster as a sort of accessory to the fun. But this manner of jest, although it may be taken in good part, does not invite repetition; and from that time forward, the Etna voyaged like a gentleman in the locker of the Cigarette.

As you can see the lack of incident is the point when the most trivial incident can be conjured up into a long, self-deprecating and genuinely entertaining anecdote. The frivolity is the point.

Wit and epigrams

Frivolity and witty flourishes – the entire text is really a scaffold for Stevenson to hang his amusing insights on:

Boom is not a nice place, and is only remarkable for one thing: that the majority of the inhabitants have a private opinion that they can speak English, which is not justified by fact.

The food, as usual in Belgium, was of a nondescript occasional character; indeed I have never been able to detect anything in the nature of a meal among this pleasing people; they seem to peck and trifle with viands all day long in an amateur spirit: tentatively French, truly German, and somehow falling between the two.

Flights of fancy

At moments Stevenson lets himself go into complete flights of fancy. In Landrecies, a garrison town, the sounds of the military drums recall a remark about drums being covered with ass’s skin and leads him into the fancy that asses, which are soundly beaten during life, in some sense take their revenge after death, when the sound of their beatings becomes loud and imposing and lures men to their deaths.

They are invited to the house of a local judge who happens to have a collection of warming pans hanging on his wall. This gives rise to a flight of fancy reminiscent of Lawrence Sterne.

Some of these were most elaborately carved. It seemed a picturesque idea for a collector. You could not help thinking how many night-caps had wagged over these warming-pans in past generations; what jests may have been made, and kisses taken, while they were in service; and how often they had been uselessly paraded in the bed of death. If they could only speak, at what absurd, indecorous, and tragical scenes had they not been present!

A life of ease

Drifting down the canals of northern France and watching other barges and canal boats doing the same, is a wonderfully apposite subject matter for a young dilettante concerned to distance himself from his parents, from the grim world of work, from all cares and concerns.

Of all the creatures of commercial enterprise, a canal barge is by far the most delightful to consider. It may spread its sails, and then you see it sailing high above the tree-tops and the windmill, sailing on the aqueduct, sailing through the green corn-lands: the most picturesque of things amphibious. Or the horse plods along at a foot-pace as if there were no such thing as business in the world; and the man dreaming at the tiller sees the same spire on the horizon all day long. It is a mystery how things ever get to their destination at this rate; and to see the barges waiting their turn at a lock, affords a fine lesson of how easily the world may be taken. There should be many contented spirits on board, for such a life is both to travel and to stay at home.

Early on in the text Stevenson creates a simple binary opposition between the lazy, go-at-your-own-pace of canal life, and the rigours of the modern ‘office’.

I am sure I would rather be a bargee than occupy any position under heaven that required attendance at an office.

Having read three introductions and Harman’s biography which all dwell at length on the role of the double in Stevenson’s fiction (taking the bloody obvious interpretation of Jeckyll and Hyde and applying it to all his other, hugely multifarious and diverse works, like pebble dashing) it is a relief to come across an easier, more natural, more relevant and more charming duality: office or open air; canal or committee room?

For will any one dare to tell me that business is more entertaining than fooling among boats? He must have never seen a boat, or never seen an office, who says so.

Any stroller must be dear to the right-thinking heart; if it were only as a living protest against offices and the mercantile spirit, and as something to remind us that life is not by necessity the kind of thing we generally make it.

‘Offices and the mercantile spirit’ – that’s the enemy – and that, of course, more or less sums up the activities of Stevenson’s famous family of engineers, the family he was so determined to rebel against, the heritage he was trying to escape.

It is typical that, when they are taken in out of the rain by the youthful members of a boating club on the outskirts of Brussels, the members humorously invert the usual bourgeois terminology, explaining that they fritter their days away with frivolous mercantile activities on the Brussels bourse: and only in the evening do they become serious about the one serious thing in life: boating!

Le Flâneur

Of course, to someone as drenched in contemporary literature as Stevenson, who could read and speak French very well and worshiped the risqué lyrics of Charles Baudelaire, the notion of sauntering, strolling, anti-rushing, was the latest thing. Baudelaire popularised the notion of the flâneur, the ‘stroller’, ‘lounger’, ‘saunterer’, or ‘loafer’, an archetypally ‘modern’ figure (in the 1860s and 70s), who reacted to the increasing hustle and bustle of mid-Victorian industrialising cities by slowing right down to a dawdle and a lounge.

Stevenson and Simpson’s slow, carefree progress along the lazy canals is presented in exactly this spirit: not as an opportunity to observe nature or wildlife (as many a Victorian botanist or naturalist might), with little or no comment on trade or industry, no real description of the types and makes of boats to be seen.

Instead, the text circles around the basic idea of SLOW, and reiterates in different guises its central dichotomy between ‘mercantile offices’ and the mellow pace of canal life. And in this respect – contrasting the hurly-burly of city life and the crushing routine of The Office with escape to rural France – it is still surprisingly relevant, relevant and immensely refreshing and enjoyable.

Impenetrability

Stevenson first came to public notice through his ‘charming’ and witty essays. Critics and biographers, reasonably enough, often quote the best bits but it’s worth pointing out that the thing that makes old literature unread by so many people is that, quite often, it’s impossible to understand.

Paragraphs of fluff go by without making any impression. We are used, in our hard-headed 21st century way, to information packaged in tough guy sound-bites or rom-com one-sentence paragraphs. It’s difficult to enter a lost world where an educated public and men of letters both valued books for their charming digressions, invoking classical myth or alluding to the beauties of nature or the spirituality of music and so on to spin out charming periods valued precisely for their inconsequentiality.

For example, what is he on about here?

There was an English maid in the hotel, who had been long enough out of England to pick up all sorts of funny foreign idioms, and all sorts of curious foreign ways, which need not here be specified. She spoke to us very fluently in her jargon, asked us information as to the manners of the present day in England, and obligingly corrected us when we attempted to answer. But as we were dealing with a woman, perhaps our information was not so much thrown away as it appeared. The sex likes to pick up knowledge and yet preserve its superiority. It is good policy, and almost necessary in the circumstances. If a man finds a woman admire him, were it only for his acquaintance with geography, he will begin at once to build upon the admiration. It is only by unintermittent snubbing that the pretty ones can keep us in our place. Men, as Miss Howe or Miss Harlowe would have said, ‘are such encroachers.’ For my part, I am body and soul with the women; and after a well-married couple, there is nothing so beautiful in the world as the myth of the divine huntress. It is no use for a man to take to the woods; we know him; St. Anthony tried the same thing long ago, and had a pitiful time of it by all accounts. But there is this about some women, which overtops the best gymnosophist among men, that they suffice to themselves, and can walk in a high and cold zone without the countenance of any trousered being. I declare, although the reverse of a professed ascetic, I am more obliged to women for this ideal than I should be to the majority of them, or indeed to any but one, for a spontaneous kiss. There is nothing so encouraging as the spectacle of self-sufficiency. And when I think of the slim and lovely maidens, running the woods all night to the note of Diana’s horn; moving among the old oaks, as fancy-free as they; things of the forest and the starlight, not touched by the commotion of man’s hot and turbid life—although there are plenty other ideals that I should prefer—I find my heart beat at the thought of this one. ’Tis to fail in life, but to fail with what a grace! That is not lost which is not regretted. And where—here slips out the male—where would be much of the glory of inspiring love, if there were no contempt to overcome?

Although I’ve painted the fundamental approach of the book as being surprisingly relevant and accessible, reader beware that some passages remain lost behind a curtain of age and irrelevancy.

Author’s message

Finally, in the penultimate chapter, the book rises to a memorable description of the state of pure, clean, emptiness which the mind achieves when doing simple, mindless, repetitive work for hours on end. I am very familiar with this feeling from long walks in the country; Stevenson is describing the mental vacuity, passivity, the drifting-off he achieved through the endless paddling. But why paraphrase the master? Read for yourself:

Canoeing was easy work. To dip the paddle at the proper inclination, now right, now left; to keep the head down stream; to empty the little pool that gathered in the lap of the apron; to screw up the eyes against the glittering sparkles of sun upon the water; or now and again to pass below the whistling tow-rope of the Deo Gratias of Condé, or the Four Sons of Aymon—there was not much art in that; certain silly muscles managed it between sleep and waking; and meanwhile the brain had a whole holiday, and went to sleep. We took in, at a glance, the larger features of the scene; and beheld, with half an eye, bloused fishers and dabbling washerwomen on the bank. Now and again we might be half-wakened by some church spire, by a leaping fish, or by a trail of river grass that clung about the paddle and had to be plucked off and thrown away. But these luminous intervals were only partially luminous. A little more of us was called into action, but never the whole. The central bureau of nerves, what in some moods we call Ourselves, enjoyed its holiday without disturbance, like a Government Office. The great wheels of intelligence turned idly in the head, like fly-wheels, grinding no grist. I have gone on for half an hour at a time, counting my strokes and forgetting the hundreds. I flatter myself the beasts that perish could not underbid that, as a low form of consciousness. And what a pleasure it was! What a hearty, tolerant temper did it bring about! There is nothing captious about a man who has attained to this, the one possible apotheosis in life, the Apotheosis of Stupidity; and he begins to feel dignified and longævous like a tree.

There was one odd piece of practical metaphysics which accompanied what I may call the depth, if I must not call it the intensity, of my abstraction. What philosophers call me and not-me, ego and non ego, preoccupied me whether I would or no. There was less me and more not-me than I was accustomed to expect. I looked on upon somebody else, who managed the paddling; I was aware of somebody else’s feet against the stretcher; my own body seemed to have no more intimate relation to me than the canoe, or the river, or the river banks. Nor this alone: something inside my mind, a part of my brain, a province of my proper being, had thrown off allegiance and set up for itself, or perhaps for the somebody else who did the paddling. I had dwindled into quite a little thing in a corner of myself. I was isolated in my own skull. Thoughts presented themselves unbidden; they were not my thoughts, they were plainly some one else’s; and I considered them like a part of the landscape. I take it, in short, that I was about as near Nirvana as would be convenient in practical life; and if this be so, I make the Buddhists my sincere compliments; ’tis an agreeable state, not very consistent with mental brilliancy, not exactly profitable in a money point of view, but very calm, golden, and incurious, and one that sets a man superior to alarms. It may be best figured by supposing yourself to get dead drunk, and yet keep sober to enjoy it. I have a notion that open-air labourers must spend a large portion of their days in this ecstatic stupor, which explains their high composure and endurance. A pity to go to the expense of laudanum, when here is a better paradise for nothing!

This frame of mind was the great exploit of our voyage, take it all in all. It was the farthest piece of travel accomplished. Indeed, it lies so far from beaten paths of language, that I despair of getting the reader into sympathy with the smiling, complacent idiocy of my condition; when ideas came and went like motes in a sunbeam; when trees and church spires along the bank surged up, from time to time into my notice, like solid objects through a rolling cloudland; when the rhythmical swish of boat and paddle in the water became a cradle-song to lull my thoughts asleep; when a piece of mud on the deck was sometimes an intolerable eyesore, and sometimes quite a companion for me, and the object of pleased consideration;—and all the time, with the river running and the shores changing upon either hand, I kept counting my strokes and forgetting the hundreds, the happiest animal in France.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

South Sea Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

An Oxford University Press volume which contains the works in Stevenson’s volume, Island Nights Entertainment and a few others, being:

1. The Bottle Imp (1891)

Stevenson planned to write a volume of ghost and supernatural stories which, alas, like so many of his projects, he never got near to completing. This was to be one of the main stories. The Bottle Imp is a short story, loosely based on an 1828 play by Richard Brinsley Peake, but relocated to the South Seas.

A Hawaiian man, Keawe, buys a magic bottle from a friend. The bottle contains an imp or genie which grants wishes. Keawe wishes for – and promptly receives – a big house and lots of money. There is just one catch – if you die in possession of the bottle you spend eternity burning in hell.

Keawe falls in love with a beautiful woman, Kokua, and the genie makes his wishes come true i.e. she returns his love and they get married. All goes well except that, when he is away from her, Keawe slumps and weeps and bewails his fiery fate.

Kokua initially thinks he is having an affair then, observing him weeping, thinks she is a bad wife. But when she finally worms the truth out of Keawe, she arranges for an old man to buy the bottle off him, and then immediately buys it from the old man: thus nobly sacrificing herself for her husband.

But when Keawe learns about her self-sacrifice, he is plunged into a whole new set of misery and despair. He himself commissions a drunken bosun to buy the bottle off his wife, planning to buy it off him – but the bosun, the first white man in the story, selfishly refuses to hand it over – it obeys his drunken wish to put a few more whisky bottles in his pockets and he’s not selling it to anyone!! and staggers off into the night – thus condemning himself – and thus setting Keawe and Kokua free of the curse!

Possibly this fable might amuse children but it contained nothing uncanny or scary for me; there are scores of more intense, atmospheric and eerie scenes in his ‘straight’ novels.

The one ‘issue’ or thought arising is the way the hero and heroine are South Sea islanders but, contrary to the racial stereotypes of the day, behave with tremendous chivalry and love – while the drunken fool who goes off to hell is just one among Stevenson’s larger collection of useless white trash who throng the South Pacific islands.

2. The Beach of Falesá (1892)

A working-class white trader named Wiltshire is dropped on a South Sea island to take up the trading post there which has been left vacant. He is befriended by one Case, a denizen of the island, who gives him dinner the first evening, then arranges a ‘native’ marriage to a local girl, Uma.

But almost immediately the natives start to give Wiltshire and Uma a wide berth, apparently frightened of them. Is he taboo? Has he done something wrong?

Case is all sympathy and takes Wiltshire to a meeting with local chieftains where Case speaks and interprets – Wiltshire not understanding a word. Case tells him there is some unknown reason for the natives’ fear and resentment of him. But Wiltshire has by now spoken to other whites and begun to suspect that it is in fact Case who is putting the bad word around about him.

These include the itinerant missionary Tarleton – indeed, Case is on the beach when Tarleton’s boat puts in and tries to prevent the two meeting but Wiltshire, a big man, knocks him to the ground and carries on. Tarleton confirms what the skipper of the ship which brought Wiltshire to the island hinted, which is that Case is widely suspected of having persecuted, poisoned and possibly murdered all three of Wiltshire’s predecessors (old Adams, Vigours).

His native wife, Uma, tells Wiltshire that Case has cowed the natives because they believe that he communes with a ‘devil’ in the forest. When Wiltshire explores into the tropical forest, he finds gimcrack gadgets designed to scare the credulous natives – including an Aeolian harp which moans in the wind, a building whose wall is topped with weird dolls, and a cave in which Case has painted a monster face in luminous paint, so that when he swings his lantern at it in the night, the vision terrifies the natives he’s brought there.

In the story’s bloody climax, Wiltshire takes dynamite and fuses and returns to Case’s cave-base – himself a little daunted by the noises of the dark forest – with the plan to blow it up and with it, Case’s authority with the natives.

He’s set the charges and barely lit the fuse before Uma turns up, with the news that Case has heard Wiltshire has visited his den and is on his way into the forest after them. He arrives just as the dynamite goes up, destroying the base and littering the forest with burning fragments. By the light of these, Case is able to shoot Wiltshire when he gets up to move away, and then plugs Uma in the shoulder as she runs over to her wounded husband.

The triumphant Case then makes the classic mistake of sauntering over to the injured man, gun at rest, at which point Wiltshire unexpectedly grabs him, twists him to the ground, pulls himself up over his struggling torso and stabs him again and again and again in the chest, feeling his blood spurt over his hand like hot tea.

Realism Stevenson was very aware that this story marked a departure in his fiction from the starry-eyed romance of his adventure yarns towards a new, more brutal, realism. It’s not just the violent ending, but the emphasis all the way through on real islands, people, customs, practices and stories Stevenson had heard, which all combine to give this story an unprecedented sense of reality.

Working class hero In a novel like The Master of Ballantrae, there is a huge amount of psychological tension (and then dread) but very little violence – only the carefully staged and gentlemanly affair of the duel – for the most part it is psychological intimidation. This story reverses that formula, with violent expressions flowing freely in Wiltshire’s mind, and giving rise to a lot of violence in the real world.

Wiltshire’s rough personality comes over in the ease with which he resorts to physical violence, his readiness to knock Case down on the beach, and then his complete lack of scruples about setting off to blow up Case’s den and then – admittedly after Case has shot him and Uma – to relentlessly stab him to death.

But what hasn’t been commented on in any of the criticism I’ve read, is the characterisation of the first-person narrator, Wiltshire, through his language. Wiltshire’s uneducated character is expressed in a steady stream of odd, distinctive and – one assumes – characteristic Victorian working-class phrases and idioms. I found myself entranced and fascinated by the virile, rough locutions of this angry man.

Devil a wink they had in them. [The natives camping round his house don’t move or alter their stares]

… she [Uma] said something in the native with a gasping voice. [This use of ‘the native’ indicates Wiltshire’s uneducated lack of interest in the exact name of the language Uma uses.]

The boys had not yet made their offing, they were still on the full stretch going the one way, when I had already gone about ship and was sheering off the other. [Wiltshire walked out into the crowd surrounding his house and scared off some boys – the other phrases are naval, it was the phrase ‘they were still on the full stretch’ which I found typical of Wiltshire’s expressive use of slang, here, presumably, naval slang.]

‘I’ll make it square with the old lady…’  ‘O no, don’t you misunderstand me Uma’s on the square’ … Case never set up to be soft, only to be square and hearty, and a man all round… ‘… you’re to fire away, and they’ll do the square thing…’ ‘Now, Mr. Wiltshire,’ said he, ‘I’ve put you all square with everybody here.’ [From which we can see that for something or someone to be square, on the square, to be put all square, means to be put to rights, to be honest, open, true-dealing.]

‘O, the rest was sawder and bonjour and that,’ said Case… ‘Well, they don’t get much bonjour out of me,’ said I. [So bonjour (French for ‘good morning’) is apparently used as a generic term for meaningless politenesses and pleasantries.]

The mere idea has always put my monkey up, and I rapped my speech out pretty big. [Meaning rubbed up the wrong way?]

It’s a cruel shame I knew no native, for (as I now believe) they were asking Case about my marriage, and he must have had a tough job of it to clear his feet. [To make a plausible explanation, to get away?]

‘They have a down on you,’ says Case. [Meaning they’ve something against you, this phrase is till sometimes used today?]

‘… she cottoned to the cut of your jib.’ … ‘That’s what I don’t cotton to,’ he said. [Nowadays people would say ‘cotton onto‘, if they say it at all. Apparently because cotton seeds clung easily to clothes. The jib sail on a sailing ship was a different shape depending on the nationality of the ship. Watchers could immediately see which country a ship was from by the cut of its jib, and like or dislike it accordingly.]

I cannot justly say that I ever saw a woman look like that before or after, and it struck me mum. [We use the related phrase, ‘mum’s the word’]

… and pretty soon he began to table his cards and make up to Uma. [We still use ‘put your cards on the table’]

I so wanted, and so feared, to make a clean breast of the sweep that I had been…  I’m what you
call a sinner what I call a sweep… [Referring to the blackness of chimney sweeps, a reference which has completely disappeared.]

I gave him first the one and then the other, so that I could hear his head rattle and crack, and he went down straight. [Wiltshire’s business-like description of punching Case first with one hand, then the other.]

As he came nearer, queering me pretty curious (because of the fight, I suppose), I saw he looked mortal sick… [The missionary has witnessed Wiltshire beating Case to the ground and looks at him pretty peculiarly.]

Since then I’ve found that there’s a kind of cry in the place against this wife of mine, and so long as I keep her I cannot trade. [The way Uma is ignored or scorned by other natives for consorting with Wiltshire, who Case has been briefing all the natives against.]

He stood back with the natives and laughed and did the big don and the funny dog, till I began to get riled. [‘Riled’ we still have as an Americanism: ‘the big don’ means swanking like a VIP and since ‘dog’ just means ‘fellow’ or ‘bloke’ (we still have ‘you lucky dog’) doing the funny dog simply means joking around, playing the fool.]

And then it came in my mind how the master had once flogged that boy, and the surprise we were all in to see the sorcerer catch it and bum like anybody else. [‘Bum’ meaning cry.]

‘I’m not on the shoot to−day,’ said I. [‘On the…’ gives the English user a number of expressive phrases: ‘on the wagon’, ‘on the piss’, ‘on the make’ – ‘on the…’ gives a phrase a kind of rolling energy.]

‘I’ll tell you what’s better still,’ says I, taking a header, ‘ask him if he’s afraid to go up there himself by day.’ [From diving head first into water.]

He had knocked over my girl, I had got to fix him for it; and I lay there and gritted my teeth, and footed up the chances.

… every time I looked over to Case I could have sung and whistled. Talk about meat and drink! To see that man lying there dead as a herring filled me full.

I can see why Henry James genuinely admired Stevenson as a writer because, although his books are mostly written for children, and although lots of them are scrappy, rambling and episodic in structure, Stevenson nonetheless has this key interest in creating a consistent voice for his narrators.

Thus the reader is impressed by the sheer effort it must have taken to write The Black Arrow in a cod-medieval style throughout; or the creation of the personality of Mackellar, the sober, measured family retainer and main narrator of The Master of Ballantrae, through the chasteness of his Scots accent and style.

And, here, in his breakthrough ‘realist’ work, I have given so many examples in order to show the consistency of the voice Stevenson gives to his tough, violent working class trader. A complete departure from the over-educated, self-deprecating irony which dominates The Wrecker, and all the more powerful and convincing because of it.

3. The Isle of Voices (1893)

Bewilderingly different from the rough style of The Beach, this story announces itself as a fable or fairy tale from the start.

Keola was married with Lehua, daughter of Kalamake, the wise man of Molokai, and he kept his dwelling with the father of his wife. There was no man more cunning than that prophet; he read the stars, he could divine by the bodies of the dead, and by the means of evil creatures: he could go alone into the highest parts of the mountain, into the region of the hobgoblins, and there he would lay snares to entrap the spirits of the ancient.

Briefly, Keola is lazy and notices that his father-in-law Kalamake always has money. The latter invites him to learn how. Kalamake gets out a mat and some herbs, burns them, and he and Keola are magically transported to an unknown island.

Here Kalamake tells Keola to gather leaves of a particular tree from the trees at the treeline, then goes scampering along the beach collecting shells. Keola duly collects the leaves, builds a fire and fans it until, as it start to burn low, Kalamake comes running back along the sand and leaps onto the mat just in time for both of them to be transported back to Kalamake’s house – and the pile of shells has turned into a pile of shiny dollars! Why didn’t anyone interfere with their activities, he asks Kalamake? Because on the island they are invisible, just disembodied voices to the scared natives.

Keola, amazed, takes his share and spends it quickly and foolishly and then grumpily starts complaining about his stingy father-in-law. He shares his moaning with his wife, who warns him not to challenge the old warlock – remember: various members of the tribe who crossed him and then disappeared without warning!

But Keola approaches Kalamake and says he needs more money because he wants an accordion to while away the time. (Note, although the most unrestrained fairy tale in content, the text contains unashamed references to the contemporary world and its bric-a-brac: Kalamake’s house has armchairs, a Western-style bookshelf and a family Bible, in among the native possessions.)

Irked at his son-in-law’s laziness, Kalamake invites Keola to come out fishing in Pili’s boat. But once they are out to sea Kalamake does magic and turns into a giant, then into an enormous leviathan, big enough to step into the ocean and only come up to his middle. He rages at Keola’s greed and crushes Pili’s boat like a matchbox just as Keola leaps free and swims for it.

Keola manages to escape his monster father-in-law in the wild and stormy seas and is nearly run down by a white man’s schooner. The sailors grab him aboard and, since they are a crewman short, press gang him to join them. The food is good but the first mate is a sadist who beats the native crew incessantly.

But Keola knew white men are like children and only believe their own stories… The captain also was a good man, and the crew no worse than other whites…

A month later, as the white men’s ship approach a remote island, Keola, at the wheel, takes a chance and steers close to the shore then jumps overboard. The white men shout after him but turn the ship and steer away and back out to sea.

At first Keola is alone on the island and, being a self-sufficient native, builds a hut, catches fish and makes lanterns from coconuts. Venturing to the other side of the island he is surprised (though the reader not so surprised, maybe) to discover it is the very beach where Kalamake’s magic transported them that first time. And sure enough he hears voices – just as Kalamake says the natives do – and sees little fires like the one he built for Kalamake dotted all over the beach. In fact, he hears lots of voices, voices from all around the world, English and French and German and Tamil and Russian and Chinese.

One day six boatloads of natives arrive from another island. To Keola’s surprise they are very gracious to him, build him a proper hut and give him a wife and don’t insist that he works with them. Unusual. When he hears some of the elders describing the place as ‘the isle of voices’, Keola is prompted to explain to them that it is where magicians and warlocks from all round the world come to collect magic shells. The way to stop them and possess the island in peace would be to cut down the tree whose magic leaves Kalamake showed him how to burn to create the fire which magically transports all the warlocks home again. Aha.

One night his new wife tells him the tribe are cannibals; they are fattening him up and plan to kill and eat him. Keola flees to the other side of the island, to the beach of voices, and there finds a great confusion and hustle of invisible spirits. They all seem to be rushing past him and inland. When he follows them he comes across a grove of the magic trees and finds that the tribe are following his advice and chopping down the magic trees – and that is why the spirits are hastening to that spot.

In a hallucinatory scene, Keola watches the tribe coming under attack from invisible spirits, backed up against each other and swinging blindly at invisible enemies with their axes, while he also sees disembodied axes, floating in mid-air, making sudden shrewd strikes at the islanders, who are falling in a welter of screams and blood.

Terrified, Keola runs back to the beach, determined to swim for it when he hears the voice of his first wife, Lehua. She is making a fire from the magic leaves. ‘Come quickly’, she says and he leaps into the circle of the fire and in a flash, they are both back safe in Kalamake’s house.

And the warlock never reappeared, though whether because he was slain in the battle of the spirits, or was marooned by the lack of magic leaves – who can say?

Anti-white Stevenson’s anti-white attitude runs through the story like a thread – whites are stupid, lazy, refuse to believe anything a native tells them (generally to their own loss) and are cruel and sadistic. Any reader of Stevenson’s South Sea stories, let alone the quotes from letters which litter the various introductions and Wikipedia articles, quickly learns that Stevenson took a very dim view of white man in the tropics and the hollowness of their so-called civilisation.

Magical realism It isn’t the correct term but some reference should be made to the way that, although it concerns Arabian Nights-style magic mats and instant travel, the story is nonetheless studded with contemporary references – to the Bible and western books, as mentioned, but also to the trading schooner and its very contemporary manners. And in the final pages Keola ends up telling his story to a local missionary who (typically) dismisses it all as hogwash and then goes and tips off the colonial authorities that Kalamake and his son-in-law are forging money.

This detail a) clinches white men’s stupidity and obtuseness b) but confirms the story’s setting in the bang up-to-date contemporary world.

It creates an odd, anomalous effect.

4. The Ebb-Tide

This OUP volume also very usefully contains the short novel, The Ebb-Tide, but it deserves a separate review.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Weir of Hermiston by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896)

Introduction

Stevenson left Weir of Hermiston unfinished at his death on 3 December 1894. It is a return to the Scottish setting of Kidnapped (1886) but now told in a more mature, subtle, ironic style. It is difficult to credit that he crafted this recreation of Scottish landscape, life and language while actually living in the blistering tropical heat of Samoa; and also while developing the tauter, leaner style he used in his powerfully realistic South Sea stories.

Weir is a lot lighter and daintier in tone than the South Seas stories, with their brutality and cynicism. There is something almost Jane Austenish about the opening with its broad confident sweeping description of the life and manners of the old Lord Justice-Clerk Adam Weir, and his wooing and marriage to the spinsterish Jean Rutherford, last descendant of the ‘riding Rutherfords of Hermiston’. There is a lovely rolling rhythm to Stevenson’s sentences.

The motives upon either side were much debated. Mr. Weir must have supposed his bride to be somehow suitable; perhaps he belonged to that class of men who think a weak head the ornament of women—an opinion invariably punished in this life. Her descent and her estate were beyond question. Her wayfaring ancestors and her litigious father had done well by Jean. There was ready money and there were broad acres, ready to fall wholly to the husband, to lend dignity to his descendants, and to himself a title, when he should be called upon the Bench. On the side of Jean, there was perhaps some fascination of curiosity as to this unknown male animal that approached her with the roughness of a ploughman and the aplomb of an advocate. Being so trenchantly opposed to all she knew, loved, or understood, he may well have seemed to her the extreme, if scarcely the ideal, of his sex. And besides, he was an ill man to refuse. A little over forty at the period of his marriage, he looked already older, and to the force of manhood added the senatorial dignity of years; it was, perhaps, with an unreverend awe, but he was awful. The Bench, the Bar, and the most experienced and reluctant witness, bowed to his authority—and why not Jeannie Rutherford? (Chapter I – The Life and Death of Mrs Weir)

The surviving portion of Weir of Hermiston consists of only nine chapters and fills just 100 pages of the 1987 OUP paperback edition, but it is full of light, gladsome descriptions. It feels like Stevenson can reel off sentences without effort or appeal, the prose dancing from his pen.

Kirstie was a woman in a thousand, clean, capable, notable; once a moorland Helen, and still comely as a blood horse and healthy as the hill wind.
(Chapter I – The Life and Death of Mrs Weir)

Part one – Edinburgh

Adam, the crusty old judge, and Jean, scion of the Rutherfords, marry and have a son, Archie. He is born in 1794 (100 years before the novel was being written). Archie is just seven years old when he begins to wonder whether his father, the harsh hanging judge, conforms to the milk- and-water piety his mother is always preaching – whether a harsh ranting hanging judge quite matches her description of the ideal Christian, who should be all forgiveness and the meekness of the lamb. Feeble Jean puts off Adam’s shrewd questions with Bible quotes and sayings but the sharp young lad notices the discrepancy in his parents’ beliefs.

And no doubt it is easy thus to circumvent a child with catchwords, but it may be questioned how far it is effectual. An instinct in his breast detects the quibble, and a voice condemns it. He will instantly submit, privately hold the same opinion. For even in this simple and antique relation of the mother and the child, hypocrisies are multiplied.
(Chapter I – The Life and Death of Mrs Weir)

It has been obvious to every reader of the novel that there is a lot of autobiography in Stevenson’s account of the rather weedy young boy growing up in the shadow of the forbiddingly confident, brash, booming father. Like Stevenson, young Archie Hermiston is sent through the conventional Edinburgh schools and starts to study law at the University when – The Big Incident happens.

Archie is 19 when he stops by the court where his father is hearing the case of a low vile murderer, a sorry apology of a wretch and his debased mistress. Archie watches his father condemn the man to death and finds every nerve in his body recoiling. Next day he goes along with the roaring crowd to watch the hanging and finds himself revolted and every instinct in his body rebelling. He cries out against it on the spot, overheard by only a few, but much compounds his sin by – that evening at the Edinburgh University debating society, of which he is a leading light – suggesting a debate condemning capital punishment as against God’s will.

This action causes a scandal, not only in its subversion of the existing laws which young Adam is supposed to be studying and supporting, but as a direct questioning of his father’s role and verdict in t his specific case.

Adam has acquired a mentor, a colleague of his father’s on the bench, a judge but a kindly and patient man, Lord Glenalmond. Archie calls round to see him that evening. Glenalmond has already got wind of the scandal but listens sympathetically to the young man’s objections, worries and doubts. And their conversation makes Archie guiltily realise just how profoundly he has insulted his father – in public – and brought scorn on the house.

This prepares us for the next scene where Archie steels himself to confront his father – who, predictably enough, storms against his son’s idiocy and foolishness. Archie is utterly repentant, head bowed. He offers to go as a soldier to ‘the Peninsular’ (the Peninsular War against Napoleon – if Adam is 19 this must be 1813). But his father points out that his rebellious streak unfits him for all dutiful professions. He will send him to the country estate at Hermiston to be the petty laird there, to run it on his (the Judge’s) behalf.

Part two – Hermiston

So begins the second part of the book, which begins with a lengthy description of the setting and personnel of the country house at Hermiston, descriptions of the house and country, the chief servant, 50-year-old Kirstie Elliott and her family.

Again, one can only marvel at Stevenson’s confident, thorough, sympathetic but measured and realistic evocation of a character.

Kirstie was now over fifty, and might have sat to a sculptor. Long of limb, and still light of foot, deep-breasted, robust-loined, her golden hair not yet mingled with any trace of silver, the years had but caressed and embellished her. By the lines of a rich and vigorous maternity, she seemed destined to be the bride of heroes and the mother of their children; and behold, by the iniquity of fate, she had passed through her youth alone, and drew near to the confines of age, a childless woman. The tender ambitions that she had received at birth had been, by time and disappointment, diverted into a certain barren zeal of industry and fury of interference. She carried her thwarted ardours into housework, she washed floors with her empty heart. If she could not win the love of one with love, she must dominate all by her temper. Hasty, wordy, and wrathful, she had a drawn quarrel with most of her neighbours, and with the others not much more than armed neutrality.
(Chapter V – Winter on the Moors)

Kirstie’s brother, twenty years her senior, fathered four boys (Robert, Gilbert, Clement, and Andrew) and, belatedly, a girl, Christina – all living in the neighbouring valley of Cauldstaneslap. A long, stand-alone section describes the famous incident of the death of the old brother, ambushed and assaulted by thieves as he made his way drunkenly back from the market – how he made it to the family house, expiring on the doorstep, how his four grown sons jumped on their horses and tracked the attackers across heath and moor, finally bringing them to justice. The incident became the stuff of legend (strongly reminding me of the bloody family revenges at the core of the Norse sagas). The brothers, as a result, become known as The Black Brothers.

Archie settles into the country estate at Hermiston where he quickly wins the affection of mature Kirstie, followed by the other servants. Although aloof and sad, he strikes all the more a Byronic and attractive figure for that.

And so the scene is set for young Archie one day to spy the young Christina at the local church, a 50-seater kirk attended mostly by the staff from Hermiston and the households of the four brothers. His and Christina’s eyes meet and they fall in love.

It is a striking thing and new in Stevenson’s fiction that so much of this scene is told from Christina’s point of view, with a thorough description of her elaborate Regency clothes, and her equally complicated feelings. This really feels like a little bit of Jane Austen dropped into the Highlands and may be the first time Stevenson had attempted to portray a woman, a woman’s point of view, a woman’s feelings.

Christina felt the shock of their encountering glances, and seemed to rise, clothed in smiles, into a region of the vague and bright. But the gratification was not more exquisite than it was brief. She looked away abruptly, and immediately began to blame herself for that abruptness. She knew what she should have done, too late—turned slowly with her nose in the air. And meantime his look was not removed, but continued to play upon her like a battery of cannon constantly aimed, and now seemed to isolate her alone with him, and now seemed to uplift her, as on a pillory, before the congregation. For Archie continued to drink her in with his eyes, even as a wayfarer comes to a well-head on a mountain, and stoops his face, and drinks with thirst unassuageable. In the cleft of her little breasts the fiery eye of the topaz and the pale florets of primrose fascinated him. He saw the breasts heave, and the flowers shake with the heaving, and marvelled what should so much discompose the girl. And Christina was conscious of his gaze—saw it, perhaps, with the dainty plaything of an ear that peeped among her ringlets; she was conscious of changing colour, conscious of her unsteady breath. Like a creature tracked, run down, surrounded, she sought in a dozen ways to give herself a countenance. She used her handkerchief—it was a really fine one—then she desisted in a panic: “He would only think I was too warm.” She took to reading in the metrical psalms, and then remembered it was sermon-time. Last she put a “sugar-bool” in her mouth, and the next moment repented of the step. It was such a homely-like thing! Mr. Archie would never be eating sweeties in kirk; and, with a palpable effort, she swallowed it whole, and her colour flamed high.
(Chapter VI – A Leaf from Christina’s Psalm-Book)

It has the sympathy for embarrassed youth of the mature man and the extremely confident writer.

Later the same evening Christina goes for a walk on the hills and there she spies young Archie rushing towards the pass into the valley of her family, coming looking for her. They meet amid the heather and have the earnest, embarrassed conversation of young lovers, sweet and innocent.

But Stevenson is not innocent. And for the first time begins to hint that this story will not end well. Some way into the conversation, Archie realises that they are talking not far from the tomb of  his mother who died when he was a lad. The thought moves the poetic soul in him.

Tears, in that hour of sensibility, came into his eyes indifferently at the thought of either; and the girl, from being something merely bright and shapely, was caught up into the zone of things serious as life and death and his dead mother. So that in all ways and on either side, Fate played his game artfully with this poor pair of children. The generations were prepared, the pangs were made ready, before the curtain rose on the dark drama.
(Chapter VI – A Leaf from Christina’s Psalm-Book)

Uh oh. Things move apace (as they do when Stevenson isn’t lumbered with his wordy collaborator, his step-son Lloyd Osbourne) and nemesis arrives promptly in the next chapter in the shape of a student Archie knew at Edinburgh. Like most of the students of the day he has gambled and drunk his money away, been forced to sell his law books and was on the verge of being sued by the bookseller when he fled his lodgings and took up the very vague invitation to visit him which Archie can’t actually remember ever having given. His name is Frank Innes.

Stevenson is a master at describing unease. From the start Archie and Frank don’t get along. Archie takes to disappearing immediately after breakfast, sometimes before, leaving his unwanted guest alone with the servants or to roam the grounds of the house or into the hills, bored and resentful. Frank falls in with the drinking clubs at the local village, Crossmichael, where he spitefully starts spreading rumours about aloof Archie and gives his host the catchy nickname of The Recluse.

Frank goes one, fatal, step further when he begins to wonder where Archie is disappearing off to so often and so early. Slowly he figures out that it is a woman. And when he next attends church he realises Archie is in love with the beautiful Christina. He proceeds to take his revenge by taunting Archie – mockingly advising him not to get involved with ‘a local milkmaid’, warning him of the likely fury of Christina’s brothers and the scorn of the neighbourhood once his secret is out; all the time assuming a hypocritical concern for Archie’s well-being when in fact he is deliberately, sadistically torturing and humiliating him.

That night they go their separate ways to bed, Archie to burn with humiliation at hearing his lady love so scorned and taken lightly, Frank to savour his revenge for what he takes to be Archie’s superiority and neglect of him. And Stevenson, in the character of the intrusive narrator, points the doomward direction of his tale.

Poor cork upon a torrent, he tasted that night the sweets of omnipotence, and brooded like a deity over the strands of that intrigue which was to shatter him before the summer waned.
(Chapter VII – Enter Mephistopheles)

The penultimate chapter (A Nocturnal Visit) consists entirely of old Kirstie – who has been missing Archie’s company and conversation now he is off visiting Christina all the time – coming to his rooms one evening and having a painful conversation in which she warns him against risking his own and Christina’s reputations with his dalliance.

Kirstie – in the earlier descriptions of her mastery of the household, and her fond feelings for the young laird when he first arrives, and now in her conflicted feelings about seeing her young hero fall in love – emerges as in some ways the most sympathetic character in the book. Certainly I feel warmer about her – and about the wicked old hanging judge – than I do about either of the naive young lovers.

So now Archie has been warned twice – once by the ill-intentioned Frank, once by well-intentioned Kirstie – to have a care.

The last completed chapter (Chapter IX – At The Weaver’s Stone) follows logically. At his due appointment with Christina next day, beside the stone tomb in the hills known locally as the weaver’s stone, Archie nerves himself to tell his beloved they must cool their love. But, being young and naive, Stevenson brilliantly describes how maladroit and clumsily he phrases a reasonable suggestion, particularly when he makes the fatal (and quite amusing) mistake of invoking the name of his father, the old Judge. Oh dear. Christina, nerved up to expect more lover’s sweet talk, is at first hurt and wounded, the tears springing to her eyes; but when Archie brings his father and the opinions of others into it – oops, she bridles and becomes angry. She says he is taunting her, she never realised he was so in thrall to convention etc. And then she bursts into hopeless sobbing tears and he rushes to embrace her.

And that is where the manuscript breaks off. Stevenson dictated this last scene to his step-daughter on the morning he died.


Doubling and division

The introduction to the 1987 Oxford University Press edition, by Emma Letley, goes long on the idea of doubles and dualities. This is because Weir is paired in this edition with Stevenson’s most famous fiction, Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, which naturally suggests the notion of the double.

The trouble with this idea is that once you start looking for binary oppositions in almost any fiction, you can find them everywhere, in evermore feeble and unconvincing iterations. So, here:

  • Strong old Adam Weir is set against his son, the sensitive young Archie Weir. There’s a binary division right there.
  • Old Adam Weir, his fellow law lords and the students at Edinburgh Uni are bourgeois; the four Black Brothers are rough crude country folk.
  • The book contrasts English speakers with Scots speakers so that good honest Kirstie Elliott speaks broad Scots, sly scheming Frank speaks dandified English.
  • More peripherally, many of the folk heroes – legendary figures referred to throughout the text – are ambiguous figures, reverenced by country folk and yet law-breakers in their own time.

If you throw in the historic conflicts between the Puritan Covenanter movement and the broader Protestantism of the Scottish cities, and then start quoting the use of masks or personas in the work of Robert Burns or Douglas Hogg, you can fill many pages waxing lyrical about the centrality of doubles and divisions in Scots literature, and then confidently situate Stevenson in that tradition.

I am not persuaded. If you take two of the characters and contrast them – bingo! – binary opposites – as further examples, the Angry judge Weir and the Compassionate judge Glenalmond; the male Archie (and Frank) and female Christina (or Kirstie); the Father Adam and the Son Archie; the Old Adam and the Young Archie. Judge Adam is stern; his wife Jeannie is soft. And so on and on.

But the reality is that there are about a dozen fleshed-out characters in the novel and they are placed in multifarious relations with each other, relationships which jostle and hustle against each other and which also – as is kind of the point of the novel – change and develop.

And the interesting bit, the attractive bit of the text, isn’t the static categories (old, young, Scots-speaking, English-speaking, town, country blah blah blah) – it is the much more subtle growth and change and development of the characters which is caused by changing events, their changing perceptions, their changing relations to each other. the novel and its characters are far more rich and strange than the harping on doubles doubles doubles allows.

Style – dry comedy

Dry This richness is caught in the subtle flexibility of Stevenson’s style. I’ve already pointed out its dry, Austenish irony, his mature, deflating, amused familiarity with the types he is describing:

The old ‘riding Rutherfords of Hermiston,’ of whom she was the last descendant, had been famous men of yore, ill neighbours, ill subjects, and ill husbands to their wives though not their properties.

‘… though not their properties’ lol.

Bathetic punchlines Stevenson regularly uses classic antithesis, the balancing of two clauses, to make the second one end with a thumping comic bathos.

In the early stages I am persuaded there was no malice. He talked but for the pleasure of airing himself. He was essentially glib, as becomes the young advocate, and essentially careless of the truth, which is the mark of the young ass.

Comic misunderstanding There is a particularly laugh-out-loud moment when the harsh Judge is riding back from Edinburgh to Hermiston and is met by Kirstie keening by the side of the road, all geared up to tell him with maximum emotional distress that his wife, Jeannie, has died.

It was the lowering nightfall when my lord returned. He had the sunset in his back, all clouds and glory; and before him, by the wayside, spied Kirstie Elliott waiting. She was dissolved in tears, and addressed him in the high, false note of barbarous mourning, such as still lingers modified among Scots heather.
‘The Lord peety ye, Hermiston! the Lord prepare ye!’ she keened out. ‘Weary upon me, that I should have to tell it!’
He reined in his horse and looked upon her with the hanging face.
‘Has the French landit?’ cried he.

Style – adjectives

On a really local level, I began to notice Stevenson’s use of multiple adjectives or sets of adjectival phrasers, often with a surprise in the tail.

She withered in the growing, and (whether it was the sins of her sires or the sorrows of her mothers) came to her maturity depressed, and, as it were, defaced; no blood of life in her, no grasp or gaiety; pious, anxious, tender, tearful, and incompetent.

The house lasses were at the burnside washing, and saw her pass with her loose, weary, dowdy gait.

This atmosphere of his father’s sterling industry was the best of Archie’s education. Assuredly it did not attract him; assuredly it rather rebutted and depressed. Yet it was still present, unobserved like the ticking of a clock, an arid ideal, a tasteless stimulant in the boy’s life.

Above all, it is the articulacy – it is the ability to deploy his Scots prose to give expression to psychological insights into his characters and by extension into human nature more broadly, which illuminate the reader’s mind. Which make a deeper, richer perception possible. It is the often unexpected nature of the insights, their counter-intuitive placing, which makes them all the more powerful

Lord Hermiston was coarse and cruel; and yet the son was aware of a bloomless nobility, an ungracious abnegation of the man’s self in the man’s office.

I can see why ‘the Master’, Henry James, genuinely admired Stevenson. The way he was for so long perceived as a ‘children’s writer’ conceals the flexibility, fluency and psychological insights which abound in his work.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Ebb-Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson (1894)

This is a blisteringly fierce novel, an intensely bitter and realistic depiction of the low-life criminality, desperate psychology and violence of white trash in the South Seas of the 1890s, which is also charged with a peculiarly epic and symbolic feel.

A relatively short novel in just 12 chapters, The Ebb-Tide is the third of Stevenson’s collaborations with his step-son, Lloyd Osbourne – although in a letter Stevenson made clear that everything after the champagne-tasting scene about a third through was entirely his. (This sheds light on The Wrecker, their previous collaboration, which is immensely long, wordy and slow. The Ebb-Tide starts in rather the same way before gathering real pace and intensity – from which we can deduce that Osbourne was Mr Slow and Wordy and Stevenson Mr Fast and Intense.)

The Ebb-Tide represents a departure from the romance and adolescent adventure of Stevenson’s previous books, towards a new anti-romantic bluntness and harshness, a tone which is established in the first sentence.

Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease.

And although the style still has vestiges of the wit and irony which characterised The Wrecker, the actual subject matter is grim and despairing, with suicide a repeated theme of a story which ends in a grotesquely sadistic death and an even weirder religious transformation.

Three beach bums

The first couple of chapters introduce us to three white men who have sunk to the very lowest level of South Sea society:

  • Herrick, a well-educated well-meaning Englishman whose incompetence at everythijng he’s turned his hand to has reduced him to poverty and thoughts of suicide
  • Davis, an American sea captain who was disgraced when his drunkenness while in charge of a ship led directly to the deaths of six crew
  • Huish, a lazy dishonest Cockney with a vivid turn of phrase

They are ‘on the beach’ i.e. stranded without work or food, with no support or resources, almost like characters from a Beckett play, whining about being hungry and thirsty, at Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti.

Their impoverishment is rammed home in a series of dispiriting scenes. Tramping the island’s paths, they are caught in a torrential downpour. They come across a schooner anchored near a waterside path, with a gangplank up to it and some natives having a fry-up on board. In a desperate attempt to curry favour the middle-aged captain Davis dances a jig, and on this humiliating basis the three losers are invited aboard and given the islanders’ leftovers.

Herrick, the most honest and educated of the trio, who carries a copy of Virgil with him everywhere, is in a state of permanent despair, with thoughts of suicide never far away.

The whole set-up is dark and grim and lacking any of the vim and playfulness of earlier Stevenson.

A ship

A day later, Captain Davis bursts into the disused prison, or ‘calaboose’, where the trio have been squatting, and announces that he’s been given captaincy of a vessel, the schooner Farallon. Apparently, the former captain, mate and able seaman who were crewing it all died of the smallpox on the journey from San Francisco, the ship being brought into harbour by its native deckhands.

The consul has offered the role to every other captain in Papeete and they’ve all turned it down. So it’s fallen to Captain Davis – who promptly suggested that Herrick be taken on as first mate (despite having no experience whatsoever) and Huish as able seaman (ditto).

But Davis then spoils the upbeat effect of this news by telling Herrick he has no intention of fulfilling the contract i.e. to sail the schooner with its cargo of champagne on to Sydney. Instead he plans to sail in the other direction, dock in Peru, sell off the cargo and the boat itself, take the cash as a stake and head off to the silver mines to try his luck. Honest Herrick is appalled.

‘Captain,’ said Herrick, with a quailing voice, ‘don’t do it!’
‘I’m desperate,’ returned Davis. ‘I’ve got a chance; I may never get another. Herrick, say the word; back me up; I think we’ve starved together long enough for that.’
‘I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I can’t do it. I’ve not fallen as low as that,’ said Herrick, deadly pale.

It’s a measure of the despair of the characters that Herrick doesn’t just try to talk the captain out of committing a risky crime – he tries to persuade him to come and drown himself along with Herrick in the bay. What stays the captain is that he has three children, living with his mother, he hasn’t seen them for years but still feels a responsibility to earn what he can and remit it to them.

My folks are hard up, I belong to them, I’ll get them bread, or, by God! I’ll get them wealth, if I have to burn down London for it.

Reluctantly, Herrick throws in his lot with the captain’s plan and then they present it to ‘the bummer’ Huish, who, having no scruples, leaps at the chance. The trio are officially signed up and rowed out to the schooner next day, where the captain introduces himself to the native crew and they set sail. There is immediately trouble. While exiting the harbour one of the natives leaps overboard and swims to shore, leaving them short-handed. Herrick is fraught with anxiety at having to behave like a mate when he hasn’t got a clue how to address the native crew.

Drunks

But worst of all, at the first mealtime (prepared by the native cook) Huish comes into the cabin armed with some bottles of champagne, having rifled the precious cargo. Even Davis, who’s planning to steal the boat, is shocked at this breach of discipline – the champagne is the cargo they’re planning to sell; it is their investment – but then weakly gives in to Huish’s wheedling.

The Rubicon was crossed without another struggle. The captain filled a mug and drank.

This idea of crossing a line, a moral line, without even realising it, is very reminiscent of the flawed protagonists of Joseph Conrad’s early, tropical novels.

Watching all this, Herrick is plunged even deeper into despair. He realises ‘he is a thief among thieves’ and, with characteristic fatalism, fantasises about throwing himself overboard. And it turns out to be a real Rubicon because they hadn’t quite appreciated just how much of a hopeless alcoholic Captain Davis turns out to be – that one drink tips him over the edge and into a bottomless pit. Once re-acquainted with booze, and free booze at that, Davis from now on is rarely sober, and as soon as the sun sets, is drunk or unconscious till dawn.

The days pass as the schooner sails East over the empty ocean with little or no serious work required, and Herrick discovers himself to be conscientious and good at sailing, while the captain lies rolling drunk in the scuppers. And Herrick also discovers he’s won the respect of the native crew by  his conscientiousness – when the captain is so drunk he can’t take his watch and Herrick says he’ll pull a double watch to cover, the islanders leap to his defence and volunteer to do it for him. He is touched.

It’s in this mood of camaraderie that one of the islanders tells Herrick that this was exactly the fate of the previous crew: the captain, mate and seaman were drunk all the time with only the islanders steering the ship. In this state it came by accident to a remote island which the white men rowed ashore to, ignoring the sound of keening and wailing coming from it. And it was there, drunkenly ’embracing’ the local girls, that the stupid white men contracted the virulent chicken pox which killed all three.

Barely has Herrick processed this revelation than an almighty storm strikes the schooner and captain Davis’s drunken incompetence almost sinks it. Herrick takes decisive action (bringing in the rigging to stop the ship being blown right over) and a now-sobered-up Davis swears never to touch another drop. Having weathered the storm, there’s a touching / scary moment when Davis finally admits to Herrick that the little daughter who he has made the pretext for their criminal scheme – is in fact dead and buried in Portland, Maine, of a bowel complaint. He had bought her a dolly on his last trip which he was going to give her and now keeps the dolly with him wherever he goes.

Very much as with Conrad, Stevenson is determined to take us to the lowest pitch of human degradation.

The fake champagne

But barely has the storm been weathered and the crew recovered from the near wreck – before Huish strolls in with yet another bottle of champagne, cracks it open and – discovers it contains water! What? Is their cargo fake?

In a mad panic the three white men scramble down into the hold and pull up on deck crate after crate of the champagne, smashing the necks off in an orgy of violence and discovering that, below a certain point in the loading, the bottles are all full of water. In fact in the lowest crates, the fraudsters haven’t even bothered to put fake labels and metal caps on them. The whole cargo is a fraud, a scam.

The owners’ plan must have been to ditch the ship somewhere and claim the insurance money – that would explain the semi-criminal officers and the disposable ‘Kanaka’ (or native) crew. Now Davis, Herrick and Huish conceive the same plan but with a twist; to ditch the schooner somewhere off Samoa and get extradited back to San Francisco to blackmail the owners.

Except Davis suddenly claps himself on the forehead, hurries below, and returns having made a further bad discovery. They don’t have enough supplies to make it to Samoa; not least because in the drunk twelve days of the cruise so far he has been fantastically lavish with supplies, insisting entire meals were thrown overboard if they didn’t please his drunken palate. Misery is piled upon misery.

The island

They are just pondering what to do when there is a cry of ‘land-ho’ from one of the natives. Sailing into the island’s lagoon, the three see a settlement of sorts, but oddly lifeless. A white man hails them from the shore and rows out. Six foot three and incredibly posh, he is Attwater, a Cambridge-educated pukka example of the Englishman abroad. He uses all his powers of condescension to patronise and insult Huish and Davis but automatically accepts Herrick – an Oxford man – as his equal.

Attwater spins a long yarn about this being a ‘secret’ island, barely referred to on the charts, because he has managed to deter visitors ever since he discovered it holds a fortune in shell and pearls.

It quickly emerges that Attwater is a man of iron and a devout Christian. He describes  how, immediately upon arriving on the island, he imposed a fierce discipline on the inhabitants. He established an efficient pearl-fishing regime which he has been running for nigh on ten years, a trading schooner stopping by three times a year to drop supplies. Then the blasted smallpox arrived and killed off all but three of the native population of 33. Hence the sense of an abandoned settlement.

Attwater invites the trio for dinner at his house that evening, but makes it plain that Herrick must come at 4pm, the other two at 6.30pm. He obviously wants to have a private word. Then he gets back in his dinghy and rows ashore.

Davis is so infuriated by Attwater’s superior attitude that he tells Herrick he must use his early appointment with the big man to persuade him to return to the ship, along with his fortune of pearls, on any pretext he can think up – and then the trio can kidnap him, steal the pearls, either murder Attwater on the spot or maroon him on some atoll.

Thus briefed, Herrick – the one honest soul in the bunch – rows ashore later the same day to keep his 4pm appointment, tormented by the dilemma he’s been plunged into.

Attwater greets him and Herrick (and the reader) enters Attwater’s strange, fierce ambience. Attwater shows Herrick the modern diving suits, with metal helmets and boots, which he bought and got the villagers to wear to set about the pearl harvesting in a professional way – none of this inefficient native ‘diving’ nonsense. He goes into detail about the quick fierce smallpox epidemic. Somedays it was impossible to bury the dead. He shows him the pathetic graveyard.

The image of the tall white eerie white man dominating this island of the dead is eerie and compelling.

The dinner party

Davis and Huish arrive at 6.30 as planned, and there is an extremely fraught dinner party: Captain Davis stares nervously at Herrick wondering whether he’s sticking to the plan to betray Attwater; Herrick is in agonies because he suspects Davis is liable to make a rash move with his gun at any moment, whereas the two hours he’s just spent with Attwater have revealed him to be an extremely tough customer, with guns of his own. In fact, Attwater went out of his way to tell Herrick stories about his marksmanship: he particularly enjoys shooting round the edge of a target before finishing it off.

All this tension comes to a head when Attwater tells a prolonged yarn about his idea of ‘justice’ – how he hounded one of the islanders for disobedience and theft so harshly that the man eventually hanged himself. But at just that moment Attwater realised it that his other servant, a slimy obsequious native, was the guilty party all along. So when all the natives took him to see the hanged man, Attwater made the guilty one climb up into the tree alongside the corpse, and then shot him dead.

This brutal story brings to a head all the pressure on Herrick, who jumps to his feet decrying the host’s hypocrisy and brutality and storms out. Davis follows him out of the house and along the beach in a fret and tries – not for the first time – to calm the hysterical man down, but Herrick says it’s useless: Attwater is too strong, too powerful, he sees everything, he’s seen right through them. He explains how Herrick noticed immediately the drunken attempt Davis had made when they were at sea to paint over the Farallon‘s name; he knows he’s dealing with crooks; he tauntingly described Davis and Huish to Herrick as ‘wolves’ and asked what a little puppy like him was doing among them.

‘He knows all, he sees through all; we only make him laugh with our pretences — he looks at us and laughs like God!’

Eventually Davis talks Herrick out of his funk, and they walk back along the sand towards Attwater’s house. Davis is now plotting how he will take Attwater – coming up behind him and shooting him without warning; sitting down and shooting him in his chair?

He is in the middle of rehearsing these murderous choices when he is stopped in  his tracks by Attwater’s voice. the big man has come out onto the sand and is pointing his Winchester rifle straight at Davis. He says that while the pair were away he’s got Huish blind drunk and extracted the whole secret of their plan to murder him and steal his pearls. Well well well. A nice bunch of people. He waves his gun over towards the beach and the pier and their rowboat. ‘Get in it and don’t come back.’

Back on the schooner

Humiliated, Herrick and Davis tip the catatonic Huish into the dinghy and row back out to the schooner. But here they are only confronted with the same plight again: they don’t have enough supplies to make any other port – certainly not sail all the way to South America – they would have little option except to return to Papeete, where they will have a lot of explaining to do to authorities – authorities who are already sick and tired of them. More likely than not they will be arrested and sent to the notorious French penal colony at Noumea in New Caledonia. It’s just not an option.

Suicide attempt

Humiliated by the failure of their squalid plan, humiliated at being associated with these two vile murderers, humiliated by comparing his own wretched fate with the superb Christian trimphalism of the virile Attwater, Herrick slips away from the depressed captain, lowers himself into the boat tied to the schooner and then into the sea, planning to swim a little away and commit suicide by drowning.

But finds he can’t, he can’t, he just can’t bring himself to. Instead he miserably drifts.

About three in the morning, chance, and the set of the current, and the bias of his own right-handed body, so decided it between them that he came to shore upon the beach in front of Attwater’s. There he sat down, and looked forth into a world without any of the lights of hope. The poor diving dress of self-conceit was sadly tattered! With the fairy tale of suicide, of a refuge always open to him, he had hitherto beguiled and supported himself in the trials of life; and behold! that also was only a fairy tale, that also was folk-lore. With the consequences of his acts he saw himself implacably confronted for the duration of life: stretched upon a cross, and nailed there with the iron bolts of his own cowardice. He had no tears; he told himself no stories. His disgust with himself was so complete that even the process of apologetic mythology had ceased. He was like a man cast down from a pillar, and every bone broken. He lay there, and admitted the facts, and did not attempt to rise.

On the shore the washed-up Herrick is inevitably discovered by Attwater with his Winchester and throws himself pitiably on his mercy.

‘Oh, what does it matter?’ cried Herrick. ‘Here I am. I am broken crockery; I am a burst drum; the whole of my life is gone to water; I have nothing left that I believe in, except my living horror of myself. Why do I come to you? I don’t know; you are cold, cruel, hateful; and I hate you, or I think I hate you. But you are an honest man, an honest gentleman. I put myself, helpless, in your hands. What must I do? If I can’t do anything, be merciful and put a bullet through me; it’s only a puppy with a broken leg!’

See what I mean by a story drenched in despair and self-loathing?

Huish’s horrible plan

Back aboard the Farallon next morning, the resilient Cockney criminal Huish comes up with a diabolical plan which he presents to Davis: they will lull Attwater into a false sense of security by handing him a wordy letter (which he now dictates to Davis) and then – Huish flourishes a bottle he’s brought out from his luggage. It is vitriol. Concentrated acid. Throw it in Attwater’s eyes, says Huish, and bob’s your uncle – we get pearls, money, supplies and are set up for life!

Davis is sickened, appalled, nauseated but – being the weakling he is – that they all are – he reluctantly goes along with Huish’s plan. So they get the native crew to row them ashore where Attwater and Herrick – now converted to the big man’s side – emerge from his beachfront house toting a Winchester rifle apiece and keeping them covered.

Huish gets Herrick to take and read the letter out – then advances towards Attwater asking to talk a bit more. But Attwater simply tells him to come no closer. Forty feet away; it’s too far to throw the acid. Huish keeps up his yacking, designed to distract Attwater while he takes mini steps forward – until Attwater realises something is up – and realises it must be something in Huish’s fists. He tells Huish to unclench his fists (including the one holding the vitriol) so the plot comes to a sudden head.

Simultaneously, Huish goes to throw the acid at Attwater and Attwater fires his gun, shattering the vitriol jar in Huish’s hand which spills down into the little cockney’s face, burning it away. Huish screams and dances in agony as the acid eats into his eyes and face, and then Attwater finishes him off like an agonised animal with another brutal shot.

Attwater turns to Captain Davis, who is standing stricken in front of the huge ship’s figurehead which dominates the beach like the statue of a pagan goddess. In his best muscular Christian triumphalism Attwater commands Davis to make his peace with his Maker, to ask God’s forgiveness for his sins, to say his prayers – and the trembling Davis makes a short prayer for the life and health of his children, then says he’s ready.

The captain shut his eyes tight like a child: he held his hands up at last with a tragic and ridiculous gesture.
‘My God, for Christ’s sake, look after my two kids,’ he said; and then, after a pause and a falter, ‘for Christ’s sake, Amen.’
And he opened his eyes and looked down the rifle with a quivering mouth.
‘But don’t keep fooling me long!’ he pleaded.
‘That’s all your prayer?’ asked Attwater, with a singular ring in his voice.
‘Guess so,’ said Davis.
‘So?’ said Attwater, resting the butt of his rifle on the ground, ‘is that done? Is your peace made with Heaven? Because it is with me. Go, and sin no more, sinful father. And remember that whatever you do to others, God shall visit it again a thousand-fold upon your innocents.’

The wretched Davis came staggering forward from his place against the figure-head, fell upon his knees, and waved his hands, and fainted. When he came to himself again, his head was on Attwater’s arm, and close by stood one of the men in divers’ helmets, holding a bucket of water, from which his late executioner now laved his face. The memory of that dreadful passage returned upon him in a clap; again he saw Huish lying dead, again he seemed to himself to totter on the brink of an unplumbed eternity. With trembling hands he seized hold of the man whom he had come to slay; and his voice broke from him like that of a child among the nightmares of fever: ‘O! isn’t there no mercy? O! what must I do to be saved?’
‘Ah!’ thought Attwater, ‘here’s the true penitent.’

And that is the end of the main narrative. Attwater has triumphed over the ineffective ‘wolves’ but more – he has converted one of them to the true religion.

In the brief epilogue, Herrick is seen setting fire to the Farallon because Attwater’s regular supply ship, The Trinity Hall, has been sighted and they need to dispose of the evidence of their crime. When he goes to tell Davis that they are ‘saved’, that the supply ship will take them back to civilisation, no questions asked, Davis says he is going to remain on the island. Because, Davis says, his eyes blazing, he is truly saved, his soul has been redeemed. He has found peace in believing in the blood of the Redeemer – and he asks Herrick to join him.

It is a really bizarre and unexpected ending to a strange, powerful and haunting narrative.


Thoughts

This short book is stuffed with so many themes and ideas that it’s hard to know where to start.

1. Conrad

How did my tutors at university ever let me ‘study’ Joseph Conrad, without reading Stevenson’s Pacific fictions first? The despair reeking off this story – like the desperate events at the climax of The Wrecker – strongly anticipate the nihilism of Joseph Conrad’s sea stories, in all of which white men marooned in the Tropics go to pieces, commit suicide, murder each other or go mad – Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim. The agèd captain Davis, forced to his desperate actions by misplaced devotion to his children, reminds me powerfully of Captain Whalley in The End of The Tether.

Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895) was published only months after this book (1894). There is a direct link and lineage of location, themes and treatment between the two.

2. White and black

In his letters Stevenson made it crystal clear that four or five years cruising round the Pacific islands had given him a strong impression of the greed and stupidity of white men, and the rapacity and folly of the various imperial authorities. He published such excoriating criticisms of the colonial authorities’ small-minded, inept and corrupt administrations that he and his wife seriously worried that they would be expelled from the region.

In his fiction, the native peoples are shown as varied and flawed but by and large tower over the horrible, selfish, greedy, violent stupidity of all the white characters.

3. D.H. Lawrence

Attwater is the strange, powerful figure towering over the second half of the book. He strikes me as an archetypal fin-de-siècle figure, channeling Nietszchean ideas of the Superman who supersedes feeble bourgeois morality – but also looks forward to D.H. Lawrence’s emphasis on the uncontrollable power of the pagan life force.

I wonder whether Stevenson had read Nietzsche and heard the notion of the Übermensch. I wonder what Lawrence made of Stevenson’s Pacific fiction; it was after all, only fifteen or sixteen years after this book was published, that Lawrence’s first novel came out.

Attwater is presented as huge, strong, fierce and vital, both physically and metaphysically.

The boat was by that time forging alongside, and they were able at last to see what manner of man they had to do with. He was a huge fellow, six feet four in height, and of a build proportionately strong, but his sinews seemed to be dissolved in a listlessness that was more than languor. It was only the eye that corrected this impression; an eye of an unusual mingled brilliancy and softness, sombre as coal and with lights that outshone the topaz; an eye of unimpaired health and virility; an eye that bid you beware of the man’s devastating anger. A complexion, naturally dark, had been tanned in the island to a hue hardly distinguishable from that of a Tahitian; only his manners and movements, and the living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint, betrayed the European.

‘The living force that dwelt in him, like fire in flint’ sounds like Lawrence. But beyond his physical fire is the unstoppable force of his bizarrely violent and apocalyptic Christian belief.

‘What brought you here to the South Seas?’ he asked presently.
‘Many things,’ said Attwater. ‘Youth, curiosity, romance, the love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest in missions. That has a good deal declined, which will surprise you less. They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish, too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife. CLOTHES, CLOTHES, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of it! They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion. But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.

It sounds like Lawrence speaking of the Life Force, and the way the Lawrentian vision is channeled into the figure of the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

The introduction to the OUP edition of The Ebb-Tide goes long on Stevenson’s critique of Western Imperialism, emphasising the striking contrast between honest and reliable ‘natives’ and the deplorably unreliable criminal, morally bankrupt whites.

But the figure of Attwater lifts the second half of the story onto a new level of intensity and weirdness and the element of critique is far broader than complaints about colonial incompetence.

Attwater’s omnipotence over the natives, who he rules with a rod of iron, combining harsh justice with blistering Christian evangelism, is matched by the ease with which he handles and outwits the three losers.

If the basic story critiques Imperialism, the demonic figure of Attwater is a challenge to all Western values. He scorns them and rises above them; he is a terrifying Overman. Far from being a handy stick to beat now-vanished Imperial values with from a left-wing academic perspective, Attwater strikes me as being, like some of D.H. Lawrence’s figures, a proto-fascist figure, a dark shadow whose ‘triumph of the will’ prefigures dark twentieth century monsters.


Phraseology

As if the dark story with its themes of suicide, despair and colonial violence weren’t enough to grip the reader, I also found a strand of pleasure in the endlessly inventive turn of phrase of these rough beach-combers, crooks and bums. Seems to me Stevenson has gone to great lengths to study and record the actual speech of the Pacific types he travelled among. The familiar-yet-strange, late-19th century lexicon is by turns striking, challenging, mind-expanding, puzzling.

He broke off. ‘I don’t often rip out about the kids,’ he said; ‘but when I do, there’s something fetches loose.’

‘I’ll trouble you not to come the dude over me… He thinks I don’t understand when he comes the heavy swell…’

‘The old game was a risky game. The new game’s as safe as running a Vienna Bakery.’

‘Blow me, if it ain’t enough to make a man write an insultin’ letter to Gawd!’

‘If there’s any boy playing funny dog with me, I’ll teach him skylarking!’

‘But put me down on this blame’ beach alone, with nothing but a whip and a mouthful of bad words, and ask me to… no, SIR! it’s not good enough! I haven’t got the sand for that!’

William Blake wrote that ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’, and the expressiveness of Stevenson’s characters – their strange and teasing turns of phrase – is a central pleasure of reading his books.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson (1892)

The auctioneer was surrounded by perhaps a score of lookers-on, big fellows, for the most part, of the true Western build, long in the leg, broad in the shoulder, and adorned (to a plain man’s taste) with needless finery. A jaunty, ostentatious comradeship prevailed. Bets were flying, and nicknames. The boys (as they would have called themselves) were very boyish; and it was plain they were here in mirth, and not on business.
(Chapter IX – The Wreck of the Flying Scud)

Robert and Fanny and Lloyd

Fanny Stevenson Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne in France in 1876 and became deeply attached to her. She was ten years older than him (b.1840 compared to Stevenson’s 1850) and had three small children by her husband Samuel Osbourne, who she had married at the tender age of just 17. Samuel was an adventurer who headed to California to take part in the silver rush, brought his family out to stay with him, but was consistently unfaithful to Fanny until she decided to cut loose and took her children for a prolonged trip to Europe.

Fanny’s choice In 1876 Fanny returned to America prepared to reconcile with her husband. So infatuated was Stevenson that he saved up for three years to have the fare to travel out to California there to woo her (the journey described in his travel book The Amateur Emigrant) and poor Fanny was faced in 1879 with the choice between unfaithful husband and ardent devotee – who just happened to be a literary genius into the bargain. Eventually she chose the sickly Scotsman and they were married in 1880, Stevenson acquiring two step-children Isobel (b.1858) and Lloyd (b. 1868), the third, Hervey, having died as a child in Paris. They spent two months in the Napa Valley near abandoned mine workings, an experience fictionalised into the novel The Silverado Squatters.

Stevenson’s travels They moved back to Britain for a while for Robert to patch up relations with his scandalised parents. For the next seven years they moved around England and Scotland, Devon, Bournemouth, spending the winter months in the south of France or Switzerland. These were the years of his masterpieces – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, as well as The Black Arrow and much poetry.

The South Seas In 1887 his father died and Stevenson returned to America, wintering in New York state. In 1888 he was in California charting a yacht to take him, Fanny and Lloyd to the islands of the South Seas and there began an extensive period of travel among the islands of the Pacific, getting to know customs, traditions, languages and politics. Lloyd was now 20 and very close to RLS. Stevenson restlessly wrote wherever he went, and in a wide variety of forms, children’s and adult poetry, adventure stories and romances, short stories, novels, travel books, essays and letters.

Collaborations with Lloyd Osborne It was here during his south sea travels and after he settled on an island of Samoa that Stevenson collaborated closely with his step-son Lloyd on three novels: The Wrong Box, The Wrecker and The Ebb-Tide. And, whereas he wrote two more novels and a number of south sea stories which are part of the ‘canon’, it is maybe no coincidence that most people haven’t heard of these three collaborations.

The Wrecker

The Prologue of The Wrecker, titled In The Marquesas, describes the litter of whites, beach bums and local South sea natives who live near the harbour of Tai-o-hae, ‘the French capital and port of entry of the Marquesas Islands’. It has colour and flavour and promises much.

Outside, the night was full of the roaring of the surf. Scattered lights glowed in the green thicket. Native women came by twos and threes out of the darkness, smiled and ogled the two whites, perhaps wooed them with a strain of laughter, and went by again, bequeathing to the air a heady perfume of palm-oil and frangipani blossom.

A schooner enters the harbour and the captain, Mr Loudon Dodd, is invited along to the whites-only club, where they drink and roister and the inebriated captain finds himself boasting about all kinds of scrapes and semi-crimes he’s been involved in. His host, back at his house, says surely that was all bluff. Oh no, says Dodd, it was all true. ‘Pray tell’, asks his host. Alright, says Dodd.

Dodd’s life story At which point the novel cuts away to become a completely different book from the one promised – a long, humorous, self-deprecating first-person narrative of Dodd’s life and times. Dodd’s dad was a typically boosterish American businessman who sends his son to college to  learn how to gamble on the stock market. But the young boy wants to be an artist! They square the circle by sending Loudon to Paris to study sculpture – so that he can provide the statues needed for the new state capital the father is crookedly involved in.

Student in Paris Loudon’s adventures in student Paris are all firmly tongue-in-cheek, told with a drollness which is completely at odds with the pithy, psychologically acute style Stevenson demonstrated in his classic adventures, The Black Arrow or Ballantrae.

At this time we were all a little Murger-mad in the Latin Quarter. The play of the Vie de Boheme (a dreary, snivelling piece) had been produced at the Odeon, had run an unconscionable time–for Paris, and revived the freshness of the legend. The same business, you may say, or there and thereabout, was being privately enacted in consequence in every garret of the neighbourhood, and a good third of the students were consciously impersonating Rodolphe or Schaunard to their own incommunicable satisfaction. Some of us went far, and some farther. I always looked with awful envy (for instance) on a certain countryman of my own who had a studio in the Rue Monsieur le Prince, wore boots, and long hair in a net, and could be seen tramping off, in this guise, to the worst eating-house of the quarter, followed by a Corsican model, his mistress, in the conspicuous costume of her race and calling. It takes some greatness of soul to carry even folly to such heights as these; and for my own part, I had to content myself by pretending very arduously to be poor, by wearing a smoking-cap on the streets, and by pursuing, through a series of misadventures, that extinct mammal, the grisette.

San Francisco In Paris he meets a fellow American art student, Jim Pinkerton, who is lousy at art but addicted to doing dodgy business deals, he nicknames him ‘the Irrepressible’ or ‘the Commercial Force’. This man is to loom large in his life because, when Loudon’s father dies after one business crash too many, Loudon, deprived of daddy’s monthly stipends, falls on very hard times and after trying all available options, is forced to travel back to the States and out to California where he becomes a side-kick and cultural fig leaf for Pinkertson’s numerous scams and cons: selling counterfeit brandy, organising a preposterous regular sea-side picnic, wild speculations on all and every business venture.

A taste of the South Seas Suddenly in chapter eight we learn that Loudon has taken to exploring San Francisco, the secret slums and hidden places – there are rich descriptions of its multi-cultural shops and bars and dives.

My delight was much in slums. Little Italy was a haunt of mine; there I would look in at the windows
of small eating-shops, transported bodily from Genoa or Naples, with their macaroni, and chianti flasks, and portraits of Garibaldi, and coloured political caricatures; or (entering in) hold high debate with some ear-ringed fisher of the bay as to the designs of “Mr. Owstria” and “Mr. Rooshia.” I was often to be observed (had there been any to observe me) in that dis-peopled, hill-side solitude of Little Mexico, with its crazy wooden houses, endless crazy wooden stairs, and perilous mountain
goat-paths in the sand. Chinatown by a thousand eccentricities drew and held me; I could never have enough of its ambiguous, interracial atmosphere, as of a vitalised museum; never wonder enough at its outlandish, necromantic-looking vegetables set forth to sell in commonplace American shop-windows, its temple doors open and the scent of the joss-stick streaming forth on the American air, its kites of Oriental fashion hanging fouled in Western telegraph-wires, its flights of paper prayers which the trade-wind hunts and dissipates along Western gutters.

And in amid these he starts listening to tales of sailors and seafarers of the remote romantic south sea islands, visits a seafarer who has a collection of south sea island artefacts, gets bitten by the bug. So he enthusiastically falls in with Pinkerton’s latest scheme to bid for a ship which they hear has been shipwrecked on Midway Island, the brig Flying Scud. It’s meant to be a rigged auction i.e. Pinkerton has arranged to buy the ship from the auctioneer at the nominal sum of $100, so everybody is surprised when a well known, seedy lawyer, Bellairs, starts bidding against Pinkerton and the bidding climbs to the absurd and giddy heights of $30,000 then $40,000.

By now our boys have realised something very suspicious is going on – maybe the brig must have been packed full of Chinese opium! Loudon notices that the captain of the wrecked ship – Captain Trent – is at the auction, looking very nervous. Our boys eventually win the ship but at a budget-breaking cost of $50,000. In the corridor Loudon overhears Bellairs telephoning the man whose instructions he was obeying, a certain Mr Dickson. But when Loudon gets hold of his address and goes to visit and question Dickson, he finds he has beaten a hasty retreat from his boarding house. Why?

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Illustration of The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

Voyage to Midway Pinkerton and Dodds hire a schooner, the Nora Creiner, appoint a Captain Nares and hire a dodgy-looking crew. Pinkerton appoints Dodds his agent for the mission – which is to find the brig, find the opium, take it on to Honolulu to sell, and return to San Francisco with the profits. There is a brisk clear good humour about the narrator’s tone which seems different from any other Stevenson I’ve read. It has an often modern sense of comic timing and a brisk easy pace. Stevenson’s sentences are generally more broken up with semi-colons and edgy angular additions and clauses; The Wrecker‘s sentences run on smooth and debonair.

I was presented to the commissioner, and to a young friend of his whom he had brought with him for the purpose (apparently) of smoking cigars; and after we had pledged one another in a glass of California port, a trifle sweet and sticky for a morning beverage, the functionary spread his papers on the table, and the hands were summoned. Down they trooped, accordingly, into the cabin; and stood eyeing the ceiling or the floor, the picture of sheepish embarrassment, and with a common air of wanting to expectorate and not quite daring. In admirable contrast, stood the Chinese cook, easy, dignified, set apart by spotless raiment, the hidalgo of the seas.

The Flying Scud Eventually they reach the site where Captain Trent said The Flying Scud ran aground and, sure enough, find it. The captain, crew and Loudon spend days ripping the poor brig apart and, sure enough, do eventually find boxes hidden in the mats of rice – and they do contain opium – but only a few hundred pounds of the stuff – value, at the absolute maximum, maybe $10,000. Whereas Pinkerton had bid $50,000 for the ship! It looks like a complete bust. Sadly captain Nares and Dodd conclude they’ve done everything they can, set fire to the hulk and sail on to Honolulu.

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole

Illustration for The Wrecker by William Hole (1892)

The mystery Here I didn’t quite understand some scenes but I think Loudon disposes of the opium to two agents Pinkerton has arranged to meet him. He then bumps into the captain of the British warship which found and rescued the crew of the Flying Scud, is invited to a party aboard, and quizzes the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. From all this he discovers that the survivor of the Scud, who later paid Bellairs to bid against Pinkerton, and who gave his name as Dickson, was in fact one Norris Carthew, an Englishman from a noble family. What the devil is this all about? Dr Urquhart gives the impression of knowing but Loudon fails to wangle it out of him and is left as completely perplexed about the mystery of the wrecked brig as we the reader, and the narrator is the intrusive kind who comes right out and confronts the reader with it:

I have never again met Dr. Urquart: but he wrote himself so clear upon my memory that I think I see him still. And indeed I had cause to remember the man for the sake of his communication. It was hard enough to make a theory fit the circumstances of the Flying Scud; but one in which the chief actor should stand the least excused, and might retain the esteem or at least the pity of a man like Dr. Urquart, failed me utterly. Here at least was the end of my discoveries; I learned no more, till I learned all; and my reader has the evidence complete. Is he more astute than I was? or, like me, does he give it up?

Pinkerton’s bankruptcy So Loudon sails back to San Francisco and confronts Jim and his new wife, Mamie, with his failure to find treasure on the ship. Pinkerton, for his part, explains about his bankruptcy – an official receiver was called in, who could only secure 7 cents in every dollar for the creditors.  Jim was thoroughly pilloried in all the newspapers and now lives in a shabby apartment with shabby clothes and is working as the meanest type of clerk.

Loudon inherits a fortune Which is why, when Loudon receives a telegram telling him he’s inherited a fortune from his doting grandfather in Scotland, they all celebrate wildly with a champagne dinner and pack up and head to the country for a rest and recuperation. Within days Pinkerton is back to his classic best, a wheeling-dealing shyster, going to the office of the local newspaper, investigating mining operations, sniffing for new business ventures.

More Flying Scud mystery Loudon leaves him and returns to San Francisco where he dines with Captain Nares who he got to like and respect during the long voyage. Nares says they still haven’t got to the bottom of this Scud business. Loudon is then buttonholed by the lawyer Bellairs, who reveals himself as a weedy, uneducated shyster but who menacingly says he knows all about Loudon’s inheritance and makes vague threats to undermine him or Pinkerton or both. In addition, Bellairs says he knows all about the fake mate on the Scud, Norris Carthew. What? Loudon is puzzled: what fake mate? Who is Carthew? Why does is matter?

Bellairs goes on that Carthew comes from a venerable family in England, in Dorset, aha yes you can’t fool old Bellairs. Loudon wonders what on earth he’s babbling about.

Chasing Bellairs Next day, in a passage which I read twice but still didn’t understand, Loudon discovers that Bellairs has left his hotel and set off East, presumably to go to England and find Carthew, and decides to follow him. Why? I know the narrative has to take us to England and Carthew but Loudon’s decision to do so is extremely flimsy.

Across the Atlantic Loudon and Bellairs find themselves on the same transatlantic ship and get to know each other more, Bellairs alternating between wanting to be friends and show off his miserably uneducated mind, and sudden bursts of aggression and threat. Loudon finds out the whole of the poor man’s life story, which I won’t bother repeating here.

Stallbridge-le-Carthew From Liverpool the odd couple find themselves making American tourist day trips to local towns and then heading further south, to Gloucester, Bath and so by stages to Dorset. Bellairs disappears, presumably to get to Carthew first – and Loudon races to the fine ancestral pile of the Carthews arriving before the lowlife lawyer. Here Loudon is treated to a guided tour of the grand Carthew mansion, the gardens and stables and prize-winning horses and flower beds, and then the local village and the local inn kept by ex-servants of the Carthews.

From these people he learns that Norris was the black sheep of the family, the second son, wanted to be an artist (don’t they all) argued with the father and was packed off to the colonies. He has, apparently, only recently returned, promptly had a big fight with his mother, and has disappeared again. Through the roundabout method of examining the inn-keeper’s daughter’s stamp collection, Loudon gathers that Norris has gone to Barbizon, a village in France a little north of Paris and a popular hang-out for would-be artists. (In fact a place Stevenson knew well and visited when his cousin, the artist Bob Stevenson, was a regular visitor there in the 1870s.)

Barbizon Loudon sets off straight away, across England to London and then across the Channel to France and so on to Barbizon. He arrives to find the place packed with art students as in his day, and even knows some of the older-timers who show him round. And as there aren’t many Anglos he is almost immediately introduced to the dapper Carthew, who is going under the false name of Madden. Loudon recognises him as one of the sailors rescued from the Scud and Carthew admits it and admits using a fake name in San Francisco.

They talk late into the night, with Loudon giving his side of the long convoluted story of The Flying Scud – rather wearing the reader’s patience by this time – beforeCarthew says he will tell his side of the story.

And now,” said he, “turn about: I must tell you my side, much as I hate it. Mine is a beastly story. You’ll wonder how I can sleep. (Chapter XXI)

Carthew’s life story Once again, as in the switch right at the start of the text to Loudon Dodd’s point of view, we don’t get anything like a crisp narrative focused on explaining whatever the secret is behind the wrecked ship. The exact opposite: we get a long, long, long account of Carthew’s childhood and teenage years and prolonged arguments with his father about his wish to become an artist, the family force him to go to Oxford where he is kicked out with huge debts, after which he is packed off to Europe and makes even more debts gambling, before the disgusted family sent him even further away, all the way to Sydney Australia, to contact a lawyer who would pay him a living allowance only if he regularly visited the office. It is a strange kind of echo or just repeat of the life story of loudon which we had to crawl through in the early chapters.

Carthew puts up with this treatment in Australia for a while, spending all the money before he has it and ending up a homeless bum in a Sydney park, before he gets a tip to go and work on the railways where he discovers the joys of manual labour and rough proletarian company.

Scheme to do business in the South Seas Back in Sydney with his pay saved up, he bumps into a well-known speculator, Tom Hadden, who gets him interested in the vast profits to be made trading in the south seas. They recruit a legendary old sea captain, Bostock, ‘a slow, sour old man, with fishy eyes’, who introduces them to another captain, one Wicks who was indicted for murder when he struck down a mutineering crewman and has been in hiding as a cabman in Sydney for three years. He says he knows a good schooner that’s been laid up rotting while a massive lawsuit fights around it which has finally settled and they can get her cheap.

The deal is done, they pool their money, buy the schooner, rename her Currency Lass, hire a Chinese cook, Carthew has a final interview with the lawyer who’d been paying him his stipend to inform him he’s off for six months trading in the south seas, and they set sail.

Business success and nautical disaster After ten days sailing they come to an island where they are steered in by the drunk pilot and the captain makes a good deal with a susceptible white trader, enough to pay off the price of the boat and make a handsome two grand profit. The businessmen celebrate and are merrily sailing on towards San Francisco, when they are caught in a severe storm. The main boom swinging round hard cuts off the foremast at the root and then is blown overboard shattering the main mast. The ship now has no power of movement at least 1,000 miles for the nearest port.

Journey to Midway One of them has been reading the maritime guidebook by Hoyt which claims there is a coaling station only forty or so miles away at Midway Island, so they pack the whaling boat with food, all their gods and the money, and row there, arriving next day to find no station, no people, no civilisation, just a low coral island haunted by gulls and driftwood. Here they settle in, building a fire, cooking meals and slowly despairing.

Rescue Five or six days in they are in the middle of a despairing card game when they spy a sail. It is the Hull brig The Flying Scud which the second part of this yarn has all been about. They light a big fire with driftwood and to their amazed relief the ship comes up and anchors outside the reef. They take their whaling boat out to it and are helped aboard, asked questions, fed, to their great relief.

A hard bargain But then the captain, Trent, invites them all down into his cabin along with the big Scandinavian first mate, Goddedaal, and the mood changes. Thoughtfully he puts it to them that there is a price for their rescue. Once he’s heard the story of the big profit they made at the island, he says his offer is this: hand over the entire £2,000 profit and he’ll take them to San Francisco; refuse, and he’ll dump them back on the island. Even his own first mate is appalled and sinks his head in his hands. But as he insists and even threatens them, Mac, the unstable passionate Ulsterman in the Lasses crew, whips out a clasp knife and in the ensuing scuffle it ends in Captain Trent’s neck, he collapses onto the table and bleeds out. At which the huge Scandianavian goes berserk, whipping up a stool, bashing out Hemstead’s brains at one stroke, breaking Mac’s arm at the next, at which point Carthew draws his pistol and shoots him, then a crew member puts his face round the door and they shot him and then – in a pitiful scene, unlike anything else in the book and destroying forever its sense of humorous deprecation – our crew hunt down and methodically slaughter the whole crew of the Scud, refusing their pleas for mercy but shooting them like animals and throwing them overboard. This has all the horror of a very modern sensibility, like something as cruel and amoral as a contemporary movie, but all told in incongruously Victorian prose. Our crew throw the bodies overboard, make an effort to clear away the blood, getting drunk on raw gin until they pass out.

Saved The next morning they awake with terrible consciences and the psychological damage is described in depth by passages which must surely have been by Stevenson. They dispose of the last bodies, clear more blood, are going through the ship’s papers when they spot the smoke of a coal-fired ship approaching. In a mad panic they try and hide all evidence of the slaughter, search for the ship’s papers and dispose of as many as possible. Wicks comes up with the mad idea of stabbing his writing hand as if in an accident to explain why the most recent parts of the ship’s log were written by Goddedaal. And as the steamer anchors and a jolly boat rows towards them, Wicks hurriedly assigns them all identities from the slaughtered crew: he himself will impersonate Trent, Carthew with be Goddedaal, and so on.

Almost caught All goes sort of well as the young officer sent to investigate accepts their story and takes them, with their chests containing the treasure, back to the ship which turns out to be a Royal Navy boat, the Tempest. Here they start like guilty things at the least questioning, Wicks is permanently trembling and the climax comes when someone taps Carthew on the shoulder and recognises him as Carthew; he faints clean away. Their saviour is the ship’s doctor, Urquhart. he realises Wicks’s stabbed hand is self-inflicted, he hears Carthew mentioning the dead shipmates in his delirium and eventually the two guilty men confess what happened. Surprisingly the doctor helps them cover it up, helps smuggle Carthew off the ship in San Francisco and carries on covering for them, even when Loudon tracks him down to question him.

Tied up threads And thus almost all the mysteries of The Flying Scud, the ship Pinkerton and Loudon set out so innocently to buy and do a little trading with, are sorted out, from the nervous appearance of the crew in the Frisco bar where Loudon first saw them, to the crazy auction, where Bellair was under instructions from Carthew – masquerading as Dickson – to pay any sum to ensure nobody else came into contact with it. And when Loudon overheard Bellairs speaking to Dickson/Carthew on the phone and then rang the same number and asked him why he wanted to buy the Scud so badly – the conspirators in their paranoia took it as a sign that the authorities were onto them and scattered to the four winds, Carthew travelling back to England, revealing something of  his disaster to his appalled mother, before hurrying on to France.

Where Loudon finally tracked him down to hear the whole of this long and grim narrative.

Epilogue The final few pages consist of a letter to one Will H. Low, who I don’t think we’ve heard of before. The narrator of the letter seems to be a newspaperman (?) who has helped arrange the publication of this whole narrative. (There is a sarcastic aside where he claims to be ‘wholly modern in sentiment, and think nothing more noble than to publish people’s private affairs at so much a line’, a thought which sheds light on Henry James’s contemporary story, The Aspern Papers). He describes what became of all the participants. Pinkerton is now in business with Captain Nares, who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He’s bought a newspaper and has plans to become state senator. Dodds is in partnership with Carthew: Carthew bought another schooner and Dodds manages it, going on the voyages as super-cargo. Hadden and Mac (whose hot temper caused all the trouble) took a turn at the gold fields in Venezuela, and Wicks went on alone to Valparaiso. Why is he writing this letter?

Why dedicate to you a tale of a caste so modern;—full of details of our barbaric manners and unstable morals;—full of the need and the lust of money, so that there is scarce a page in which the dollars do not jingle;—full of the unrest and movement of our century, so that the reader is hurried from place to place and sea to sea, and the book is less a romance than a panorama—in the end, as blood-bespattered as an epic?

And he describes how the authors were discussing recent nautical tales and disasters – so maybe this letter is being written by Stevenson in his own character (?). Stevenson then explains how he and his collaborator thought to make the story into that modern genre,

the police novel or mystery story, which consists in beginning your yarn anywhere but at the beginning, and finishing it anywhere but at the end;

The risk of these is they often appear mechanical contrivances. Hence the decision to give such a very very long lead-in to the main characters – hence Loudon and his pa back in the States, and the long section about being an art student in Paris, and the long sections about Pinkerton’s preposterous schemes.

All this is meant to draw the reader in – but I defy any modern reader of this book who wouldn’t have found it do exactly the opposite and eventually tire and exhaust them so much that they give up reading the book before the mystery proper even appears.


Humour

Stevenson’s speciality is derring-do and adventure, risks and perils and threatening – often Gothic horror – tension. By contrast, this long book is written in a tone of urbane drollery. Once in Honolulu, Loudon goes to visit one of the men contacted by Pinkerton to take receipt of and fence the opium, a Mr Fowler.

This gentleman owned a bungalow on the Waikiki beach; and there in company with certain young bloods of Honolulu, I was entertained to a sea-bathe, indiscriminate cocktails, a dinner, a hula-hula, and (to round off the night), poker and assorted liquors. To lose money in the small hours to pale, intoxicated youth, has always appeared to me a pleasure overrated.

The last sentence is not exactly Wilde, but it is a deliberate epigram, intended to be dry and witty. The books is full of this kind of effect, far from the style used in KidnappedThe Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae. Whereas the narrators of those books talk up the action, and contrive an atmosphere of tension and melodrama, the narrator of The Wrecker takes a self-deprecating view of himself and everything around him, with a steady stream of epigrams, witticisms and a self-conscious punning attitude to words.

In such a mixed humour, I made up what it pleases me to call my mind, and once more involved myself in the story of Carthew and the Flying Scud. The same night I wrote a letter of farewell to Jim, and one of anxious warning to Dr. Urquart begging him to set Carthew on his guard; the morrow saw me in the ferry-boat; and ten days later, I was walking the hurricane deck on the City of Denver. By that time my mind was pretty much made down again, its natural condition.

For all the thousands of times I’ve heard people having their mind made up, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make the fairly obvious joke claim that their mind is made down, and it is typical of Loudon to go on and joke that this is pretty much his mind’s natural condition.

In his humorous mode, the narrator is well aware that he is writing rubbish. When Loudon and Captai Nares are ransacking the shipwrecked Scud, they find some artists’ pencils which gives Loudon a moment’s pause.

“Yes,” I continued, “it’s been used by an artist, too: see how it’s sharpened–not for writing–no man could write with that. An artist, and straight from Sydney? How can he come in?”
“O, that’s natural enough,” sneered Nares. “They cabled him to come up and illustrate this dime novel.”

One small moment particularly struck me: Loudon creeps up behind him to eavesdrop on the lawyer Bellairs as he makes a telephone call to his client from the auctioneer house:

I scarce know anything that gives a lower view of man’s intelligence than to overhear (as you thus do) one side of a communication.

How prophetic, now that all of us have multiple moments on any bus or train where we are forced to listen to half a conversation as someone natters on their mobile phone and are invariably drawn to conclude that both participants are imbeciles.

Psychological acuity

A feature of Stevenson’s successful books is their psychological insight. Jekyll and Hyde is a sustained investigation of the human mind, but his other successes throw out all kinds of insights into human nature. In my review of The Master of Ballantrae – itself a sustained contrast between the two psychological types of the feuding brothers – I’ve mentioned the scene where the servant Mackellar tries to kick the wicked Master over the edge of the ship they’re sailing on in a storm – the acuteness comes in from the way the Master actually respects Mackellar for trying to kill him and Mackellar, in turn, can’t help admiring the master’s largeness of spirit, even while still detesting him. Peculiar insights into human behaviour like this litter the better books.

And so – through the essentially light and mostly dry ironic style of The Wreckers – there are occasional moments of something deeper, more visionary. Safely back in San Francisco Loudon takes captain Nares to dinner and both of them find it hard to reconcile the intensity of their hard labour dismantling the Scud in the harsh glare of Midway Island, amid the screeching seagulls and the crash of the waves, with the polite restaurant they now find themselves in, formally dressed and waited on hand and foot.

The same night I had Nares to dinner. His sunburnt face, his queer and personal strain of talk, recalled days that were scarce over and that seemed already distant. Through the music of the band outside, and the chink and clatter of the dining-room, it seemed to me as if I heard the foaming of the surf and the voices of the sea-birds about Midway Island. The bruises on our hands were not yet healed; and there we sat, waited on by elaborate darkies, eating pompano and drinking iced champagne.
“Think of our dinners on the Norah, captain, and then oblige me by looking round the room for contrast.”
He took the scene in slowly. “Yes, it is like a dream,” he said: “like as if the darkies were really about as big as dimes; and a great big scuttle might open up there, and Johnson stick in a great big head and shoulders, and cry, ‘Eight bells!’—and the whole thing vanish.”

If the plot and dialogue are given in an almost entirely even, sensible, sober, rather ironic style, it is the ‘strange’ moments like this which keep the reader reading… Just about.

Until the final grisly scenes. The massacre at the climax of the book comes in chapter 24 of the book’s 25 chapters. I.e. it is only at the very very bitter end of the text that we have anything like Stevenson’s characteristic psychological depth and this itself is a little overwhelmed by the amount of blood and gore. Still, the feelings of the sailors as they land on Midway and realise they are doomed to starve to death – and then their feelings in the aftermath of the massacre – are completely at odds with everything which preceded them and leave an odd, damaged taste in the mouth.

Old words and phrases

One of the main appeals of reading old books is they have a different way with the English language: individual words are used in a different sense from our contemporary meanings, and entire phrases appear which you can puzzle out but which have long disappeared. Therefore, reading old books gives you a sense on the wider possibilities of the English language and, even if only momentarily, expands your mind.

That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.”

‘A home word’? Presumably meaning, a particularly telling or accurate saying.

“Just let me get down on my back in a hayfield,” said he, “and you’ll find there’s no more snap to me than that much putty.”

‘Snap’? Presumably meaning vim, vigour, zest, energy.

It was blowing fresh outside, with a strong send of sea.

‘Send’ being, apparently, the heave of the sea, the motion of the sea against a vessel.

Just before the battle, mother

In a typically comic touch, Loudon not only finds himself made the reluctant front man for Pinkerton’s surprisingly successful business venture of organised trips to have picnics on boats out of San Francisco, but after humming it once finds himself called upon to sing the full version of the classic American tune ‘Just before the battle, mother’ until his performance is advertised on the posters and becomes a regular part of the excruciating routine. Listening to it gives a sense of how long long ago this society, its values and morals, its fundamental beliefs and values, are from our own.

Conclusion

Very broadly speaking there are two Stevensons: Bad Stevenson rambles without focus, his plots unravelling into increasing preposterousness and he exhausts the reader in endless peregrinations which eventually make you vow never to read one of his justly-forgotten books ever again. The classic example is the awful New Arabian Nights and, I’m afraid, this novel jostles into that group.

Then there is Brilliant Stevenson – as in Kidnapped and Treasure Island – works which make you think you must track down and read every word this genius of atmosphere, pace and incident ever wrote.

Until you find yourself reading another long, gruelling, amusing but ultimately inconsequential folly like The Wrecker. And so the would-be fan finds themself ping-ponging from one pole to the other.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)

If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.
(Chapter IX – Mr Mackellar’s Journey with the Master)

Like Treasure Island and KidnappedThe Master of Ballantrae is a gripping, fast-paced adventure story told in the first person, serious and foreboding and Gothic. It starts off in a gloomy old Scottish mansion and takes its protagonists, powerfully and vividly, to the immense forests of New World.

A mix of texts…

The narrative is presented as the written account of Ephraim Mackellar, steward of the Durrisdeer estate in Scotland. He writes as an old man, telling his story long after the events, lamenting the many misfortunes which befell the noble Durie family during his time of service. We know it is a written account because Stevenson himself intervenes at a few points, as the Editor of Mackellar’s manuscript, to make comments and explain how he has edited and is presenting it to us.

The text further foregrounds its own artifice when Mackellar’s account itself breaks off to include long chunks taken from the supposed autobiography of the Irish soldier of fortune ‘Colonel’ Francis Burke, and also to include the texts of letters from the various protagonists.

… and styles

The way the narrative is assembled from various sources means it deploys various prose styles. Whereas the old retainer Mackellar’s style is a kind of ‘honest old Scotsman’, Burke’s is completely different – foppish and Anglicised, while the letters of, for example, the Master himself, reveal his venom and cruel sarcasm.

The story is set in the 18th century and concerns two Scottish brothers who develop a life-long blood feud which spills over into blackmail, murder, madness and revenge – and their different attitudes to life, the way they hold themselves and speak, are also brought out through differences in manner, speech and style.

Heteroglossia

The net effect of all this is that the book is rich not only in straightforward adventures and melodramatic scenes, but in the range of voices and styles it uses. It is a good example of the Russian literary critic Bakhtin’s theory of ‘heteroglossia’ – meaning the novel’s distinctive ability to incorporate a host of voices and styles.

And these voices are often themselves in competition or are themselves compromised or questioned:

  • Mackellar considers Burke’s version of events to be unreliable, advising us to read between the lines
  • Mackellar uneasily says that many critics have questioned his role in the events he’s describing, so he is touchy about key moments where different interpretations are possible
  • and at the heart of the story is the radically different interpretations the two feuding bothers put on central events

So it is easy to show that this text is a virtual battlefield where numerous conflicting voices compete. And to attribute to this conflict and clash of voices and styles, much of the book’s energy and thrill.

The plot

We are in Scotland, in the mid-18th century, near the town of St. Bride’s, on the shore of the Solway firth. Here stands the house of Durrisdeer, home of the noble Durie family, built in the Continental style with fine gardens, and attended by numerous servants. The Durie family consists of:

  • the old Laird, who has relinquished control of the estate and likes to read classic books by the fire
  • his eldest son, the Master of Ballantrae, James Durie, not yet 24 in 1745, a determined, arrogant man, rumoured to have fathered a child by a wench in the village
  • the second son, Mr. Henry Durie, an honest, solid sort of young man
  • Miss Alison Graeme, a near kinswoman, an orphan and the heir to a fortune which her father acquired in trade, a spirited, independent-minded woman, much in love with the dashing Master

It is generally accepted that, in time, Miss Alison will become the Master’s wife, and her fortune will go a long way to paying off the big debts the Durrisdeer estate has acquired.

The toss of a coin

When Bonny Prince Charlie lands in Scotland in July 1745 and raises an army to march south and claim the throne that is rightfully his, families all across Scotland are placed in a quandary: whether to throw in their lot with the ‘rebels’ – backed as they are by a large number of Highland clans and appealing as Charles does to their patriotism as descendant of the last Stuart king of Scotland – or to remain loyal to the anointed king of Great Britain, George II, from the royal (German) house of Hanover, who have been rulers of Great Britain since 1714. The conflict between the brothers is real and psychological but also reflects the conflict at the heart of Britain’s seriously divided society and body politic.

At Durrisdeer, as at so many other gentry houses, the family is split by divided loyalties and decides to hedge their bets with a pragmatic solution: one son will go off to join the rebels, the other will stay at home with ostentatious loyalty. But which son should do which? There is a violent quarrel about whether James the Master or young Mr Henry should go to join the Prince and the Master, with his characteristic violent frivolity, suggests they toss a coin for it. The fateful toss decides that he, the Master, will ride to join the rebels while Mr Henry will stay at the estate, representing loyalist support for the established king.

With some bitterness the Master rides off, leaving Miss Alison in tears. In the following weeks the old Laird, Miss Alison and Henry follow, on tenterhooks, the progress of the prince’s invasion. They follow as the Bonny Prince succeeds in penetrating as far into England as Derby, before the Hanoverian English army stop his advance, and then pushes the combined Scottish, Irish and French forces all the way back into Scotland and, at the notorious battle of Culloden, slaughter the flower of the Scottish aristocracy. Many of the survivors are hanged in the subsequent reprisals and the Highlands are laid waste in a vengeful campaign which resonates with Scottish nationalists to the present day.

Nothing more is heard of the Master, for months, and then years, and the family dolefully conclude he must be dead. During this time Mr Henry grows into the role of the careful, responsible guardian of the Durrisdeer estate, taking all the burden and responsibility upon himself, and Miss Alison finds herself eventually, reluctantly, marrying him, and blessing the estate with her fortune.

News of the Master – and a second narrator

Then one day, out of the blue – on 7 April 1749 to be precise – a pompous preening Irish aristocrat, one Colonel Francis Burke, arrives at Durrisdeer, bearing the not-entirely-unexpected news that the Master survived Culloden after all. Burke is invited in for dinner and afterwards, by the fire in the big baronial hall, tells the most amazing account of his and the master’s adventures in the three years since the disastrous battle. (Mackellar elaborately explains that some time later the Colonel sent him a written version of his memoirs, and he now includes in his manuscript excerpts from that written account.)

The Master and Burke’s adventures

Briefly: the Master and Burke escaped pell-mell from the battlefield of Culloden, agreeing to co-operate even though they spend a lot of time arguing. They made their way with other survivors across country to one of the French ships which brought the rebel army, and now collects them off the coast. But in a disastrous turn of events, the ship is seized by pirates, led by the bizarre and manic Captain Teach. Sizing up the situation, the Master and Burke immediately throw their lot in with the pirates and so escape walking the plank, which is what happens to the rest of the crew and passengers.

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

The Master of Ballantrae illustration by Walter Paget

There then follow a gruelling 18 months as Burke and the Master assimilate with the pirates, taking part in various adventures and attacks. Early on the Master realises that ‘captain’ Teach is a hopeless strategist, often drunk and making bad decisions – and leads a rebellion against him, persuading the crew to name him quartermaster and effective leader. But with the kind of psychological realism which lifts Stevenson’s adventures a cut above the rest, the Master realises that he needs to keep Teach alive, as both a psychopathic mascot for the crew when they go into battle, and a useful lightning rod for ongoing disaffection among a group of man much given to drunken grumbling.

Eventually, after many adventures, the pirate ship makes the mistake of running up the jolly roger as it approaches a strange ship at sea, only to discover it is a Royal Navy warship. They turn tail and sail to an empty waste spot they know on the American coast, and are saved by a fast-descending fog from pursuit. The Master organises a party to celebrate their escape and gets the whole pirate crew legless, steals all their accumulated treasure, and then rows the ship’s skiff ashore, with Burke and the one pirate they slightly trust – a certain Dutton who claims to know his way about the marshes where they are planning to go ashore.

From the moment they land every step of Burke and the Master’s adventures are fraught with peril and excitement; they could almost have made a story on their own, as the lads make their way through up the beach in a thick fog, then into impenetrable wooded marsh, terrifyingly aware that there are Red Indians in the woods nearby, trying to avoid getting captured and scalped, and also falling into the treeacherous quicksand which surrounds them. At last, when they think they are nearing habitation, the Master cold-bloodedly leaves Dutton to drown in a quicksand, stealing his portion of the treasure.

Eventually, after many days, they come across the crew from another anchored ship making a fire and food. It is a trader out of Albany, New York, with a cargo of slaves, and the Master and Burke cockily stroll up to them and offer to pay their way to Albany as legitimate passengers. Thus rendered respectable, they sail up the Hudson River and put up at the ‘King’s Arms’ in Albany to find the town up in arms against the French. Worried that they might be on a wanted list – as both pirates and rebels from the Uprising – they masquerade as loyal subjects of King George; but as soon as possible set off across country heading northwards to join the French (in what will eventually become Canada).

There follows a long sequence of travel through the wastes of unspoilt, untamed colonial America, paddling a native canoe they’ve got hold of with the help of a native guide, Chew. After some days of rough travel, Chew dies of some unknown ailment and then they drop and smash the precious canoe. Now they are lost in  the middle of uncharted wilderness, with no means of transport and no guide.

Burke reports that, with the advent of these adversities, the Master became even more savage than usual and railed with particular bitterness against his brother. For the first time he tells Burke about the toss of the coin which sent the Master off on the ill-fated Culloden campaign, led him into a life of piracy and now has led him to certain death, without canoe or guide or food, lost in the barren wastes of America. He pledges to take revenge against the brother who ‘betrayed’ him.

Burke’s narrative takes the reader deep into the vast untamed forests of the East coast of America. It resonates powerfully of the ‘Leatherstocking’ series of novels by James Fenimore Cooper, the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans, which is set in almost exactly the same year (1757).

Back in Scotland

And that is where we leave Burke’s narrative – on something of a cliffhanger – to return to ‘the present’ in Scotland.

The three members of the family listen to all this with very different emotions, but its main effect is to create bitter division between Mr Henry and his wife, Alison, who only married him out of pity when she thought the dashing Master was dead. Now a great animosity grows between them. Burke has brought with him letters for the Master which are designed to sow and foment dissension between the three members of the family. The one to Mr Henry is full of accusations and recriminations about how he has ‘stolen’ that Master’s patrimony.

Burke leaves the Master’s contact details in Paris (where he and the Master both now safely live) and Mr Henry, with a misplaced sense of duty, decides to pay the Master a regular allowance.

More years go by and the narrator explains how conscientious Mr Henry gets a reputation for penny-pinching and miserliness, not only in the neighbourhood but within their little household, where his embittered wife treats him with more and more scorn – what no-one realises is that he is pinching the pennies to fund the lavish, spendthrift lifestyle of his distant brother. It is not a happy house.

The Master returns

After seven years the Master returns, set ashore by the local smugglers who have been periodically referred to throughout the book as a local feature.

The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black

‘The passenger standing alone upon a point of rock, a tall, slender figure of a gentleman, habited in black.’

He announces his return to a startled Mackellar, Henry, Alison and old Laird, and proceeds to re-establish himself in the manner to which he’s become accustomed. The narrative paints him as an unmitigated cad – hypocritically presenting himself as a kind and loving son to the old Laird and Miss Alison – but whenever he is alone with Henry, taking every opportunity to jeer and insult him, blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong in his life, completely heedless of the way Henry has bled the estate dry to fund his lifestyle.

Enraged by the treatment of his good honest master, Mackellar breaks into James’s correspondence and discovers letters which prove that the Master long ago sold out the Jacobite cause by becoming a spy for the Hanoverian government – all the time boasting to his father, to Alison, to the servants and peasants of the heroic risks he is running by returning to Scotland. What a bounder!

Eventually he goes too far by telling Henry to his face that  his wife, Alison, has in fact always preferred him, James, and is still in love with him.

Taunted beyond measure, Henry punches the Master in the face and insists on a duel. A terrified Mackellar helps them get swords off the wall and walk out to a patch of flat lawn in the grounds. Here they fight and Henry’s steady controlled anger begins to tell over the Master’s flash flourishes. At the climax of the duel, the Master cheats, grabbing Henry’s sword, and making a lunge – but Henry pulls his sword free of his grip and plunges it right through the Master’s body.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Illustration for the 1911 edition of The Master of Ballantrae by Walter Paget.

Appalled, Mackellar establishes that there is no sign of life. The Master is dead! They stagger inside and tell first the old Laird and then Alison. But when they finally return to the duelling ground to remove the body… it has gone!

They follow a trail of blood and broken bushes down to the bay and realise that the smugglers must have removed the body – for the Master had timed his worst taunts and insults for the very night he had arranged to flee Durrisdeer and the pirates have kept their part of the bargain, carrying him off dead or alive.

The Master gone

The old Laird sickens and dies. Henry and Alison have a child, Alexander. Mackellar shows Alison the letters of the Master proving he is a spy and hypocrite but she appals him by burning them. On the upside the letters reveal to her what a cad the Master is and she is finally reconciled to her husband. But it is too late: Henry has changed drastically since he killed his brother. He is now a haunted man, sometimes almost unhinged. On the rare occasions when the subject is raised, Henry is almost demented, claiming his brother is a devil and that nothing can kill him. Years later Mackellar finds Henry showing his young son the patch of ground where the duel took place and explaining that it was here that a man fought a devil. Mackellar worries for his sanity.

In India

Mackellar’s text is then interrupted a second time by an excerpt from Colonel Burke’s memoirs. It is a much shorter snippet which describes how chance took him to India, where his path crossed James Duries’s once more. The Master is in company of a wiry Indian named Secundra Dass. I was hoping that the Indian adventures would be as long and convincing as the pirate and Leatherstocking escapades of the American section – but this episode is disappointingly brief – only really long enough to introduce Dass, who will turn out to be a key character in the story’s final scenes.

Slight return

In the spring of 1764 James returns once more to Durrisdeer, accompanied by his Indian familiar, Dass. Now the old Laird is dead, the Master is harsher and more abrupt than before. He swears he will be a vengeance on the house and a plague to the family. Goaded beyond endurance, Henry has his wife pack all their things and in the dead of night they flee the house. Next morning the Master is incensed to discover their flight and, in Mackellar’s presence, swears to track them down and destroy them.

It doesn’t take long for him to discover that Henry, Alison and Alexander have taken ship to New York. Remember Alison’s family inheritance? It included land in New York, thither they have now gone to build a house and live in peace. But the Master sets off after them, accompanied by Mackellar.

The crossing of the Atlantic is one of the most vivid things in the book. After Henry and family have fled, Mackellar is left alone with the Master and they develop a peculiar relationship, Mackellar hating and detesting the Master for his selfishness and wickedness, for the way he has persecuted his good brother – and yet part of him admires and warms to the Master’s indomitable refusal to be beaten, his genuine charisma.

This ambivalence feels very Stevensonian; although the plot moves from drama to melodrama and then into Gothic horror and a lot of the characterisation is hysterical and stagey – nonetheless, there is something very penetrating about the love/hate, or admiration/disgust, relationship which grows up between the honest retainer and the dastardly villain.

There is a particularly vivid moment on the ship over: Mackellar is recounting tales to the Master who is sitting on the bilges of the ship as it heaves and yaws in a big swell and at a particularly low plunge, Mackellar, obsessed with the Master’s evil determination to harm Henry and his family, lashes out with his foot, aiming to push the Master overboard and be done. The Master leaps cannily out of the way.

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

Illustration of The Master of Ballantrae by William Brassey Hole (1896)

The scene itself is dramatic but what raises it is the way Stevenson makes the Master thereafter respect Mackellar for taking positive action to defend his lord. And for his part Mackellar, though he tried to kill the man, cannot repress feelings of respect and attraction for his mastery. For me, this odd relationship between Mackellar and the Devil is one of the most interesting things in the book.

New York

When they arrive in New York the roles are reversed. The Master finds Mr Henry well established with a tidy house, servants, and having established good friendships with the governor and other authorities. All the Master’s barbs, taunts and attempts at public humiliation rebound on his own head.

Stymied in his attempt to pull rank, the Master adopts a different tack and sets out to humiliate the family. He secures a shabby shack and sets himself up as a tailor, sitting outside under a big sign which proclaims his parentage and asserts his degradation at the hands of his brother.

But Henry is now – in public – a much changed man, more confident, less feeling. He routinely strolls along to his brother’s shack and sits there quite comfortably, sunning himself, ignoring his brother’s remarks and even existence, but quietly enjoying his humiliation.

However – in private – Mackellar finds Henry liable to hysterical outbursts when his brother is mentioned. Part of his mind really does believe James is the Devil, an unkillable spirit sent to torment and pursue him to the grave.

And it is now that the Master reveals another plan, to journey back into the wilderness. Way back in Colonel Burke’s long account of their wanderings after escaping the pirates, it’s mentioned that the pair buried their treasure, the loot they stole from the pirate ship. Now James asks Henry for money to fund an expedition to find that treasure, buried out in the wilderness. Henry, now passed beyond normality into a realm of pure obsessive hatred, organises for the Master and Dass to set off accompanied by a gang of low cut-throats who he commissions to murder him.

In the wilderness

Having despatched his devilish brother into the wilderness with a pack of murderers, Henry discovers that an official expedition is setting off along much the same route, led by Sir William Johnson. Mackellar and Henry get themselves invited along.

Some days into the journey they encounter the only survivor of the Master’s expedition, an obvious cut-throat named John Mountain.

In a particularly egregious bit of test-stitching, Mackellar explains that the account of the expedition we are about to read has been pieced together from several sources:

  • A written statement by Mountain
  • Conversations with Mountain
  • Two conversations with the key player, Secundra Dass

Briefly, the Master quickly realises that he’s been despatched into the middle of nowhere with murderers commissioned to kill him. Mountain is impressed at his attempts to defuse the conspiracy by playing the crooks off against each other, planting suspicions that their leaders are planning to betray them etc. On one occasion the Master tries to run away, only to be caught and brought back, once more at their mercy.

Finally, the Master plays his last trick and falls ill, wasting away over many days and finally dying and being buried by the loyal Dass. On his deathbed the Master reveals the whereabouts of the treasure and off the murderers go to find it.

Mountain’s account now goes on to describe how one by one the members of the expedition are murdered, their bodies discovered each morning, horribly scalped. Maybe a solitary Indian brave is proving his manhood by picking them off. Maybe, it crosses the reader’s mind, the Master’s spirit is taking some kind of supernatural revenge. Certainly, the sequence of uncanny deaths in the fearful wastes takes the story across a border into the realm of Gothic horror – a kind of cross between Edgar Allen Poe and the Blair Witch Project.

Finally, only Mountain is left alive and he gives up the treasure hunt, turning tail and fleeing the wilderness, travelling day and night back towards civilisation in a blind panic. And this is the condition he’s found in by the well-armed and well-provisioned Johnson expedition, and by Mr Henry and Mackellar.

As John Mountain gives this detailed account to Mackellar, Johnson and Henry, Mackellar is horrified to see the impact it has on his good sweet master: the once-solid Mr Henry snaps, upon hearing of the Master’s death, he rolls his eyes and is almost gibbering. At the end of the tale Henry refuses to believe his brother is dead, convinced he is a supernatural spirit and that nothing can kill him.

Ignoring these outbursts, the solid Sir William Johnson orders Mountain to take them back along the trail, to the place where they buried the Master.

Dead and alive

And here in the Gothic horror climax of the whole tale, the expedition comes to the burial place only to find the Master’s loyal Indian servant, Secundra Dass, working feverishly with a spade, up to his knees in the grave, digging up his master’s body.

As they watch in horror, they see Dass uncover the Master’s body and pull it up to the surface. When our chaps enter the clearing and confront him, Dass ignores them in his frenzy and carries on trying to revive the Master. In his Indian accent he explains that this is an old Indian trick he and the Master agreed on (aha, the reader realises – the entire rather spindly excuses for Dass’s presence were all designed to build up to this artifice). The Master’s sickness was feigned and Dass taught him the Indian trick of swallowing his tongue and going into a state of suspended animation.

And as Dass chafes his hands and body the Master, sure enough, opens his eyes and his mouth begins to move.

And at that moment Henry, at the end of a long tormented life, driven beyond sanity by the jeers and bullying and haunting of his brother, gives up the ghost and drops dead on the spot. But the Master’s eyes moving was itself only some kind of reflex action, for he too expires despite all Dass’s efforts.

And it is left to Mackellar to bury both brothers there in the wilderness, leaving a wooden sign over their graves, and there the narrative comes abruptly to a full stop.


A key factor in the book’s success is the immediate establishment of Mackellar as the recognised authority for this tale and a brisk spinner of prose. Although other texts intervene, Mackellar’s is the main manuscript and the dominating voice for the majority of the story.

The full truth of this odd matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome. It so befell that I was intimately mingled with the last years and history of the house; and there does not live one man so able as myself to make these matters plain, or so desirous to narrate them faithfully.

June the 1st, 1748, was the day of their marriage. It was December of the same year that first saw me alighting at the doors of the great house; and from there I take up the history of events as they befell under my own observation, like a witness in a court…

The narrative voice is four-square and candid, sharing with us all his impressions in an open, winning style with many vivid Scots expressions and turns of phrase thrown in:

My pen is clear enough to tell a plain tale; but to render the effect of an infinity of small things, not one great enough in itself to be narrated; and to translate the story of looks, and the message of voices when they are saying no great matter; and to put in half a page the essence of near eighteen months—this is what I despair to accomplish…

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

This brings us to the use of –

Anticipation

The narrative is given added tension by frequent use of prolepsis or the anticipation of events, generally using variations on the ‘little did we know then…’, ‘if only things had been different…’ formula which give the reader an enjoyably thrilling sense of dread and expectation.

Such was the state of this family down to the 7th April, 1749, when there befell the first of that series of events which were to break so many hearts and lose so many lives…

… it is a strange thought, how many of us had been storing up the elements of this catastrophe, for how long a time, and with how blind an ignorance of what we did.

Doubles

So much has been written about the double or Doppelgänger in adventure fiction that I won’t add to the pile. Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing is often blamed for giving him a starkly dualistic sense of the world, hordes of upright holy elders concealing a seedy world of sin and vice; and plenty of commentators have lined up to say that the Edinburgh of his day was a city divided between the clean, rational elegance of the New City and the filthy, vice-infested slums of the Old Town. With this upbringing some critics make it seem almost inevitable that he’d go on to write novels about the divided self, of which Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is the classic example and this  rambling Gothic yarn is the longest example.

Maybe. But:

  1. A lot, probably most, of Stevenson’s fiction isn’t about doubles.
  2. Two is the smallest number. Two is an easy number to manage. For example, a doubleist could argue that The Black Arrow is about two sides in a conflict and young Dick Shelton must decide which side he’s on. But civil wars tend to have two sides, there was no real psychological doubling involved. Similarly, in The Wrecker, the narrator, Loudon Dodds, becomes friends with the entrepreneur Jim Pinkerton, and their characters are fairly different. But this doesn’t mean they represent opposite aspects of something; just that a novel, a story, a narrative, tends to focus on a handful of characters, and two is the smallest possible number of characters, and so a preponderance of pairs is inevitable in all forms of narrative.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 35 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounted to an attack on the prevailing opinion about the wars and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this view the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining periods has two drawbacks: having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end. And ends, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline. Thus the recurring vice of historians: inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their rise and fall.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very aware of in their own time. But for a generation or more scholars have been fighting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways, for example by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continuing for centuries after the last emperor (450), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Moreover, England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • A long explanation of military technology shows how the widespread development of powerful cannon led to the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other. Nobody could attack England. Raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham in fact pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI, bloody Mary, Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Version of a state brought to the brink of chaos and redeemed by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of six ‘history’ plays he wrote about Henry IV, the hero Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out).

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France a generation or two earlier – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities ravaged and laid waste. Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.

Related links

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

This is unashamedly a children’s book. It was published as a monthly serial in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature from June to October 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’ (the same pen name Stevenson used for Treasure Island). Still, I am reading and experiencing it as an adult.

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

The Wars of the Roses

The story is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a confusing conflict when the weakness and mental illness of King Henry VI allowed a major civil war to develop between followers of two large noble families – York and Lancaster, each fighting for the crown – which dragged on for a generation, from 1455 to 1485. (Hence the novel’s sub-title, A Tale of the Two Roses.)

There is no high-level explanation of any of this in the novel, and no date given to help the reader orientate themself. We see the conflict not from the vantage of courts and kings, but reflected in the microcosm of what seems to be a small area of the Fenland i.e East Anglia, around the fictional village of Tunstall, with its Moat House and nearby Holyrood Abbey.

The novel opens with a confused throng of villagers, the publican, the local parson Sir Oliver Oates, the lord of the manor Sir Daniel Brackley, and his ward the young teenager Dick Shelton, as they get confused reports of a battle, or at least of another nobleman in some kind of warlike trouble, nearby.

Things are further confused when Brackley’s man, Bennet Hatch, takes Dick to go and talk to old Nick Appleyard, the oldest man in the village who saw service under Henry the Fifth. Hatch wants to ask him to form a small troop to defend the village while the other men ride off to the battle. But they’ve barely started talking before out of nowhere a big arrow whizzes past them, embeds itself between Appleyard’s shoulders and, after a few, shudders, he dies. There are enemies in the woods across the valley. But who? Why?

Brackley is rallying his men outside the village pub when some of them spot a figure fleeing from the churchyard across fields and into the nearby woods. Dick runs over to the church and finds a parchment nailed to the door which promises revenge against oppressors and is signed ‘Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship’. It is in the form of doggerel verse:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.

it goes on to name four specific individuals who it threatens with death for their ‘crimes’.

One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.

One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.

It seems to be blaming all four for taking part in the murder of Harry Shelton (Dick’s father) and the burning down of his house. When, in the next scene, we see the slippery and corrupt Sir Daniel Brackley extracting money with menaces i.e. doubling his tenants’ rents to him or else promising to hang them, we quickly come to suspect the poetic accusation is correct. Brackley has brought Dick up, harsh but fair, but the poem seems to implicate him in the murder of Dick’s father when Dick was a small child, and the burning down of his family’s house, Grimstone. You don’t have to be a genius to suspect that young Dick will find himself falling out with his guardian and in with Jon and the romantic woodland ‘fellaweship’.

Adventure and excitement

Stevenson possesses in abundance the boys adventure skill of creating tense moments which set the pulses racing and inflame the teenage mind in all of us. When Brackley (not suspecting the boy’s growing suspicions) sends Dick on an errand to nearby Tunstall Moat House, he finds himself falling in with another young lad who was at the inn and is (for some reason) also going the same way. Once they’ve identified themselves to each other, they carry on through the snowy woods (the novel is set in the depths of winter).

In this scene, the boys have arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out mansion, only to realise there are other people around in the neighbourhood, then realising it is the ‘woodland fellaweship’. They climb warily through the debris and look out through a ruined windowframe:

Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt.
(Chapter IV – A Greenwood Company)

The story is chock full of such moments of suspense, confrontation, escape, fights, battles, storms at sea – Stevenson threw everything he could think of and the kitchen sink into the plot.

Fast-moving plot

This other lad Dick has teamed up with is called John Matcham. They watch the outlaws interrupt their meal in the clearing to go off and attack a line of Brackley’s men who are wending through a different part of the woods. Continuing on their way, they encounter a strange leper slowly ringing a mournful hand bell, who reveals himself to be Brackley in a disguise he’s adopted to navigate the dangerous woods. All three finally make it to the safety of Tunstall Moat, Brackley’s base.

Book II – the Moat House

Here, Dick confronts Brackley with his suspicions and makes him swear he had nothing to do with murdering his (Dick’s) father – which he does with easy fluency. But the parson also named in the doggerel accusation, Sir Oliver Oates, can’t bring himself to take an oath, stuttering and hesitating and turning red, pretty much incriminating himself.

Moreover, one of Brackley’s men brought wounded to the Moat House after the attack on them by the outlaws which Dick and John witnessed, and who is now dying – one John Carter – more or less confesses to the murder and implicates Brackley.

Right. So we have established that Sir Daniel Brackley is the man who helped or was responsible for murdering Dick Shelton’s father and burning down his ancestral home, years ago, but who then adopted and raised Dick. The scales fallen from his eyes, Dick and John decide to escape from the Moat House. But this proves easier said than done since it is a medieval fortress and full of Brackley’s men on high alert for an attack. There is a lot of creeping along spooky, dark castle corridors holding only a rushlight.

Illustration for The Black Arrow by the wonderful N.C. Wyeth

Illustration for The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth (1916)

Eventually they are discovered and flee into a vacant room, barricading themselves in against attackers. After repelling an attack through an unsuspected trap door – John Matcham finally reveals that ‘he’ is a maid in disguise. ‘He’ is Joanna Sedley, heir to a fine estate etc etc. whose family are all dead and so has spent her life being held hostage by a number of great lords, all planning marriage deals for her.

Now Brackley has possession of her and wants to marry her off to another lord who will pay a fine price. There is just time for Dick and Joanna to realise they are in love with each other! before the door is forced open by Brackley’s men who seize Joanna and almost grab Dick, who wriggles free, plunges out the window into the moat below, swims across it and scrambles to safety under cover of darkness. Phew!

Book III – My Lord Foxham

Several months have gone by and the House of Lancaster is in the ascendant with the Yorkists defeated – the small port of Shoreby-on-the-Till is full of Lancastrian nobles including Brackley, sucking up to the new masters of the land.  Now we learn that Dick has been hiding out all this time with the outlaws in the forest and that their leader is called Ellis Duckworth. He has loaned Dick some of his cut-throats, criminals and deserters to tail Brackley to Shoreby and now the chapter opens with them hiding out, drinking and grumbling, in a low pub.

One of their spies comes in to report that Brackley is going to a midnight assignation at a house by the sea – Dick and his men follow, Dick climbs over the wall and peers through the window and sees the house contains Joanna Sedley, now magically transformed from the ‘boy’ he shared adventures with in book one into a tall, stately, womanly figure – he is even more in love with her, though a little daunted by her fine womanhood.

Other figures are seen moving suspiciously around the walls and so Dick’s men attack them, leading to a scrappy fight. Dick kills one then tackles a good-sized man in a fight which spills into the sea – Dick manages to trip him, get him under the waves and forces him to yield. It turns out to be Lord Foxham, himself no friend of Brackley, himself come to spy on Joanna. Realising they’re on sort of the same side, Dick and Foxham arrange to meet next day at St Bride’s Cross, just outside Shoreby, ‘on the skirts of Tunstall Forest’. Here Lord Foxham confirms his identity and that he is the rightful protector of the fair Joanna Sedley. Dick’s passionate protestations about her safety persuade Foxham that Dick truly loves her, and he declares that Dick shall marry her. Only the slight problem that she is held captive by Brackly and betrothed to Lord Shoreby stands in the way.

So Dick resolves to rescue fair Joanna from the house by the sea. Since his fight with Foxham’s men the night before was pretty conspicuous, Brackley has doubled his guard, placing armed men round the house and knights on the approach roads, so Dick has the bright idea of approaching by sea. In a series of rather contorted events which are typical of the novel’s contrived storyline, Dick commissions his pack of criminals to steal a ship, which they do by hailing the master of a boat newly arrived in the port of Shoreby, as he comes ashore, then plying him with so much drink that he is easy to lure outside, mug and tie up. Then the gang row back out to the ship – the ironically named Good Hope – take command of it and sail it to a rough pier not far from the isolated house where Joanna is being held.

But when our men leave the ship and walk along the rough pier they find themselves instantly attacked, coming under bow and arrow fire, killing and injuring many, the whole crew panicking and rushing back to the ship, some falling into the water and drowning, others expiring on the deck. Quite a bloody scene.

Even Lord Foxham, who we only met ten pages earlier, is wounded, and carried to a cabin below decks. Here, once the ship has weighed anchor, he tells Dick that he was scheduled to meet the young Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) of the house of York, with notes about the deployment of the Lancastrian forces around Shoreby. Dick must now undertake this mission. And Foxham names Dick the rightful husband of Lady Joanna in the letters he asks Dick to bear – but it is up to him to actually secure her.

In further melodrama the ship is now driven by heavy seas to shipwreck on the sand not far from Shoreby. Once the tide has gone out all the survivors of the vain attack on Brackley’s house struggle ashore and traipse inland, but not without – in yet more action – briefly coming under attack from a platoon of men apparently place there to defend the coast. But they escape without any more casualties.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the depth of winter, with darkening stormy skies, high seas, and snow storms. It is all very atmospheric and well described but the underlying scenario is too far-fetched for the reader to buy into.

Book IV – The Disguise

Dick pays off the motley crew, all too happy to leave their unlucky (and very young) leader, and elects to stick with Lawless. This outlaw has emerged with higher stature then the other cut-throats: it was he who Dick saw in the clearing cooking the outlaws’ meal; it was he who took control of the Good Hope‘s helm, steered it through the storm and ensured it survived the wreck. Now Lawless takes Dick through the snow-struck forest to his secret lair in the woods, a warren created when a tall beech tree was blown over, with the sides shored up with earth and turf and the entrance covered with brushwood.

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

It is, in other words, a fantasy version of a boy’s den in the woods. Inside it is surprisingly warm and snug, especially after Lawless lights a fire, they cook and eat some food and share some sweet wine, and Dick tells his story. ‘You want Lady Joan?’ Lawless asks Dick. ‘Let’s go and get her.’ So Lawless opens one of the several trunks stashed round his den and gets out several friar’s cassocks, complete with rope belts. And a tray of make-up pencils (a sort of indication of the theatrical origins or references of much of the language and plot of the novel). He gets Dick to put on the friar’s costume and then applies make-up to make him seem older, a wise old wandering friar. They head off through the snowy woods, back towards Sir Daniel Brackley’s residence in Shoreby.

Here, in the chaos of an over-packed lord’s house, Dick sees two fine ladies heading upstairs and follows them, till he encounters Lady Joan again, in the company of her serving lady. But oh alas and alack! Joanna reveals that she is to be married next day to Lord Shoreby. She and the lady must go back downstairs to the marriage feast while Dick stays hidden. Off they go but only a few minutes later a malevolent dwarf-jester comes snooping around and, as he discovers evidence of Dick hiding, Dick leaps out, they tussle, and Dick stabs him to death with his poniard. (For the hero of a children’s story Dick kills quite a few people – he killed one of Foxham’s men in the fight by the sea, he kills the dwarf – and all this pales next to the slaughter in book V. It’s a surprisingly violent book.)

When the dwarf’s body is discovered by servants there is much alarm and shouting but Dick stays hidden in Lady J’s room, when she returns for a further clasping of hands and bosoms and protestations of love – all watched by the ironic lady-in-waiting, before Dick tries to make his escape.

Since he is still in his disguise as a friar, he tells the house guards that he is going to the nearby church to pray for the dwarf’s soul (his body having been laid in state there), but the guards take him at his word and frog-march him to the church. Here he is no sooner introduced to the parson, Sir Oliver Oates, who begins to recognise him through is disguise than Dick throws himself on his mercy. In an unguarded moment the parson, for his part, admits that he was used as a decoy to lure Dick’s father to his death all those years ago, but swears he didn’t know that was what was going to happen. The soldiers are sitting in the pews watching him suspiciously so there’s no way Dick can escape the church, and so he spends the night next to Sir Oliver, pretending to mutter prayers for the dead dwarf.

Next morning they are woken early by the grand procession for the wedding of Lord Shoreham to Lady Joanna. But barely has the fine lord entered the church, richly caparisoned and accompanied by his fragrant retinue than a brace of arrows ring out, shooting him dead on the spot, injuring Brackley, creating hysteria and panic among the attendants and ladies.

This is stilled by the imperious voice of Lord Risingham, the noblest man present. To Dick’s dismay the parson immediately betrays him and Lawless (his fellow fake friar) and they are dragged before Risingham and all kinds of accusations thrown at them of being in league with the fellowship of the Black Arrow and therefore involved in this sacrilegious outrage.

Brackley is incensed and wants to drag Dick off and torture him to death, but Lady Joanna intercedes to say she never wanted to marry Lord Shoreby and loves Dick, and her (cheeky) lady in waiting backs up the story and so Risingham, who has seniority, has Dick taken by soldiers to his own chambers to judge.

Here Dick saves the day by admitting that he guilty to some extent of falling in with the fellowship of forest crooks, but he only did so after learning that Brackley murdered his father. He clinches his case by handing over to Risingham a letter he had conveniently found on the murdered dwarf in which the villain Brackley plots to overthrow the Yorkist interest – which includes Risingham – and then hand over Risingham’s lands to Lord Shoreby. Risingham is incensed and instantly releases Dick, making him swear to mend his ways.

So Dick finally gets to escape the house and trouble and is walking free across Shoreby when, of all the bad luck, as he is passing one of the inns on the dockside, out of it stumble some very drunk sailors which include Arblaster, the unfortunate captain who Dick’s men got drunk, mugged and then whose ship they stole and wrecked. He doesn’t recognise him but his wretched dog does, coming barking up to him and lawless, still in their silly friar disguises. The drunks grow in suspicion and when he tries to bolt, grab him, tie him up and drag him back into the pub. Here Dick spins a long cock and bull story, admitting he is one of the outlaws but has grudges against them, and that the outlaws have a vast pile of treasure in the woods, and persuading Arblaster and his mates that he’ll lead them to it. In its way this is a curious and flavoursome scene. They are by this stage very drunk and Dick makes them show him the only possession of his which they found and therefore took off him – Lord Foxham’s signet ring with which he was to identify himself to Richard of Gloucester – when Dick snatches it, up ends the tables in their faces, and scarpers out the door and along the quayside into the night. Phew.

Book V – Crookback

Though as convoluted in detail as the others, this is in some ways the simplest book. If you remember, Dick had promised Lord Foxham he would rendezvous with Richard Duke of Gloucester and give him Foxham’s writings on the disposition of enemy (Lancastrian) forces in Shoreby. Now, Dick hid those papers when he was at Lawless’s den in the woods, which is why Arblaster and his drunk shipmates didn’t find them when they searched Dick the night before.

Now, the next morning, Dick is on his way through the woods back to Lawless’s den to get them, when he comes across a man defending himself against several attackers. Dick throws himself into the fray, coming to his defence, and together they beat the men off. At which point the other blows his horn and a brace of horsemen arrive and quickly identify the man he’s saved as Richard Duke of Gloucester, known as Crookback and as every schoolboy in 1888 knew, the man who would become King Richard III, according to legend the most wicked monarch in England’s history.

At this point, if it hadn’t been obvious before, the reader realises that this is a novel not only about two roses but about two Richards. For immediately the duke of Gloucester reveals the manic glint in his eye and the intensity of his ambition.

Gloucester explains to Dick that he is about to attack Shoreby and Dick gives him an eye-witness description of the Lancastrian forces every bit as good as Foxham’s. Gloucester knights Dick on the spot, from this point onwards Sir Richard Shelton. But says now he must command a troop during the forthcoming battle of Shoreby.

The (fictional) Battle of Shoreby is described across two chapters in impressive detail. The reader feels this is what it must be like to attack a medieval town through narrows streets and, as Dick does, command his men to raise a barricade with furniture looted from the rickety houses and then withstand attacks from massed archers and from armoured knights on horseback. It is rip-roaring exciting stuff.

Eventually the battle is won and Richard asks permission to ride and rescue his lady love, and Gloucester gives him a troop of men. Off they go trailing Brackly and his forces through the forest. After various delays and losing of the tracks, Dick and his men creep up on Brackley’s party gathered round a fire which includes Lady Joanna. They gather and attack, but Brackley’s men were waiting for them and mount a a surprise counter-attack. Joanna runs to Dick in the confusion and they escape the confusion of battle into the dense forest.

(It’s worth noting that although the novel is made of clichés, there keep coming unexpected complications and rebuffs, which give it a sort of realistic but also quite a frustrating feel. When Dick and his gang stole the ship and sailed it round to attack Brackley’s house by the sea I thought it would be a storming triumph, so was very surprised when they are beaten back and many killed or injured by bowfire before they’ve barely got off the jetty.)

Briefly, Dick and Joanna make it back to the safety of Lord Foxham’s house. There is a further encounter with Gloucester where Dick displeases the great man with a notable request. Gloucester says he will give Dick anything he desires, and at that moment – as it happens – amid the chaos of post-battle Shoreby, some troops come past hustling some captives who Gloucester, barely bothering to look, orders to be hanged. And Dick recognises among them Arblaster, the wretched sea captain who Richard has twice wronged, stealing his ship and ruining his livelihood, then throwing a table at him in the quayside pub. Now Dick sees a way to atone for his past sins and asks Gloucester to spare this man’s life. Irritated at the triviality of the request, Gloucester agrees to do so – since he has given his word – but fiercely tells Dick that he can’t expect to rise in his army, in his cause, if he throws away favours on trifle. And so Gloucester gallops off.

Next morning Dick is up betimes, accoutred and arrayed in the finest regalia Foxham can provide, ready for his wedding to Lady Joanna. He strolls around the town, surveying the triumphant Yorkist troops, before straying further afield and ends up walking through the (by now very familiar) snowy woods.

And it is here that the psychological climax of the book comes, when Dick disturbs a figure lurking in the woods in disguise and it turns out to be none other than Sir Daniel Brackley. They argue. They nearly fight but Dick refuses to shed blood on his wedding day. In fact he admits – to Brackley, to the reader, to himself – that he has done too many bloody deeds recently, spilled too much blood. Although he has all the justification for it, he will not harm Brackley. He tells him to go before he calls the guards. And so Brackley shuffles off, suspiciously.

At which point there is the twang of a bow and from a nearby thicket an arrow is despatched which embeds itself in Brackley, who falls to the ground. Dick rushes to him and just has time to tell him that, yes, it is a Black Arrow, when Brackley expires. And Ellis Duckworth comes from the thicket holding his bow. He heard Dick forgive Brackley, but he can’t forgive. He asks Dick to pray for his soul. And Dick notes that vengeance hasn’t made Duckworth feel good, in fact he feels sick and guilty. Give it up, says Dick. Hatch died in the Battle of Shoreham. So three of the four mentioned in the original verse threat are now despatched. Dick asks forgiveness for the parson and Duckworth, reluctantly agrees.

‘Be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore—the fellowship is broken.’

“But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore”. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

‘But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore’. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

In the short conclusion to the book, Dick marries his Joan. Richard Crookback makes a last appearance riding by with the long train of his armed men, going towards the next battle, and parries banter with Foxham, Joan and Dick, offering Joan the husband of her choice. Of course she cleaves to honest Dick, and Gloucester pshaws, turns his horse and gallops off towards his destiny.

And in the last few sentences we learn that Dick and Joan lived out their lives in peace and happiness far from the wars and that two old men – Arblaster the shipman and Lawless the rogue – also live out their lives in peace. Dick has, in some measure, atoned for his youthful bloodthirstiness, by at key moments, interceding and saving both their lives. And with that thought, or moral, the book ends.


Reasons for The Black Arrow’s relative failure

The relative failure and comparative neglect of this novel makes you appreciate the elements which made the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped such successes. I identify four reasons:

1. In those novels there is one boy hero (Jim Hawkins, David Balfour) – clearly identified in the first sentence – and you are thrown immediately into his plight – which is also described clearly and obviously. In The Black Arrow the picture is much more confused: it takes fifty pages or more to become really clear that the story is about a young lad, Master Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, the ward of the wicked Sir Daniel Brackley, and this is because quite a few characters are introduced in the confused and busy opening scenes.

2. The successful tales are first-person narratives, throwing you directly and immediately into the adventure at first hand. The Black Arrow has a third-person narrator who is not, for some reason, very believable, partly because of the confusion of plot which dogs a lot of the story.

3. Good guys and bad guys In his classic works you know who they are – the pirates in Treasure Island, the ship’s crew and then the loyalist British army in Kidnapped. In this book it is much harder to tell for several reasons:

a) it’s a civil war so there’s no immediate way of knowing who’s on whose side, except by asking
b) characters change sides, including the hero who is not wholeheartedly for either side

4. A charismatic anti-hero When Richard Crookback appears in the fifth act, the reader realises that this is the fourth reason why this novel isn’t as successful as Kidnapped or Treasure Island – the presence of a charismatic baddy.

Both those stories introduce fairly early on a hugely charismatic, charming, threatening, adult hero who enthrals the boy narrator and comes to dominate the story – namely Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Their presence, their charming rogueish amorality, lifts both books onto a completely different level.

In this book, the dangerous charismatic adult is Richard Crookback – he immediately captures our attention by his spirited self-defence against four or five attackers, and then with his arrogant nonchalance as soon as he starts talking to Dick. From now to the end of the novel the story lifts and sails whenever he is present – he is a pantomime villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his arrival makes you realise that he is what the preceding four-fifths of the book have been missing.


Medieval vocabulary

Apparently Stevenson used the Paston Letters, a collection of authentic correspondence from the period, as his model, and – as someone who studied medieval literature at university – I did feel it had some of the tang and hempen antiquity of the older language, albeit interlarded with what I thought were Shakespearian useges from 200 years later, and some speeches which had a Scots ring to me. You have to be prepared to enjoy exchanges like this:

She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
‘By the mass!’ he cried, ‘y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!’
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.’
She answered nothing.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!’
‘Why, Dick,’ she cried, ‘would I be here?’
‘Well, see ye here,’ continued Dick, ‘an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t.’ (Chapter III The Room Over The Chapel)

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of reading old literature, especially something as conventional in its way as this ripping yarn, is the logical habits of mind of writers brought up in previous ages. There is a lovely logic to the deployment of the material in the opening of the chapter ‘In Mine Enemies’ House’ – the way the place is identified, then described, then the attitude behind its busy state, then a specific setting in time given, and then the weather: the whole impression being rounded up and summarised in the witty sentence about the eye of the modern.

Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.

There is a pleasure and a seduction in the logical disposition of the material, a pleasing old-fashioned storytellingness. As a thread through the reading, I made a note of sundry medieval words which, although I’ve often read before, I don’t actually fully understand.

  • arbalest – a crossbow with a special mechanism for drawing back and releasing the string
  • baldric –  a belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
  • brigandine – a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric
  • buckler – a small shield, up to 18 inches in diameter, held in the fist with a central handle behind the boss
  • cresset – a metal cup or basket, mounted to a pole, containing flammable substance like oil, pitch or a rope steeped in rosin, burned as a light or beacon
  • gyves – a shackle, especially for the leg
  • losels – a worthless person or scoundrel
  • lout – verb: to bow or stoop
  • murrain – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight
  • poniard – a small, slim dagger
  • pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish
  • sallet – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor
  • shaw – a coppice or thicket of trees
  • tippet – a scarf-like narrow piece of clothing, worn over the shoulders
  • tucket – a flourish on a trumpet
  • windac – a piece of equipment to pull back the tight string of a crossbow

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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