Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith (1986)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the series of eight novels he’s written about Moscow-based police detective Arkady Renko, which kicked off with the international best-seller Gorky Park. Having read all eight I was dazzled by Smith’s ability to create memorable characters, to conjure up eerily powerful scenes, and to make the English language dance and shimmy like a sand snake. He is a marvellous, magical writer. Before during and after writing the Renko series, however, he has written over 20 other novels, in a variety of settings.

This one is set in 1945 in New Mexico at the famous Los Alamos facility, which was built to house the hundreds, and then thousands, of scientists and military personnel involved in the creation of the world’s first atom bomb.

It’s a third-person narrative but it’s told very much from the perspective of Sergeant Joe Peña, a ‘huge, attractive’ native American. Joe left his parents’ pueblo, or village, young and headed to the big city where he made a name for himself as a boxer, but also as a mean jazz pianist in the era of swing and stride piano. (There are several extended descriptions of what it feels like to play jazz piano, with technical descriptions of Joe changing tempo, melody, how he syncopates left and right hand, in the styles of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so on.)

One drunk night he and his band-mates broke into a nearby US Army base with the cack-handed idea of entertaining the troops. But they were caught, arrested, and given the choice of gaol or enlisting. He enlists. After basic training, Joe found himself packed off to the Philippines, shortly before the Japanese invaded (December 1941). Joe is wounded but his squad of Filipinos managed to get him into a rowing boat, which they pushed off from a remote bay, and he was eventually picked up by an American submarine and repatriated to the States.

Here he recovered from his wounds and was on garrison duty when he made the bad mistake of sleeping with the colonel’s wife, who finds out about the affair and has Joe sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. The novel opens with Sergeant Joe Peña locked in solitary confinement at the Military Corrections Complex, Fort Leavenworth, in Texas.

Ten days of solitary confinement have given Joe hallucinations, visions – we later discover – related to his Indian heritage. To his surprise he is visited by Captain Augustino, head of security at the top secret Los Alamos facility. Augustino reminds him that, years before, Peña’s father had worked on the old ranch out at Los Alamos (which is near Joe’s pueblo) and that Peña often helped out. It was a ‘dude ranch’, offering a taste of desert living, horse-riding and so on, to city slickers and their families. Among the many urbanites Peña had taught to ride, to hunt a little, and so on, had been a scrawny, sickly kid from New York named Oppenheimer.

Now that very same J. Robert Oppenheimer is all grown up and head of the top secret ‘Manhattan Project’, leading a team of top physicists (mostly European emigrés) working to build the world’s first atom bomb. Augustino says he can spring Peña from the hole on one condition – that he goes to work for Oppenheimer as his driver and fixer and – spies on him; that he reports back to Augustino everywhere Oppenheimer goes, everyone he meets and every conversation he has.

OK says Joe, and the novel begins.

Plot

A lot happens in this novel and Cruz Smith is an expert at intertwining half a dozen different plot strands in a deliberately demanding, teasing way. The reader struggles to keep up sometimes and Smith likes springing surprises with no warning.

Driver for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (who everyone calls ‘Oppy’) is delighted to be reintroduced to Joe as his driver, a man who knows the local country intimately, can liaise with the various Indian staff and locals, and can reminisce with Oppy about happier days.

Joe sleeps with Augustino’s wife

At a party for the faculty Joe plays jazz piano and, to his horror, finds Augustino’s bored wife flirting with him. That night he returns to his room to find her already stripped naked in bed waiting for him. They have sex. Bad idea. Augustino is not the forgiving type. In an eerie scene, the next day Augustino takes Joe hunting up into the snow-covered hills and then suddenly turns the gun on Joe. Joe scarpers through the snow just in time to throw himself behind the body of the deer they’ve just shot, pulling out his army Colt .45. But as quickly as he got angry, Augustino relents, puts his gun up and they return to the base; but Joe realises the man really hates him and, when his usefulness is up, won’t be merciful.

Augustino thinks Oppenheimer is a Soviet spy

One of the central threads of the novel is that Augustino is convinced that Oppy is a Soviet spy, taking as evidence the fact that Oppy’s wife, brother and girlfriend are communists, and he has hired lots of dubious Europeans to work on the project. Augustino has taken his suspicions to the ultimate head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, who overruled Augustino – for the time being.

We see and hear a lot from Oppy, who gets progressively more emaciated and tense as the deadline for testing the bomb (in July 1945) approaches. He is, of course, a real historical personage, so it’s fascinating, as it always is, to see a novelist imagining the character and dialogue of someone we know was a real person. Similarly we also introduced to a number of the other key scientists on the project who were real people – the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Englishman Foote, the Hungarian Edward Teller, and so on.

Joe and Indian culture

But Joe’s role in the novel is not only player in the Oppenheimer-spy plot, but as doorway to alternative cultures. He hangs out with some of the common soldiers assigned to guard this and that, and sympathises with their gripes, so that we get the ordinary soldier’s perspective on the grandiose ‘project’.

Most obviously, Joe is part of the local native American culture. He grew up not far from Los Alamos and he returns frequently to the pueblo of Santiago where he still owns the family house. His mother, Dolores, was a stern taskmaster. She never forgave him for setting a macho example to his kid brother, Rudy, who enlisted in the Army and never came back from the Philippines. Dolores always blamed Joe. She was also a leading maker of native-style clay pots, one of the staple products of the local Indians, who make money selling them to tourists.

It is through this connection with neighbours and kin that Joe finds himself getting drawn into a strange sub-plot about two old Indians, Ben Reyes and Roberto (who is blind). This odd couple carry out traditional ceremonies at some of the remoter canyons which surround Los Alamos. Joe is tasked with escorting a new arrival at the facility, the attractive female German émigré mathematician, Anna Weiss and the aloof and arrogant physicist Klaus Fuchs, on a trip into the surrounding countryside, when the latter gets lost. Joe comes across steps to some kind of cave and discovers Fuchs being held at gunpoint by blind Roberto. Fuchs is petrified and Roberto seems inclined to shoot him for intruding on a native ceremony. Slowly, calmly Joe talks Roberto round and extracts Fuchs to safety.

This incident snowballs into a major plotline for it triggers the arrival on the scene of two goons from the Indian Service, who have been tasked with tracking down Roberto and Ben Reyes and arresting them. Joe finds himself forced against his better judgement into helping the fugitives hide and eventually escape to Mexico, which brings him into conflict with both the Indian Service toughs and his ever-vigilant boss, Augustino.

The lightning wands

Along the way Joe discovers that the Indian pair are also indulging in some kind of voodoo. they have carved a set of native wooden lightning ‘wands’ and are getting collaborators inside Los Alamos to scatter them at the sites of mysterious fires in the facility. It’s not quite clear to this reader whether one of them is starting the fires or whether they are just taking advantage of a sudden rash of bolts of lightning which have come with the hot summer weather and seem to be triggering random acts-of-nature fires, and which they drop the wands at to give the impression that they are somehow controlling the weather.

Anyway, they’re doing it because they believe the work going on at Los Alamos is blasphemous and should be stopped. There’s a conversation with Joe where they quote Hopi Indian prophecies about a gourd of ashes being spilt from the sky which will burn the earth – they suspect this is an ancient prophecy predicting the super-weapon being built at the facility, and they’re doing their little bit to discourage it…

The wands are found at the sites of various outbreaks of fire. When Augustino finds a few wands which had been stashed in a hiding place by the conspirators, it gives him the opportunity to plant them on Joe with a view to framing him for arson. He doesn’t necessarily want to get Joe, he just wants to have him completely under his thumb in order to achieve his obsessive goal of getting Oppy arrested.

The real spy is Klaus Fuchs

The irony of Augustino’s spy obsession is that there is a Red spy at Los Alamos (in fact we know from the historical record that there were actually three) but the most important one is arrogant, creepy Klaus Fuchs. Joe stumbles across Fuchs meeting his go-between, Harry Gold, in Santa Fe, sees them swap newspapers (presumably Fuchs is passing secrets to Gold folded in his newspaper) and then latches onto Gold and is about to question him when Oppy and Anna suddenly emerge from a hotel right in front of them. There have to be polite introductions and Joe is powerless to prevent Gold leaving.

Joe and Anna Weiss’s affair

Meanwhile the prim German mathematician, Anna Weiss, who we have seen accompanying the equally severe Fuchs, who Oppy obviously fancies (as is made clear at a party the Oppenheimers host and where his wife, Kitty, gets drunk and indiscreet with Joe) starts to flirt with Joe. Joe is, after all, a big handsome Indian, previously a prize fighter – ‘Big Chief Joe Peña’, as various characters mockingly or affectionately refer to him.

Joe and Anna end up having an affair. Cruz Smith describes them having sex in front of the fire, sex on the bed, sex when they go out skinny dipping under the stars, sex up against the wall – quite a lot of big-dark-Indian-on-white-skinned-German-blonde sex. As always, detailed descriptions of sex in a novel run the risk of making the reader squirm with embarrassment.

Once they are an item, Anna finds out about the help Joe is reluctantly giving to the two old Indians who are on the run. In the end she gets so involved that she offers to drive them hidden in an old pickup truck to the Mexico border, at the novel’s climax.

Joe is offered ownership of a jazz nightclub

Things speed up towards a climax in the last fifty pages or so. An old black guy Joe knows, Pollack, is the owner of the only decent jazz club in all New Mexico, the Casa Mañana. But he’s selling up and moving to the East Coast. Pollack laments, over a drink and a cigarette with Joe, that the buyers are going to knock the club down and turn it into flats. As jazz fans, both are appalled.

In a separate development a local hustler-turned-politician, Hilario, had been needling Joe from time to time about going back in the ring to make some bucks in one last big prize fight. Quite blatantly, Hilario is only interested in the huge winnings he can make by organising the gambling on such an event.

The two plotlines come together when Pollack, on the spur of the moment, offers Joe the freehold of the nightclub for half what he’s selling to the property developers – $50,000 – in order to save it for jazz. Joe doesn’t have that kind of money but realises that, if he accepts Hilario’s offer to do one last fight, the prize money combined with betting everything he possesses on the result, will just about scrape together the required sum. He says, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it,’ to Pollack. He tells Hilario, ‘Yes I’ll fight – but has to be in the next 7 days.’

Joe’s big fight

In the event, the fight is arranged for the very evening of the test of the first atom bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. And the very night that Anna has volunteered to drive the two raddled old Indian renegades to safety in Mexico.

The fight goes ahead in the car park of a motel in a town to the south of Santa Fe. There is an extended description of the four brutal rounds, which is fought in an impromptu ring, with knuckles bandaged not gloved, and time called erratically by the crooked Hilario, based on stopping at dramatic points to provoke more betting (and maximise his cut). Joe takes a lot of punishment from an angry youth half his age, but the kid fades in the fourth and Joe suddenly finishes him with a fierce attack.

Augustino’s deal

Joe takes his money but Augustino is there – turning up as he always does when least expected – having watched the whole thing. He tells Joe he knows Anna is taking the Indian runaways to the border; he’ll tip off the Indian Service toughs so that Ben and Roberto get arrested and Anna along with them as an accessory, unless Joe does what he tells him i.e. plants decisively incriminating evidence on Oppy, namely Harry Gold’s business card, which Augustino has got hold of. This would link Oppy with Gold who the authorities know is a spy.

This is the crux at the climax of the novel: what should Joe do? Save his lover by incriminating the man he likes and respects? Sacrifice his lover and the Indians (by extension his heritage) and betray his friend?

Joe tells Augustino he’ll do it and drives back to the test site. He had covered his absence for the fight by claiming to be policing the perimeter of the test site for Indians – based on the notion that only he would know where they would hide or break in. After all the local Indians have not been told anything about the bomb (no-one has) and just think it’s another example of the U.S. Army fencing off their ancestral lands. Oppy accepts this excuse but is glad to see him back just before the test explosion.

Climax at ground zero

The climax of the novel comes when Joe returns to Ground Zero, to be in attendance on Oppy as the final hours tick down to the test of the prototype atom bomb.

Throughout the novel we’ve met some of the more technical scientists, the ones responsible for building and assembling the prototypes. Now we watch them assemble an actual live bomb, with much back chat and jokes about ‘Don’t drop it!’ Oppy is a bag of nerves, emaciated as a walking skeleton, convinced – like some of his colleagues – that the wretched thing won’t work.

Joe knows that, if it fails, Augustino will present the failure as proof to General Groves that Oppy is a spy and that the ‘meeting’ between Oppy and Gold in Santa Fe – which Joe was present at and knows was purely accidental – was in fact Gold passing on Soviet instructions to ensure the test fails.

For the first time in months it starts to rain, jeopardising the test. Oppy is devastated. Should they abandon the test? A pessimistic Oppy is persuaded simply to delay it. Joe is tasked with guarding the bomb itself which is located in a kind of shed on top of a hundred foot tall scaffolding tower. He’s in the shed right next to the device when Oppy trips over some ropes where Joe had temporarily hidden the wretched lightning wands which he’s been carrying round trying to find a definitive hiding place.

Oppy recognises them and leaps to the conclusion that Joe is the arsonist who seems to have been sabotaging the base. He accuses Joe, they have a brief scuffle, then Oppy climbs down the ladder to his car and drives off to the security of the bunker seven miles away.

Last fight with Augustino

Out of the darkness appears Captain Augustino, Joe’s nemesis, like the proverbial bad penny. Augustino He asks whether Joe planted the incriminating evidence – Gold’s business card – on Oppy then. But in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Augustino sees the card lying on a desk where Joe had left it. So Joe has rejected the deal. They fight. Augustino pulls a gun and shoots Joe in the chest. Despite this, big strong Joe grips Augustino by the throat and dangles him over the edge of the platform. Augustino gets a few movie-like last words, then Joe lets him drop to the ground a hundred feet below.

The end

Joe climbs painfully down the ladder, bleeding. Augustino’s car is there, he limps over to it but – there are no keys in the ignition! Not under the floormat nor behind the sunscreen, nowhere! He tries to jimmy open the nearby tool-shed to see if there are any tools he could use to jump start the car but it is chained and padlocked shut. In the distance he hears the hooter announcing the start of the countdown, and he starts to run. 25 minutes. Run, run, run with blood dripping from his wound. The prose becomes a kind of dazed prose poetry: Come on, old fighter. Come on, old jazz pianist. Come on, lover of Anna Weiss and lithe Mrs Augustino. Come on, helper of crazed, old Indian men. Come on, the man who saved Oppy from Augustino. Run run run.

Joe hears the countdown reach its climax. He sees a culvert just a few yards ahead. Throws himself towards it and –

From the eye of the new sun, a man diving.
(p.341 – last sentence)

Scenes

So – a fairly convoluted plot with numerous different strands. But it’s not the plot, it’s the characters, the taut and evocative  poetic prose and above all, the weird, eerie, memory-tickling scenes, which you read Cruz Smith for. A day after finishing it I remember:

  • Joe and Anna skinny dipping under the stars
  • the strange native American dance with clowns, put on for the tourists in Santa Fe, in which Joe has to take part to take the place of blind Roberto who the Indian Service toughs have come to arrest
  • the duel between Joe and Augustino in the mountains in the snow which is suddenly interrupted when two local Indians emerge from the trees, walk slowly across the clearing where our two guys are shooting, and just as calmly disappear into the trees on the other side
  • Joe bare knuckle fighting in the parking lot of a backstreet motel
  • the fight with Augustino at the top of the Trinity test scaffold

Conclusion

Like the Renko series, this novel is packed with information and characters. Cruz Smith has clearly set out to provide a panoramic overview of the key players at Los Alamos, as well as a cross-section of the other classes and cultures caught up in this historical moment. Above all, he goes very heavy on Joe’s Indian background and the beliefs, customs, economic plight and so on of his Indian family and friends.

Nonetheless, for some reason it doesn’t have quite the same bite as the Renko books. Maybe this is because we know too much about 1940s America from countless movies – and we also know a lot about the atom bomb project from general knowledge and histories. Therefore it doesn’t have the frisson which all the Renko books have, of introducing us to a completely alien culture (the underworld of Soviet Russia, with its complicated cross-currents of power and corruption.)

And it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise to take us into its setting: it isn’t really a novelisation of life among the physicists – they only really provide a backdrop to Joe’s story – but simultaneously, it isn’t quite enough about Indian life, because Joe left it in his teens and is more a New York jazzman than believer in any of the old magic, which he thinks is horsecrap.


Related links

Reviews of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Dr. Strangelove by Peter George (1963)

‘We trust each other to maintain the balance of terror, to behave rationally and to do nothing which would cause a war by accident or miscalculation or madness. Now this  is a ridiculous trust, because even assuming we both had perfect intentions, we cannot honestly guarantee anything. There are too many fingers on the buttons. There are too many reasons both mechanical and human for the system to fail. What a marvellous thing for the fate of the world to depend on – a state of mind, a mood, a feeling, a moment of anger, an impulse, ten minutes of poor judgement, a sleepless night.’
(U.S. President Murkin Muffley to Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski, Dr Strangelove, page 113)

Background

This novel has a bit of a history to it.

In 1958 British author and former RAF officer Peter Bryan George published a Cold War thriller titled Two Hours to Doom, using the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Short and serious, it was designed to show how easily a nuclear war could be triggered. In America it was renamed Red Alert.

In the late 1950s movie director Stanley Kubrick had been mulling over the idea of some kind of story about nuclear weapons and was recommended to read George’s book. He was impressed, bought the book rights, and began working with George on a screenplay. But as work progressed Kubrick became more aware of the absurdity and black humour latent in the whole subject of nuclear weapons – the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and so on – and the project slowly morphed into a black comedy.

On the back of this realisation, Kubrick brought in comic novelist Terry Southern as a co-writer in late 1962. This eventually led to a falling-out between Kubrick and the original author, Peter George. The film was shot and edited in 1963 and was due to be released on 22 November, when President Kennedy was assassinated on the same day. The film was re-edited to remove some references to the fictional president who features in the movie (the film originally ended with a massive food fight in the Pentagon War Room and when the president is hit by a particularly big custard pie, one of the generals yells, ‘Gentleman, our beloved president has been shot!’ – this entire scene was cut). It was finally released in January 1964.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled George used a working version of the screenplay to write a short novelisation, and that is the text under review.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

It’s a short, fast-moving text, only 140 pages long and broken up into punchy scenes which alternate in quick succession, as in the movie.

The plot is: the American general of a US Air Force base – General Ripper – goes mad and orders his wing of bombers armed with hydrogen bombs to attack their targets in Russia. As per protocol the bombers cut off radio signals from any source and can only be recalled by the secret recall code known only to Ripper. Ripper then orders all the men on his base to secure the perimeter, warning them war with Russia has broken out and they are going to be attacked by commies, in all likelihood masquerading as American soldiers.

Meanwhile, General ‘Buck’ Turgidson is cavorting with a scantily clad ‘personal assistant’ in a Washington hotel, when the phone rings and he is summoned to the War Room of the Pentagon. Here he meets President Murkin Muffley and the joint chiefs of staff assembled beneath an enormous board showing a map of the Soviet Union, with dots indicating the ring of American planes converging towards Russia.

The president demands to know why this attack has been launched without his permission, and Buck Turgidson becomes the main spokesman for the armed forces, explaining why greater autonomy for commanders was thought a good idea, why nobody, not even the president, can recall the bombers, only except General Ripper can because only he has the recall codes, but that the general is holed up in his air force base and is firing on the local army unit which went along to contact him – and that an intense pitched battle has broken out at the base.

It just so happens that inside the base is an upper-class RAF officer on an exchange with the USAF, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. He is summoned to Ripper’s office and becomes a sort of confidante for the rest of the novel to the general’s thoughts. Mandrake learns to his horror that Ripper has ordered a nuclear attack, and then listens in bewilderment to Ripper’s mad explanation about some kind of commie conspiracy to poison our drinking water with fluoride in order to sap ‘our vital bodily fluids’. Mandrake listens, appalled, while Ripper reveals that he first became aware of this conspiracy during the act of love when he was not able to perform as he used to. This, Ripper tells Mandrake, could only be because of the communists sapping his bodily fluids, not because he’s getting on a bit. The fact that the governments of the West are going ahead with adding fluoride to water and even food, shows the extent of the fiendish commie conspiracy to sap the bodily fluids of the Free World. The only solution is for one brave man to take the decisive step and attack the Reds before it’s too late, and that’s why he’s sent his wing of bombers to bomb Russia.

In other words, World War Three breaks out because of one middle-aged man’s sexual dysfunction.

Back in the War Room, the president invites the Russian ambassador, de Sadeski, to come and witness everything for himself and then vouch in a phone call to the Soviet premier Kissof that the whole thing is a big accident. Unfortunately, the Soviet premier is drunk and tearful. President Muffley struggles to make it clear that he’s doing everything he can to recall the planes. It is at this stage that ambassador de Sadeski  reveals that the Soviets have a new Doomsday Bomb, of inconceivable power, designed never to be used but to intimidate any possible attack. One nuclear strike on Russia and it will go off, obliterating all life on earth.

Eventually, the besieging American troops fight their way into the air force base and, although General Ripper disappears to a corridor and then off the base, Mandrake is instrumental in figuring out the recall code, phoning it through to the Pentagon, who are able to recall all the nuclear bombers.

All except one. The plane nicknamed by its crew Leper Colony and captained by Captain ‘King’ Kong, a yee-hah Texan good ole boy, is attacked by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile as it crosses the border into Russia, which doesn’t destroy it, but knocks out its radio. Therefore it never gets the recall message. Therefore it proceeds to drop its nuclear payload on its target in Russia. Therefore the Doomsday Bomb is triggered creating a vast cloud of radiaoctive debris which will slowly encompass the earth wiping out all life on earth.

On the last few pages the hitherto minor character of Dr Strangelove, a German captured from the Nazi rocket programme who has been working for the Americans, outlines a plan to build fallout shelters in America’s deepest mineshafts, complete with food and air and water filter systems, where a select couple of hundred thousand humans can hide out for 100 years or so until it is safe to go back to the surface.

Thoughts

Comedy

Doesn’t sound that funny, does it, but the comedy emerges from the absurdity of each specific situation, and the logic of this absurdity pushes the characters into becoming larger and larger caricatures – General Ripper the deranged air force general, Buck Turgidson casually saying US casualties from the Russian reprisals will probably only be twenty million dead, thirty million tops, Captain Mandrake retaining his absurd British stiff upper lip even as he listens to General Ripper’s demented outpourings, and the redneck simplicity of Captain Kong, determined to go all the way, boys, and whose gung-ho, never-say-die spirit ends up exterminating the human race.

Comparing book and film

This book can’t help being completely overshadowed by the movie. Scenes and dialogue we know from the movie become clunky, less slick and funny, when transferred into George’s prose.

Some interest is given by spotting the differences between this text and the final movie, which were presumably added during production:

  • The army attack on Ripper’s air force base takes place during the night, in the book, but during daylight in the movie – maybe making it easier to see on film.
  • In the movie Mandrake is alerted to the fact that the Russkies have not attacked America (as Ripper claims) by finding a transistor radio which is merrily churning out pop songs – it is when he brings it to General Ripper that the general sinisterly locks the door and reaches for his handgun, effectively taking Mandrake prisoner and forcing him to listen to his demented ramblings – the book isn’t so sinister, with Ripper simply calling Mandrake to his office then, when he goes for a pee, Mandrake takes a phone call in which furious superiors shout down the phone that there is no Russian attack, and what the hell is the general playing at.
  • In the book, after his men have surrendered to the besieging force, General Ripper steps out into the corridor and disappears, Mandrake finding out later that he has flown off in his private airplane; the movie he steps into his office bathroom and blows his brains out, which is both more dramatic, more contained within the ‘set’ and so more claustrophobic, and more bleakly nihilistic.
  • In the book the character of Dr Strangelove only speaks at the end, with a brief discussion of his surreal proposal about saving the human race in mine shafts. In the movie he has dialogue from earlier on – presumably to introduce and build him up. Also in Peter Sellars’ brilliantly manic performance, Strangelove’s inability to control his artificial arm which gives impromptu Nazi salutes, is conveyed earlier, and through visual slapstick in a way the novel can’t do.
  • Finally, the book makes clear that there is going to be a 6 to 12 month delay before the whole world is wiped out, plenty of time to organise the mine shaft scenario – but the movie can’t end on this rather vague, long-term idea, and so the mineshaft discussion is moved to just before the Leper Colony bomb sets off the Doomsday machine, so that the film itself can end with footage of numerous nuclear bombs exploding, visually conveying the sense of complete apocalypse. Again, the movie ending is much tighter and more impactful.

Maybe I’m just more familiar with the movie, but where book and movie differ, the movie always seems to be smarter, funnier and more resonant.

Aliens

What is unique to the book, and may be the best thing about it, is the way it is bookended by an introduction and epilogue by supposed aliens, who, having arrived at a desolated Earth, try to piece together what has happened and have supposedly stumbled across a charred copy of this text. The text is presented as if published by these aliens as part of their series The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.

Logically, it doesn’t stand up – a written account of these events wouldn’t have been created in this format, or included detailed dialogue from a load of characters who all died e.g. the crew of Leper Colony – and you can see why the idea cluttered up the movie and so was dropped from the film version. But in the text it does work to give a brief, poignant and scary vision of a post-human world utterly destroyed by nuclear holocaust due to man’s stupidity and irrationality.

Movie trailer

Credit

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George was published by Bantam Books in 1963. All quotes and references are to the 2000 Prion Books paperback edition.

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The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper (1827)

“The man I speak of was of great simplicity of mind, but of sterling worth. Unlike most of those who live a border life, he united the better, instead of the worst, qualities of the two people. He was a man endowed with the choicest and perhaps rarest gift of nature; that of distinguishing good from evil. His virtues were those of simplicity, because such were the fruits of his habits, as were indeed his very prejudices. In courage he was the equal of his red associates; in warlike skill, being better instructed, their superior. ‘In short, he was a noble shoot from the stock of human nature, which never could attain its proper elevation and importance, for no other reason, than because it grew in the forest:’” (Duncan Uncas Heyward speaking of Leatherstocking in Chapter X)

The Prairie is the third of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, written at speed after The Last of the Mohicans (1826) established Cooper’s reputation, and published just a year later.

It is set at the very end of Leatherstocking’s life, in the year following the Louisiana Purchase i.e the sale by the French to the young American government of the vast expanse of land extending west of the Mississippi. (The character Dr Battius makes an entry in his journal dated specifically to 6 October 1805 in the middle of the novel).

Leatherstocking is now over 80 years old (in chapter XXVIII he says he has lived ‘fourscore and seven winters’), living alone (apart from his loyal but elderly dog, Hector) in the wide, dry, barren prairie lands west of the Mississippi. 87 and still hunting? Cooper addresses this improbability by mentioning on the first page (expanded in a footnote added to the 1832 edition) the legendary American frontiersman Daniel Boone, who died at the advanced age of 85, factual support for the longevity of his fictional character.

A lot of Cooper’s contrivances – for example, his heavy use of long-winded comedy characters – haven’t stood the test of time. More successful is the trick of giving his hero a different name in each book. Thus he is Leatherstocking in The Pioneers, Hawkeye in Last of The Mohicans but in this book is referred to only as ‘the trapper’, as if 80 years of living in the wilderness have not only carved lines in his face and wasted his gaunt body, but also worn away his name itself and almost all signs of individuality, so that he has become a living symbol, an embodiment of a dignified, free way of life.

The plot – part one

The trapper is minding his own business in the middle of the wide prairie when a wagon train lumbers into view, carrying some twenty men, women and children, led by the boorish, low, cunning Ishmael Bush, his careworn wife Esther, their no fewer than fourteen children, and no-good brother Abiram White. It’s impossible to paint Cooper as a racist or white supremacist as the book is drenched in Leatherstocking’s contempt for white farmers destroying the forest (‘their wantonness and folly’ Ch XIX; the ‘wasteful temper of my people’ Ch XX), the arbitrariness of white law, the uselessness of white learning – and the Bushes, representatives of white settlers, are depicted as violent, stupid, criminal lowlifes. As the Pawnee chief Hard-Heart says:

‘Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken.’ (Chapter XVIII)

By contrast with their own narrow brutal worldview, the Bushes’ first sight of the trapper is as a larger-than-life figure, supernaturally enlarged in silhouette against the effulgence of the setting sun, the first of many tall, dark, mythic American heroes…

The sun had fallen below the crest of the nearest wave of the prairie, leaving the usual rich and glowing train on its track. In the centre of this flood of fiery light, a human form appeared, drawn against the gilded background, as distinctly, and seemingly as palpable, as though it would come within the grasp of any extended hand. The figure was colossal; the attitude musing and melancholy, and the situation directly in the route of the travellers. But imbedded, as it was, in its setting of garish light, it was impossible to distinguish its just proportions or true character.
The effect of such a spectacle was instantaneous and powerful. (Chapter I)

v

Opening scene of The Prairie as the Bush family see the silhouette of the solitary trapper against the setting sun

Along with the Bushes is a spirited young woman, Ellen Wade, ‘a sprightly, active, girl, of eighteen, who in figure, dress, and mien, seemed to belong to a station in society several gradations above that of any one of her visible associates’. Ellen is reluctantly travelling with the Bush clan because both her parents are dead and Ishmael, as her ‘father’s brother’s widow’s husband’, has been lumbered with her care – but Ellen is secretly in love with a young and impulsive frontiersman named Paul Hover.

The trapper learns all this because he is present when she walks a distance from the Bush camp to meet the impetuous young man. They have barely started bickering like true young lovers before they hear a thundering of hooves, and lo! a band of Sioux Indians comes galloping up and seizes all three. (In the same way that his account of the Indians in Last of the Mohicans is confusing, once again Cooper refers to the Sioux, the Dahcotas and the Tetons interchangeably, which has you reaching for Wikipedia to discover that the Dakotas – here spelt Dahcotas – were one of the three main divisions of the Sioux nation. It seems that Cooper incorrectly uses the term ‘Teton’ when that should refer to one of the other divisions, the Lakota.)

In a prolonged sequence the leader of the Indians, Mahtoree, menaces the threesome, before setting off with his men to scout out the sleeping Bush campment. Here, in several edge-of-your-seat moments, he hovers with a drawn knife over a sleeping guard as if to stab him – before cutting the bonds of the pioneers’ horses, cows and pigs and shooing them back to the group of Indians (and the trapper) on a hill overlooking. The trapper seizes a moment of inattention to grab a knife off the Indian guarding him and strike through the cords binding the Indians’ horses, whooping loudly. Off run the Indian horses and off run the Indians after them.

The trapper strolls down to the Bush camp to find them all awake and angry that Indians have stolen all their cattle. They accuse him of being in league with the Indians. In his resigned, 80-year-old way, the trapper ignores all their shouting and, pointing out that they now need a place of refuge, guides them to a tall rocky bluff by a stream on top of which, over the next week, the Bushes set up a fortified camp.

From this point onwards several plotlines develop.

1. Dr Battius For a start, we are introduced to the pompous naturalist, Dr Obad Battius, who is also travelling with the Bushes, much given to quoting Latin tags and placing every animal encountered, including other humans, into their correct Family, Genus and Species.

“Woman, I forbid you on pain of the law to project any of your infernal missiles. I am a citizen, and a freeholder, and a graduate of two universities; and I stand upon my rights! Beware of malice prepense, of chance-medley, and of manslaughter. It is I — your amicus; a friend and inmate. I — Dr. Obed Battius.” (Chapter XI)

Battius feels a very stage-comic character, the joke scholar, like something out of Sheridan, with the added pedantry of Shakespeare’s Polonius.

“Perfection is always found in maturity, whether it be in the animal or in the intellectual world. Reflection is the mother of wisdom, and wisdom the parent of success.” (Chapter XIV)

But he isn’t as funny as the comic characters in The Pioneers which is, essentially, a comic novel – here, in the rougher environment of The Prairie and surrounded by the brutish Ishmael and his oafish sons, the humour seems more contrived.

“Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute.” (Chapter XVII)

Instead, as the text progresses, we find Battius and the trapper engaged in evermore lengthy debates about the nature of knowledge, of science, of culture and readiness for death. Although tinged with comedy, Cooper has clearly put a lot of effort into creating these careful dialogues which I suspect the modern reader mostly skips to get on to the next bit of action, rather as we are inclined to skip the subtleties of the different non-conformist Protestant sects which are carefully delineated in The Pioneers. We see what we want to see and the modern mind, obsessed with sexism and racism and, maybe, environmentalism, sees that everywhere. Living in a post-Christian society means we are mostly blind to the subtlety of the Battius-trapper debates, which – in another era – could easily have formed the core of a review of the book.

2. Paul Hover is the young lover/hero, but he also is often played for laughs. In this vast man’s world, Paul is a bee-keeper, which immediately makes him an odd figure; but Cooper then gives him the comic attribute that more or less every time he opens his mouth, in any situation, whether making love to Ellen or being chased by Indians, he speaks in bee-keeping terminology, about hives and queens and honey and comb and so on. In this he is a carbon copy of Benjamin from The Pioneers, an ex-sailor who referred  to absolutely everything in naval terms. But it doesn’t work here: The Pioneers is a comic novel where you expect to read slowly to savour the comic situations and repartee; Mohicans and Prairie are action-adventure stories and the reader wants everything to be streamlined to emphasise the excitement: both Hover’s apiarism and Battius’s pedantry get in the way.

3. Asa dies Ishmael’s eldest son, Asa, doesn’t return from an expedition to kill game. Ishmael, his wife and sons all go scouting for him and eventually find his body, shot in the back and then horribly disfigured, hidden in a brake of grass. They extract the bullet which has the mark of the trapper on it. They bury Asa and vow vengeance.

3. The secret in the tent The first dozen or so chapters are threaded with a ponderous mystery – Ishmael keeps a tent in his camp separate from the people and goods, a tent which obviously contains some portentous secret – Ellen and the trapper and the Doctor are angrily pushed away by Ishmael whenever they get near it. Gold? Some rare animal? A person? The reader is kept guessing…

4. Duncan Middleton Out of the wilderness arrives an officer, Duncan Uncas Middleton, strolling in on Battius, Hover and the trapper as they are feasting on a bison they have shot and cooked.

a) The trapper is galvanised when the soldier mentions his middle name – Uncas – which is, of course, the name of the younger, more heroic of the two Mohicans in Last of The Mohicans. Duncan is none other than the grandson of the Major Heyward who featured in that novel and ended up marrying one of its two female leads, Alice Munro. As tribute to the young warrior Uncas who died rescuing Alice and her sister, Heyward gave his son the middle name of Uncas and it became a family tradition. The trapper is in tears as he hears all this and as, I imagine, the reader is meant to be.

b) Chapter 15 is devoted to Middleton’s backstory, namely he is an officer in the US Army which recently moved in to hold Louisiana once it was relinquished by its French owners, and he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a Spanish grandee (the French themselves seized much of this territory from its original Spanish conquerors) – Inez de Certavallos. Although she, her priest, and the father all try to convert Middleton to the Catholic faith, he holds true to his simple Protestant roots, and on this basis they are married. But on the very day of the wedding Inez disappears, to everyone’s horror and consternation. Some time later, Middleton learns from a drunk that she was kidnapped by one Abiram White, a notorious slave trafficker.

Aha. The same Abiram White who is accompanying the Bushes, Ishmael’s wife’s brother! Now we know who is hidden in the tent which Ishmael is at such pains to keep everyone away from – Middleton’s long-lost wife, Inez! And now, while Ishmael and all his sons are away looking for the son who never came back from the hunt (in the scene described above), Dr Battius, Paul Hover, the trapper and Captain Middleton ride up to the rock-top fastness. Here they are confronted by Ellen who promised Ishmael to keep it secure, along with Ishmael’s trigger-happy daughters, but in a comic storming of the rock they make it to the top and liberate Inez from her trap. Middleton and his long-lost wife are reunited.

The plot – part two

From this point onwards, i.e. for the second half of the novel, it becomes a prolonged Chase, reminiscent of the prolonged chases through the New York forest in Mohicans, but this time over the small hills and gullies of the endless, open, exposed prairie.

  • Knowing the Bushes will return and not be happy to find their camp taken, their girls tied up and Inez liberated, our Team (Middleton & Inez, Hover and Ellen, Dr Battius and the trapper) circle away from the rocky camp and head back towards the very clump of reeds where the Bushes found Asa’s body, because that’s the last place they’ll look.
  • Here they uncover an Indian hiding in the reeds who emerges in dignified silence and mounts the horse he summons. He will turn out to be Hard-Heart, legendary chief of the Pawnee tribe, enemy of the Sioux – a man of ‘faultless form, unchanging eye, and lofty mien’ (Ch 28). He converses with the trapper, before setting off back towards his village.

The Pawnee and the Palefaces, illustration

  • Soon afterwards the trapper realises from the sound of thunder and the wave of birds flying towards them that a vast stampede of wild bison is heading directly towards them. The trapper saves them by stepping out in front of the brake of reeds and scaring the leaders either side of it, helped by Middleton and Hover, but it is a close thing, with some strays rampaging through the reeds close to the (as ever) defenceless maidens.
  • Our Team realise the stampede was started by Sioux who have picked off stragglers, as part of their hunting. They watch the Indians approach the brake then the trapper decides to creep round and approach them, exposing himself and trying to distract them from the rest of the Party. The Sioux – or Dahcotas as they call themselves – whoop with pleasure but allow the trapper to have an extended conversation with their leader, Mahtoree.
  • The trapper thinks he is getting somewhere with his distraction when he is disconcerted to see the rest of the Gang – Hover, Middleton, the maidens and Battius – emerging from the reeds behind him. They have seen Ishmael and his posse approaching from the other side and decided the Indians present a better chance of survival.
  • After their initial surprise, the Indians see the settlers approaching looking none too friendly. When the trapper says that the Bushes’ settlement is completely unguarded and ripe for looting and he can show them where it is, Mahtoree has our Team mounted up on spare horses and they all gallop back towards the Tall Rock, Ishmael and his boys firing their rifles at them from just out of range and, of course, having no horses of their own to follow on.
  • In a wordy sequence the trapper manages to persuade the Indians that Battius is a special Medicine Man so that they allow him to straggle a little behind the main posse. At which the trapper instructs the naturalist to make off in a different direction to a secret rendezvous. By this time the Sioux have arrived at the bottom of the Tall Rock, cross that the Medicine Man has disappeared, but about to enjoy some looting. As the Indians dismount and consider how to tackle the rock, not least because Ishmael’s infuriated wife Esther is taking pot shots from above – the trapper signals to the rest of  his gang and they spur their horses (one for the trapper, one carrying Middleton and Inez, one carrying Hover and Ellen) and whoosh, they are gone over a ridge into a gully, up the other side, and have a good lead on the Indians, who on balance, prefer the loot to pursuing the escapees.
  • They ride 20 miles then make a camp as night falls. The trapper has a long argument with Dr Battius where the latter defends civilisation and law and culture and the trapper pours scorn on all of it and laments the wastefulness and folly of the white man who has laid waste the primeval forest, despoiling the work of God and is now invading the plains and bringing with him nothing but waste and folly – “What the world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows…. How much has the beauty of the wilderness been deformed in two short lives!” (Chapter XXIII)
  • As dawn wakes the Team they slowly realise the horizon is very red. It is because a prairie Fire is rampaging towards them. The guys panic, the women bewail their fate, but the trapper makes them pull up all the grass in an area 30 feet around them and then himself lights the grass at the edge of this clearing. The grass takes and burns towards the inferno, thus creating a brake of barren soil and ash around our Heroes. And so the raging fire passes close but not over them. The dazed survivors thank the trapper for saving their life and they head slowly through the ashes towards the nearest river.
The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827)

The Prairie on Fire by Alvan Fisher (1827) showing the trapper (and Hector his dog) Duncan Middleton in green, the beautiful and diminutive Inez with black hair, Ellen Wade and the bee-keeper Paul Hover, with the pedantic naturalist Dr Battius at right

  • They come across an incinerated Bison but are astonished when the corpse starts moving and is then thrown off to reveal the same Pawnee brave they met at the brake the day before, hiding under it. They spared each other then and are friends again now, especially when the trapper tells Hard-Heart that they are pursued by the Pawnees’ enemy, the Sioux.
  • They make quick time to the river where the Indian impressively creates a coracle out of a hide and a few sticks. One by one he ferries the Team across the wide fast river in the coracle tied to his horse. As Dr Battius, characteristically, dithers and discusses the seaworthiness of this little invention, the Sioux posse arrives on the river bank and starts shooting bows and arrows. That decides the naturalist who hops in and they are safely guided to the other shore by the valiant and faithful Pawnee, while our guys on the safe shore take a few shots at the Indians. One lucky shot kills Mahtoree’s horse from under him and this causes confusion and delay.
Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

Hard-Heart steering the coracle containing Inez and Ellen across the river. Illustration by Charles Brock (1900)

  • Hard-Heart and the trapper agree to head down the river for a while, instead of going in a straight line to the Pawnee village. They make a camp, make beds for the maidens, and then fall asleep. In the morning they awaken to discover that a thick snow has fallen during the night and this, of course, will show the Indians there are no tracks towards the Pawnee village. Barely have they thought this than they spy the Sioux circling carefully towards their hiding place. No point fighting. The trapper stands up and hands himself and his followers over to the delighted Tetons and their mighty leader, Mahtoree. (Chapter XXIV)

The plot – part three

Chapter XXVI Fade out the last scene and fade up on a new setting, a week later. We are in Mahtoree’s Sioux village, a scattering of a hundred teepees near the river. Also camped there are the Bush family with their wagons, uneasy allies of the Sioux. Middleton and Hover have been tied and bound and thrown on the ground, not far from the stake where Hard-Heart has been tied up. The old trapper has been left free to roam (rather like David Gamut in the Huron village in Mohicans). Proud but fickle Mahtoree approaches and commandeers the trapper to accompany him to his teepee and translate his words to the strikingly beautiful Inez, who he wishes to become his wife. The maidens (dark Inez and blonde Ellen) accept Mahtoree’s pledges and he leaves, but not before his distraught (third) Sioux wife first pleads with him to stay loyal to her on account of the little baby boy she bore him only a year previously and, when he haughtily ignores her and sweeps out of the teepee, she takes off all her jewellery and decorations, places them in a pile before Inez, withdraws to a corner in mourning.

Chapter XXVII Emerging from his teepee Mahtoree is confronted by angry Ishmael who demands the trapper translate that he wants his captive (Inez), his niece (Ellen) and the trapper himself to be handed over. Mahtoree smiles, says no way, but, seeing as Ishmael’s wife, Esther, is old and shrivelled, Mahtoree generously offers to give him his own cast-off Sioux wife. The trapper struggles to keep a straight face as he translates this and sure enough, Esther explodes into a rhodomontade of recriminations against savages, her husband, her good-for-nothing sons and men in general. Mahtoree proceeds to a council of Indian elders which is to decide what to do with Hover, Middleton, and especially their enemy, Hard-Heart. They have barely started the debate when Mahtoree asks the Paleface’s medicine man to be brought in, by which they mean Dr Battius, who has been stripped, shaved except for a mohican strip of hair and redressed in Indian warpaint and feathers, so that he looks quite comical

Chapter XXVIII A detailed description of the council of the Dahcota elders at which Mahtoree attempts to whip them up into enmity against their tied-up Pawnee prisoner, but to everyone’s surprise, an extremely old and venerable Indian, known by the name the French gave him back in the day, Le Balafre, laments that he has no son to be a support in his old age and continue his line – and then adopts Hard-Heart as his son – to Mahtoree’s inexpressible anger. But Hard-Heart refuses! The Pawnee cannot become a Sioux. In fact he has already pledged to become the trapper’s son (in an earlier scene, where the trapper pledged to carry word of his death back to his tribe and fetch his beloved colt to his graveside and there kill it so that Hard-Heart – in the manner of the Vikings or the ancient Egyptians – will have a steed to carry him to the Happy Hunting Grounds.) The scene ends in high drama as Mahtoree authorises his creature, a low-hearted Sioux named Weucha, to menace Hard-Heart with a tomahawk, swinging it round his head hoping to make him flinch or beg for mercy, but the noble youth stands undaunted until, with complete surprise, he grabs Weucha’s arm, seizes the tomahawk, embeds it in Weucha’s skull as deep as his eyes, and with a wild whoop, leaps over the aghast Sioux and skids down the slope to the river just as his fellow Pawnees arrive in force!

Chapter XXIX Mahtoree leaves a wicked old Sioux to arm the crones of the tribe and murder the remaining prisoners (Hover and Middleton) but the trapper sets them free, while all the time giving a running commentary on the skirmish of the two tribes down by the river. Meanwhile the Sioux women have packed their teepees and children onto horseback and exited. The old crones are dispersed by the braying of Dr Battius’s donkey (an animal they have never seen before and associate with his Dark Magic) but before the trapper and the boys can stop laughing, a heavy hand is clapped on his shoulder and he discovers Ishmael and his six brothers pointing rifles at them. The trapper, Hover and Middleton are tied and bound, packed up along with Inez and Ellen onto spare horses, and the Bush party heads off in the opposite direction from the Sioux tribe.

Chapter XXX A pitched battle between the Pawnees and the Tetons begins with the opposing chiefs, Hard-Heart and Mahtoree spurring their horses to a sandbank in the middle of the river and having a fierce duel. Hard-Heart’s horse is shot from under him and as he tries to extricate himself from  his fallen horse Mahtoree advances to deal the death blow when Hard-Heart throws a knife which buries itself deep in the other’s body. This is the signal for a massive melee in the river, with the Pawnees fighting the Sious back to their side but themselves being thrown back. But as the Sioux press their advantage and push the Pawnee into the river, shots ring out from the flank and a brace of Sioux braves fall. It is Ishmael and his sons attacking their former enemies. This breaks the Sioux who flee and are massacred mercilessly, Cooper dwelling on several particularly gruesome ends. Boys adventure heaven.

Chapter XXXI Ishmael Bush impresses by acting the judge before his family and his prisoners. (Hard-Heart, who he helped win the battle of the creek, has come in peace to observe proceedings.) He freely admits he was persuaded by his brother-in-law to kidnap Inez and now bitterly regrets it. He announces her set at liberty and also Captain Middleton (whose bounds are therefore cut by his sons). Similarly, he asks Ellen her wish and she tearfully expresses her gratitude to Ishmael for taking her in when no-one else would, but says her heart is set on Paul the bee-man. So Ishmael orders them both set free. Finally he charges the trapper with murdering his son, using the evidence of the bullet found in the body. The trapper calmly says he saw who did it, it was Abiram White. The cowardly murderer immediately overdoes his shouts of innocence and as Ishmael’s boys advance towards him, turns to run, trips and drops dead at their feet. The released prisoners ride off with Hard-Heart.

Chapter XXXII A grim and sombre, melodramatic and Gothic chapter in which the Bush family trundles across the plains in its wagons until it comes to a likely place to camp, and here Ishmael orders Abiram out of his wagon and declares his sentence is to die for the murder he committed and the wretched man pleads and grovels for his life, until Ishmael laments and sets him on a gallows made from a dead tree and a platform of rock, tying his hands so that he will eventually, from weakness, totter off the ledge and be hanged. The wagon train continues and camps further on. But Ishmael can’t rest and walks back, suddenly hearing terrible cries on the wind, blasphemies and crying and then a terrible scream of horror! It reads very much like one of Dickens’s most gruesome scenes of vengeance and the macabre. Ishmael and his wife cut down and bury the wretch, and next day their wagon trail lumbers out of the story.

Chapter XXXIII Hard-Heart and his Pawnees are noble hosts to Middleton, Inez, Hover and Ellen, the Doctor and the trapper. Middleton notes his ‘artillerists’ have arrived and are being treated hospitably. After a few days hospitality, our friends pack up and leave. Hard-Heart declaims a noble speech of friendship. They get into boats lined up along the river and the current bears them away. But they haven’t gone far before the trapper asks to be set ashore on a sandbank. Middleton, Hover, the Doctor all beg him to come with them to ‘the settlements’ where they will make him comfortable. But the old man ‘who has acted his part honestly near ninety winters and summers’ wants nothing to do with ‘the waste and wickedness of the settlements and the villages’. He wants to spend his last days in complete freedom. He asks one favour, that they take a few beaver pelts, sell them in the settlements and buy a new trap which they can send back to the Pawnee village. He gets out with old Hector and asks Captain Middleton if he may borrow his dog who (we learned in the middle of the book) is in fact a descendant of a pup of Hector himself, given to Heyward and Alice decades earlier; Middleton says, Yes of course, take anything. The friends he has guided to safety are all in floods of tears.

He was last seen standing on the low point, leaning on his rifle, with Hector crouched at his feet, and the younger dog frisking along the sands, in the playfulness of youth and vigour.

Chapter XXXIV In the last chapter we see the dignified intelligent Middleton and Inez, and the rougher more boisterously American Hover and Ellen, married and settled. The Autumn of the next year duty takes Middleton close to the Pawnee village and, accompanied by Hover, he makes the journey there to renew friendship. He finds the village attending the dying trapper. Propped in a chair, he is now very weak. His dog, Hector, is dead. He makes the last of his countless sententious and high-minded speeches – pointedly reminding Hard-Heart that he is a Christian white man at the end. Nonetheless, we are reminded that he adopted Hard-Heart as his son in the village of the Sioux, promising to take his last words to his tribe when we all thought the Sioux would execute Hard-Heart; and right to his last breaths his Indian son dutifully obeys and comforts him. Middleton promises to pay for a simple headstone. The old man looks into the glory of ‘an American sunset’ and passes from this world. Not a dry eye in the house. It is a majestic ending.


Native Americans

Cooper’s attitude towards the Indians which feature so prominently in this and the previous novel is multilayered. On the one hand he freely admits the Indians are a ‘wronged and humbled people’, and ‘the lawful owners’ of the land (Ch XXV), which is being stolen from them by the whites (or the ‘Big-Knives’ as they are generally referred to) and who Cooper describes as ‘hungry locusts’ (Ch XXVIII). Hence their understandable antipathy to whitey.

“Could the red nations work their will, trees would shortly be growing again on the ploughed fields of America, and woods would be whitened with Christian bones.” (Chapter XXV)

Yet his hero is also quick enough to criticise and fear the savagery of some tribes and nations – in Mohicans the Iroquois, in this novel, the Sioux. The trapper inhabits a world in which there are hundreds of tribes of Indians, with a wealth of different characteristics and behaviours, themselves locked in a bewildering complex of inter-tribal wars and alliances. Through this world he has learned to pick his way. To us, nearly 200 years later looking back, there is just ‘the tragedy of the Indians’, driven off their land in a succession of betrayals and massacres, hemmed into ‘reservations’, and condemned to alcoholism and extinction. But reading Cooper makes you aware that, at the time, the Indians were equal players over vast parts of the continent, their war bands as powerful or more than the settlers who encroached, perfectly capable of massacring even full army units (like General Braddock’s in 1755 or General Custer’s 111 years later) let alone isolated bands of white settlers.

In this semi-embattled context, what stands out is not Cooper’s criticisms of, but his repeated admiration for, the native traditions and culture of some of the Indian tribes. After all, the closest friend and confidante of Leatherstocking to the end of his life is Chingachgook, the ‘Mohican’. And here is Cooper’s sterling depiction of Hard-Heart, the Pawnee chief, who Leatherstocking ends up adopting as his son, and who tends to his last days:

The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews. (Chapter XVIII)

The noble and the distasteful are mingled, for the chief has the scalps of his enemies attached to his leggings – just as Uncas is an undoubted hero in Mohicans and yet unnecessarily murders the French sentry to get his scalp – because it is the way of his people. All this Hawkeye notes, regrets, but knows he cannot change. Their land, their customs. You can’t say, their land, their customs, except the ones I don’t like and which I’m going to change – that’s what the Christian missionaries said, and the government lawyers and the Sunday schoolmarms, to the Indians’ ruination.

Even in enemy Indians, Leatherstocking respects their unbending dignity and stoicism. He recalls to Middleton the silence of the Indian desperately clinging to a bush over a vast waterfall, who he shot and who plunged to his silence (during the siege of Glens Falls in Last of The Mohicans).

Cooper had met and talked to Indians in the country around his hometown in New York state and then further afield, so he had more experience of Native Americans than any of us. According to some historians, Cooper’s Indian novels are the single most influential source of later Western cultural ideas about Native Americans. This is a heavy burden to bear, and we know that he was inaccurate in many aspects of the names and histories of the tribes he describes. But overwhelmingly, Cooper’s image of the Indian is positive, endlessly repeating the idea that they were noble, dignified, stoic, restrained, physically beautiful specimens of humanity, awesomely in tune with their environment and the beasts in it.

During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. (Chapter XVIII)

‘All the freedom and grace of nature’, wow.

Cooper’s environmentalism

Whatever we modern and impeccably politically correct readers make of Cooper’s attitudes to the Indians, there is no doubting his contempt for the white settlers and farmers, who his hero sees as unambiguously bad thing. If Cooper is racist, it is directed at white people. Their despoliation of the beautiful natural American environment is not only wasteful and ruinous, though that is bad enough – in defacing the wonderful works of the Creator, the activity of most white people is actively blasphemous.

“… it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!” (Chapter XVIII)

The beauty of unspoilt America, the nobility and manliness of its finest natives, and the wicked, wasteful, ungodly ways of its white settlers – these are the bedrock themes of these novels, emphasised again and again and again.

Cooper’s style

‘Long-winded’ does not begin to convey the circumlocutory nature of Cooper’s periphrastic periods.

While the exterior of the naturalist was decidedly pacific, not to say abstracted, that of the new comer was distinguished by an air of vigour, and a front and step which it would not have been difficult to have at once pronounced to be military. (Chapter x)

As Dr Battius is sneaking towards the secret tent, he is terrified to feel a hand on his shoulder and a whispered enquiry, and…

So soon as the heart of the naturalist had returned from its hasty expedition into his throat, as one less skilled than Dr. Battius in the formation of the animal would have been apt to have accounted for the extraordinary sensation with which he received this unlooked-for interruption, he found resolution to reply… (Chapter XI)

Cooper is self-aware. He even calls his own hero ‘prolix’, as he sets off on another long rambling sententious exordium about the nature of ‘the savage’… But you take the rough with the smooth in a book as old as this, and at other moments his 200-year-old style is rhetorically effective; some of the natural descriptions remind us of the school of American landscape painters which his work inspired. Here are our boys looking up at the tent on top of the high rock, as a gust of wind sweeps past them.

… a rushing blast of wind swept by the spot where they stood, raising the dust in little eddies, in its progress; and then, as if guided by a master hand, it quitted the earth, and mounted to the precise spot on which all eyes were just then riveted. The loosened linen felt its influence and tottered; but regained its poise, and, for a moment, it became tranquil. The cloud of leaves next played in circling revolutions around the place, and then descended with the velocity of a swooping hawk, and sailed away into the prairie in long straight lines, like a flight of swallows resting on their expanded wings. (Chapter XIII)

The wind blowing a gust of leaves across the open plain like swallows on the wing – not bad! So the long-winded style works quite often (and just as well in such a very long book).

For earlier generations Leatherstocking was an archetypal figure, a legend of the frontier. But for readers in the 21st century, I think the books’ power comes from the sheer variety of scenes, settings and characters which they contain – the stampede of bison, the prairie fire, crossing the river under fire from the Indians, all these scenes join the deep forests, the high mountains, the thundering waterfalls and hidden caves of the earlier books, and through all of them stride the haunting figures of the noble Indians, true ‘owners’ of the land.

The Leatherstocking books give you a powerful sense of what life must have been like, 200 years ago, in a world we can’t really imagine – or wouldn’t be able to without the lengthy, sometimes verbose, but amazingly varied, often powerful and vivid descriptions of this classic novelist.


Credit

I read the 1987 American Penguin edition, which has a useful introduction by Blake Nevius but, alas, no notes. The central point he makes is that the novels’ fundamental structure is the ‘romance’, an idea stretching back 2,000 years to the New Comedy of the Romans, which places a boy meets girl romance at the centre of a narrative – more often pairing two pairs of boys and girls, to give variety and contrast. The tradition goes right through Shakespeare whose comedies generally feature a pair of couples (think of Demetrius & Hermia, Lysander & Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Orlando & Rosalind, Oliver & Celia in As You Like It) and on into the 18th century novel which is, classically, about wooing and wedding (whether taken seriously in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or played for laughs as in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Thus both Mohicans and The Prairie feature a couple of couples: in The Prairie the more working class, rumbustious pair of plain-speaking Paul Hover and bosomy Ellen Ward are set against the aristocratic dignity of the virtually unspeaking Inez – a sort of doll or icon of femininity – and the intelligent, dignified officer Middleton who is the right sort of stuffed-shirt character to receive the trapper’s final words and wishes right at the novel’s end. Mohicans has the upmarket Alice, eventually married to Major Heyward, contrasted with the more ample-figured i.e bosomy, Cora. Since she has to die so does Uncas, in a big slab of tearjerking 18th century sentimentality.

Dressing up and disguises feature prominently in this comic tradition and partly explain the silly bear and beaver costumes in Last of the Mohicans or the ludicrous makeover Dr Battius receives to turn him into an Indian medicine man.

But the novel adds to this love-interest-with-disguises basic recipe a wealth of new influences, most obviously The Chase – hunt, pursuit, capture, rescue – and Landscape. After the trapper has established the Bushes on their rocktop encampment, the rest of the novel is just a sequence of interlocking chases, pursuits, perils and escapes. And these are not only exciting in themselves but allow for variety of scenery – open plain, firestorm, bison stampede, river battle, snowfall, Indian camp.

Nevius asserts that readers of Cooper often struggle to remember the details of plot – but they always remember the vivid brilliant pictures that Cooper creates in our minds’ eyes.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

The Indian [Magua] laughed tauntingly, as he held up his reeking hand, and answered: “It is red, but it comes from white veins!”
“Monster! there is blood, oceans of blood, upon thy soul; thy spirit has moved this scene.” [said Cora]
“Magua is a great chief!” returned the exulting savage, “will the dark-hair go to his tribe?”
“Never! strike if thou wilt, and complete thy revenge.” He hesitated a moment, and then catching the light and senseless form of Alice in his arms, the subtle Indian moved swiftly across the plain toward the woods.
“Hold!” shrieked Cora, following wildly on his footsteps; “release the child! wretch! what is’t you do?” (Chapter 17)

The Last of The Mohicans is the second in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, so called because they all feature the tall, honest frontiersman and friend of the Indians, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, Hawkeye and the Deerslayer, among other nicknames.

The first in the series, The Pioneers, is an essentially comic novel set in a small settler village in upstate New York at Christmas 1793 and then through the year of 1794. In it we meet a cross-section of the settlement’s comic characters and Leatherstocking, the wizened 70-year-old who lives apart from society in a hut in the woods with his devoted Indian friend, Chingachgook, now known as ‘Indian John’, also 70 or so years old and feeling his age. At the end of The Pioneers Chingachgook dies and Leatherstocking ups sticks and heads west into the wilderness.

In this review I will give:

  • a detailed account of the historical background to the novel
  •  a summary of the plot, which also contains digressions about:
    • Cooper’s treatment of Native Americans
    • Cooper’s melodramatic style and use of comedy
The last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

The last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

Historical background

Last of the Mohicans takes us back forty years before The Pioneers, to the 1750s. It is a true ‘historical novel’ in the sense that it is set against actual historical events. As the 1750s opened the French possessed the territory they called ‘New France’, roughly all of present day Eastern Canada, centred on the long St Lawrence Waterway which penetrates the continent from the Atlantic at Newfoundland towards the Great Lakes. Along the St Lawrence they had built the towns of Quebec and Montreal.

The French lived mostly as hunters and traders and got on well with the Indians of the area. During the 1750s the French government of King Louis XV asked their military forces to penetrate into the area of the River Ohio with a view to connecting up to the Mississippi and the vast territories bordering the river as it flows south towards the Gulf of Mexico, the huge expanse the French called Louisiana.

The British owned the Thirteen Colonies which lined the Atlantic seaboard. These settlers were mostly farmers who had carved out great swathes of agricultural land, with the focal points of towns and even cities  – such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore – where goods were traded and the usual urban trades practised. The British regions were much more densely populated than the French, with a settled population of maybe 1 million compared to Canada’s 100,000. During the 1750s British settlers were pushing westwards and north from the seaboard and this brought them into regular contact with French forces – militias, settlers, allied Indians – in the woods of upstate New York.

The French claimed possession of Lake Champlain which runs north-south towards the Lawrence river; at its southern end, beyond narrow rapids, Champlain broadens out into a smaller lake the British named Lake George. At the north end of the lake the French built Fort Carillon, the southernmost limit of their official influence. At the southern tip of Lake George, the British built Fort William Henry. Fifteen or so miles south of the lake runs the River Hudson, the river which flows south to eventually form one side of Manhattan Island, New York, one of Britain’s main towns. At the nearest point of the river to the lake, the British built Fort Edward.

On 13 July 1755, a force of British regular soldiers, irregular colonial militia and friendly Indians, marching into the interior to attack a French fort called Fort Duquesne and led by General Braddock, was ambushed and massacred by French soldiers and Indians. From that moment on hostilities between the two countries intensified, with the French ordering their Indian allies to carry out savage attacks on isolated farmsteads, killing all the settlers unless they needed to carry off some of the women to become slaves.

Formal war between the two opposing forces’ national governments was only declared on 17 May 1756. This was to become known as the ‘Seven Years War’ and was fought not only in North America, but in the West Indies, India and in central Europe. In America it is known by historians as the ‘French and Indian Wars’, since these were the opponents of the British and the colonists.

It was a year before French forces decided to go on the offensive. In August 1757 the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm led a massive force of 6,200 regulars and militia and 1,800 allied Indians south from his base at Fort Carillon to besiege Fort William Henry. The fort’s British (actually Scottish) commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Munro, had some 2,500 regulars and militia under his command. As the fort was surrounded, he sent a messenger to Fort Edward, a day’s march south, to ask Brigadier General Daniel Webb for reinforcements.

It is at this point that the narrative of Last of the Mohicans begins.

Major Heyward, David Gamut, Cora and Alice taken prisoner by the Indians after the fight at Glenn's Falls, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Major Heyward (in redcoat), Cora and Alice and David Gamut (in the front of the canoe) after they’ve been taken prisoner by the Indians after the fight at Glenn’s Falls. Illustration by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

The plot

Though there is a lot of incident, the basic idea of this 400-page novel is Maidens in Peril. Bluff old Colonel Munro is made to have two nubile daughters, Alice and Cora, and through all the twists and turns of the plot, Cooper contrives to put them both in harm’s way again and again, in order to thrill, excite and scarify the reader.

Since the main danger to the maidens comes from ‘savage’ Indians, the threat combines the basic male one against any woman i.e. assault and rape – with the added ‘horror’ of miscegenation and unspeakable degradation by ‘primitives’. It is like a silent black-and-white movie, where the baddy ties the blonde heroine to the railroad tracks and the camera cuts away to the train steaming towards the helpless maiden. ‘Oh my God! Help help the poor woman!!’ More or less that scene occurs again and again, as Cooper milks the basic scenario for all he can.

The two sisters start the story at Fort Edward. Colonel Munro has requested (rather foolishly) that they be sent to him at Fort William Henry, so they set off north accompanied by dashing young Major Heyward of the British army. They are accompanied by a comic character, the gangling David Gamut, who is a caricature of a psalm-singing New England Puritan. (The first thing any adaptation of the book does, is lose this uncomfortable and not very effective comic figure.) They are guided by a fierce-looking Indian named Magua, known to the French as ‘le Renard Subtil’ i.e the Sly Fox. Magua recommends they travel by back paths through the woods and Heyward slowly begins to suspect he is taking them into danger…

The treacherous Magua leading Major Heyward, Cora and Alice through the forest. Illustration by Karl Mühlmeister (1920)

The treacherous Magua leading Major Heyward, Cora and Alice through the forest. Illustration by Karl Mühlmeister (1920)

Suddenly, by complete accident, the group comes to a stream where they encounter the hero of the novel, the tall rugged frontiersman, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Bumppo, known throughout this book as Hawkeye, but who we know from The Pioneers as Leatherstocking. He is in the company of a Mohican Indian, Chingachgook, and his son, Uncas. After Hawkeye confronts him, Magua flees into the forest and Hawkeye takes over charge of the party.

Native Americans 

The nature of the Native Americans, their alliances and enmities, as well as many aspects of their culture(s), are dwelt on at length throughout the book, but remain quite confusing; in fact, a reading of any essay about the book quickly reveals that Cooper was wrong about many of his Indian facts. For a start, it is striking to learn that he even gets the name of the key tribe wrong: there were no ‘Mohicans’; there was a Mohawk tribe, but Cooper is presumably referring to the tribe usually called the ‘Mohegans’. (The Oxford University Press edition I read includes a 25-page essay about the novel’s historical context which seeks to unravel many of Cooper’s confusions.)

For the fictional purposes of the novel, Chingachgook and Uncas are ‘Mohicans’, which is a tribe of the larger Delaware ‘nation’. The Delaware nation is perceived as good, although, on closer examination, they seem to be divided among themselves. Broadly, though, the Delawares are allied to the British. The opponents of the Delaware are variously referred to as the Iroquois (a French term covering the nations which inhabited most of New York state), which Cooper (inaccurately) makes include tribes he calls the Mingos, the Mohawks or Maquas, as well as the quite separate Hurons. In the 1670s the Delaware had been defeated by the aggressive and well-organised Iroquois and degenerated to become a serving nation. This explains why Uncas and Chingachgooks are routinely insulted as ‘women’ by boastful Magua, one of the commonest insults the Indians use among themselves.

Whereas the Mohicans are portrayed as good savages i.e noble, dignified, courteous and considerate of women (the manly young Uncas developing quite a romantic attachment for the maidenly young Cora), their opponents, epitomised by the rapacious Magua, are bad savages, violent, careless of death, happy to slaughter children or drag women off to their camps to become slave squaws.

1. The notes to the OUP edition tell us that Cooper took a lot of his knowledge about Indians from a contemporary book by the Reverend John Heckewelder, An Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations published in 1819, which was misleadingly favourable to the Delawares – a bias reflected throughout the novel and in later books in the series.

2. But Cooper added his own misunderstandings about names to Heckwelder’s distortions and it requires quite a lot of study to disentangle the confusions he added. 3. The OUP essay then adds another layer of complexity by pointing out that Cooper was projecting back into the 1750s the allegiances of Indian tribes during the American Revolutionary War, over twenty years later (1777-83). In that time the situation had changed a lot and the Indian alliances (i.e. who the British as friend and foe) were complex and different from those of the Seven Years War. 4. A fourth layer is added because Cooper is writing half a century or more after both those events and, in many ways, the novel uses Indian characters and situations to reflect the interest and issues of his own time, the 1820s, which was itself deeply mired in controversy about how the young American government should handle the surviving Indian tribes.

Cooper’s Indian novels have at least four levels of knowledge, nomenclature and interpretation laid over each other in the text, quite apart from basic errors of fact. So unravelling the ‘true’ historical situation of the Native Americans from Cooper’s often deliberately vague or plain wrong depictions is tricky and probably pointless. For the purposes of enjoying the book as an adventure story, we really only need to know that Uncas and Chingachgook are Mohicans and (along with most of the Delawares) are good, while Magua and his Huron tribe are bad.

Glens Falls

Realising the woods are full of Magua’s allies, Hawkeye leads the party to a complex of caves and islands in the middle of spectacular waterfalls on the Hudson river, Glen’s Falls (an actual place you can still visit). Here the party hide out but are discovered by Magua and his fellow Indians who besiege our heroes and the terrified maidens, who are cowering in the back of the cave. There’s an extended shootout but when our guys realise they are surrounded, Hawkeye is reluctantly persuaded to take his two Mohican friends, slip into the river and swim away to safety, leaving Heyward, Gamut and the maidens at the mercy of the Hurons.

Magua and his Indians find the foursome hiding in their cave, take them in a canoe downriver and then by horseback across country for miles towards a hilltop. Here Magua explains his plans, which is to torture them all to death. He explains the reason for his unflinching malevolence is that, although he once was once one of the Indians allied to Colonel Munro, he allowed himself to get drunk and as punishment the Colonel order him to be publicly flogged. Now he has Munro’s daughters in his power and he is going to kill them and thus let the world know that he is a real man!

Appalled, Major Heyward bursts free of his bonds and begins fighting with the nearest Indian when – bang! a shot rings out and the savage falls dead. Hawkeye and his two Mohicans burst into the clearing shooting and swinging tomahawks, quickly despatching most of the savages until the fight concentrates on the two figures of Chingachgook and Magua rolling on the ground.

Fighting Indians by N.C. Wyeth

Magua and Chingachgook fighting, after Leatherstocking (standing) and Uncas (next to him) have come to the rescue of Major Heyward (in the redcoat) and the two ladies (not pictured). Illustration by N.C. Wyeth (1919)

Magua manages to wriggle free and throws himself off the edge of the small plateau they’re on, and bounds off into the woodland before the others can lift a rifle. Hawkeye now takes charge of the team and leads them by secret forest paths to a spooky and deserted homestead in a clearing. Once again, they have barely hidden themselves when, in the dead of night, Heyward, the Indians and Hawkeye hear Magua and the baddies creeping closer. Luckily – in a spectral and effective scene – the Hurons come across burial mounds of Indians who had died in an earlier battle for the building and they, superstitiously, retreat back into the forest.

Next morning Hawkeye leads the party safely north to Fort William Henry. It is, by this stage, completely surrounded by the French forces of General Montcalm, but Cooper conjures up a convenient mist which allows our heroes to evade the French patrols and enter the fort (though not without some exciting shouting and shooting in the dense fog). There is a tearful reunion between the craggy old Colonel and his two lassies.

Next day Heyward parleys with General Montcalm, portrayed as civilised and urbane. Montcalm shows a letter his scouts have intercepted, sent by Webb back at Fort Edward, saying he daren’t risk sending reinforcements against such a superior French force – in other words, Webb has abandoned Munro. There is nothing to be done: Munro himself comes out under a white flag to tender the surrender of the fort to his French adversary.

The massacre at Fort William Henry

There follows the centrepiece of the novel and one of the most notorious incidents of the French and Indian Wars, a true event which reverberates down the ages to our time. Montcalm generously allowed the British soldiers, American militia and Indian allies to leave the fort, with their flags and unloaded weapons. Among the 2,300 who surrendered were some 300 women and children. But Montcalm’s many Indian allies were only fighting for scalps i.e. honour and for plunder, not for obscure French strategic and geographical advantage. They didn’t understand the idea of surrender, let alone allowing the enemy to walk away with his guns.

On the morning when the British were due to leave the fort, the Indians first attacked the hospital full of British wounded, which was outside the fort, killing and scalping all its inhabitants. Then as the long column of surrendering and unarmed soldiers departed from the fort, menacing Indians moved in on either side until they began to intimidate, then attack the column. There are several eye-witness accounts that the first victim was a baby, plucked from its mother’s arms and then smashed against a rock, so the Indian could secure its brightly coloured blanket. At that point all hell broke loose and the Indians began a general massacre of the refugees. Some of the French soldiers intervened but not very effectively. When the Indians desisted, sated with scalps and booty, maybe 200 of the column had been murdered and scalped, and nearly 300 were taken away as hostages, only to be ransomed much later by the colonial authorities.

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Montcalm trying to stop Native Americans from attacking British soldiers and civilians as they leave Fort William Henry. Wood engraving by Alfred Bobbett after a painting of Felix Octavius Carr Darley (late 19th century, and looking very much like an illustration of Dickens)

Cooper uses this atrocity as the focal point and axis of the novel. In the first half Hawkeye, Heyward, Gamut and the ladies are travelling (unwittingly) towards it and what they think is safety in numbers; in the second half they are fleeing the scene amid heightened dangers all around them, and are now very much on their own.

Conveniently, he has Hawkeye and the two Mohicans off scouting away from the fort when the surrender is signed and the defeated Brits exit to the fort to be massacred. This means the imaginative/emotional focus is on the defenceless maidens, Cora and Alice, cowering together amid the general mayhem. At which point Magua, like the devil himself, springs up before them, seizes young Cora and runs off with Alice in pursuit. As Hawkeye later points out:

“Ha! that rampaging devil again! there will never be an end of his loping till ‘killdeer’ has said a friendly word to him.” (Chapter 18)

‘Killdeer’ being Hawkeye’s name for his especially long rifle. Thus the most important result of the massacre at Fort William Henry, for the novel, is that Cora and Alice are abducted by the wicked Magua: they are a) spared from being murdered, but only b) to be threatened with a fate worse than death i.e. becoming slave squaws to a ‘savage beast’.

Melodrama

How many hundreds of thousand of narratives, in novels, plays, poems, magazines, short stories and movies, depend on the pretty, nubile young woman/women being held hostage by the baddy (and the more ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, base and cruel the baddy the better, whether they have black, red or yellow skins), preferably leering and leching over the pure, virginal body of the chaste, white woman, half of whose clothes have fallen off in the struggle!

Well, this is a classic early specimen of the genre. Almost as hard to take as the cheesy action, is the often very stagey, melodramatic, over-the-top tone & diction Cooper uses throughout the book and which rises to histrionic heights at the (frequent) moment of high emotion and jeopardy. As an example of the prose style, here are the maidens at a later point of the story, when they’ve been rescued from yet another fate-worse-than-death.

We shall not attempt to describe the gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of Events which glowed in the bosoms of the sisters, who were thus unexpectedly restored to life and to each other. Their thanksgivings were deep and silent; the offerings of their gentle spirits burning brightest and purest on the secret altars of their hearts; and their renovated and more earthly feelings exhibiting themselves in long and fervent though speechless caresses. As Alice rose from her knees, where she had sunk by the side of Cora, she threw herself on the bosom of the latter, and sobbed aloud the name of their aged father, while her soft, dove-like eyes, sparkled with the rays of hope.
“We are saved! we are saved!” she murmured; “to return to the arms of our dear, dear father, and his heart will not be broken with grief. And you, too, Cora, my sister, my more than sister, my mother; you, too, are spared. And Duncan,” she added, looking round upon the youth with a smile of ineffable innocence, “even our own brave and noble Duncan has escaped without a hurt.”
To these ardent and nearly innocent words Cora made no other answer than by straining the youthful speaker to her heart, as she bent over her in melting tenderness. The manhood of Heyward felt no shame in dropping tears over this spectacle of affectionate rapture; and Uncas stood, fresh and blood-stained from the combat, a calm, and, apparently, an unmoved looker-on, it is true, but with eyes that had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before, the practises of his nation. (Chapter 12)

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, John McWilliams makes the point that Cooper’s subject matter and his style are often distinctly at odds. On the one hand, his style is sometimes so very high-falutin’ and sanctimonious, so crammed with expressions of piety and high-minded sentimentality, that it’s difficult to make out what’s actually happening. On other occasions he suddenly, out of nowhere, as it were, vividly describes the most brutal and bloody scenes. For example:

  • As our heroes sneak towards the fort they encounter an isolated French sentry: Heyward successfully speaks to him in French and the white men pass on but then they hear a groan and realise that Uncas has killed and scalped the sentry, unnecessarily – except by the ‘honour’ of his own Indian code.
  • After our heroes have massacred the Indians on the hillside as they were about to start torturing their captives, Hawkeye goes round each of the Indian bodies thrusting his knife deep into their chests, just to make sure.
  • Worst of all, is the sudden eruption in the generally gaseous prose of the all-too-vivid description of the baby being torn from its mother’s arms and having its head smashed to a pulp by the attacking Indian at the start of the massacre scene.

There is a permanent incongruity about this novel, between the would-be European civilised prose, and the backwoods brutality moments it depicts.

Something as effortful is going on with two other notable features of the text: 1. the extensive footnotes and 2. the epigraphs to each chapter.

Each chapter opens with a few lines quoted from Shakespeare or Pope or Byron or some other luminary of English Literature. It is hard to see what purpose these serve except to borrow their authority while at the same time flattering the reader, that they are keeping company with such high-toned classics.

Similarly, the text is studded with notes Cooper added to the 1831 edition of the book and all later editions include, footnotes which give distracting factual commentary on random aspects of the book. For example, in the middle of the gripping canoe chase across Lake George Cooper inserts a factual note describing the number and shape of lakes in New York State. Elsewhere he gives us paragraphs about the American mocking-bird, or explaining that the spot where our heroes rest to drink fresh springwater is now the location of the pleasant village of Ballston. And so on.

Cooper knows he is playing to a European readership, that for most of them his books are the only ones about America they will read, and so he is at pains both to raise the tone of his story – with literary references and the highest of high styles – as well as bolstering it, giving it extra kudos and a veneer of factual authority, with (generally irrelevant and distracting) footnotes.

Rescuing the maidens

Most of the second half of the novel consists of the attempts by the five men – Hawkeye, old Colonel Munro, Major Heyward, and the two Mohicans, Chingachgook and Uncas – to rescue the virginal white women from the clutches of the wicked Mingos or Hurons or whichever Magua is the leader of (the names change). A few days after the massacre, the five men return to the field of corpses and to the charred ruins of the fort (which had been torched then abandoned by the French, who set off back north to their base in Canada, mission accomplished). After Uncas kills a stray Huron Indian who was spying on them in the night, next morning the five set off by canoe up Lake George heading in the direction they think Magua will have taken. On the lake they are spotted by enemy Indians and an exciting canoe chase ensues.

Hawkeye takes a shot by N.C.Wyeth

Hawkeye shoots at pursuing Indians. Illustration by N.C.Wyeth (1919)

Our heroes get away, not least because Hawkeye shoots one of the pursuers. They beach the canoe and head for the main trail heading north to Canada. Here they pick up the trail of the Indians carrying Cora, Lucy and Gamut (displaying their ace Indian tracking skills) in scenes which allow Cooper to show off his understanding of the woodcraft of Native Americans.

Comedy in the Indian village

Heyward and Hawkeye come across what they think is an Indian in the woods, but then realise is only the innocent Gamut. He is looking out over a plain by a dammed lake, covered in habitations in and out of which objects are popping. Is it the Indian village? Nope; Hawkeye, Heyward and Gamut all realise at the same moment that it is a camp of beaver dens by a lake they’ve created. Comedy!

More seriously, Gamut brings Hawkeye and Heyward up to date: they are near Magua’s Indians’ camp; the Indians divided their captives, Cora being kept at the nearby Indian village, Alice being sent to a neighbouring tribe over the hills; Magua’s Indians have allowed Gamut to live, clothed him in Indian garb and let him roam free because they regard him as a sort of holy innocent because of his spirited singing of psalms.

Heyward decides on the spot to go and rescue Cora. He comes up with a cockamamie idea of getting himself painted up as an Indian medicine man, Hawkeye tries to talk him out of it, Heyward is adamant and so Chingachgook paints him with Indian paints. Then Heyward accompanies Gamut into the Indian village. This commences a long and intense description of an Indian village, complete with bawling children, intimidating elders, fiery warriors and wizened old squaws. Surprisingly, improbably, Heyward is accepted as a French doctor sent by their ‘father’, Montcalm, to treat the villagers.

Doubt about him is superseded, when Magua enters (as he regularly does whenever the novel needs a kick of adrenalin) with a captive, none other than Uncas, who has been lured into an ambush after a brief fight. Uncas is tried by the elders and condemned to be executed the next morning. In the general rowdiness surrounding his arrival, Heyward-as-medicine-man is shown up a hillside into a cave where a sick woman of the tribe is lying and told to cure her. The Indians leave. Gamut (who has accompanied him) now tells Heyward that Cora is lying in an adjacent cave. There is a tearful reunion. But he has barely clasped the panting maiden to his manly bosom before there is a tap on his shoulder and… It is Magua (again) laughing at catching him red-handed.

Except that (and this is a glaring example of Cooper’s odd use of comedy; in the overwhelmingly comic novel The Pioneers it was at home but here, in an adventure story, it often rings very strangely – no wonder the whole Gamut character and these kinds of scenes were dropped from the movie) Heyward and the Indian who took him there were both followed into the cave by a bear. A bear. Or, as it turns out, a man wearing a bear outfit. For Magua has no sooner confronted Heyward than the ‘bear’ taps him on the shoulder and then grapples him in an arm lock while the astonished Heyward leaps into action and ties Magua up with twenty types of cord and binding. The ‘bear’ takes its false head off to reveal… Hawkeye! He came across the Indians’ medicine man climbing into this bear outfit ready for some Indian ceremony, at a remote part of the village, and knocked him out and stole the costume. Handy!

Hawkeye, dressed as a bear, wrestles with Magua, while Heyward and Cora look on. 1896 illustration by F.T. Merrill

Hawkeye, dressed as a bear, wrestles with Magua, while Major Heyward and Cora look on. 1896 illustration by F.T. Merrill

Heyward picks up the swooning Cora and they and the bear-man make their way outside. Hawkeye gives them directions to a neutral Indian village over the hill, where they’ll be safe, and then returns to the village to rescue Uncas. He is still wearing his bear costume. He collects Gamut from his teepee, and together they approach the lodge where Uncas is being kept.

How do you help a captive of the bad guys to escape? This is a problem which has been presented & solved in thousands and thousands of thrillers, comics, movies and TV shows. Cooper’s solution is you get the Indian guards to wait outside by persuading them that the medicine man dressed as a bear is going to go in and cast a cowardice spell on the Mohican captive. The Hurons stand aside. Hawkeye and Gamut enter. They identify themselves to the relieved Uncas and persuade him to step into the bear outfit, while Hawkeye swaps clothes with Gamut. (Now the existence of Gamut as a character, and the fact that he’s so tall and gangly – just like Hawkeye – finally make sense! His existence in the novel and his appearance have all been to allow this rather cheesy escape plan!)

Hawkeye and Uncas-as-a-bear emerge and pass by the suspicious guards and past several other Indians who confront them in the darkness of the Indian village night; but (more comedy) Hawkeye does a (dreadful) impersonation of Gamut singing his holy psalms and the Indians – used to the mad white man – let them pass. Once beyond the village, Uncas wriggles out of the bear suit, they pick up the guns Hawkeye hid under a bush, and are free!

Doesn’t take long for the Indians to go back into the lodge and discover that Gamut has been left in place of Uncas who has escaped! The bear man is implicated. So the Indians go up to the cave where the bear man was meant to cure the sick squaw, only to discover a) she is dead b) Cora is gone c) Magua tied up and gagged.

They cut Magua free and he is not happy at all. Back in the council tent he harangues the tribe about vengeance and death and then goes to lower in his own tent, explicitly compared to Milton’s Satan, brooding on the wrongs done him. At dawn he leads a troop of warriors to kill or capture Hawkeye and Uncas. On the way they pass the beaver colony mentioned above. Since one of the Indians belongs to the ‘beaver clan’ he stops to say a prayer to them. The Indians notice one particularly intelligent-looking beaver observing them, then run on. This beaver emerges from its hide, stands and shakes off its beaver pelt to reveal – none other than Chingachgook in disguise!

This is like a Christmas panto! It is easy to criticise Cooper for his ‘racist’ stereotyping of Native Americans or his ‘sexist’ stereotyping of swooning women – but those were just the values of his day, and maybe we should accept that people living and writing 200 years ago had different values from us: in fact, that’s a good part of the reason to read old, ‘classic’ books – to understand the differences between past and present, and how we got where we are, and how human values change and evolve.

Such criticisms miss the real problem with this book, which is the use of farcical contrivances as central elements of the plot – the incongruous mixing of brutal historical tragedy (the massacre at Fort William Henry) with childish pantomime comedy (“he’s in the bear suit!”). Surely it is this clumsiness, the often cack-handed combination of high diction with low farce, which made later American novelists disown and distance themselves from Cooper, for all that he was a pioneering voice in their literature, a recorder of frontier and Indian customs and an early environmentalist – these achievements are weakened by his artistic gaucheness.

In the Delaware village

In the concluding scenes Magua (for it is him again) travels over the hill to the village of the Delaware tribe which a) had been guarding Alice all this time b) whither Heyward, Cora and Hawkeye have fled. Magua’s arrival leads to an assembly of the tribe’s elders (as we’ve become used to seeing) at which Magua tells the Delawares that none other than the feared ‘Carabine Longue’ or Long Rifle has come among them.

Never having seen ‘La Longue Carbine’/Hawkeye before, the Delawares institute a shooting contest to establish whether it really is him – which Hawkeye easily wins. Then a very old Indian, the venerable and legendary Tamenund, is wheeled out. Magua makes a persuasive speech that the Delawares must hand over the captives to him, including the Mohican, Uncas. The revelation that Uncas is a Mohican causes all the Delawares to hiss with hatred (though the reader may not necessarily have followed Cooper’s convoluted Indian anthropology to understand why) and the Delawares strip him to drag him to a stake – despite the maidenly pleas of Cora —- when they suddenly notice that Uncas has the tattoo of a tortoise on his chest. As a body the Indians step back and Tamenund is stunned. He is Uncas, son of many other Uncases (apparently, Uncas was a name which became synonymous with ‘leader for the Mohicans) and therefore a hereditary leader of their nation.

The young Indian has gone at a leap from being dragged around by the Delaware braves to overawing them as a natural leader. The reader is a little perplexed but goes along with this sudden reversal, since it’s what the adventure requires. But even the newly-mighty Uncas can’t prevent Magua leaving in peace and taking with ‘the squaw he brought’, namely Cora, along with him. Hawkeye, laying on the frontiersman nobility with a trowel, offers to give himself in exchange for the girl and Magua hesitates – having the Longue Carabine’s scalp would restore his reputation as a mighty warrior – but then plumps for the virginal girl. And since he came in peace, Indian rules dictate that Magua can leave (with Cora) in peace.

These pages float into a stratosphere of the hammiest Victorian melodrama, all fine sentiments, noble patriarchs, heroic warriors, honest frontiersman and the indomitable virtue of the fairer sex. Hundreds of sentences like this:

The maiden drew back in lofty womanly reserve, and her dark eye kindled, while the rich blood shot, like the passing brightness of the sun, into her very temples, at the indignity. (Chapter 30)

Although, by chapter 30, the reader is acclimatised to this heady prose and should be able to read through the fog of words to figure out what’s actually happening.

The final battle

In accordance with their customs, the Delaware do nothing until the sun has set because that is the limit of their customary ‘hospitality’ for Magua. But as soon as it does, they put together a large hunting party to be led by their new leader Uncas. Hawkeye takes one cohort and they go gingerly into the woods towards the Huron village, where they soon meet with resistance from Magua’s whole tribe, firing from positions in the trees. But then Magua’s men are attacked on the flank by Uncas’s main force of some 200 Delawares. From following the fortunes of our small band of heroes, suddenly the novel has developed into a full-blown pitched battle between hundreds of Indian fighters.

‘Our’ Indians push the bad guys back into their camp – not without casualties – and learn that Magua is heading for the caves where Cora was originally imprisoned. Uncas leads the way in a wild chase after the fugitive, till they can see Magua and Cora fleeing ahead of them into the dimly illuminated passageways. Run run run – shadows, candles, caves, cowering squaws… Then the running Indians emerge into the outside, onto rocky terraces on the side of the mountain and continue a hectic chase along its sides, the fleet Uncas far out in front, followed by Hawkeye, Heyward and friendly Delawares.

At the climax of the novel, and with abrupt and appalling suddennes, Cora refuses to go any further and sinks on her knees to pray to her Maker. Magua goes to stab her, hesitates, but one of his accomplices promptly stabs Cora to the heart (killing her), just as Uncas arrives, stabbing the fiend who did this, but himself being abruptly stabbed to death by Magua. After hundreds of pages of waffle two of the key characters are killed off in a few sentences.

Magua then turns and leaps over a gap in the rocky terrace, but doesn’t quite make it onto the other side, and while he’s hanging perilously from a bush growing on the edge of the precipice, Hawkeye kneels, draws a bead, and kills him with one shot, the Evil One’s body plunging without a sound into the abyss below. It’s all over.

Aftermath and funerals

The funerals. The Delawares (our Indians) appear to have massacred everyone in Magua’s camp. Now, back at their village, Cooper gives a lengthy description of the Indian funeral rites given to the dead leader, Uncas, and then to the cruelly murdered virgin, Cora. Indian maidens strew their graves with flowers. (We learn from an inserted postscript, that Colonel Munro never recovers from the loss of his daughter and dies soon afterwards, of a broken heart; but that Alice, after prolonged mourning, eventually marries and is happy.)

Chingachgook, after mourning his dead son, makes a stoical speech, saying Uncas is now happy, he has gone to the great Hunting Ground in the sky, although he has left his sad father alone… But Hawkeye interrupts him: No, not alone. The two of them will travel life’s road together. And so this establishes the unspoken bond between the pair, whose conclusion we see nearly 40 years later in the events chronicled in The Pioneers. Despite so many elements of cheesiness or confusion in the story, moments like this are genuinely moving.

The last word is given to the venerable patriarch of the Delawares, Tamenund. Maybe modern readers can find Cooper’s depiction of Native Americans patronising, simplistic, stereotyped and racist, but there’s no doubting that the book contains a lot about their customs, appearance, rituals, religious beliefs, social customs and practices, and dwells at length on their strength, courage, physical prowess, knowledge and skills.

And Cooper insists again and again on their respect for the elderly, for the acquired wisdom of the tribal elders, and indeed himself respects and admires their nobility and dignity of bearing. Giving the last speech to the venerable Tamenund feels right:

a) Because it fufils the requirements of ‘romance’ – it is like Prospero giving the last speech in The Tempest, it fits the conventions of the genre that the patriarchal father figure closes the text with his (mournful) benediction.
b) Because the forest, the wilderness and the Indians who live in it and – spiritually, imaginatively – ‘own’ it, have been at the heart of this very uneven and improbable story. It is fitting that they are given the last word.


N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations

The Last of the Mohicans was an instant bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and its profits allowed Cooper to fulfil a dream and travel to Europe, where he was lionised. He was the first American writer to describe the authentic scenery and recent history of his country in persuasive fiction. But he wasn’t the last American to rush out a sequel while the market was hot, and so Cooper knocked out the next in the series, The Prairie, in under a year.

Over the past two hundred years the Last of the Mohicans has been reprinted countless times and its wild scenery and exciting storyline have inspired countless illustrators. Maybe the most notable was Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945), the prolific American illustrator of magazines and classic books, who produced a full set of splendid illustrations for an edition of Last of the Mohicans published in 1919. They are masterpieces of strong clear lineation,and the capturing of fit, handsome masculinity.

Hawkeye and his Indians by N.C. Wyeth

Hawkeye and the last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth

Credit

I read The Last of the Mohicans in the 1990 Oxford University Press edition with useful maps (there’s a map of Lake Champlain and of Fort William Henry, but these only really feature in a handful of chapters; it would have been useful to have a map describing the two Indian villages which form the setting of the novel’s finale). It has a very useful 25-page essay by John McWilliams which clarifies Cooper’s treatment of Native Americans, and sets the novel in the context of the Indian Removal Act which the American government was debating in the late 1820s and 1830s.

Related links

The five Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper (1823)

“I never read a book in my life,” said Leatherstocking; “and how should a man who has lived in towns and schools know anything about the wonders of the woods?” (Chapter XXVI)

The Pioneers is the first of Cooper’s five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, so-called because the hero, the tough tall, wizened frontiersman Nathaniel Bumppo, counts ‘Leatherstocking’ among his many nicknames (he’s also known as ‘Hawkeye’, ‘the Deerslayer’ and so on).

Cooper is generally reckoned to be the first notable American novelist. He’s credited with adapting the sprawling historical novel of Walter Scott (Scott’s first novel, Waverley, was published in 1814, so he was a big contemporary influence) to the American scene, both the distinctively social scene (like the small, brand-new settlement deep in upstate New York which is the setting of The Pioneers) and the actual physical scenery, in this case the huge untamed forest north-west of New York City. The sub-title of the book is ‘The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale’: the first part tells us of the location, and the second part accurately summarises the text: it is highly descriptive of this specific landscape.

Cooper knew it well. His father, William Cooper, bought an extensive tract of land – which became known as the Cooper Patent – in 1785 from Colonel George Croghan, former Deputy to Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs (who I’ve been reading about in histories of the Seven Years War). Cooper founded a village on Otsego Lake which, with dazzling originality, he named Cooperstown. It was laid out by a local architect and is there to this day. William went on to become a judge and then Congressman for the district. He married and had twelve children, most of which died young, James Fenimore being the 11th.

The plot

The Pioneers opens with a judge – Marmaduke Temple – returning by sledge through the deep Christmas snow of the mountains, for he has collected his young, marriageable daughter Elizabeth from school in New York, and is returning to the town he has founded, Templeton, laid out by a local architect. In the opening scenes judge and daughter come across the ageing frontiersman, Leatherstocking, out hunting with a good-looking assistant. The judge takes a pot shot at a deer which runs nearby but accidentally wounds the young man who is with Leatherstocking. Appalled at his own clumsiness, he offers the young man a ride into the little settlement and medical attention from the local sawbones.

Thus is set in train an essentially light-hearted love story between the judge’s daughter and the shy but excitingly competent young woodsman, all set against a series of vivid scenes involving the broadly comic characters who inhabit the village. The focus on village life and village ‘types’ reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s early humorous novel, Under The Greenwood Tree.

Comedy, at first…

I was surprised how comic this novel is, how tongue in cheek, right from the start. The long description of Templeton dwells on the preposterous pretentiousness of the colonial architecture, which in fact becomes a recurring joke – the so-called church is modelled by its pretentious architect on St Paul’s cathedral in London but ends up looking like a vinegar pot.

The sledge that comes out from the village to meet the judge is driven by this preening architect, Richard Jones, who quickly shows himself to be a blustering nincompoop when he nearly tips the sledge over a cliff and then manages to overturn it, sending the distinguished men of the settlement he’d brought along – a stage Frenchman Monsiuer le Quoi and a stage German immigrant (‘Donner und blitzen, Richart!’) – flying head first into the snow. The physical comedy in the snow reminded me of the skating scenes in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836).

Similarly, the Christmas Eve sermon is an opportunity for satire on the mismatch between the forms of service used by the Episcopalian minister, Mr Grant, and his mostly non-conformist or Dissenting flock who refuse to kneel or stand at the relevant Anglican prompts, being used to more informal worship. (This is an element which modern readers probably could do with explanatory notes about.)

And the doctor called in to treat the wounded frontiersman, Elnathan Todd, is a masterpiece of fraudulent fakery. Cooper gives us his entire life story and ‘career’ to show just what a fraud he is as he pretends to know how to perform surgery or anything about the brightly coloured liquids he keeps in his impressive medicine chest. As we get to know them we realise most of the men are pious frauds:

  • Jones the pretentious architect continually boasting about his hunting and shooting skills
  • Dr Todd referring to non-existent medical routines or bragging about procedures he has never carried out
  • Mr Lippet, the village attorney, using inaccurate Latin tags to bamboozle the ordinary villagers with his ‘learning’
  • Judge Temple’s ‘major-domo’ or general assistant, Benjamin Penguillan, a squat Cornishmen who ran away to sea in his youth and absolutely every time he is called on to say anything lards his speech with incomprehensible naval metaphors, for example here he is explaining how he’s disabled a padlock:

“I have just drove a nail into a berth alongside of this here bolt, as a stopper, d’ye see, so that Master Doo-but-little can’t be running in and breezing up another fight atwixt us: for, to my account, there’ll be but a han-yan with me soon, seeing that they’ll mulct me of my Spaniards, all the same as if I’d over-flogged the lubber. Throw your ship into the wind, and lay by for a small matter, will ye? and I’ll soon clear a passage.” (Chapter XXXV)

It is Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine, a whimsical portrait of the foibles of village life which just happens – disconcertingly – to include slaves and Red Indians.

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857)

The Turkey Shoot by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1857) featuring from left to right: the old Mohican warrior Chingachgook, handsome young Oliver Edwards, the black slave Agamemnon kneeling, the heroine, raven-tressed Elizabeth Temple in a scarlet dress, her father Judge Marmaduke Temple in a black top hat, some village boys behind Hector the hunting dog, and Nathaniel Bumppo aka Leatherstocking, wearing his leather stockings and handling his powder pouch.

And so the gentle love affair between Oliver Edwards and young Elizabeth meanders on for 400 or so sweet-tempered and amusing pages (all Cooper’s novels are long) through a succession of scenes – the sermon on Christmas Eve, the turkey shoot, the pigeon shoot, the fishing net scene.

We learn that Edwards, despite his good education, is in fact half-Indian, which explains his preference for the company of Natty and Chingachgook. When he is offered the job of secretary to Judge Temple he reluctantly takes it – which brings him into daily contact with pretty young Elizabeth. She is, of course, intrigued and attracted by him, while he, used to the Great Outdoors, is ashamed to be placed in such a domestic situation.

A complication, like a secondary theme in a symphony, is that the new Anglican preacher, Mr Grant, also has a pretty young daughter, Louisa, who ends up staying at the Temple Mansion (and in fact sleeping in the same bed as Elizabeth, so that the two young ladies are permanently in each others’ company) walking arm in arm through Templeton and the woods, and witnessing the various colourful scenes which Cooper depicts – and also are gentle rivals for young Mr Edward’s attention.

Stereotypes

Of course many of the characters, including the womenfolk and the Native Americans, are stereotyped. For example, here is Judge Temple’s housekeeper (given the strikingly Puritan name of Remarkable Pettibone) watching fair young Elizabeth take off her thick winter clothes.

The housekeeper felt a little appalled, when, after cloaks, coats, shawls, and socks had been taken off in succession, the large black hood was removed, and the dark ringlets, shining like the raven’s wing, fell from her head, and left the sweet but commanding features of the young lady exposed to view. Nothing could be fairer and more spotless than the forehead of Elizabeth, and preserve the appearance of life and health. Her nose would have been called Grecian, but for a softly rounded swell, that gave in character to the feature what it lost in beauty. Her mouth, at first sight, seemed only made for love; but, the instant that its muscles moved, every expression that womanly dignity could utter played around it with the flexibility of female grace. It spoke not only to the ear, but to the eye. So much, added to a form of exquisite proportions, rather full and rounded for her years, and of the tallest medium height, she inherited from her mother. Even the color of her eye, the arched brows, and the long silken lashes, came from the same source; but its expression was her father’s. Inert and composed, it was soft, benevolent, and attractive; but it could be roused, and that without much difficulty. At such moments it was still beautiful, though it was a little severe. As the last shawl fell aside, and she stood dressed in a rich blue riding-habit, that fitted her form with the nicest exactness; her cheeks burning with roses, that bloomed the richer for the heat of the hall, and her eyes lightly suffused with moisture that rendered their ordinary beauty more dazzling, and with every feature of her speaking countenance illuminated by the lights that flared around her. (The Pioneers chapter 5)

This extremely stereotyped ideal of female beauty remind us that the book was written in the early 1820s, only a few years after the Battle of Waterloo, in Shelley’s last year, before Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony or Schubert began his Unfinished Symphony. In other words, it is, in cultural terms, an enormously long time ago. The wonder is not, then, that it contains attitudes or comments which we, 200 years later, find questionable – it is that so much of it is still recognisably humorous and sweetly romantic.

The combination of broad comedy with a romanticised love affair reminds me more of opera than of a novel, maybe of the contemporary operas of the Italian Bel Canto school, Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti. Despite being Italian, these three turned several of Walter Scott’s Highland novels into operas. My favourite is the Elixir of Love, admittedly from ten years later (1832) but it gives a sense of the yearning romantic sentimentality which was widely current and considered the appropriate artistic sentiments for cultivated listeners and readers.

Scenic descriptions

This, like all the Leatherstocking novels, is studded with extended lyrical descriptions of the landscape of northern New York state, along the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers and up into the Catskill Mountains. The hero, Leatherstocking, gives a description of the most beautiful place he knows, a passage which has subsequently become famous.

“There’s a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. The stream is, maybe, such a one as would turn a mill, if so useless a thing was wanted in the wilderness. But that hand that made that `Leap’ never made a mill! There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain…. There has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it…. To my judgment…it’s the best piece of work that I’ve met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man’s life.” (Chapter XXVI)

The very lyrical descriptions of this vast and picturesque New York state landscape depicted in the Leatherstocking novels inspired New York city painters to venture up the rivers and paint the scenes they encountered. Within a few years of The Pioneers being published this had given rise to what became known as The Hudson River school of artists, who combined realistic detail with an overall romanticisation of the landscape, often infused with a Transcendentalist sense of the immanence of God in nature. The painter Thomas Cole is generally credited with being the first to paint this stunning scenery.

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning by Thomas Cole (c. 1844)

Cooper as early environmentalist

But this lyricism is endangered. Both Leatherstocking and Chingachgook, or Indian John as he’s known, are painted as being in the sere of life: Leatherstocking appears to be 68 (he says he’s in his 71st year in chapter XXXIV) and the Indian (‘past seventy’ chapter XXXVII) feels as weak ‘as a squaw’. They both remember their high times before the French and Indian War i.e. before 1756, some 40 years earlier.

And not only are they old, but they feel their way of life is coming to an end. Chingachgook routinely laments that all his tribe are gone to the Great Spirit in the sky:

“Why should Mohegan go?” returned the Indian, gloomily. “He has seen the days of an eagle, and his eye grows dim He looks on the valley; he looks on the water; he looks in the hunting-grounds—but he sees no Delawares. Every one has a white skin. My fathers say, from the far-off land, Come. My women, my young warriors, my tribe, say, Come. The Great Spirit says, Come. Let Mohegan die.” (Chapter XXXVIII)

And we rarely meet Leatherstocking – in the alehouse, at the turkey shoot, in his cabin – but he is lamenting the way the formerly wild countryside is being cleared and settled. A man used to be able to roam and hunt everywhere: now clearings and roads are breaking up the forest and fences block a man at every turn.

So Leatherstocking’s rather sad speeches are all-too-often laments for the spoliation of the spectacular American wilderness. Modern scholars pick on this as one of the central themes of the novel and it’s led critics to call it the first American environmentalist novel, and if you google JFC environment you’ll get a surprising number of essays and articles expanding this theme that Cooper was one of the first environmentalists.

“The wastefulness of the settlers with the noble trees of this country is shocking, Monsieur Le Quoi… like all the other treasures of the wilderness, they already begin to disappear before the wasteful extravagance of man.”

And it isn’t just Leatherstocking. Judge Temple, although a land speculator who is an apostle of settlement, having laid out Templetown in the logical grid structure so familiar from American towns and cities, is presented as being uneasily aware that the new arrivals must live with nature, not despoil her. In the middle of the novel there is a series of scenes whose main point seems to be to demonstrate the wastefulness of the settlers:

In chapter XXII we see them assemble for a mass shooting of the passenger pigeons which migrate over the town and nearby lake every spring: the settlers fire up into the sky thick with birds, massacring far more than they need.

The Judge and Elizabeth come across the rough woodsman Billy Kirby making sugar from maple tree sap but are horrified that instead of making discreet cuts in the bark he has slashed right across the base of all the trees, probably causing them to die. The judge says there’s a limited supply; Billy laughs, saying there’s an endless supply.

“Really, it behooves the owner of woods so extensive as mine, to be cautious what example he sets his people, who are already felling the forests, as if no end could be found to their treasures, nor any limits to their extent. If we go on in this way, twenty years hence, we shall want fuel.” (Chapter IX)

Then in chapter XXIII the judge and Elizabeth (and Louisa and Oliver) witness the spring trawl of the lake where the villagers combine to pull a vast net across the lake and net thousands of fish up onto the pebbly beach; again, many more than they can possibly eat; most will go to waste, as Leatherstocking observes when, in a haunting scene, he comes canoeing over the lake to observe the scene.

“No, no, Judge,” returned Natty, his tall figure stalking over the narrow beach, and ascending to the little grassy bottom where the fish were laid in piles; “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout, when I crave the creatur’; but I wouldn’t be helping to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries. If they had fur, like the beaver, or you could tan their hides, like a buck, something might be said in favor of taking them by the thousand with your nets; but as God made them for man’s food, and for no other disarnable reason, I call it sinful and wasty to catch more than can be eat.”

In each of these scenes the judge both takes part but is simultaneously appalled. And not just him – Elizabeth, as a representative of tender ‘feminine’ sensibility, is also aware in her own way that her father’s projects and town planning are eliminating wildness.

“The enterprise of Judge Temple is taming the very forests!” exclaimed Elizabeth, throwing off the covering, and partly rising in the bed. “How rapidly is civilization treading on the foot of Nature!” (Chapter XIX)

Against these sensitive souls is set the preposterously confident Richard Jones, along with various hicks and rednecks like Billy Kirby. The sensitive party has all the best lines, and there are enough scenes where this nature concern is voiced to have given Cooper his reputation; but in fictional terms, then, maybe what is most notable is that the concern is fully dramatised i.e. the opposing argument is given its say and its representatives: the world is bounteous and we are given God’s permission to use it, to feed ourselves and our children, to grow our society. Billy and Richard get their say as much as the judge and daughter.

The story

After these picturesque-cum-ecological scenes, the second half of the novel develops a plot which escalates in speed and incident.

At first it appears to be a two-pronged attack on Leatherstocking. On the one hand, the preposterous Richard Jones becomes convinced that Leatherstocking and Chingachgook are hiding an illegal silver mine, digging into the back of a remote cave up on the mountain and bringing their finds to his woodland hut – which is why Leatherstocking’s so wary of letting anyone enter it. The second attack is led by the scheming lawyer, Hiram Doolittle, when he discovers that Leatherstocking, in his innocence, has killed a deer in the ‘out’ season, contrary to a law recently passed by Judge Temple.

This is all swiftly followed by a dramatic scene in which Leatherstocking comes across Elizabeth and Louisa, out for a quiet stroll in the woods with their dog, when they’re menaced by a wild panther/mountain lion, and her cub, which first kills their pet mastiff and is then turning its attention to the helpless maidens – when our hero emerges from the woods and shoots it dead. This scene in particular inspired a number of contemporary American painters.

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Leatherstocking Kills the Panther by George Loring Brown (1834)

Quite a flurry of incidents! As Richard (who’s been away for two days) comments, upon hearing all this from Benjamin Pump:

“What the devil has got into you all? More things have happened within the last thirty-six hours than in the preceding six months.” (Chapter XXXII)

When the judge hears all this information, he is placed in a quandary – Leatherstocking has clearly broken the law, is possibly involved in illegal mining – but has saved his daughter’s life! Also there is not a lot of love lost between the pair, as Leatherstocking has always been a critic harping on how the judge’s land management is destroying the wilderness.

The judge has to be seen to be above personal concerns and so signs a warrant for Hiram Doolittle to search Leatherstocking’s hut in the woods. Leatherstocking reacts badly to having his privacy invaded and picks the oily lawyer up and throws him down the hillside (not seriously hurting him), but unfortunately turning something the judge could have turned a blind eye to, into a case of assaulting an officer of the law.

Leatherstocking tried This all leads up to a court case in front of a jury of villagers, in which Leatherstocking epitomises the spirit of natural honesty and fair-dealing dragged into the mazes of man-made law. As with a lot of the rest of the novel, the courtroom scenes are broadly comic, with much satire of the prosecuting advocate, but Leatherstocking can’t evade the law and is sentenced to sit in the stocks for an hour and then do a month in prison. Earlier in the novel – in the net fishing scene – we had seen Leatherstocking save the life of Benjamin Penguillan, Richard’s major-domo. Now the ex-sailor Cornishman feels dutybound to come to his aid and volunteers to sit in the stocks along with Leatherstocking and then contrives to beat up Hiram Doolittle enough to himself be sent to the village’s little gaol.

Leatherstocking breaks out of gaol Hither come Louisa and Elizabeth, mournful maidens come to bring sustenance to the man who saved them from a horrible death, only to discover Leatherstocking has cut his way through the prison’s log walls and is about to break out with the now very drunk Benjamin. Although the guard discovers the breakout, Leatherstocking is helped by young Oliver Edwards to escape out of town and up into the hills. Before he leaves, Leatherstocking asks Eliza to do him a favour and buy two dollars worth of good gunpowder and meet him on the hill known as ‘the Vision’.

Fire on the mountainside Unfortunately, she has barely arrived at the rendezvous the next afternoon, and discovered Indian John but no Leatherstocking waiting for her, than the smoke which had been growingly obvious, becomes increasingly stifling and then young Mr Edwards bursts into the rocky ledge where Eliza and Indian are sitting to announce that the entire hillside is on fire (it is now the height of the dry summer) and the flames have almost surrounded them. a) Indian John, past seventy now, is completely resigned, indeed happy to go meet his fellow braves and family in the Happy Hunting Ground b) Oliver makes frantic efforts to save Eliza including rigging up a makeshift rope to lower her from the rocky ledge, but it isn’t long enough. When into the smoke-filled terrace bounds a frazzled Leatherstocking who quickly leads them out through the burning trees via a little known stream and marshy path, carrying the resigned-to-death Indian on his back.

Siege of the cave They arrive safe and unharmed at the cave which the suspicious villagers thought was an attempted silver mine, which now has a stockade built round the opening and a) are quickly joined by Louisa’s father, the reverend Grant who came looking for Eliza and b) by a big posse of villagers rounded up by the zealous Richard Jones and incited by the malicious Hiram Doolittle. There is an armed standoff, with Leatherstocking and Benjamin manning the barricade, and Jones, Doolittle and the enormous tree-feller Billy Kirby threatening to rush them.

Big revelation Things are teetering on the edge of becoming really violent, when the siege and all the tension which has been building up for a hundred pages is released by Oliver’s sudden action in producing the reason Leatherstocking wouldn’t let anyone enter either his hut or, now, his cave. It is because both were sanctuaries for a white-haired old man far gone in senile dementia. This old man is none other than old Major Oliver Effingham (who had been referred to by Indian John throughout the novel, rather obscurely, as ‘Fire-Eater’). Back in the day, the Delaware Indians had adopted him as one of their own and given him possession of all these lands.

His son, one Colonel Effingham, managed the land for him and took on a partner, Judge Temple, to help. When the Colonel decided to fight on the side of the British during the War of Independence he had, obviously, been defeated and the colonial government confiscated his land. The Judge then took over complete ownership and management of his defeated partner’s property. The Colonel had returned to England to claim reparation for the land lost to him, but, alas, perished in a shipwreck which, we now realise, the judge had learned about in an earlier scene, when he received a letter which made him sad (though he didn’t tell anyone the contents, which were also kept a mystery from the reader). What also made the judge sad was the thought that the Colonel’s young son must have perished with him, and so all claimants to the land.

But he didn’t. The Colonel had left his young son (Oliver) behind in Nova Scotia. When this young man set off to find his grandfather, he discovered that the latter’s loyal servant, Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) had been looking after the old man for all this time. All kinds of small mysteries are thus cleared up: this is why Chingachgook kept referring to Edwards as ‘Young Eagle’ – not because he had Indian blood, but because he was of the line of the old warrior, ‘Fire-Eater’, a purebred white man but honoured by his tribe. Oliver had joined Natty in his hut and both of them vowed to keep the Major’s presence a secret, in order to conceal his poverty and senility. This is why Leatherstocking wouldn’t let the slimy magistrate set foot in his hut, and then was prepared to defend the stockade with bloodshed, if necessary.

But now that Oliver brings his grandfather out for everyone to see the standoff ends. All conflict comes to an end, the judge orders Hiram, Richard and his men back to the village, whither they take the gaga old man in a carriage. Here the judge shows Oliver Effingham (as we now know to call him) the will he had made out which promised to leave half the Temple Patent to any surviving heir of Colonel Effingham – which means Oliver. In fact, on the spot the noble old gent hands over to Oliver half of the property. He is rich!

It’s at this point that Elizabeth feels emboldened to declare her true feelings for young Oliver (now that she knows he is a) not an Indian ‘half-breed’, b) is very rich). Seeing as the judge had made Elizabeth, his only child, heir to the other half of the Patent, everyone realises that in the fullness of time young Oliver will inherit all the land which has featured in the novel.

What a turnaround! Very similar to the orphan-who-turns-out-to-be-the-long-lost-son-of-a-millionaire plots which fuel many of Charles Dickens’ early fictions. The novel as fairy tale. Or, as I’ve suggested earlier, with the conveniently happy ending of an essentially comic opera.

Goodbye Leatherstocking The final scene takes place some months later. Oliver and Elizabeth, now married, stroll along to Leatherstocking’s hut to find him sentimentally tending the gravestones made for both the old man and Chingachgook, who both passed away soon after the traumatic events of the fire and the siege. They’ve come for a routine chat but are horrified when Leatherstocking announces he is heading west, lighting out for the territory, going where wilderness still exists and a man isn’t plagued with the sound of trees being chopped down and clearings cut and fences built and all the rest of civilisation. They barely have time to beg him to stay before he’s on the edge of the wood, everything packed, his dogs by his side and then… gone.

Elizabeth raised her face, and saw the old hunter standing looking back for a moment, on the verge of the wood. As he caught their glances, he drew his hard hand hastily across his eyes again, waved it on high for an adieu, and, uttering a forced cry to his dogs, who were crouching at his feet, he entered the forest. This was the last they ever saw of the Leather-Stocking, whose rapid movements preceded the pursuit which Judge Temple both ordered and conducted. He had gone far toward the setting sun—the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent. (Chapter XLI)

Other points of interest

Footnotes Cooper is anxious to tell us stuff. The text is festooned with explanations. My Oxford University Press edition includes the original dedication, the 1823 preface, the 1832 introduction, the 1851 additions to the 1832 introduction and his separate 1850 introduction to the Leatherstocking tales. Also, for the 1832 edition Cooper added lots of factual notes indicated by asterisks in the text, telling us about all kinds of trivia, for example, the exact population of New York in 1832, the difference between a sled and a sleigh, the derivation of the phrase ‘Santa Claus’ or ‘Yankee’, and so on. The excess of facts makes the novel feel like it is overflowing.

Slavery had never been practiced in Quaker Pennsylvania and was dying out in New York State (as Cooper tells us in a lengthy footnote. It’s still striking that the judge has an out-and-out slave, Agamemnon (nicknamed Aggy) and a number of domestic servants who are black. That doesn’t happen in Dickens or Hardy. It is of a piece with the reader’s surprise when Leatherstocking is found guilty of manhandling the magistrate, and for a moment there’s the possibility he’ll be sentenced to the whipping post! In the event, Judge Temple softens this to having to stand for an hour in the public stocks. Abrupt reminders that the story is set 223 years ago, in a different world.

Guns The sexist stereotyping of the women. The racist stereotyping of the native American and of the black servants and slaves. The Hudson School lyricism. The proto-environmentalism. All these themes are discussed in essays and articles about the book. But I haven’t seen any comment on one of the most obvious features. Everyone carries guns which creates a constant undercurrent of threat. Even at a supposedly festive occasion like the turkey shoot, the sheriff is aware that men carrying loaded weapons are getting angry and he has to defuse the situation. And the entire plot is started by the judge accidentally shooting an innocent bystander. Leatherstocking goes everywhere (even into church) with his gun. Freedom, the kind of primal, wilderness-wandering freedom Leatherstocking pines for, is intimately entwined with the right to bear arms.

Like the slaves and the Indians, the ubiquity of firearms is something taken for granted in the novel, but which strikes a European as disconcerting.


Related links

The Leatherstocking novels

1823 The Pioneers – The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale
1826 The Last of the Mohicans – A Narrative of 1757
1827 The Prairie – A Tale
1840 The Pathfinder – The Inland Sea
1841 The Deerslayer – The First War Path

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 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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