Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

It's crunch time for my Victorian reading challenge! Way back in January, I swore I would read 12 Victorian books by year's end. Well, as usual, I've waited until last minute & I have just a couple of weeks to read Jane Eyre, Wives & Daughters, & Lady Audley's Secret. Yikes! If only Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter counted (I'm finding that really amusing)...but I have to read more books written during the Victorian era, not faux Victorian zombie lit. At least I have finished Kidnapped.

I always feel the book should be titled Kidnapped!, as though it were a tabloid headline. But really, Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel is anything but sensational & lurid. I was excited to realize that Stevenson was a Victorian writer, because I read & re-read Treasure Island as a kid, & I thought Kidnapped would be more of the same. However, while it is in a similar vein to Treasure Island, it's a very different book.

According to the introduction by John Seelye that opened my edition, Kidnapped (written in 1886, three years after T.I.), was the "second of Stevenson's so-called 'boys' books'. a carefully constructed fiction, with intentionally strong connections to historical circumstance, namely the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland." Seelye suggests that T.I. was more of a slapdash affair, geographically inaccurate, purely a fantasy. He also refers to Stevenson's criticism of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, set in the same era but with nary of mention of Jacobites, & Stevenson's debt to Sir Walter Scott for his romantic history Waverley, set during the same period. One of the characters in the book refers to the protagonist's journey as a kind of Scots Odyssey. So you can see that, even with clocking in at just over 200 pages, Kidnapped really packs a literary wallop.

Set in 1751, it's the story of the adventures of David Balfour: as the opening page attests, "how he was kidnapped & cast away; his journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart & other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called." & that pretty much sums up the action, right there. I think the novel's title is misleading-the kidnap is actually a small part of the plot, though a vital part. A lot of the novel concerns David's travels, alone & later with Alan Breck (which, in less capable authorial hands, could have degenerated into a kind of 'buddy movie' material).

What I so enjoy about Robert Louis Stevenson is his writing style. David Balfour & Alan Breck Stewart are vividly portrayed characters who quarrel & make up; help each other & betray each other, all while saying "Hoot!" & "Wheesht!". The uneasy camaraderie that develops between these two characters is very realistic. (Ebenezer Balfour is a bit of a hobgoblin, but a real baddie is called for in the narrative.) Everything Stevenson writes about is so detailed & intense, so compelling, that the reader is irresistibly drawn into the action, despite, in my case, knowing nothing about the Jacobites. Stevenson, showing geographic due diligence this time, takes you through a detailed tour of Scotland, from Queen's Ferry to the Isle of Mull & back again; through wood, heather & moor, under less than pleasant conditions (mainly cold & wet). David also meets Cluny Macpherson, another famous Jacobite, hiding out in a kind of wattle & moss treehouse known as "Cluny's Cage" & Stevenson takes you through a bit of the history of clans, or at least which clans don't get along & the fact that the wearing of tartan had been outlawed.

I would highly recommend the entertaining works of Stevenson & I think I will be reading more of his adventure stories in the future. Meanwhile, if you really like Kidnapped, you should consider its 1893 sequel, Catriona, though John Seelye says it is a lesser work. At the end of Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson indicates, however, that "all went well with both [David & Alan Breck], in the limited and human sense of the word 'well'; that whatever befell them, it was not dishonour, & whatever failed them, they were not found wanting to themselves."

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I have never read any RLS, so thanks for the recommendation! I may try it.