Read in a Penguin Classic edition
It’s about time I explained why I am reading what is essentially a children’s book, albeit a Victorian ‘classic’. A few months ago the Guardian completed a two year exercise to publish a list of the top 100 novels written in English. I’ve written previously about how irritating these lists can be, and this was no exception – it contains some strange choices (‘Emma’ over ‘Pride and Prejudice’?) and some books that stretch the definition of ‘novel’ to breaking point (‘Alice in Wonderland’?) I’ve been working my way around the list in recent months, not because of any completest tendencies, undeniable though they are, but simply as a guide for some interesting novels that I probably should have read. There have been some really interesting discoveries (for me) thus far (‘Money’, ‘Disgrace’), a few re-reads (‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’), and some stinkers. Sadly, this falls in the latter category.
The novel is set in the highlands of Scotland, shortly after the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745. The politics of this revolt are central to the novel, but knowledge of the issues is largely assumed, and not given any context. The principal character and narrator is 17-year-old David Balfour. His parents having recently died, he visits his evil uncle, Ebenezer, who arranges for him to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. The kidnappers are incompetent sailors, because after several days of journeying their boat is still off the islands of Scotland, where it collides with a row boat carrying Alan Breck, a leading Jacobite wanted by the British. Breck is a confused figure – pompous, short-tempered, and murderous, yet perceived by Davy as something of a glamorous, slightly heroic character. Alan is a Jacobite who supports the claim of the House of Stewart to Scotland’s throne; David is loyal to King George III, and the tension between them arises from these loyalties. Stevenson uses the Jacobite rebellion as a setting for this novel, but is clearly not that interested in the politics of the situation. The relationship – a bromance if you like – between Breck and Balfour is at the heart of the novel – they argue, fall out, make up, and repeat, like an old married couple. If you don’t believe in the authenticity of this father/son-like relationship, then the rest of the novel holds few attractions.
The poor sailing continues, and after a short fight and siege over some money Breck is carrying, the ship capsizes. Breck and David are separated. David is stranded on a deserted ‘island’, which he eventually finds out is not an island but a spit of land joined to the mainland at low tide. He sets off to find Breck, but runs into the Red Fox, a real historical figure, who no sooner meets David but is killed by a hidden sniper. David is suspected of involvement in the murder, not unreasonably, and flees, by chance reuniting with Alan as he does so, lurking suspiciously in the woodland. The improbabilities involved here are skirted over.
We arrive at this point fairly briskly, but now the novel descends from here into an extraordinarily extended trudge across the Scottish Highlands. It rains, they walk, it is sunny, they walk, and so it goes on for chapter after chapter, with only the occasionally comically Scottish highlander to break the monotony. John Buchan clearly spent far too long reading this before writing ‘The 39 Steps’ as it contains similar scenes of prolonged walking in the rain – sadly ‘The Deathly Hallows’ has more than a touch of this affliction as well. Eventually they make their way back to the starting point and David’s uncle, who is confronted, confesses, and comes to financial settlement with David.
The parallels between this novel, written in 1886, (and published, like much Victorian fiction, in serial form in a magazine) and the earlier ‘Treasure Island’ (1881) are unavoidable. An impoverished, inexperienced, but self-respecting teenage hero goes to sea. Here he faces a crew of thugs. Supported by a strong role-model, he valiantly wins the day, following a siege scene very reminiscent of that at the island fort. A long voyage of wandering & discovery follows. Stevenson clearly knew a trustworthy model for a boy’s adventure story when he found one.
The novel is written with a large amount of colloquial scots. I am not sure whether the language is authentic, but it descends often into what reads like parody:
“Ye have a fine, hang-dog, rat-and-tatter, clappermaclaw kind of look to ye, as if ye had stolen the coat from a potato-bogle” (190)
Stevenson is a more interesting writer than this – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a fascinating portrait of the schizophrenic nature of Victorian society – but ultimately this is a tired children’s story no longer read by children.