Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Master of Ballantrae - Robert Louis Stevenson

'Royal Escape' persuaded me that what my life has been missing of late is a certain swashbuckling element and so the time seemed right for 'The Master of Ballantrae'. This is the first Stevenson I've read aimed specifically at adults and perhaps the first time I've really understood how good he is. For a Victorian novel it's really quite short, just tipping over 200 pages, which makes the amount of action crammed in even more remarkable. 

Properly the book's title is 'The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale' something that my copy doesn't make explicitly clear until you read the introduction, which I never do until I've finished a novel. The book was conceived in the winter in a cabin in the Adirondacks where eventually all the action will come to a head, the two great set pieces take place at night in the dead of winter when "there was no breath stirring; a windless stricture of frost had bound the air; and as we went forth in the shine of the candles, the blackness was like a roof over our heads." There are a few times when Stevenson will throw in something like this, not only a thrilling scene to visualise, but one which would make me pause and re read whilst I did so thereby heightening the tension in those key scenes. Winter holds the book together, it's worth having that in mind as you go into it.

The other clue to the text is Stevenson's claim that the Master is all he knew of the Devil, if this is so he knows how to make the Devil charming almost to the point of sympathy... The story starts in 1745, old Lord Durrisdeer has two sons; James, the Master of Ballantrae his heir, and Henry the younger boy, there is also a ward, Miss Alison, an heiress, promised to and in love with James who is however somewhat indifferent. Not so Henry who loves Alison deeply though she's somewhat inclined to despise him for it. The family, especially the younger generation, are Jacobite sympathisers but they're also canny enough to hedge their bets so it's decided one son will go to join bonnie Prince Charlie, one will pledge allegiance to King George in which manner the estate should stay safe. Both brothers want to go but eventually it's the Master who gets his way, riding off the very figure of a hero and the darling of his family. The problem for Henry left behind is that come what may his position will be a false one - and so it comes to pass.
The Master rides at the knee of the Prince, the very image of romance, especially to the waiting Alison, but then comes Culloden, defeat, and news of his death. Henry is widely abused in his new position, and not even marriage with Alison improves his situation - she to clearly still cherishes the Masters image, so what will happen when it transpires he's alive, well, in Paris, and rather in want of vast sums of money? It's during this part of the book that the Master is most devilish. He holds an illogical hatred for his brother Henry who he manages to persecute first from France and later back at home until that candle lit reckoning. 

The Masters second exit shifts the dynamics of the family but improves no-ones happiness. There's a precarious sort of balance in affairs but always a sense of impending disaster, the Master's next appearance bids fair to bring it to a final climax but here the tables have turned somewhat. He has been exposed within his own family, and to an extent outside it, he's still a dangerous man but now he has to work a little harder which allows Stevenson to let the Master charm the reader as well as his narrator. Its tremendous stuff that makes me keen to read more Stevenson. 


  1. I read a mound of Stevenson a couple of years ago with enormous pleasure, including this one, although I do not believe I wrote a word about it.

    For Stevenson, the origin of his stories is always important to him. He always wrote about them. The mysteries of inspiration.

  2. I looked all through your posts for The Master to no avail. This is the first time I've really considered how much Stevenson crammed into his short life, it's quite awe inspiring. I'm surprised that this book isn't better known, it deserves to be talked about far more as does Stevenson generally. I want to read more of him and Scott together to see what that throws up too.

  3. I agree, RLS's productivity at such a high level of quality is astounding. And such variety. The Scottish novels are all good, but it turns out that the South Sea fiction is excellent, too, as are at least passages in all of the travel books. On top of that he is an essay of genius. Not to mention - no, I'll mention it - an all-time classic of children's verse. Etc. etc.