© Penguin Books
I haven’t read a great deal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre – just Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and a few collections covering his short stories about Scotland, the supernatural (like 1886’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and the South Sea islands. When a few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and started reading it, I assumed I was in for another rousing family-friendly adventure yarn in the spirit of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
On paper, Master has all the elements of an adventure like those experienced by Jim Hawkins and David Balfour. It begins with the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The two sons of the Laird of the Durrisdeer Estate in southwest Scotland toss a coin to decide which one of them rides out and joins the uprising and which one remains at home and officially stays loyal to the crown – that way, whichever side wins, the estate should be safe. Fate decrees that the elder son, James, joins the rebellion. In due time, the rebellion is put down, James is believed killed, and the younger brother, the mild-mannered Henry, ends up inheriting the estate and finally marrying his deceased sibling’s fiancé. To everyone’s surprise (apart from the readers’), James then comes back from the dead. Not only has he survived the uprising and its bloody aftermath, but he’s been embittered and corrupted by his experiences and his soul is now thoroughly rotten. And so begins a long and wide-ranging struggle between James and Henry for the estate and its wealth.
As Stevenson describes that struggle, we get episodes involving smugglers, pirates, slave-traders and hostile North American Indians. There’s a supposed duel to the death, an arduous trek through the American wilderness, an unexpected interlude in India and a stormy voyage across the Atlantic. The book’s climax returns to the wintry forests of North America, where the brothers engage in a desperate race to locate some buried pirates’ treasure. Thus, all the boxes seem ticked on the Robert Louis Stevenson rip-roaring adventure checklist.
It’s a surprise to report, then, just how dark and grim Master is. For example, the pirate section – James and an associate called Francis Burke fall in with a crew of brigands and cut-throats when the ship in which they’re fleeing post-rebellion Scotland is attacked and taken over – is no cosy rewrite of Treasure Island. These pirates are debauched savages who murder the crews of the ships they board. At one disturbing moment, Burke recalls: “Twice we found women on board; and though I have seen towns sacked, and of late days in France some very horrid public tumults, there was something in the smallness of the numbers engaged, and the bleak, dangerous sea-surroundings, that made these acts of piracy far the most revolting. I confess ingeniously I could never proceed unless I was three parts drunk…”
Meanwhile, the final pages almost have the intensity of a horror story. As they journey through the wilds of Canada, searching for the spot where years earlier James buried a cache of pirates’ booty, a party of exhausted men find themselves being stalked by an unseen foe. Each night, someone skulks into their camp and murders and scalps them one by one as they lie asleep: “…when they rested at last, it was to sleep profoundly; and when they woke, it was to find that the enemy was still at their heels, and death and mutilation had once more lessened and deformed their company.” It might not be in the league of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), but it certainly suggests the primordial brutality of a modern western movie like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant (both 2015).
Psychologically, Master isn’t a comfortable read either. We expect Henry to be the good guy, and that’s at least how he starts off. Not, it should be said, that he gets much credit for his decency – the local people around the estate view him as a coward and traitor for not joining the uprising; and his wife and elderly father ignore him and spend their time mourning James and lionising his memory. When James reappears and takes his place in the household again, hiding his multitudinous vices from everyone but his brother, Henry’s character failings become increasingly apparent. He proves incapable of action, the outrage he feels cancelled out by a sense of defeatism. No wonder he laments, “I am a man of great patience – far too much – far too much. I begin to despise myself. And yet, sure, never was a man involved in such a toil!”
Later, fate brings both brothers to New York and it seems that Henry has at last turned the tables on James. He lives in “a decent mansion” and is “a popular man with his intimates” while James, shunned and impoverished, sets up a lowly tailor’s business “in a poor quarter of the town” in “a lonely, small house of boards, overhung with some acacias… with a sort of hutch opening, like a dog’s kennel.” Yet Henry is possessed by hatred now. Every day, he makes a point of going to James’s hovel dressed in his finery, standing in front of it and staring gloatingly at his sibling while he sits sewing outside. Challenged about this obsessive and petty behaviour, he retorts, “You never had such mountains of bitterness upon your heart,” and he expresses a determination to ‘break’ his brother’s ‘spirit’. Later still, when Henry hears a clearly scurrilous rumour from Britain that he might be disinherited in favour of James, he’s become so paranoid that he chooses to believe it and casts himself into a course of action that proves disastrous for both brothers.
As Henry’s character disintegrates, we find ourselves almost welcoming each moment when James arrives onstage. He’s callous, manipulative, scheming, limitlessly greedy and superhumanly selfish, but he’s consistent and, in his evil way, very entertaining. In fact, he must rank alongside Alec D’Urberville, Bill Sykes and Count Dracula as one of the great anti-heroes of 19th century British literature. And it’s not difficult to see him as Henry’s wicked, corrupting alter-ego, nudging his younger brother a little further off the path of virtue and into the realms of sinfulness and madness every time he appears. Stevenson, of course, had explored this theme three years earlier with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though the blueprint for both Master and Jekyll and Hyde lies further back in time, with a work by Stevenson’s fellow Scot, James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).
© Rex Features / The Daily Telegraph
All this would make Master a morose novel if it wasn’t for the strong injection of humour it gets from its narrator. The story is related by Ephraim Mackellar, Henry’s steward and servant, and the idiosyncrasies of Mackellar’s personality flavour the storytelling. The fussy, prudish, squeamish and conservative Mackellar is an amusingly and peculiarly Scottish creation. If he was alive today, he’d no doubt be tutting over the stories he reads every week in the Sunday Post. He’d be serving dutifully as an elder in his local Church of Scotland even though hardly any of his neighbours bother to turn up at the services any more. And he’d be out canvasing for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories in the hope that they’ll restore discipline in the schools by re-introducing the belt and generally bring back the Good Old Days when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps to their betters.
Mackellar’s hapless honesty makes Master very funny in places. He doesn’t shirk from describing the indignities inflicted upon him – for example, when some smugglers “caused me to dance for their diversion. The method employed was that of cruelly chipping at my toes with their naked cutlasses, shouting at the same time ‘Square Toes’; and although they did me no bodily mischief, I was none the less deplorably affected, and was indeed for several days confined to my bed; a scandal on the state of Scotland on which no comment is required.” On the other hand, he’s affecting in the loyalty he shows to Henry and, indeed, he becomes Henry’s conscience when he starts to go to the bad. Stevenson even hints that Mackellar’s love for his boss might be more than a love engendered by respect and duty: “…I have never had much toleration for the female sex, possibly not much understanding; and being far from a bold man, I have ever shunned their company.”
The book’s most amusing section comes when Henry tries to ensnare James in a legal trap, leaving him stranded at the Durrisdeer Estate but with no access to its funds, while he and his family depart for America in the hope of building a new life for themselves. Mackellar is left behind as James’s custodian and the two men, absolutely opposed in temperament, begin an Odd Couple-like existence in the empty ancestral home. They end up with a grudging respect, even a perverse affection, for each other. When Mackellar manages to verbally cut James down to size, the latter cackles, “Who would have guessed… that this old wife had any wit under his petticoats?” Yet the infernal side of James’s nature is never far away, something illustrated a few pages later when he manages to goad the pious Mackellar into doing something extremely un-Christian, i.e. making an (unsuccessful) attempt on his life.
The Master of Ballantrae wasn’t what I’d expected, but I found its mixture of bleakness, humour, tragedy and the macabre admirably haunting. So confidently does it juggle its disparate elements that you wonder what other literary goodies Robert Louis Stevenson might have produced had he lived beyond the age of 44.