Stevenson: The Master of Ballantrae

November 6, 2019

The Master of Ballantrae
A Winter’s Tale
Robert Louis Stevenson
(Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1910) [1889]
330 p.

When we think of Stevenson we think first of Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or, if in winter we get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight, A Child’s Garden of Verses. All were already behind him when, in his late 30s, he wrote this intriguing historical novel, The Master of Ballantrae.

Its story begins during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. A noble Scottish family has two sons; not knowing whether the rebellion will succeed or not, the family hedges its bets: one son, the elder and Master, fights for the Bonnie Prince, while the younger sides with the king. During the conflict the elder son disappears (captured, as it turns out, by pirates) and the younger inherits the estate and marries the woman whom his older brother had loved.

When the Master does eventually return, he finds himself barred from the life he had hoped for, and is understandably resentful. So begins the novel’s long, intricate tracing of the sour rivalry between the two brothers. The Master is cunning and charismatic, a man of great courage and resourcefulness, and he bends all his considerable will to undoing the happiness of his younger brother, a comparatively dull though well-intentioned man entrapped, as it were, by his good fortune.

The book uses an unusual narrative technique. The story is told principally through the voice of a family servant, and is cast as a memoir into which he has pulled relevant material from letters and other sources. The story takes place largely in Scotland, but partly in France, and the long final act actually occurs in New York — first in the city and then, finally and fatally, in the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

Stevenson is, of course, a wonderful writer, with the sturdiest prose and an unerring ear for the right word at the right time. This book is particularly notable for the complexity of the two central characters. The elder brother, whose path in life is beset by so many obstacles and injustices, and who behaves toward his family as the most resolute of devils, is nonetheless portrayed as possessed of an unmistakable nobility of bearing and gifted in abundance with all of the secondary virtues — the ones that can be turned to good or ill. And his brother, less winsome but intelligent and conscientious of his duties, is slowly frayed by a besetting fear of what his brother might next attempt.

There are several references in the novel to the fraternal rivalry of Esau and Jacob, and the book could be read as an echo and elaboration of that Biblical motif.

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