Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Posted: July 2, 2017 in fiction
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When it comes to picaresque adventure novels, no one quite matches the Eighteenth Century. I’m thinking immediately of Tom Jones and Roderick Random, but I don’t mean to discount Gil Blas and Don Quixote. I know Don Quixote was earlier, but he was sort of the grandfather of the British heroic picaros. So when Stevenson started writing a novel about the famous Appin murder, it was a bit inevitable that things would move in this direction.

What famous Appin murder, you say? I’m glad you asked. Cast back in your mind to the seventeenth century. The Puritan government fell apart after the death of Cromwell, so they restored the monarchy by returning Charles II to the throne. When he died, the throne passed to his Catholic brother James. James was not popular with the people because they were afraid of having a Catholic king, so he had to flee the country. The monarchy was given to his daughter Mary and her husband William, and from them to his second daughter Anne, and from there to the distant cousin who became George I. However, James had a legitimate son, and this son tried to take back the throne in 1715. That son had a son of his own, who started another uprising in 1745. The Battle of Culloden ended these Jacobite claims to the throne, but did not end the partisan feelings between supporters of Bonny Prince Charlie and the Hanoverian king. In Appin, the land belonging to the Stewarts (relatives of Charles, James, etc) was confiscated and managed by the Campbells. Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure seems to have been fairly popular, despite his unfortunate position as Factor of the formerly Stewart lands. But, the Stewarts had to get rid of him to get their property back, so they shot him in 1752. It was widely believed that Alan Breck Stewart pulled the trigger, but he ran off to France, so James Stewart was hanged for it instead. The identity of the real shooter was kept as a family secret until the twenty-first century, when someone announced that James planned it all out, but that Donald Stewart was the real shooter. Two-hundred-fifty-year-old family secrets aren’t incredibly reliable, but that’s the information we have.

Stevenson’s story is of David Balfour, a seventeen-year-old boy denied his title and lands by a selfish uncle. The uncle pays a ship captain to kidnap him. He gets promoted to cabin boy when one of the mates kills the existing boy, and then they pick up Alan Breck, whose ship went down in the Hebrides. Alan and David team up to defeat the bad sailors, and then they travel together through the Highlands so that Alan can escape to France and David can regain what’s rightfully his. During a brief separation, David asks directions of a passing group of people, one of whom is Colin Roy Campbell, and the pause in their travel facilitates the Appin murder. Stevenson sets his story in 1751, a year early, but it’s the Appin murder all the same. David and Alan are both hounded through northern Scotland by the authorities, but everything turns out okay in the end.

Someone has written a gay erotic parody, and while I haven’t read it, I will say that the book lends itself especially well to such treatment. There is exactly one memorable female character, and she only appears for half a chapter. Her role is to be manipulated into providing them with food, drink, and a ride across the loch. A strong lass, she manages the oars herself, but the author doesn’t dignify her with a name. Most of the book is about the close relationship between Alan Breck and David Balfour, the way that Alan takes care of David when he’s sick and teaches him swordfighting when he’s well. For part of the time that they travel, they sleep together under a single coat, which implies some tight spooning. And, when he’s describing their relationship, it starts to sound like the way I feel about mine:

The thought of a separation ran always the stronger in my mind; and the more I approved of it, the more ashamed I grew of my approval. It would be a fine, handsome, generous thing, indeed, for Alan to turn round and say to me: “Go, I am in the most danger, and my company only increases yours.” But for me to turn to the friend who certainly loved me, and say to him: “You are in great danger, I am in but little; your friendship is a burden; go, take your risks and bear your hardships alone –” no, that was impossible; and even to think of it privily to myself, made my cheeks to burn.

And yet Alan had behaved like a child, and (what is worse) a treacherous child. Wheedling my money from me while I lay half-conscious was scarce better than theft; and yet here he was trudging by my side, without a penny to his name, and by what I could see, quite blithe to sponge upon the money he had driven me to beg. True, I was ready to share it with him; but it made me rage to see him count upon my readiness.

These were the two things uppermost in my mind; and I could open my mouth upon neither without black ungenerosity. So I did the next worst, and said nothing, nor so much as looked once at my companion, save with the tail of my eye.

We aren’t in open conflict, nor yet in accord. We’re becoming less guarded in our speech, or at least he is, and it’s becoming clear that we’re just too different. We have different tastes in leisure activities, in television programs, and even in what constitutes healthy food. The money thing just makes it worse; Stevenson’s characters are in physical danger, but our danger is primarily financial. I don’t mean to keep re-covering the same ground, but there it is. Young Balfour takes the same tactic that I’m taking: put up with an incompatible partner for a short time, because I’m going home.

Kidnapped is a good choice from someone who likes boys’ adventure fiction of the late Victorian Era. It avoids the fluid nature of eighteenth-century spelling and capitalization, and includes a number of peculiarly Scottish words and phrases, most of which can be interpreted using context clues. Real eighteenth-century picaresque novels typically included some sexually explicit scenes, but Stevenson avoids any mention of sexuality. That omission is a bit sad and unrealistic, but makes the book appropriate for children.

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