About the Author
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), a Scottish author of novels, poems, and essays, is best known for the classic books Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson remains popular for his celebrated contributions to the adventure and horror genres.
Date of Birth:November 13, 1850
Date of Death:December 3, 1894
Place of Birth:Edinburgh, Scotland
Place of Death:Vailima, Samoa
Education:Edinburgh University, 1875
For Robert Louis Stevenson, the art of storytelling was part of the fabric of his soul. He was born November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of a lighthouse engineer. Known as Louis, he grew up listening to the stories told by his beloved nurse, "Cummy," and her storytelling-including the Old Testament, folk tales, and The Pilgrim's Progress-helped to inspire the young lad's imagination. Stevenson disappointed his father not only by refusing to carry on the family tradition of being a lighthouse engineer but also by breaking from his religion: He announced to his Calvinist father that he was agnostic, which was as good as declaring himself a godless atheist to the shocked patriarch. Nor was Stevenson to remain in Scotland for long. Louis stayed long enough to complete his degree in law at Edinburgh; however, much of his attention was given to reading the history of Scotland, French literature-especially Alexander Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers)-and Charles Darwin. Louis disappointed his father once again when he abandoned the practice of law, declaring himself a writer: "It was Louis's final gesture against the Edinburgh world of security in which he had been reared and into which he had steadfastly refused to fit. Soon he was back in France amongst the art students and their mistressed, carefree company that he relished." Although he did not make a decisive emigration until after his father's death in 1887, Stevenson did leave for France, based on medical directions to mitigate his tubercular condition. There, at the age of twenty-six, he became romantically involved with Fanny Osbourne-his senior by a decade and a married woman whom had left her husband in the United States. Fanny divorced her husband and married Stevenson in 1888, and Stevenson gained two stepchildren, Lloyd and Isobel.
Lloyd Osbourne offers a vivid description of the environment in which Stevenson was completing The Master of Ballantrae-a tale that Stevenson began in New York, finished in Samoa, and worked furiously on in Hawaii, where the king himself would come to visit him:
It was typical of Stevenson that instead of choosing the best room in the house for his own he should seek out a dilapidated, cobwebby little shack, thirty or forty yards away, and papered with mildewed newspapers, in which to install himself. Here in complete contentment, with his cot, flageolet, and ink-bottle, he set himself to the task of finishing the "Master of Ballantrae"-while centipedes wriggled unnoticed on his floor, lizards darted after flies, and the undisturbed spiders peacefully continued the weaving of their webs.
Stevenson's friendship with the King of Hawaii was typical of the bonds that he established with the Polynesians, who called him "Tusitala" (storyteller). His actions to help the islanders won the gratitude of many: When he died, the Samoans built what they called "The Road of the Loving Heart" to his grave on top of a mountain.
Stevenson's willingness to humble himself for a purpose in a "little shack" brings to mind the Master's devotion to vengeance-he too will endure much for a goal. Indeed, Stevenson's heroic qualities are ironically to be found in his villain. Arguably what makes James Durie in The Master of Ballantrae so fascinating is that in another context he might have been a hero-or at least a Romantic antihero-because of his courage and sheer force of will:
[T]he Master is all I know of the devil; I have known hints of him, in the world, but always cowards; he is as bold as a lion, but with the same deadly, causeless duplicity I have watched with so much surprise in my two cowards. 'Tis true I saw a hint of the same nature in another man who was not a coward; but he had other things to attend to; the Master has nothing else but his devilry."
Stevenson's words may seem to remind us of the old adage "idle hands are the devil's workshop," but James Durie, the Master, is hardly idle. Nor was Stevenson. He worked furiously on The Master of Ballantrae, and it was hard work that distinguished him: "I am not a man of any unusual talent, Lloyd; I started out with very moderate abilities; my success has been due to my really remarkable industry." One example of Stevenson's intense productivity was that he rewrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in only six days-and this despite the fact that he was suffering from tuberculosis, the disease that ultimately killed him. Sadly, young Louis was unhealthy even as a toddler: destined to be a man of many nicknames, his parents called him "Smouth," which is the Scottish term for "small fry." Stevenson's stepson, Lloyd, was convinced that it was his industry that enabled him to resist his mortal illness for as long as he did.
Rather than printed fiction, the Master is dedicated to another sort of storytelling. James Durie spins Machiavellian plots, and because of his charisma and endurance, by the end of the novel readers might well feel they are of this Devil's party-he even takes up industrious crafts after his deceptive crafts have stalled, showing himself to be a resilient underdog. Stevenson was known for his kindness, so upon first reflection it seems puzzling that he would have looked into himself for the subject matter of his diabolic antagonist, James Durie, in The Master of Ballantrae: "for the Master I had no original, which is perhaps another way of confessing that the original was no other than myself." Indeed, sometimes this modeling was quite literal: In her journal, his stepdaughter, Isobel, described how her mother witnessed Stevenson searching in the mirror for the Master of Ballantrae:
When Louis was writing "Ballantrae" my mother said he once came into her room to look in the glass, as he wished to describe a certain haughty, disagreeable expression of his hero's. He told her he actually expected to see the master's clean-shaven face and powdered head, and was quite disconcerted at beholding only his own reflection"
Despite his pleasant personality, Stevenson was rebellious in spirit, and in his conflicts with his father over work and religion, one can detect the seeds of passion that would lead to an understanding of a temperament characterized by defiance, like that of the Master.
Notably, it is primarily family tensions and the spirit of defiance that drive the plot of The Master of Ballantrae. However, it is determination channeled through duplicity that truly captures the essence of the novel. James Durie's deceitfulness is a continuation of the two-faced behavior of the Durie family. Furthermore, the subterfuge employed by Lord Durrisdeer to prepare for the outcome of the 1745 uprising exemplifies the divided nature of Scotland as a whole sincethe death of James VI in 1625. The word "Jacobite" itself derives from Jacobus Rex, the Latin for King James; James VI of Scotland's hereditary claim to the English throne united Scotland with both England and Ireland in 1603. After his death, tensions among disputing claims to the crown led to the English Civil War. Support for the Jacobite cause was always characterized by both uncertainty and passion; not all Scottish clans were united in their support of the Stuarts. Shifting alliances, lack of clear communication, and internal competition further weakened the Jacobite uprisings, none of which achieved decisive military success. The far-reaching consequences of the English Civil War included the beheading of Charles I (the second son of King James), the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, and the ascension of the House of Hanover, which maintained power from George I's ascension to the throne in 1714 through the reign of Queen Victoria, who died in 1901. To restore the House of Stuart, the Jacobites revolted in 1689, 1708, 1715, 1719-and finally in 1745. Scotland's humiliating defeat on the battlefield of Culloden paralleled the embarrassing device that enabled Prince Charles Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") to escape. Flora MacDonald gave the defeated prince her clothes: dressed as a woman, the last hope of the Jacobites fled to France and Italy, where he ended his days in drunken dissipation.
The reader never directly encounters Prince Charlie Stuart in The Master of Ballantrae, but we know James Durie does, becoming one of the prince's close associates; when the novel begins, we know only that Prince Charlie has landed in Scotland-returning from years of exile in France to reclaim the throne. The pairing of James Durie and Prince Charlie invites analysis: Both men become obsessed with regaining what they believe is their lost heritage. Both are perceived as noble and debauched-depending upon the politics and personality of their audience. There is no denying with either, however, that they are not mere people but charismatic figures.
Prince Charlie is not the only major personage that James Durie is associated with. In one of his notes on the text, Stevenson outlines some historical analogues for the Durrisdeer family; he refers to William, Marquis of Tullibardine, the elder son of the Duke of Atholl, John Murray, a strong supporter of Scottish independence in the first Jacobite revolts of 1715 and 1719 against the rule of George I. While the Marquis joined in alliance with Bonnie Prince Charlie against George II in 1745, the second son, James, supported George II. Interestingly, while returning to Scotland from France, the Marquis and Prince Charlie encounter a British warship in an incident that is reminiscent of the close call between the pirate ship and the battleship in The Master of Ballantrae. As one of a select group of intimate supporters who were very influential over Prince Charlie's decisions, James Durie's implicit linkage with the Marquis underscores his persuasive abilities in Stevenson's novel. In fact, it is hinted that Durie urged Prince Charlie to recklessness. Although the Marquis seems to have been a loyal supporter of Charlie, James Durie's egoism is antithetical to fidelity. He betrays his various companions to his ambitions whenever opportunity presents him with clear gain.
The theme of duplicity permeates the novel, and it is a concept that Stevenson explores throughout his works. The roots of this preoccupation may be partly traced to Stevenson's own psyche: Although Stevenson had no brother to compete with, perhaps the Master and his brother, Henry Durie, represent exaggerated personae of the author himself-at once the dutiful and the prodigal son. Yet Stevenson was a helper of people; James Durie, the Master, is a manipulator of men and women. Everyone is familiar with Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson may have been haunted by a sense of being two people-one the passionate wanderer, the other oppressed by the conventional expectations of others: "He heaps the petty virtues of his public personality on the inactive, sickly, and child-like Henry Durie. And he projects the 'high-flying vices' of an unrealized self into the indomitable, virile, and satanic Master." Or, as biographer Frank McLynn says, "it is tempting to see the guilt-ridden, Calvinistic, duty-driven Henry as a portrait of the new 'bourgeois' RLS aiming at commercial success, with James, the 'Master,' the custodian of the life-enhancing Jacobite values of the pre-Fanny RLS." Another biographical theory is that the novel reflects the painful division between Stevenson and Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, his cousin and childhood companion.
Viewing the two brothers, Henry and James, in dualistic terms is both productive and misleading. Certainly the most obvious characteristics of the brothers seem to vividly contrast, at least in the early stages of the novel-James's aggression and Henry's principled restraint-but one must guard against a simplistic judgment about the struggle between the brothers. This narrative is not a mere imitation of Abel and Cain, for each brother has murderous intentions. Rather than locating evil within the Master himself, Stevenson reveals the temptation of circumstances and passions that plague all of humanity. The Master is a character who indulges his desires; his attraction as a literary villain is partly because he expresses feelings that secretly course through the veins of more conventionally "good" people. James Durie's chief function as an antagonist is to reveal the pretensions of others, and he does so very effectively. The main narrator, Ephraim Mackellar, the Steward of the Durrisdeers himself, is tempted to violence by his proximity to this man whom he both admires and hates. The subjectivity of the text is treacherous; ultimately what we have is hearsay from the competing accounts of supposed eyewitnesses to the conflicts of the Durrisdeer family-who is telling the truth is possibly unanswerable. It is this quality of the novel that makes its plot and characters particularly rich for a modern audience that has learned that the world does not always neatly split into opposing spheres of good and evil. Personal and political agendas hold sway over all. Is it simply courage or cowardice that separates felon from hypocrite?
The courage of the Master was not alien to Stevenson, who was a man who thrilled to take chances; he asserted that life itself ultimately was his greatest passion, not fiction:
The strongest single impression one derives from a study of his life is one of courage. "No man is any use until he has dared everything," he wrote while traveling in the emigrant train, and to another correspondent he confided that he was "a person who prefers life to art, and who knows it is a far finer thing to be in love, or to risk a danger, than to paint the finest picture or write the noblest book."
Just as the Master takes decisive measures that alienate the trust of his family, Stevenson took daring steps that led to open confrontation with the expectations and wishes of his family and defied conventions at home and abroad. In terms of charisma, Robert Louis Stevenson might have given his own swashbuckling characters a run for their money. Stevenson has enthralled readers through both his stories and his life. Biographies of his adventurous life and new editions of his works have appeared with great frequency (there are generally several biographies every decade and sometimes several in a single year), celebrating his works, friendships, and travels. While Stevenson was emerging as an international writer, he was an enthusiastic traveler in search of a climate that would be gentle to his tubercular condition; his peregrinations and popular writings led to his meeting a host of admirers from a variety of nations, such as the United States, France, Hawaii, and Samoa-his final resting place. As a storyteller, Stevenson remains an author for readers of all ages, and for many people The Master of Ballantrae proves indeed to be what Henry James called a "pure hard crystal."
The Master of Ballantrae received superlative praise from contemporary reviewers, although there were a few who protested against the gloominess of the novel. Almost all highlighted the appeal of the villain and plot and emphasized Stevenson's engaging style-avoiding cliché while efficiently offering vivid details and directness without a studied attempt at brevity for its own sake. Stevenson has been praised as "first of all a stylist" even though he is predominantly known for his exciting plots. The exoticism of Stevenson's island study aroused further interest among his reading public, as Andrew Lang (still well known today for his series of fairy-tale books) underscores in his review of October 5, 1889, in the Daily News:
By a great many people a new story of Mr. LOUIS STEVENSON'S is expected with more interest than any other novelty in literature. . . . Readers have a personal concern moreover in his development, and in his wanderings of which he keeps them advised. Not often does a romance wing its way to us from Waikiki, from "the loud shores of a subtropical island." . . . Now Mr. Stevenson has returned to Scotland, just after the Forty-Five, but his tale wanders from land like its author.
Stevenson's published works have successfully wandered from various lands to be reprinted and reread by diverse people. However, it is his travels through time that have proven most remarkable. The Master of Ballantrae is a novel that continues to reveal greater depth as literary criticism evolves, and the world around us continues to offer more windows of perception. Readers of this novel find a complexity of perspective that continues to challenge interpretations. The shifting of sympathies that this book produces by its heroic villain and its villainous hero pulls the reader into a realm of exploration where normal prejudices weaken within a whirlpool of ambiguity. From the moors of Scotland to the mountains and swamps of America, this novel displays a landscape of the psyche where the greatest adventure is that one comes to discover oneself in the tangled exploits of these two brothers-forever both childhood companions and dire enemies at each other's throats. Where good and evil lie in this twisted tale of virtue and vengeance is a Sphinx-like riddle that sits nestled deeply in our own traitorous hearts. The novel complicates the adventure genre by defying the stereotypes of heroes and villains that readers have grown to accept. By bursting open these bonds, The Master of Ballantrae offers a fresh look at a genre that Stevenson helped to popularize; this tragic adventure revitalizes that genre for a skeptical world that looks inward for the answers that might explain the great adventure beyond the mortal one.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I generally adore Stevenson, but this one was enough of a trial that I stopped reading mid-way. The book is memorable to me for some very (very!) striking passages in the Master's early life, including piracy described with no gilding and, one fears, great accuracy. But in the second half the pace slows, and the tone flags. Also, I dislike reading about detestable people, and hate more when no one lifts a finger to stop them...
Having previously failed miserably to read either Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, I was a little anxious approaching this book. And in the first instance it did seem that my fears were well grounded, as I struggled with the Scottish dialect. But, further in, the dialect was less prevalent and, having surmounted these early teething problems, the book proved to be surprisingly readable, a gripping adventure yarn that entices you swiftly through the pages.The story is told in the main by Ephraim McKellar, steward of Durrisdeer, and concerns the fates of the two Durie brothers, both during and after the Jacobite rebellion. In order to preserve the estate they will take opposing sides in the conflict. Against the wishes of his family, the heir and favourite, James, insists on joining the uprising, whilst Henry, well-intentioned, but beloved of no-one but McKellar, supports King George. When the uprising fails and James is reported dead, Henry becomes heir and takes all that formerly belonged to James, who retains only his title, Master of Ballantrae. However, James has survived, and bitterly blames Henry for his losses.I did endeavour to consider the themes en route, but was initially rather dismissive of the whole thing as a fairly straightforward morality tale. It put me strongly in mind of a passage between Frodo and Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Rings, where Frodo suspects that the spies of the Enemy would `seem fairer and feel fouler,¿ whilst Aragorn, as he himself quips, looks foul and feels fair.It seemed an obvious point to make, that what looks well may be ill, and vice versa, but maybe that was not the point. Maybe the point was that we may know this, and still not feel it. I must reluctantly admit to a sneaking admiration for the Master, whilst experiencing a hint of contempt for Henry that would not be repressed.Having apparently nailed it, the morality becomes more complex, as the Master¿s few admirable qualities (namely courage and resolve) come to the fore, whilst Henry seems to become petty, vindictive and wholly unlikeable. Halfway through the book McKellar is seduced by the Master and it feels as though the reader is asked to pour their scorn on his hapless head. However, by the end of the book, certainly from my perspective, the reader is also won over by the Master, and must therefore question their own judgement, and reassess that of McKellar.But¿ the waters are further muddied by the nature of the two narrators, both of whom are proven unreliable. We suspect that the Chevalier Burke exaggerates the wickedness of the Master to minimise his own culpability, and McKellar likewise impugns the Master, whilst praising Henry, as a function of his partiality.This could also provide an explanation for our changing feelings toward the characters; but, as McKellar becomes enthralled by the Master, does his narrative become more impartial or does it in fact swing in the other direction?There are too many variables to pin this story down; which left me with the following questions:-Why did James insist on going to war? It must have been clear that the uprising stood little chance of success, and that he would suffer the consequences. Throughout the book it is obvious that James projects the right image. This is why he is favoured. Maybe his choice serves to emphasize that he intends to prosper through his charm which, he believes, will negate the nature of his actions.James is permitted to keep his title 'Master of Ballantrae,' which should have passed to Henry's son. This effectively traps James in the position of heir apparent, whilst the natural progression to Lord is denied him. Is this a calculated act of cruelty, provoking and also symbolising James' inability to progress beyond the hand fate dealt him?Does Henry, as McKellar suggests, really lose his reason, or is this only McKellar's rationale to explain Henry's undesirable behaviour and his own lack of judgement?My favourite part of the book is
This book lacks the high levels of suspense, action, and adventure in some of Stevenson's better-known works (though there is some piracy and a trek through the American wilderness). Instead, it focuses mostly on the relationship between two brothers, as described by an admittedly partisan old servant. As such, it's an interesting read -- is the older brother really as evil as he's painted? Is the younger brother some sort of martyr, or just a whinging grump? I'm not sorry to have read this book . . . but I won't be reading it again.
This was interesting for the setting, early America, immigrant fleeing from Scotland and all that. The story itself did not move me much, rather typical of its times. Not my favorite Stevenson, but others may disagree.