Monday, September 23, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE – A Winter’s Tale” by Robert Louis Stevenson (first published 1889)

            Gentle Reader,
            If you have never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, then please read no further, as I am about to indulge my disgusting habit of narrating the whole plot as I have written it up in my reading notebooks. There will therefore be many “spoilers”.

            In simple summary Stevenson (1850-94) tells a story with elements of an old ballad – or the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Two brothers, of contrasting temperament, fight over the mastery of their family’s estate, and eventually destroy each other. That is the plot in a nutshell, but unfortunately this novel has no nutshell. It is a diffuse, rambling tale with varied incidents, sometimes interesting in themselves, but badly lacking focus. Its characters change, but they do not develop – in other words they undergo sudden transformations purely at the expedience of the plot. It is easy to see why this particular adventure story is less often read than either of Stevenson’s more overtly juvenile works, Kidnapped or Treasure Island. Characters are neither sympathetic nor particularly consistent (save, perhaps, the rather priggish and moralising narrator, the family steward Ephraim Mackellar).

            Now let’s get specific after this damning general judgement.

In 1745, at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion, Lord Durrisdeer of Ballantrae decides that one of his sons will support Bonnie Prince Charlie and the other will support King George, as a means of preserving the family estate whichever side should win. A flip of the coin decides that the older brother James Durie (known throughout as “the Master”) will support the Jacobites. He rushes off… and in due course word comes back that he has been killed at the Battle of Culloden. Alison Graeme, Lord Durrisdeer’s ward, is stricken with grief, as she loved James and was betrothed to him.

Two or three years go by.

Alison marries the younger stay-at-home brother Henry Durie, making it plain that she does so out of pity. By him, she has an infant daughter Katherine… Whereupon, disguised and under a false name, James returns home. He was not killed at Culloden at all. Instead, through the journal of his friend the Irish soldier of fortune Francis Burke, we learn what happened to him after Culloden (it involved becoming a pirate captain, roving through Indian-infested North America, burying treasure and making his way back to Scotland by a circuitous route).

Now that James is back, Henry’s marriage is unsettled. Old Lord Durrisdeer has become an ineffectual person. James makes it plain that he regards his brother Henry as his usurper, and Henry is aware that his wife shows James too much affection. By now Henry and Alison have a young son, Alexander. Henry is afraid that James will steal Alexander’s (and Alison’s) affections. He is even more afraid that James will steal the estate, which Henry now regards as his own.

Eventually Henry is goaded by James into fighting a duel – at midnight, by candle light. Surprisingly the bookish Henry wins, running the seasoned fighter James through the body and apparently killing him. Henry runs to get help. But when he returns to the spot where the duel was fought, James’ body has mysteriously disappeared…. And so we come to a second mysterious disappearance by James, about which we are once again informed by the journals of his mate Francis Burke.

In James’ second long absence, Alison realizes that she really does love, and wishes to remain loyal to, her husband Henry after all. Among other things, her shift in affections is fired by the discovery of letters, which prove what a treacherous beast the adventuring James really is. While claiming to support the Jacobite cause, he was secretly drawing a pension from King George’s men to spy on the Jacobites.

Gentle reader, I will spare you a detailed synopsis of the rest of this novel. Suffice it to say that James returns yet again, James’s attempts to wrest the estate off Henry become more extravagant and extreme, and all the main characters see fit to flee to North America. The climax involves an Indian fakir, Secundra Dass, from whom James has learned dastardly occult arts, including the art of resuscitating one who appears to be dead. There is a hunt for buried treasure and a fight in the American wilderness, there is business over the fakir’s attempting to revive a corpse, there is a fatal heart-attack at a climactic moment and, ironically, the two brothers who hated each other so much in life end up buried side-by-side in the same wilderness under the same marker.

Be it noted that in the last quarter of the novel the patient, bookish, forbearing Henry becomes as obsessive as his destructive brother as he seeks revenge – simply because the conclusion demands it.

The Master of Ballantrae was originally published in serial form, but clearly Stevenson planned it out before he began writing it and did not “make it up as he went along”. The narrator Mackellar, from fairly early in the story, refers to Henry’s son Akexander as the present Lord Durrisdeer, so we are promptly told how the story will turn out. The early mention of the buried treasure and of the fakir Secundra Dass also point the way to the conclusion. Nevertheless, despite the evident planning, the story refuses to hang together coherently. This is partly because there are too many incidents and too many inconsistencies in the main characters.

The premise is a good one, with typical Stevensonian duality in the contrast of the adventurous, amoral, world-travelling brother and the cautious stay-at-home brother. (Think of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Deacon Brodie and so forth). But with the strong streak of treachery in James, and the strong streak of priggishness in Henry, they play like more extreme versions of Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour in Stevenson’s best novel Kidnapped. Henry’s solicitude for others, however, becomes rather abruptly a desire for revenge and delight in his brother’s downfall. To make matters worse, and apart only from his improbable victory in the candle-lit duel, Henry is an impotent and passive character who can rarely do things without the help and planning of the steward Mackellar.

Alison’s love for the man she did not marry would again make an excellent premise, but it is not developed. Instead, at about halfway point in the novel, Alison is turned against James and then she virtually disappears from the tale. Stevenson is simply not interested in a psychological account of her position.

There is a certain skill in the moralising, self-justifying voice of the narrator Mackellar viewing all these incidents; but I do not for one moment believe Stevenson meant to read him ironically (as we read through the narrating voice of Marlowe in Conrad – the pioneer of the “unreliable narrator”). Mackellar – like his fellow narrator Francis Burke, whose memoirs take over some chapters – is a narrative convenience, his presence at certain key events being very unlikely. The novel feels clogged in the machinery of its narration. The two voices telling the adventure story are the wrong ones.

And now, gentle reader, let me introduce you to something extraordinary about this novel. Everyone who has read it feels let down by the improbable hocus-pocus in the last chapter, involving the fakir’s skill in resuscitating the apparently dead. It seems a hasty, sensationalist way of bringing the story to an end after all the novel’s varied adventures. The first reviewers of the novel, even those who quite admired it, chastised Stevenson for this plot point. Stevenson himself seems to have become embarrassed by it, warning his friend Henry James that he would have to suspend a lot of disbelief to read the last chapter of The Master of Ballantrae. Yet – miraculo! – it turns out that the story of the fakir and his ‘miracle’ was in fact the thing that inspired Stevenson to write the novel in the first place. I have this information from two sources. First, there is Neil Munro’s introduction to the very old (possibly 1920s?) Collins Clear-Type Press edition of The Master of Ballantrae, which sits on my shelves. Then there is Claire Harman’s very good biography of Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson, A Biography), which I reviewed for the Listener when it first came out in 2005. Both tell me that, in an essay on his working methods, Stevenson revealed that once, when he was stuck for a story, he remembered an anecdote his uncle had told him of a fakir who claimed to revive the dead. And from this anecdote he worked backward to develop the whole rambling plot of The Master of Ballantrae.

All of which proves that inspiration is not the same as achievement. Even if Stevenson did devise the novel in this manner, the ending still seems arbitrary and a cheat.

Now why am I being so harsh on this piece of tale-spinning? Because, like H.G.Wells’ Tono-Bungay [look up my review via the index at right], it strikes me as evidence of a supremely talented writer who was too often tempted to improvise incidents rather than giving his novels narrative coherence, even if he did have the overall arc of the story in his head before he began writing it. I love Stevenson best in his short stories (“Thrawn Janet” – a great piece of horror – “A Lodging for the Night” etc.) and in the novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and perhaps in Kidnapped, where his creative powers are more concentrated. Give him a novel’s length, however, and he begins to ramble and improvise.

At least, that is the respectable reason I am giving you for my critical dyspepsia. The real reason may be that (unlike the more famous works of Stevenson), I didn’t read this one when I was a teenager. Indeed, I first read it only about ten years ago. Perhaps if I’d read it as a kid, it would have beguiled me as much as the two novels of David Balfour’s adventures.

On an historical level, The Master of Ballantrae may imply something about the mixed, guilty feelings that bourgeois Scots had about the Jacobite rebellion; but it remains an unsatisfactory rambling romance more than anything.

            Two marginally-relevant footnotes:
(a.) The novel is subtitled “A Winter’s Tale”, which means colloquially a tale that holds one’s attention for a long time, such as one that might be told around the winter fire. However, I wonder if, with the great leaps in time that the story makes, and the sudden reappearance of a major character much transformed from what he was, Stevenson wasn’t at least alluding to the plot of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Just a thought.
(b.) Despite my misgivings about the novel, I know that it has had a powerful influence upon some people. I remember once being told by a bookish chap who had a dodgy and raffish younger brother that, as a teenager, he used to think of himself as Henry Durie and his brother as James Durie. For myself, I can’t help comparing its contrast of active brother and passive brother with Honore de Balzac’s much superior tussle over a family inheritance La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep), which I may one day cover on this blog.

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