The Master of Ballantrae

master

Today, as you may or may not know, is Robert Louis Stevenson Day – the author of, not one, but two tales which have buried their way into the popular imagination (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ). As for the rest of his work, however, Kidnapped aside, it is far less read – and has, at times, fallen out of print as well as out of favour. It’s true that he probably didn’t aid his partnership with posterity by writing in so many genres – including both fiction and poetry for children – and by co-authoring three of his novels with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. Two others were left unfinished at his relatively early death. Only recently has he begun to be re-evaluated, perhaps in response to the love so many other writers have for his work.

The Master of Ballantrae, written in 1889, contains many of the elements familiar from his two most famous books: pirates, sea voyages, exotic locations (though ostensibly a Scottish novel, we are transported to both India and America) and an initially straight forward but increasingly ambiguous battle between good and evil. In The Master of Ballantrae this takes the form, not of a divided individual, but of two warring brothers.

The catalyst for their enmity is the Jacobite Rising for 1745: the Duries, like many other families, hedge their bets by sending one son to fight with Bonnie Prince Charlie and having the other swear his allegiance to King George. The more prudent choice would be for the younger son to go off to fight, but in this case the elder, James – the Master of Ballantrae – insists he should go, and the matter is decided on the toss of a coin, suggesting James’ love of risk and belief that chance will always favour him. In his conceited view of himself he assumes his brother, Henry, is simply jealous:

“And there spoke Envy! Would you trip up my heels – Jacob?”

The reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau is appropriate as James has just rather impulsively given up his birthright (the inheritance of his father, Lord Durrisdeer’s, title) should the Pretender’s uprising fail. When the decision is made that it will be James who goes to war, Alison (the woman he is to marry) throws the coin “clean through the family shield in the great painted window,” a breach which is never repaired.

The Jacobite adventure ends at Culloden, yet, in his absence, the Master’s reputation soars as Henry’s declines:

“Mr Henry began to be shunned; yet a while, and the commons began to murmur as he went by, and the women… to cry out their reproaches to his face. The Master was cried up for a saint.”

Eventually an Irish soldier, Colonel Burke, brings news of James – he is in France and in need of money. From that point on, the Master cannot be shaken off – like the bad penny which decided his fate, he will always reappear, tormenting Henry in any way he can. The story becomes one of James’ persecution of Henry, and Henry’s attempts to free himself of it.

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Stevenson is excellent on the increasing tension within the family. The novel includes a number of set-pieces which even now might make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The Master is a wonderful character – I did wonder whether the term was synonymous with the devil (though I can’t find any evidence of this) as there is something satanic about his pursuit of Henry. Utterly without scruples, he is also dangerously charismatic, so much so that even the Mackellar, the servant who tells much of the story, and a strong partisan for Henry, feels his charms. In contrast, Henry can seem rather dull – but as that is how other characters perceive him to his disadvantage, Stevenson may be intentionally placing the same temptation before the reader. Wherever the Master goes he gains loyal followers – but will sacrifice them without a thought when necessary. As the novel progresses, however, it is who is Henry is increasingly changed, becoming intent on his own revenge; in this we see the moral issues which Stevenson always puts at the centre of his adventures.

The Master of Ballantrae may not have lasted in the popular imagination like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but in some ways it is all the better for that as the reader does not approach it with familiarity. Anyone looking for ‘A Winter’s Tale’, as it is subtitled, with suspense, shock, adventure and intrigue, will find it here.

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6 Responses to “The Master of Ballantrae”

  1. hastanton Says:

    O my ! I haven’t read any RLS for yonks !! I loved Treasure Island and Kidnapped ( even more so) as a kid ……I still get the shivers when I think of them !

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Like Helen, I haven’t experienced any Robert Louis Stevenson for many, many years! My grandfather was a huge fan of this author, so much so that he used to read the books aloud to all the kids in our extended family. I certainly remember Treasure and Kidnapped, but not this one – it sounds full of adventure! Fab review as ever, Grant.

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) (@AmateurReader) Says:

    I read a lot of Stevenson a few years ago, and it was highly rewarding. Novels, stories, poems, travel, essays – especially the essays, were those ever a surprise.

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