Archive for the ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’ Category

The Ebb-Tide

November 13, 2016


Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide, set in the South Seas where he was resident, was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime (in September 1894; Stevenson died in December). Though written in collaboration with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, the final version is thought to be largely Stevenson’s work. Stevenson described the novel as a “dreadful, grimy business” and, indeed, its characters have few redeeming features. When the novel opens we find them – Herrick (a Cambridge-educated gentleman fallen on hard times), Davis, (a disgraced ship’s captain), and Huish, (a Cockney clerk and petty criminal) – sleeping rough:

“In the telling South Sea phrase, these men were on the beach. Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti.”

Stevenson is particularly good on the men’s low state: a tattered copy Virgil which Herrick carries around only remaining in his position because he cannot sell it; Davis adopting a ridiculous dance on the quay so they might eat. At the end of the first chapter they are described as:

“…one wet mass…shivering and dozing off, and continually reawakened to wretchedness by the coughing of the clerk.”

A chance of escape arises when Davis is given the opportunity to captain the schooner Farallone, with its cargo of champagne, to Sydney, smallpox having taken its toll on the original crew, and with no-one else willing to take up the task. Davis invites Herrick and Huish to join him despite their lack of sea-going experience, revealing that, far from taking the cargo to its intended port, he plans to sail for Peru and sell it, before taking the schooner for himself. Herrick is reluctant (“I’ve not fallen as low as that”) but eventually agrees.


Stevenson skilfully uses the changing dynamics of the trio’s relationship to keep tensions high throughout the novel. Davis puts his proposal to Herrick before inviting Huish and appoints him First Mate, but, once on board, Huish decides to begin drinking the champagne and Davis soon joins him in permanent drunkenness leaving Herrick isolated. In moral terms (and Stevenson is always a moral writer), Herrick’s conscience continues to bother him, Huish’s bothers him not at all, and Davis vacillates between the two.

For various reasons the flight to Peru is abandoned and, when they encounter an unmapped, but inhabited, island they hatch a new plot. The island introduces a fourth white character, Attwater, educated like Herrick, presenting himself as a Christian, but entirely ruthless. Discussing how he managed to get the labour for his settlement, Davis comments, “you must be a holy terror!”

“…one way or another, one got it into their head that they must work, and they did…”

His personal island, and the calm manner in which he discusses his brutality, make him seem like a prototype Bond villain. In the end, Herrick must choose between Attwater and Davis, a choice which is almost literally between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Ebb-Tide has the adventure of Treasure Island but without the heroism. Instead we see the moral complexity which characterises Stevenson’s most memorable creations, Silver, and, of course, Jekyll and Hyde. Our colonial adventurers are portrayed as, at best morally confused, at worst, morally bankrupt. “Don’t think me a philanthropist,” Attwater tells Herrick, “I dislike men, and hate women.” It is difficult not to see the disease which permeates the novel (Attwater’s island has also lots most of its inhabitants to smallpox) as representative of colonialism.

Certain aspects date the novel – a comprehensive understanding of the vocabulary of sailing is likely to be less common among readers for one. The Kanakas (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands) are largely silent, though a conversation between Herrick and one of the sailors is a key moment in the story. Often they are used a moral barometer to allow us to judge the European characters. Stevenson’s use of phonetic speech further distances them from the narrative, though he does the same for Huish, and, interestingly, seems to have been aware of the problem:

“It is a dreadful, grimy business in the third person where the strain between a vilely realistic dialogue and a narrative style pitched about (in phrase) “four notes higher” than it should have been has sown my head with gray hairs.”

However, The Ebb-Tide with its (to quote Stevenson again) “ugliness and pessimism” also seems one of his most modern works, and a sad reminder of what he might have gone on to produce.


The Master of Ballantrae

November 13, 2015


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.


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.