Kidnapped, like Treasure Island before it, was serialized in Young Folks, the boys’ magazine. It is the most Scottish of Stevenson’s novels in dialect, vocabulary, and worldview. Like Treasure Island, it follows the pattern of a popular genre, in this case the historical romance. Stevenson sets his story in 1751, five years after the defeat of a Scottish rebellion against the English-German King George II. King George has brutally “pacified” the Scottish Highlands, and Stevenson places his protagonist, David Balfour, in conversation with a principal agent of that pacification at the moment when that agent is assassinated (the assassination is a historical fact). Those who witness the assassination suspect Balfour of complicity, and he barely escapes with his life, fleeing for weeks across the Highlands in the company and under the protection of Alan Breck, the man who was historically (and in the novel) accused of the murder.
Under the cover of orthodoxy, however, Stevenson does heretical things with the genre. Morally ambiguous characters abound. Balfour’s kidnapper, a ship’s captain, is an excellent seaman and dotes on his mother. David’s uncle is a thoroughly unlikable character, but he suffers more than any other character in the novel. Alan Breck is a deserter and a turncoat, but he is unshakably loyal to Balfour, even at the risk of his life.
Breck and Balfour, the two principal characters, are an odd couple whose developing friendship constitutes the main business of the novel. Their relationship is made vivid and believable by Stevenson’s deft hand: Balfour is provincial and stodgy, Breck is worldly-wise and extravagant, but readers can believe that they are drawn to each other because Stevenson’s incidents generate the passions in each of them that inevitably make them interdependent. This concern with the niceties of a relationship is another liberty that Stevenson took with this genre.
Once again, then, Stevenson makes of a popular genre something that is more than the sum of its parts. Boys had read Kidnapped with fascination in Young Folks, but adults read it later in book form with even more fascination. Indeed, Henry James, whom some suspect of never having been a boy, believed that Kidnapped was the best thing that Stevenson had done.
When David Balfour’s father dies, the only inheritance left his son is a letter to Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, his brother and David’s uncle. Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, delivers the letter to David and tells him that if things do not go well between David and his uncle he is to return to Essendean, where his friends will help him. David sets off in high spirits. The house of Shaw is a great one in the Lowlands of Scotland, and David is eager to take his rightful place in the family from which his father, for some unknown reason, separated himself.
As he approaches the great house, he begins to grow apprehensive. Everyone of whom he asks the way has a curse for the name Shaws and warns him against his uncle. When he arrives at the place, he finds not a great house but a ruin with one wing unfinished and many windows without glass. No friendly smoke comes from the chimneys, and the closed door is studded with heavy nails.
David finds his Uncle Ebenezer even more forbidding than the house, and he begins to suspect that his uncle cheated his father out of his rightful inheritance. When his uncle tries to kill him, he is convinced of Ebenezer’s villainy. His uncle promises to take David to Mr. Rankeillor, the family lawyer, to get the true story of David’s inheritance, and they set out for Queen’s Ferry. Before they reach the lawyer’s office, David is tricked by Ebenezer and Captain Hoseason into boarding the Covenant, and the ship sails away with David a prisoner, bound for slavery in the American colonies.
At first, he lives in filth and starvation in the bottom of the ship. The only person who befriends him is Mr. Riach, the second officer. Later, he finds...
(The entire section is 1,602 words.)