By the time Robert Louis Stevenson published his first novel, Treasure Island, the golden age of Victorianism in England was over. The British Empire was far-flung and great, but the masses of England had more immediate concerns. The glory of the Union Jack gave small comfort to members of the working class who were barely able to keep their heads above water. If earlier novelists wrote for middle-class readers, those of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century revolted against the cultural domination of that class. Turning to realism, they dealt with the repression caused by a crushing environment. Stevenson, however, disdained moral and intellectual topics, preferring the thin, brisk, sunny atmosphere of romance. Consequently, he stands apart from such figures as Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, and George Gissing.
In “A Humble Remonstrance,” Stevenson spoke of the function of a writer of romance as being “bound to be occupied, not so much in making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in capturing the lineament of each fact, as in marshalling all of them to a common end.” Perhaps, then, Stevenson should be seen not simply as an antirealistic writer of romance but as a writer whose conception of realism was different from that of his contemporaries.
In his study of Stevenson, Edwin Eigner points out that the novelist’s heroes are drawn from real life and are usually failures. Moreover, says Eigner, “very few of the characters, whether good or evil, manage even to fail greatly.” Stevenson himself wrote in his essay “Reflection and Remarks on Human Life” that “our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail, in good spirits.” His own ill health may have caused him to see life in terms of conflict, and in his case a conflict that he could not win. This element of failure adds a somber dimension to Stevenson’s romances—a note of reality, as it were, to what otherwise might have been simply adventure fiction. It is the element of adventure superimposed on reality that gives Stevenson’s writing its peculiar character. A writer’s stories, he remarked, “may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the daydream.” In doing this, the writer’s greatest challenge, according to Stevenson, is to give “body and blood” to his stories. Setting, circumstance, and character must all fall into place to give a story the power to make an impression on the mind of the reader—“to put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up at one blow our capacity for sympathetic pleasure.” In this way a story becomes more than merely literature; it becomes art.
Stevenson regarded the tales of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century) as perfect examples of the storyteller’s art: tales that could captivate readers in childhood and delight them in old age. Such was the goal that he sought in his own works: to bring readers to the stories as involved spectators who do not shy away from the unpleasantries or the villainy, but find in witnessing them the same pleasure they do in witnessing the more optimistic and uplifting aspects of the piece. Perhaps this is Stevenson’s greatest achievement: He illustrates with his stories a sometimes forgotten truth—“Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child.”
“If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day,” Stevenson wrote in a letter to Sidney Colvin on August 25, 1881. He was...
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speaking ofTreasure Island, the novel on which he was then at work. He need not have worried, for since its publication it has been a favorite of children everywhere—and, indeed, of many adults. Stevenson wrote the book, according to his own account, in two bursts of creative activity of about fifteen days each. “My quickest piece of work,” he said. The novel was begun as an amusement for his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, then twelve years old. Upon its completion in November of 1881, it was serialized in the magazine Young Folks; as it did not raise the periodical’s circulation to any degree, it was not considered particularly successful. The book was an altogether different story, however.
As a tale of adventure, Treasure Island stands as one of the best. Buried treasure has always had an aura of mystery and intrigue about it, and this case is no exception. Young Jim Hawkins is the hero of the novel; the adventure starts when Bill Bones, an old seaman, comes to Jim’s father’s inn, the Admiral Benbow, to wait for a one-legged seaman, who does not arrive. Bones does have two other visitors: a seaman named Black Dog, whom he chases away after a fight, and a deformed blind man named Pew, who gives him the black spot, the pirates’ death notice. Bones is so frightened that he dies of a stroke. In the meantime, Jim’s father has also died, leaving Jim and his mother alone. Opening Bones’s locker, they find an oilskin packet that Jim gives to Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey.
Finding in the packet a treasure map, Trelawney and Livesey decide to outfit a ship and seek the treasure. Jim is invited to come along as cabin boy. Just before they sight the island where the treasure is supposed to be, Jim overhears the ship’s cook, the one-legged Long John Silver, and some of the crew plotting a mutiny. When Silver and a party are sent ashore, Jim smuggles himself along to spy on them.
When Trelawney and Livesey learn of Silver’s duplicity, they decide to take the loyal crew members and occupy a stockade they have discovered on the island, leaving the ship to the pirates. Unable to take the stockade, Silver offers a safe passage home to its defenders in return for the treasure map. The offer is refused, and, after another attack, the party in the stockade is reduced to Trelawney, Livesey, Captain Smollett, and Jim. Jim rows to the ship, shoots the only pirate on board, and then beaches the ship. Returning to the stockade, he finds his friends gone and Silver and the pirates in control. Silver saves Jim’s life from the other pirates and reveals the treasure map, which Dr. Livesey had given him secretly when the former had come to treat some of the wounded pirates. What Silver does not know is that Ben Gunn, the lone resident of the island, has already found the treasure and moved it to his own quarters. When the pirates find no treasure, they turn on Jim and Silver, but Gunn and Jim’s friends arrive in time to rescue them. The ship is floated by the tide, and Jim, his friends, and Silver leave the island. Silver jumps ship with only a bag of coins for his efforts, but the rest of the group divide the treasure. “Drink and the devil had done for the rest.”
Though Jim may be the hero of the novel, it is Long John Silver who dominates the book. He is an ambiguous character, capable of murder, greed, and double-dealing on one hand and magnanimity on the other. He was Stevenson’s favorite character—and the one who ultimately raises the book from a pedestrian adventure story to a timeless, mythically resonant tale that has absorbed generations of readers. The unifying theme of Treasure Island is people’s desire for wealth. Trelawney and Livesey may be more moral in society’s eyes than Silver, but their motivation is certainly no higher. As for Jim, he cannot, like Silver, give a belly laugh in the face of such a world and go off seeking another adventure. One such adventure is enough for Jim, and that one he would rather forget.
The Black Arrow
Serialized in Young Folks in 1883, The Black Arrow was labeled by Stevenson as “tushery,” a term he and William Henley used for romantic adventures written for the market. In a letter to Henley in May, 1883, he said, “Ay, friend, a whole tale of tushery. And every tusher tushes me so free, that may I be tushed if the whole thing is worth a tush.” Stevenson had hopes, however, that The Black Arrow would strike a more receptive note in Young Folks than did Treasure Island, and in this respect, his hopes were realized.
Though it lacks the depth of Treasure Island, The Black Arrow was enormously popular in its time and does not deserve its critical neglect. Set in the fifteenth century against the background of a minor battle of the Wars of the Roses and the appearance of the infamous Richard, duke of Gloucester, the story recounts the adventures of Dick Shelton as he attempts to outwit his scheming guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley. An unscrupulous man, Sir Daniel has fought first on one side of the war and then on the other, adding to his own lands by securing the wardships of children orphaned by the war.
Planning to marry Dick to Joanna Sedley, an orphaned heiress, Sir Daniel has ridden away to take charge of the girl. In his absence, Moat House, his estate, is attacked by a group of outlaws led by a man with the mysterious name of John Amend-All, who pins a message to the church door of Moat House swearing vengeance on Sir Daniel and others for killing Dick’s father, Henry Shelton.
Dick, deciding to remain quiet until he can learn more of the matter, sets out to inform Sir Daniel of the attack. In the meantime, Joanna, dressed as a boy, has eluded Sir Daniel. On his way back to Moat House, Dick meets Joanna in the guise of “John Matcham.” Unaware that Sir Daniel has planned the marriage and unaware that John is Joanna, Dick offers to help his companion reach the abbey at Holywood. They eventually arrive at Moat House, where Dick learns that John is really Joanna and that his own life is in danger. He escapes and, after a lengthy series of intrigues and adventures, saves the life of Richard of York, duke of Gloucester, and rescues Joanna from Sir Daniel, who is killed by Ellis Duckworth (John Amend-All). Dick then marries Joanna and settles at Moat House.
As an adventure story, The Black Arrow is thoroughly successful. The movement from episode to episode is swift, and the reader has little opportunity to lose interest. The love story between Dick and Joanna is deftly handled, with Joanna herself a delightfully drawn character. Still, the novel does not venture beyond the realm of pure adventure. Like many adventure stories, it is often contrived and trivial, but this fact does not detract from its readability.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Stories and theories abound regarding the writing of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In “A Chapter of Dreams” (1888), Stevenson himself gave an account of the composition of the novel, explaining that “for two days I went about racking my brain for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window; and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. All the rest was made awake, and consciously.” The whole, according to Stevenson, was written and revised within a ten-week period.
The novel is based on the idea of the double personality in every person, an idea with which Stevenson had long been concerned. Referring to Jekyll, he said to Will H. Low, a painter, that “I believe you will find he is quite willing to answer to the name of Low or Stevenson.” Not the first to use the idea in literature, Stevenson does give it a different twist. Hyde is not the double of the sinner, a conscience as it were; rather, as one reviewer put it, Hyde is a personality of “hideous caprices, and appalling vitality, a terrible power of growth and increase.”
As the story opens, Richard Enfield and Mr. Utterson, a lawyer, are discussing the activities of a Mr. Hyde, who has recently trampled down a small child. Both friends of Dr. Henry Jekyll, they are perturbed that the latter has named Hyde as heir in his will. A year later, Hyde is wanted for a murder, but he escapes. Soon after, Dr. Jekyll’s servant Poole tells Utterson of strange goings-on in his employer’s laboratory. He is concerned that possibly Jekyll has been slain. Poole and Utterson break into the laboratory and find a man dead from poison. The man is Edward Hyde. A note in the laboratory contains Jekyll’s confession of his double identity.
Early in life, he had begun leading a double existence: a public life of convention and gentility and a private life of unrestrained vice. Finally, he discovered a potion that transformed him physically into Edward Hyde, his evil self. Though Jekyll wanted desperately to be rid of Hyde, he was not strong enough to overcome his evil side. He finally closed himself in his laboratory, seeking a drug that would eliminate Hyde. Failing in his search, he committed suicide.
As an exploration into the darkest recesses of the human mind, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is skillfully constructed. Not only are Jekyll and Hyde presented in a haunting fashion, but Utterson also is a character brought clearly to life. The plot, sensational though it is, does not rely on the standard gothic claptrap to hold the reader. On the contrary, the story is subtly undertold, and the reader is drawn into the horror of it by Stevenson’s penetrating imagination and his easy mastery of language and style. The reader, said one reviewer, “feels that the same material might have been spun out to cover double the space and still have struck him as condensed and close knit workmanship. It is one of those rare fictions which make one understand the value of temperance in art.”
Stevenson completed Kidnapped in the spring of 1886, intending it originally as a potboiler, and it surely has all the ingredients of high adventure: a stolen inheritance, a kidnapping, a battle at sea, and several murders. Having gained an interest in Scottish history from his travels through the Highlands, Stevenson used as his principal source of historical information Trial of James Stewart (1753), a factual account of the 1752 Appin murder trial.
Kidnapped is the story of David Balfour, whose only inheritance from his father is a letter to Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, David’s uncle. On the way to see Mr. Rankeillor, the family lawyer, to get the true story of the inheritance, David is tricked and sent off on a ship for slavery in the American colonies. He meets Alan Breck, an enemy of the monarch because of his part in a rebellion against King George, and, though David is loyal to the king, the two become fast and true friends. Escaping from the ship, they have numerous adventures, finally returning to Scotland, where David learns the truth of the inheritance. His father and uncle had both loved the same woman; when David’s father married the woman (David’s mother), he generously gave up his inheritance to his brother Ebenezer. Ebenezer knew that such an arrangement would not hold up legally, and thus he tried to kill David. David accepts Ebenezer’s offer of two-thirds of the income from the inheritance, and, with the money, he helps Alan reach safety from the king’s soldiers who are pursuing him.
Kidnapped is rich in its depiction of the Scottish Highlands, and the novel’s dialogue is particularly effective. The contrast between David, a Lowlander and a Whig, and Alan, a Highlander and a Jacobite, for example, is well drawn. Ignoring their differences, the two, like Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), prove that their friendship is more important than geographical and political differences.
Whatever Stevenson thought of Kidnapped, his friend Edmund Gosse thought it the “best piece of fiction that you have done.” Many would argue with Gosse’s statement. While it perhaps has more human interest than does Treasure Island, it lacks the sharpness and force of Stevenson’s masterpiece.
The Master of Ballantrae
Although not as well known as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae is considered by many to be Stevenson’s best novel. Stevenson himself saw it as a “most seizing tale,” a “human tragedy.” Despite his preoccupation with character delineation in the story, he still regales the reader with a plethora of adventurous incidents. Set in eighteenth century Scotland, The Master of Ballantrae recounts the story of two brothers as they compete for title and love. When Stuart the Pretender returns to Scotland in 1745 to claim the English throne, Lord Durrisdeer decides to send one son to fight with Stuart and to keep one at home, hoping that way to make his estate secure regardless of the outcome of the struggle. James, Master of Ballantrae and his father’s heir, joins Stuart, and Henry remains behind. When news of Stuart’s defeat and James’s death comes, Henry becomes Master of Ballantrae. He marries Alison Graeme, who had been betrothed to James.
James, however, is not dead, and, after adventures in America and France, returns to Scotland. Goading Henry and pressing his attentions on Alison, James soon angers his brother to the point of a midnight duel. Henry thinks that he has killed James, but again the latter escapes death—this time going to India. He surprises Henry once more by showing up alive at Durrisdeer. Taking his family, Henry secretly leaves for America, but James, with his Indian servant Secundra Dass, follows. Searching for treasure that he buried on his previous trip to America, James falls sick and dies, but Henry, thinking his brother able to return at will from death, goes to the grave one night and sees Secundra Dass performing strange ministrations over James’s exhumed body. Although the servant is unable to revive James, Henry believes that he sees his brother’s eyes flutter and dies from heart failure. Thus, both Masters of Ballantrae are united in death.
The Master of Ballantrae, perhaps more than any other of Stevenson’s novels, goes beyond the bounds of a mere adventure story. Adventure is a key element in the book, but the characters of James and Henry Durie are drawn with such subtlety and insight that the novel takes on dimensions not usually found in Stevenson’s works. Like Long John Silver in Treasure Island, James Durie is not an ordinary villain. Henry, who moves from a kind of pathetic passivity in the first part of the novel to a villainy of his own, is unable to assume the true role of Master of Ballantrae. Overmatched and possessed by James, he lacks the dash and charm and strength of personality that makes the latter the real Master of Ballantrae. “In James Durie,” wrote one reviewer, “Mr. Stevenson has invented a new villain, and has drawn him with a distinction of touch and tone worthy of Vandyke.” With all the attributes of a hateful fiend, James nevertheless has a wit and a courage that are captivating.
Perhaps the novel does, as Stevenson himself feared, leave the reader with an impression of unreality. Still, whatever its shortcomings, The Master of Ballantrae has all the trademarks of Stevenson’s fiction: an intricately and imaginatively designed plot, power of style, clear evocation of scene, and lifelike characters.G. K. Chesterton wrote of Stevenson that he was the “first writer to treat seriously and poetically the aesthetic instincts of the boy.” In his own way, Stevenson contributed a fair number of readable and memorable works to the English literary heritage, and that heritage is the richer for it.