Great swashbuckling: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped

RLS 1Allow Robert Louis Stevenson to give you a swashbuckling time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. Kidnapped (1886) is the classic romp through the heather by the master of the modern Scottish adventure, though it’s set in 1746. Stevenson dragged the historical novel out of the rather long-winded grip of Sir Walter Scott, and made it immediate, exciting and relatively fast. Later writers would speed up the narrative even more, but for readers in the 1880s, Kidnapped was a revelation of thrills and excitement, to be gobbled up quickly. The quality of his writing ensured that it could be enjoyed again and again. Stevenson may not strike modern readers as particularly fast, but, compared to Scott, he was super-fast, instant gratification for the fin de siècle.

For those familiar with Scottish history, the setting of 1746 will tell you exactly what kind of novel Kidnapped is going to be. 1745 was the year of the Rebellion, or the Uprising, depending on which side you were on, between the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause to get a Roman Catholic monarch back on the throne of Britain. Prince Charles Edward was the grandson of the former James III, the younger brother of Charles II, who had been invited to leave his country in 1689 by his son-in-law, William of Orange, who brought a Protestant army into England with the blessing of his wife, James’ daughter Mary, and who ruled with Mary as the ‘Protestant Kings’ for the last years of the seventeenth century. Still with me? Good. The point is, James was thrown off the throne for being Catholic, and remained a king in exile on the continent, with his son and then his grandson regarding themselves as the exiled rightful monarchs of Britain. This boiled up into attempted Scottish uprisings and invasions of England in 1715, and then in 1745. The Highland clans were fervently in support of Prince Charles Edward, but when he was sent into permanent exile after the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1745, the English Protestant establishment, under the Hanoverian King George II, made sure that the Highland clans were persecuted and impoverished sufficiently to remove any threat of a further uprising.

Poster for the 1995 film

All that history is necessary to understand what Kidnapped is about. It’s also necessary for understanding that the Scotland of Kidnapped is full of impoverished Highland gentlemen and their clansmen, speaking more Gaelic and French than English, with no money to their name, but comporting themselves as the proud owners of a great tradition, detesting the English and the Whigs, the supporters of George II. Such gentlemen wear swords as a matter of course to show their rank in life as well as their fearsome skill in defending their lives. They carry pistols that need to be primed and reloaded after each charge has been fired. They wear fine coats and waistcoats, wigs if they can get them, carry snuff which they offer to other gentlemen as a compliment and as an acknowledgement of rank and gentility, and they regard fighting a duel over a point of honour or losing all their money in a game of cards as a perfectly reasonable way to behave, in fact the only way to behave, as a gentleman.

So what IS Kidnapped about? It begins, as it says on the tin, with a kidnapping. After the death of his father, a poor schoolmaster, David Balfour sets off to seek his fortune by going to ask his uncle, whom he’s never met, for help. His uncle is a very unpleasant miser, who seems unsurprised to see David, and gives him a pile of guineas which he says is David’s rightful share of the estate. Anyone with experience of the traditional miser of folklore will immediately see that a miser handing over 30 guineas without visible pain must means that a great deal more is actually due, and there is dirty work afoot. David is not suspicious enough, but he is only 17, after all, and has very little knowledge of the world. He has so little knowledge that he willingly goes on board a ship at the invitation of its captain and the encouragement of his uncle, to have a look round, because he’s never seen a ship before. And, wham, he gets a crack on the head, and is kidnapped, to be taken across the Atlantic to be sold as a slave in the Carolinas.

RLS 3What a mess to get into on your first foray into the world. But, despite seeing murder done on board the ship, David experience even more drama when the ship runs down a small boat in a heavy sea. The sailors all go to the bottom, but the passenger leaps up, grabs the bowsprit to lift himself up out of the sea and pulls himself to safety. That’s a remarkable feat of agility and strength to introduce this passenger, a very important character, but it’s only described in one brief sentence in the novel, whereas in a film it would be fanfared with epic music and a snappy one-liner. Enter Alan Breck Stewart, a Highland gentleman, an officer of the King of France while in exile, and a rent collector for his clan chief, returning to France with a belt full of guineas gathered in secret from loyal clansmen and tenants for the support of their chief. Being a gentleman, Alan Breck fails to realise that mentioning his belt of gold to the ship’s captain might be foolish, and so when David overhears the captain plotting with the ship’s officers to kill Alan for his money, he takes Alan’s side, and joins him in the epic defence of the roundhouse, the cabin on deck. This is a great scene of expert swordsmanship from Alan, and inexpert pistol-shooting from David, in which they kill and wound enough of the attackers to ensure that a truce is called before the ship has no-one left alive on board to sail it. But it’s too late. The ship founders, David is flung overboard, and after many struggles he finally catches up with Alan on the Scottish mainland.

They are now in trouble. Alan is a wanted man on the mainland, not just by the English army, but also from neighbouring clans who have blood feuds either with Alan, with his chief, or with his side in the Rebellion. Nobody knows or cares about David, but this too changes when he is most unluckily right on the spot when a notorious rent-collector for the king, and a clan chief and one of Alan’s enemies, is shot dead by an unknown assassin, on the hillside road where David has stopped him and his escort of soldiers to ask the way. When David runs up the hill shouting that he’s looking for the murderer, and doesn’t come back, he becomes a prime suspect and accomplice in the Appin murder, and he and Alan’s descriptions are printed on Wanted posters, to be posted all over the Highlands.

RLS 4There follows the spirited tale of their escape from unfriendly territory, travelling by night and on secret paths, through enemy lands and through the cordons of English soldiers. Stevenson, through David, makes it clear that he has no romantic delusions about the rights or wrongs of the Jacobite cause, or that he condones the way the Highlanders live – which may be noble, but is also primitive, improvident, impractical, feudal and backward. He persuades us to admire the way his characters rise above the mundane concerns of the world to live according to the rules of romance, and to uphold honourable behaviour in impossible circumstances. Romance here means the triumph of the spirit over earthly concerns, and Stevenson makes a cracking good job of it. David is not romantic in that sense: he is the dour Lowlander who just wants a quiet life and to do the right thing as a gentleman. Alan gets him back to Edinburgh by employing clever tricks and splendid ruses, and helps him get his estate back with a final tour de force of deceit, something he must have learned from his years of playing cards with the experts. From this model, all successive swashbuckling in the modern historical novel is descended: Anthony Hope, Baroness Orczy, John Buchan, and Georgette Heyer included. They’ll be on in the following weeks.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.