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.


Lemon in the sugar: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine

Bradbury 1This was a surprise. I picked up a paperback copy of this novel because I’ve been thinking for some time that I ought to be rereading Bradbury and bought the first one I found. I paid very little for it, because clumps of pages were already falling out: it was clearly a much loved copy. I was expecting 1950s science fiction: I read a novel about 1920s small-town mid-West life from a schoolboy’s perspective, completely soused in what we’d now call a Spielbergian wash of sentiment and cosiness. It would have been sickeningly sweet had it not been for the murders, the unknown stalker after dark, and the very curious beginning in which Douglas Spaulding sets the summer going by turning off all the town lights before dawn by puffing into the air.

These moments of horror and fantasy do most of the work to prevent Dandelion Wine turning into a mush of all-American family gloop like The Waltons, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I enjoyed and read Dandelion Wine right through to the end, whereas I have tried twice to read Winesburg Ohio because it is a modern American classic and has been reprinted oodles of times by respectable literary publishers, to force down the gullets of America’s schoolchildren, but it was dreary, pretentious toil. Dandelion Wine needs the touches of darkness to ground its fantastical, lush prose and the spectacular inner life experienced by Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, and his younger brother Tom.

Bradbury 2Like Winesburg Ohio, Dandelion Wine is a series of linked vignettes and moments in the summer of 1928 in Greenville, Illinois. When Doug has an existential awakening and realises that he is actually, really and truly alive, the summer kicks off and wonders begin to happen. Some are small-scale and merely friendly: when the trolley bus is about to be retired, before the buses come in, the driver takes the town’s children on a picnic to use all the lines for the last time, right through into the woods and countryside.

Several are sympathetic but tough about getting old, and its failures. Journalist Bill Forrester falls in love with Helen Loomis from her photo in the local paper where he has come to work, but he hasn’t realised that the paper has been using this photo for nigh-on seventy years. They keep company every afternoon for a fortnight, talking about everything, and she takes him travelling with her in her memories. An old lady who has hoarded and kept everything she once owned is shocked when the little girls who play in her back yard refuse to believe that she was ever as young as they. They take her gifts and come back for more, but they won’t believe she is anything except the shrivelled old woman on the doorstop, calling plaintively for someone to remember her.

Bradbury 3Two maiden ladies decide impulsively to buy an electric car, and drive it joyously through the streets until somehow one of their neighbours falls under its wheels. They hide in their house, terrified and ashamed, and only believe they haven’t committed murder when there isn’t anything about it in the paper. A colonel of the Civil War lives in a house with no furniture, only a bed and telephone, which he uses to ring his friend Jorge in Mexico City, and listen to the sounds of the street life that he will never see again.

And then there is horror, a shocking, sensational event in the summer idyll. Lavinia Nubbs defies the murders committed by the nameless and faceless Lonely One, and walks home right through the ravine at night on her way back from the movies. She and Francine have discovered Rosmary’s body there earlier on their way to the movie theatre, but once the police were called, Lavinia refused to give in to fear and dragged her friends out to laugh and be happy like they’d planned. Even when The Lonely One does confront her, she will not be intimidated.

Bradbury 6All these stories affect Doug’s awareness of passing time, now that he can see himself in a stream of time rather than always in the one place at the same age. The fact that someday people won’t be here any longer, that death happens, even to his grandmother, is the central theme. It’s a marvellous and enriching novel, with plenty of oddness to sharpen the taste.



Rose Macaulay’s Potterism

PotterismI wrote this podcast for Why I Really Like This Book for a miniseries called Fictions about Newspapers. Journalism is something I’ve dabbled in enough to know that I’m no good at it. I can write reviews, but I have no nous when it comes to news, and I am not hard-boiled. But I do like reading about journalists who know how to ask hard questions and can anticipate the value of information received. British journalism changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century, with a population growing in literacy demanding more and more newspapers to read. The number of newspapers on the British market doubled during the First World War, and new technology made them easier and faster to read. The practices of gathering news, and what you did with it also changed. This is why I find this novel by Rose Macaulay so enjoyable.

Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919
Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919

Potterism, from 1920, is about arrogance, snobbery and egotism. It’s a perfect exposure of a world where writing for the newspapers was simply normal for a certain class of society who expected to have the right to express their views for the benefit of the paying public. This class was, of course, made up of people from the upper classes who went to university (for which read Oxford or Cambridge: no other university, for Macaulay’s class, existed), and who emerged with ideals and expectations quite different to those held by those who bought the papers they deigned to write for. You can tell I don’t like them very much: it’s difficult to like many of the characters in this novel since nearly all of them are satirical portraits created by Macaulay to vent some spleen. She herself was an upper-class, well-educated and well-connected member of the literati, but she never took herself as seriously as the monsters she created in this novel. She wrote hundreds of articles and book reviews, as well as poetry and novels, and had earned her living by writing since before the war, yet, or, perhaps because of this, her writing never betrays the pompousness or greed or self-deluding emotionalism in which the characters in this novel are drenched.

Forget me NotMr Potter is a newspaper proprietor, and is the nicest and most admirable character in the novel: hard-working, honest, reliable, and principled. He is married to Mrs Potter, also known as Leila Yorke, for she is a novelist, though she calls herself an artist, and everyone else would call her a hack writer. She churns out the same stuff year after year for a cheerful public who just want to read the same thing book after book. She began her career writing romantic novelettes for late Victorian fiction magazines like Forget-Me-Not, and this is one of the reasons I like this novel so much: Macaulay wraps her invention up in real-life publishing history, since Forget-Me-Not really existed. Mrs Potter is in the ranks of the second-rate and the trashy, whether she likes it or not. She is a crashing snob, and a casual, careless anti-Semite. This unpleasantness emerges quite easily and naturally in her chatter whenever she has anything to do with the Jewish hero of the novel: Arthur Gideon. He is so opposed to what the Potter newspaper empire is doing to the minds of the masses that he sets up the Anti-Potterism League in an idealistic effort to combat what he thinks are their wrong values. Gideon stands for the first-rate and the hard-won-by truths that he thinks the public need to know, whereas Mr Potter is happy to publish the second-rate and the products of sloppy thinking because that is what the public want and will pay for. Gideon follows his dream by setting up his own newspaper, a rival to the products of the Potter empire, called the Weekly Fact, which is just that: facts, and no opinions. Mr Potter knows that it won’t last, because the egos of those who write for it will be lured by more money for writing trash, and will never be able to withstand the temptation to strut about in public.

Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton
Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer who published her novels exclusively in the Daily Mail, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton

Two of the Anti-Potterism League’s keenest supporters are two of Mr Potter’s own children, the twins Jane and Johnny Potter. This says quite a lot about their characters, for it is a brave thing to publicly deny, and also sneer at and criticise, the works of the business that paid for your education and give you a private income while you’re still thinking about taking a job. These twins are simple and straightforward; they want what they can get, and their lives are constructed about seeing that they get what they want. When Jane doesn’t want to see someone who also visits her friend Katherine, she simply tells Katherine to ask that someone not to visit her any more, so Jane can carry on visiting. So simple, when you have no scruples. After the war ends, Johnny finds work easily, while Jane has to make do with a secretarial job at her father’s office, where she meets the assistant editor Oliver Hobart, with whom her elder sister Clare is in love. Jane hardly notices what Clare might be thinking: she sees Oliver as an opportunity for rising in the world, and decides to marry the important young assistant editor when he asks her. Macaulay is careful to let us know, several times, that Oliver was exempted from serving in the war due to his nationally important work on the Potter press. In the work of most novelists writing at this time, this would be character assassination, but with Macaulay, her satire being both so delicate and blunt, we are not quite sure what we are to think of him. It is indicative enough that he is a disposable character.

another tabloid lead story, 1926
another tabloid lead story, 1926

Arthur Gideon is the hero, since he has most honesty and sticks most firmly to his principles. He is also the most interesting character, since he has most to struggle against. His own family, though pleasant, are a mixed blessing, since his father is a Russian Jewish refugee with terrible memories that he won’t tell his son about, and his mother, like Mrs Potter, is a casual blonde English anti-Semite who blithely calls her children Yids, and lazily objects to her daughter marrying another Russian Jew. Outside the family circle, Gideon struggles against lazy thinking and lazy-mindedness, and endures being accused of pushing Oliver Hobart down the stairs because he is shielding someone else. He doesn’t realise that he is loved by yet a third person, because his eyes are dazzled by his own love for someone unworthy. Oh, it’s a tangled mess that he makes of his life, but he is most admirable in his stoicism and qualities of endurance, and in his conduct towards another family of Russian Jews. His missing foot, lost in the war, is barely mentioned, but this is as strongly symbolic of his character – in this period of fiction, any man with a war wound was automatically a hero – as Oliver’s lack of a war record is of his.

The Anti-Potterism League fails, in the end, because Gideon learns to like Mr Potter while despising his works, and then events overtake his plans of reforming the newspaper world. But we have not been much interested in the posturing of this self-appointed league of university graduates with more attitude than sense. We are far more interested in the ghastly attitudes and manipulative deviousness of Mrs Potter, who Macaulay satirises by using her diary as a means of telling part of the story. Every half-truth is revealed. Every evasion and self-delusion is set out neatly, and Mrs Potter stands revealed as a loathsome egotist. She talks to a medium about a murder, comes away with a vision of the man she had first wanted to be suspected as the killer, and promptly sets about slandering him up and down the town, based on no evidence at all. She recalls all she has heard of this man in her diary, and interjects slurs and suppositions in between the facts: she really is a writer of fiction, and does not notice or care that her fiction is intruding in real life.

MacaulayThroughout all this, Mr Potter’s papers sell to the public what the public want to read, and do very well out of it, as does he. Gideon’s paper sells facts, and nobody, in the end, really wants to read facts. They just want to read about a bride’s suicide or the death of a baronet. There’s no accounting for taste, only human nature.

If you fancy trying a related Rose Macaulay novel after this one, have a go at the savage and bitter Crewe Train. Where Potterism is about newspapers, Crewe Train is about celebrity culture and the gossip that ruins people lives being used for a little momentary gain at a party. People feed off other people in Crewe Train, all for the sake of personal gratification, and to make sure no-one breaks free of this goldfish bowl way of life. Not much has really changed in the London literary world.