The Master of Ballantrae

Ballantrae

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Finished on: 12 June 2016

Where did I get this book: A birthday present from my sister last year

If I were to be marooned on a desert island with the works of only one writer, I think I would choose Robert Louis Stevenson. I love his stories; I love the way he frames his stories in layers of explanation as to how and why they have come to be documented; I love the way he builds tension, but also makes you feel all looked after, through addressing the reader; but most of all I love the way he loves an adventure. His plots are outstanding, but his writing wrings out every drop of excitement and  drama to the extent that even a trip to the shop to buy milk would feel like the greatest show on earth.

The labours of Hercules, so finely described by Homer, were a trifle to what we now underwent. Some parts of the forest were perfectly dense down to the ground, so that we must cut our way like mites in a cheese. In some the bottom was full of deep swamp, and the whole wood entirely rotten. I have leapt on a great fallen log and sunk to the knees in touchwood; I have sought to say myself, in falling, against what looked to be a solid trunk, and the whole thing has whiffed away at my touch like a sheet of paper. Stumbling, falling, bogging to the knees, hewing our way, our eyes almost put out with twigs and branches, our clothes plucked from our bodies, we laboured all day.

It has become my habit when reading a book, knowing that I will be writing about it for this blog, to take photos with my phone of any particularly good or interesting passages. And as I read this, sitting next to my husband on the sofa as he enjoyed what I think was his twelfth Euro 2016 football match of the day, he turned and laughed at me “Are you going to take a picture of every single page of that book?” Because the truth is, you could pick practically any page or any passage, and it would be both beautifully written and exciting.

I think it was the third day that we found the body of a Christian, scalped and most abominably mangled, and lying in a pudder of his blood; the birds of the desert screaming over him, as thick as flies.

Only two things are to be noted. And first (as most important for my purpose) that the Master in the course of miseries buried his treasure, at a point never since discovered, but of which he took a drawing in hs own blood in the lining of his hat. And second, that on his coming thus penniless to the Fort, he was welcomed like a brother by the Chevalier, who thence paid his way to France.

The Master of Ballantrae tells the story of the aristocratic Scottish Durie family in the period following the 1745 Jacobite rising. The Lord Durrisdeer has two sons (who are basically Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – although this was written three years after that masterpiece) and apparently as many families did at that time, they took the decision for one to join the rising and one to join the forces loyal to the crown, so that whichever side came out on top they could claim allegiance. The older son (James Durie, or Mr Hyde) joins the Jacobite forces at Culloden, and is thought to have died in that battle. Stevenson frames the story in such a way that we know he will be coming back, so the tension is around when, how, and what havok will be wreaked upon his return.

James is a great character, vile but charismatic, and predictably I liked him much better than the mild-mannered and considerate younger brother (Henry Durie, or Dr Jekyll). And I confess I was willing James to succeed in his devilish schemes. Henry suffers by being just a bit dull by comparison (although he does become more interesting when his sanity starts to fail him). Their adventures take us across several continents to an ending which is nothing short of brilliant. Absolutely bloody brilliant.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I quite like Robert Louis Stevenson.

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