by Jennie Calder

Kidnapped: A Capital Novel

October 28, 2009 | by Jennie Calder

I began it partly as a lark, partly as a potboiler; and suddenly it moved, David and Alan stepped out from the canvas, and I was in another world.” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this in a letter to the critic T Watts-Dunton, who had reviewed Kidnapped in an August 1886 issue of the Athenaeum. Stevenson’s ability to create other worlds is at the heart of his writing, but that skill had to be directed to the business of earning a living. As he put it in the same letter, “Our old friend Byles the butcher was plainly audible tapping at the back door.” Bills had to be paid. “For a man of tentative method, and weak health, and a scarcity of private means, and not too much of that frugality which is the artist’s proper virtue, the days of sinecures and patrons look very golden.”

That particular back door belonged to the house in Bournemouth that Stevenson’s father Thomas had purchased for Louis and his wife Fanny. In their search for an environment kind to his health, they had tried Switzerland and France; now they had settled in the south of England. When Stevenson began work on Kidnapped, early in 1885, he had had some success with Treasure Island, a story unequivocally presented as an adventure tale for boys. But his reputation as a writer was far from secure. Treasure Island started life as a serial in Young Folk magazine, and when Stevenson had another idea for what he hoped would be a money-spinner he tried Young Folk again. The response was an offer of 15 shillings per column and a warning from the editor not to include too much “broad Scotch”; the result was Kidnapped.

Stevenson’s Edinburgh childhood had immersed him in the city’s past, which encompassed every conflict and struggle that had shaped Scotland’s history. This imprinted his cast of mind and inevitably his writing. As a youngster his knowledge of Scotland expanded when he accompanied his lighthouse engineer father on tours of inspection around Scotland’s coast. In 1880 and 1881 he spent summer months in the Highlands, where he wrote the stories ‘Thrawn Janet’ and ‘The Merry Men’, and famously began Treasure Island in a rented cottage in Braemar. He also conceived the idea of embarking on a history of the Highlands, “embracing the 15, and the 45, the collapse of the Clan System, and the causes and growth of existing discontents”. In particular, Stevenson had become intrigued by the Appin murder, the shooting of the Red Fox – Colin Campbell of Glenure – near Ballachulish, for which James Stewart of Aucharn was convicted and hanged. Not only was it a dramatic and unresolved episode, it also drew together much of what he intended his Highland history to explore. The history was never written, but it fuelled Kidnapped, and later work such as The Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston.

It is not just history that is the heartbeat of Kidnapped, but landscape. It is there from the very beginning, when David Balfour sets out from his Border village and follows “the green drove road running wide through the heather”. On the second day of walking he comes in sight of the Firth of Forth and “the city of Edinburgh smoking like a kiln”, and descends into country “pleasantly watered and wooded, and the crops, to my eye, wonderfully good”. In the parish of Cramond he finds the ominous ruin that is the house of Shaws. Within a few days he has been shipwrecked off the west coast and his discovery of a very different kind of terrain begins. The island of Erraid is “nothing but a jumble of granite rocks”, “desert-like and lonesome”. The mountains and moors David subsequently struggles through are to him an aggressive wilderness. Through David, Stevenson links a benign southern landscape with the hostile Highlands, and both with the capital city. In Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, Edinburgh is exposed as a cauldron of conspiracy and political manoeuvre.

Kidnapped is set in 1751, five years after Culloden. Stevenson engages with a divided nation through his two central characters, David Balfour, the Whiggish seventeen-year-old who has never set foot outwith the landlocked parish of his birth, and Alan Breck Stewart, the braggart Highland soldier who survives through courage, cunning and an intimate understanding of the environment through which he moves. Alan guides David not only through a savage landscape but through cultural territory which is entirely foreign to him. If history and the Appin murder are the fuel of this novel, its engine is the relationship between these two characters, sustaining, volatile and emblematic. As Stevenson’s friend Edmund Gosse commented, “It is one of the most human books I ever read.” It is that humanity that transforms the history, and ensures that Kidnapped remains accessible in the twenty-first century.

With Kidnapped, Stevenson found a subject for a full-length novel that he could make his own – although inevitably comparisons were made with Walter Scott. The critical response was generally favourable. An anonymous review in St James’s Gazette praised its ‘mastery of language’ and its “subtle and sympathetic power of compelling attention”. The Spectator reviewer commented that “Mr Stevenson has, so far as we know, written nothing which is more likely to live, and to be a favourite with readers of all sorts and classes”. It wasn’t a huge success in terms of sales, but by the time it began appearing in Young Folks, in May 1886, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had become a best-seller, ensuring that Stevenson would never again have to worry about paying the butcher’s bill (though in fact financial troubles would resurface). It was Kidnapped, however, that made his literary peers take him seriously. Henry James was an admirer. Stevenson was fulfilling the promise that some had detected in his first tentative essays.

For decades now we have rattled off Steven-son’s name in the same breath as those of Burns and Scott. We do not question his position in the triumvirate, though for a long time he has been without the resonance of Burns or the weight of Scott. Jekyll and Hyde have entered the English language, even if not everyone knows who created them, and Treasure Island is available throughout the world. No one expects schoolchildren to read Scott anymore. (I ‘did’ Ivanhoe at an English grammar school. Not a good choice; I much preferred the Scottish novels.) Burns survives through a handful of poems. We are quick to claim our heroes, not so good at examining what they actually achieved.

So the City of Literature proposal of Kidnapped as its first “city book” is welcome and full of potential. October will see 10,000 copies unleashed on Edinburgh schools and the public at large, plus a “retold” version for primary schools, and a graphic version. If the UNESCO City of Literature title means anything, it must embrace both the literary inheritance of present-day Scotland and the responsibility to educate. (I have no problem with different versions of a good story, in words, pictures or moving pictures, provided they are done well.) It must also encourage an environment which fosters an enthusiasm for books. Six years ago, Little Rock in Arkansas embarked on something similar. Under the auspices of the Central Arkansas Library System, it organised a four-day festival to mark the 150th anniversary of Stevenson’s birth. As part of this, Little Rock schools read Jekyll and Hyde, and I spoke about Stevenson to a packed hall at the Central High School. I have never addressed a more exuberant audience – at the end of my talk I was mobbed by fourteen-year-olds. If Kidnapped can generate half this excitement in the city that nourished and inspired its author, EUCL will have done well.

Is it the right book? It’s been suggested that Jekyll and Hyde would have been more appropriate. Its appeal and its continuing relevance cannot be questioned, and though set in Lon-don it is permeated with Edinburgh. But for Scottish readers Kidnapped is the right choice. It is a vivid tale rooted in Scotland. It is a short novel that takes us on an epic journey by water and land from the door of a manse to the door of a bank, institutions that might be said to bookend Scottish character. In the process it maps a large chunk of Scotland, topographically, politically and socially. The novel encompasses Lowland and Highland, commerce and exploitation, community and individualism, loyalty and treachery, courage and desperation. It is about crossing frontiers and the power of friendship. It is about the differences contained within one small nation, and the need to transcend them. Above all, it is a captivating story underpinned with irony, skilfully devised and deftly executed.

But this project should not be about reading just one book. Whatever pleasure and understanding that experience provides, if it ends with closing the covers of Kidnapped it will not have succeeded. Kidnapped is a gateway. It leads into the works of Stevenson, of course. Perhaps readers will pick up Catriona and continue the story of David Balfour and his involvement with the Appin murder, or return to the Jacobites with The Master of Ballantrae. Perhaps they will follow Stevenson across the Atlantic with The Amateur Emigrant and on to the Pacific with The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide. But Kidnapped is also a gateway to the whole range of historical fiction, which is such a rich and distinctive vein of Scottish narrative. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian might come next, but what about the work of current writers of historical novels, such as Margaret Elphinstone and James Robertson? And Kidnapped takes us into history itself, and its origins in landscape. It’s a great beginning to the process of reclaiming Scotland’s past, which is essential to recovering a confident identity.

For this reason, I would take readers of Kidnapped to the Hawes Inn in South Queens-ferry, from where David is lured onto the brig Covenant and which Stevenson always intended as a locus for fiction. I would have them stand on the Hawes pier and look out over the firth, in David’s time filled with shipping, and urge them to recapture his excitement: “the spirit of all that I beheld put me in thoughts of far voyages and foreign places”. I would remind them that the Forth was once a highway to Europe and the Americas, which connected Scotland to the world, as well as the river that “bridles the wild Highlandman”. I would suggest that although Stevenson never set eyes on the Forth Rail Bridge, which was completed three years after he left Scot-land, his engineering background would have ensured his admiration. And I would say that the best books have radial lines that connect with the past and the present, and penetrate barriers of language and preconception, and how better to understand that than on the edge of the city of Edinburgh with Robert Louis Stevenson at your shoulder and Kidnapped in your hand?

At the end of Kidnapped David and Alan part on Corstorphine Hill, now commemorated by Sandy Stoddart’s bronze figures of the two of them. They have shared extreme hardship and danger, and have been near to death. Alan heads for the ship that will take him to safety, David for the city where his rightful fortune awaits him. “Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one backward glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke, and cry and weep like any baby.” David is as lost in Edinburgh as he was on the island of Erraid. This time, salvation lies not with Alan Breck but with the British Linen Bank.

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