My experiences with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson so far have been mixed. I liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although knowing the basic plot beforehand spoiled it slightly; I gave up on Kidnapped halfway through (but would like to give it another chance); and while I did read Treasure Island as a child, it was an abridged version for children, and I have no idea what I would think of the book as an adult. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Master of Ballantrae, then, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it.
Published in 1889, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale is set much earlier, opening in Scotland in 1745, just before the Jacobite Rising. When news of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Scotland reaches the Duries of Durrisdeer and Ballantrae, the family must decide what to do. There is no question of Lord Durrisdeer himself joining the rebellion, but his two sons – James Durie (the Master of Ballantrae), his eldest son and heir, and Henry, his younger brother – are both keen to go. A coin is tossed and it is decided, to Henry’s disappointment, that the Master will join the Jacobites while Henry stays at home and remains loyal to King George. This way, the family titles and estates will be safe no matter which side wins.
As history tells us, the rising will fail – and it is not long before the Duries receive reports that James has been killed. Henry becomes heir in his brother’s place and, at his father’s urging, marries the Master’s grieving fiancée, Alison. These are difficult times for Henry: his neighbours see him as a traitor for not taking part in the rising, and he knows that his father and wife will never stop mourning for James, always the favourite son. But things are about to get a lot worse for Henry – it seems that the Master of Ballantrae is not dead after all and is about to come home to Durrisdeer to take his revenge.
The Master of Ballantrae has all the elements of a typical adventure story – duels, pirates, sea voyages, buried treasure – but it is also a fascinating psychological novel about the relationship between two very different brothers. James, the Master, is the charming, charismatic brother whom everyone seems to love, yet he is also devious, scheming and manipulative. Henry is his opposite – quiet, responsible and dutiful, but less glamorous and less popular. At first it seems that this is another Jekyll and Hyde story, with one character representing good and the other evil, but it soon becomes obvious that it is not as simple as this and Henry’s personality begins to change as his obsession with his brother starts to rule his life.
We get to know these two men from the perspective of Ephraim Mackellar, a family servant at Durrisdeer, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mackellar is not a very reliable narrator. It is clear from the start that he is loyal to Henry and his narration is definitely biased towards the younger brother, but whenever he spends time alone with the Master his opinion seems to change slightly and he is able to acknowledge that the elder brother also has some good points as well as bad.
Not all aspects of The Master of Ballantrae worked as well for me as others: the purely ‘adventure’ scenes, such as the encounters with pirate ships at sea and the treasure hunts in the American wilderness, became a bit tedious, especially whenever the narration switched away from Mackellar while another narrator took his place. But I loved the central storyline and the rivalry between the two brothers; I particularly loved the Master, who may have been the devilish brother, but was so much more interesting to read about than poor Henry! I will read more by Robert Louis Stevenson, though I’m not sure whether to move straight on to one of his other books, maybe The Black Arrow, or to try re-reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped first.