The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Master of Ballantrae 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.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem with reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 21st century is that most of us probably already know what the story involves. Even without having read it or seen any of the film versions, everyone knows what is meant by a ‘Jekyll and Hyde personality’. And this completely takes away the suspense and air of mystery that the story relies on so heavily. I’m sure the original Victorian readership would have found the connection between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde much more shocking! So is there still any point in reading it? Yes, I thought there was, because although I knew what the ultimate revelation would be, I didn’t know all the details of the plot or how the conclusion would be reached.

We first see Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, Mr Utterson, who becomes concerned when he discovers that Jekyll has made a new will leaving everything to Mr Hyde. All Mr Utterson knows about Hyde is that he’s a sinister and brutal man responsible for some cruel and unprovoked acts of violence. The first half of the book follows the lawyer’s attempts to learn more about Hyde and his relationship with Jekyll. It’s only as we approach the end of the story that we hear from Dr Jekyll himself, in the form of a letter addressed to Mr Utterson, and the truth is finally revealed.

The story is cleverly structured so that if you had no idea what was coming, you would be kept wondering, knowing only as much as Mr Utterson knows, and it’s disappointing that for most modern readers the surprise has been spoiled. The part of the story I found the most interesting was the final chapter, after the secret has been uncovered and Jekyll gives his own explanation of what happened and his views on the good and the evil aspects of human nature. We can really feel his desperation as his own dark side grows stronger and things begin to spiral out of his control.

The edition I read contained just the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; other editions include a selection of other Stevenson short stories. Jekyll and Hyde on its own was only 88 pages long and if I’d realised how short it was I would have made time to read it earlier. This was one of my choices for RIP VII, and I would recommend it to other RIP participants who would like to read an important piece of classic Victorian fiction without committing to a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved it and it’s not something I would want to read again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once and can see why it has become a part of popular culture.

Five recent reads that I couldn’t finish

How often do you start a book and find that you can’t finish it? Maybe you didn’t like the writing, maybe you couldn’t connect with the characters, or maybe it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. I hate leaving books unfinished, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do. Luckily it doesn’t happen to me very often, but there have still been quite a few books that I’ve started reading recently and for one reason or another have had to abandon. If you’ve read any of these, do you think they’re worth trying again?


A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

What’s it about?
A present day historian, Una Pryor, researches the lives of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony, and begins to uncover the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.
What was the problem?
With my interest in the Wars of the Roses I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t. There were three different threads of the story, one narrated by Una, one by Elizabeth and one by Anthony – and they were all set in different time periods, which I found very confusing. The historical sections didn’t feel very atmospheric and the modern section seemed too disconnected. I’m sure that if I’d kept reading the three storylines would probably have been brought together eventually, but I gave up after almost 100 pages.
Would I try it again?
Probably not.

The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer

What’s it about?
Set during the Peninsular War, this is the story of Brigade-Major Harry Smith and his Spanish wife, Juana.
What was the problem?
This wasn’t a bad book but it wasn’t really what I’ve come to expect from Georgette Heyer. I read nearly a third of the book and it was very heavy on historical detail, particularly descriptions of army life and battles, which I wasn’t in the right mood for.
Would I try it again?
Maybe, but there are plenty of other Georgette Heyer books I’d like to read first.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

What’s it about?
This is a classic historical adventure novel about seventeen-year-old David Balfour, whose uncle has him kidnapped in an attempt to steal his inheritance.
What was the problem?
I wanted to read some of the children’s classics I’d missed out on when I was younger and started reading this one on my ereader. I loved the opening chapters but when I reached a long section set at sea I started to lose interest.
Would I try it again?
Probably not.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

What’s it about?
Set during one summer in the 1950s, this is a story about the small Irish town of Rathmoye and the people who live there.
What was the problem?
I think it was probably just the wrong time for me to read this book. I had recently finished reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and this one seemed to have a very similar feel. I wasn’t in the mood for another quiet, gentle story so I set this book aside after a few chapters.
Would I try it again?
Yes.

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

What’s it about?
The story of Henry VIII’s wife, Katherine Howard, as seen through the eyes of her lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney.
What was the problem?
I couldn’t get into this book at all and abandoned it after a couple of chapters. The dialogue was too modern and the characters didn’t feel like real people to me. Maybe if I’d kept reading I would have started to enjoy it more, but my instincts told me this wasn’t the right book for me.
Would I try it again?
No.

Have you read any of these books? Did you have better luck with them than I did?