Friday, September 23, 2011

Adventure classics -- A flight through the heather


Kidnapped

by Robert Louis Stevenson

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I can’t help wondering whether prescience, coincidence, or simply wishful thinking led Robert Louis Stevenson to open his 1886 novel Kidnapped by having young David Balfour say, “I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning. . . when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house. The sun began to shine. . . .”

Seventeen-year-old David seems curiously happy for a young man whose parents were lately dead. Stevenson himself was only a few years older when he incurred his family’s displeasure for the formation of a club whose constitution began with the words, “Disregard everything our parents have taught us.”

Stevenson’s parents were not pleased. Stevenson’s biographer, J.C. Furnas, quoted his father as saying “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” Stevenson’s marriage in 1880 to an American divorcee ten years his senior didn’t improve his family’s opinion.

His wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, would soon charm the parents as she had Robert. And the subsequent publication of his son’s best known works also may have softened the elder Stevenson’s opinion. But not until his father’s death in 1887 did Robert feel free to seek a complete change of climate to deal with his ill health.

Kidnapped itself, written while Stevenson searched vainly for a more congenial climate, testifies to an affection for his Scottish homeland that endured despite its adverse effect on the lung diseases that had plagued him since childhood. Except for the beginning and ending, the novel’s plot consists mainly of describing David Balfour’s wanderings through the Scottish Highlands. But it’s not a description that would appear in any tourist’s brochure. Stevenson knew better than to sugarcoat the rigors of climate and terrain in the land he loved.

Stevenson added a final shock to his family’s sensibilities in his choice of a companion for David Balfour’s wanderings. After leaving his father’s house, David showed up at the estate of his miserly uncle Ebenezer Balfour, not realizing that he, not Ebenezer, was the rightful heir. Although a shipwreck finally thwarted Ebenezer’s attempts to get rid of David, the young man soon found himself a suspect in a murder and forced to flee in the company of historical figure Alan Breck Stewart.

And who was Alan Breck Stewart? An adherent of Bonnie Prince Charlie, failed pretender to the British throne, whose family, as Catholics, were anathema to the Presbyterianism of Stevenson’s family. Ironically, although Alan Breck failed to put Prince Charlie on a throne, David Balfour would never have survived to gain his own rightful place without the aid of Alan’s fictional alter ego.

(Next Friday -- I’m beginning to worry about the “orphan” theme emerging from this month’s adventure classics with young protagonists. At least the Melendy children still have one parent left, but that doesn’t keep them from setting the house on fire and other disasters in Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays.)

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