Kidnapped by Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)This morn­ing I fin­ished Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). The tale con­cerns the for­tunes of David Balfour, a young man who sets out to seek his for­tune but soon falls afoul of his wicked uncle, Ebeneezer. David is kid­napped — sold into slavery and shipped the Carolinas — but, aided by a timely ship­wreck, escapes into the heart of Highland Scotland with his com­pan­ion, Alan Breck. The Jacobite back­drop is one of the ele­ments that elev­ates this story above sim­il­ar pot-boil­ers. Another is the prose: let it be said, Stevenson is one of the most for­mid­able prose styl­ists you’ll ever encounter. This guy can really write. According to Wikipedia, ‘Kidnapped’ has attrac­ted praise from writers as diverse as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney, and it is not dif­fi­cult to see why. This is typ­ic­al:

Next day (the fourth of my travels) we were up before five upon the clock; but my ras­cal guide got to the bottle at once, and it was three hours before I had him clear of the house, and then (as you shall hear) only for a worse dis­ap­point­ment.

The tempta­tion to draw a les­son from Stevenson’s fic­tion is always great, and the par­tic­u­lar mes­sage I take home from ‘Kidnapped’ is that the writer should not be afraid to wear the hat of the poet on occa­sion; some­thing of a genre piece can indeed be elev­ated by a little ambi­tion, even if (as is prob­ably true in my case) that ambi­tion might over­reach the writer’s tal­ent. But ‘Kidnapped’ proves that it is tech­nic­ally pos­sible to pro­duce a work that is (a) a genre piece and (b) held to the stand­ards of prose and meta­phor that often comes with the label ‘lit­er­ary’. As I say, while this might lead to a glor­i­ous fuck-up in my case, I can con­tin­ue refin­ing my chapters — I do between six and sev­en drafts a day — in the know­ledge that, in the hands of mas­ter like Stevenson, ‘gen­re­ness’ and ‘lit­er­ar­i­ness’ are not neces­sar­ily *immis­cible.

Kidnapped’ is avail­able freely at Project Gutenberg.

As an aside, I can’t help but include the text of Stevenson’s poem ‘Requiem’, which went on to serve as his epi­taph:

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;

Here he lies where he longed to be,

Home is the sail­or, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.”

* In a charm­ing demon­stra­tion of the lim­its of my own writ­ing abil­ity, I’ve just real­ised that I’ve been spelling this word wrong for years. (I just assumed that the Word spell check­er didn’t know ‘immiss­ible’. Muppet!)

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Kidnapped by Stevenson”

  1. I sym­path­ise with your edit­ing slog. I’ve just about fin­ished the ‘final’ edit of Adventure Eddy, which has actu­ally taken as long as writ­ing the ori­gin­al book took! It’s VERY dif­fer­ent from the raw draft I’ve been post­ing on — some would say almost pub­lish­able.

    I’m not hugely poet­ic­al in my writ­ing, but I think it’s fair to say that your writ­ing skills are a little more soph­ist­ic­ated than mine. However, I think any writer occa­sion­ally gets a stab of pleas­ure when they put togeth­er an espe­cially aes­thet­ic­ally pleas­ing turn of phrase.

  2. It’s my chem­istry class I got that trouble­some word from — unfor­tu­nately, the teach­er only spoke it! Which was very unfor­ward­think­ing of him.

    I don’t know if you’ve come across this one, Maxine, but I first heard RLS’s Requiem as part of this ‘Best Poems of All Time’. Lots of oth­er clas­sics there too.

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