R.L.Stevenson, 160 Not Out…
Today is the 160th birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, who surely must be Scotland’s most widely read author, even taking into consideration fellow multi-initialled scribbler J.K.’s recent success. Stevenson left us an incredible range of fiction from the nominally childhood tales such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, to the complex supernatural and psychological masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What is really astounding is the quality of the work which falls somewhere in between.
My favourite Stevenson novel is The Master of Ballantrae, a tale of feuding brothers which has echoes of the prodigal son and is another example of Stevenson’s obsession with ‘doubling’ and ‘division’, themes which features in much of his work. Stevenson’s fiction invites multiple readings, and The Master of Ballantrae is a great example of this. There are questions to be asked about the reliability or otherwise of the narrative voices, and scenes which can be read either as supernatural or a result of a descent into madness. It has become an overplayed cliche, at least when applied to modern Scottish fiction, to claim that there is a schizophrenic nature to Scotland, but just because your paranoid doesn’t mean that someone’s not out to get you, and it seems to me that the literature of Walter Scott, James Hogg, Stevenson, and others reflect the perception that Scotland had of itself in their time. Or perhaps they are the ones to blame? This obsession with exploring ‘sides’ in art is a universal one, particularly during the long 19th century, but it does seem to have had a particular hold on Scottish culture, perhaps unsurprisingly, and R.L.S’s body of work reflects this better than any other writer.
But, paradoxically, he was the Scottish writer who was not confined to writing about Scotland or Scottish issues, at least in terms of setting. He travelled to, and wrote about, England, Europe, America and the South Pacific. He was a global writer in a very real sense, and it is this that partly explains his world wide appeal. Another aspect of his succsess is his mastery over many forms of writing. Some of his best work can be found in his short stories. ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is really no more than a novella, (but what a novella), and the range of people and places in the shorter work reflected that of his longer fiction. Markheim, Ollala, The Merry Men and The Bodysnatchers are all fantastic and influential tales, but the pick of the bunch is Thrawn Janet, the chilling tale of satanic possession and the dangerous power of religion/superstition. It was written in 1887 and still has the ability to chill today.
Stevenson seemed to fall out of fashion in the twentieth century, being dismissed by some as ‘simply’ a children’s writer who sometimes dabbled in the supernatural. A quick look at his bibliography should immediately show this point of view for the nonsense that it is. Add to the fiction his travel writing, essays, ballads and poetry and it is clear that this was a man who lived to travel, experience and write. Sounds a grand life.
Here is Alan Cumming reading one of Stevenson’s better known poems The Vagabond: