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Double Duty

How R.L. Stevenson helped one writer to reconcile his split selves

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I first read R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped (in a children’s edition) when I was seven. Weeks later I came upon the adult version, and devoured that too. Part of the appeal was the thrill of the adventure. But, more fundamentally, what drew me back was the relationship between young David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart. David is earnest, reasonable and law-abiding, the product of a sober lowland upbringing; Alan, his wild highland antithesis, feckless, touchy and vain, but guided by a code of honour that seems both quaintly outmoded and oddly alluring.

This was plainly the heart of the book for Stevenson himself, too. ‘I began it partly as a lark, partly as a pot-boiler’, he wrote later, ‘and suddenly it moved, David and Alan stepped out of the canvas, and I was in another world.’

It’s a commonplace to say that the two characters represent opposing sides of Stevenson’s own nature: he is, after all, the literary patron saint of psychological dualism, most famously in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Biographers tend to see the roots of this dichotomy in his childhood. He was born into a distinguished Edinburgh family, several members of which – including his own father – were successful engineers, building a chain of lighthouses around the treacherous coast. (Such a perfect symbol of the Scottish Enlightenment can’t have been lost on a boy as thoughtful as the young Louis.) They were sincere Presbyterians, but not strict: theirs was a relatively comfortable God, at ease with Sunday dinner parties and games of cards among friends.

Louis’s nurse, Alison Cunningham, on the other hand, who cared for him devotedly during his sickly childhood (he later described her as his ‘second Mother, my first Wife’) was a devout Calvinist. Her universe was less rational, and a lot more frightening, littered with snares for the unwary: cards, to her, were ‘the Devil’s Books’, and she regarded plays and novels as anathema. It was her stern belief in a terrifying, unforgiving deity that gave Stevenson what he called his ‘Covenanting childhood’, while the folk tales she told him of capricious spirits and uncanny encounters fired his imagination, haunting his dreams and his frequent bouts of delirium.

Looking back, I can see that my love of Stevenson must have stemmed partly from a similar fault line in my childhood. But there was a particular reason why I found its embodiment in Kidnapped so resonant: searching among my own Scottish forebears (with whom for a few years, I was boyishly obsessed), I stumbled upon both the Covenanter Andrew Wilson, who was hanged after the Battle of Bothwell Brig, in 1679, for refusing to say ‘God Save the King’, and his legendary Jacobite contemporary Sir Ewen Cameron, who ten years later fought on the opposite side at the Battle of Killecrankie, and had once reputedly bit the throat out of an English officer. A David and an Alan – dour good sense, and hopeless romance – forever fighting it out in the same family. And especially (or so it felt) in me.

Stevenson’s own identification with David is implicit even in his choice of name: his mother was a Balfour before she married. And he, too, clearly felt the weight of his family background, writing; ‘It concerns me much…that John Balfour of Kinloch, the covenanting fanatic, was an ancestral cousin’— as if, true to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, it was bound to set an inescapable stamp on his own character. The unpredictable Alan, by contrast, is not a product of Stevenson’s inheritance but an expression of his own restless and adventurous spirit — the spirit that took him across the Cevennes with a donkey, and, eventually, to Polynesia.

But it would be a mistake to see David and Alan merely as warring aspects of their creator’s psyche. They also dramatise a much larger collision: the struggle for the national identity – the soul – of Scotland, which had only been finally settled in the middle of the 18th century, with the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The conflict had fascinated Stevenson since boyhood: at one point he even proposed writing a history book centred on the uprising of 1745.

Why the obsession? As a product of his own time, Stevenson’s understanding of the past was profoundly shaped by the prevailing ‘Whig’ view of history. In the Scottish context, this meant that the routing of the Jacobites, and the subsequent destruction of the highland clan system, were merely steps on humanity’s inevitable march towards the triumph of reason and the rule of law.

And yet the power of Stevenson’s imagination – reinforced by his own boyhood visits to the Highlands – continually sucked and lapped at this simplistic narrative, eroding the unquestioning belief in progress on which it was built. So, at the very end of Kidnapped, as David is about to enter the British Linen Bank to claim his inheritance, he thinks of Alan, and feels ‘a cold gnawing in my inside like a remorse for something wrong’.

It was, in part, his unease with the notion of Progress (itself a secular version of predestination), and his sympathy for people who find themselves on the wrong side of history, that eventually prompted Stevenson – at the height of European imperialism – to settle in the South Seas. In a letter to a friend he wrote: ‘I love the Polynesian: this civilisation of ours is a dingy, ungentlemanly business; it drops too much out of man; and too much of that the very beauty of the poor beast…’ And it’s hard not to hear an echo of David and Alan in his wife’s account of Louis’s dealings with a Tahitian sub-chief called Ori, who came to their aid when they were stranded:

‘Ori…listened to the tale of the shipwrecked mariners with serious dignity… and then spoke to this effect. “You are my brother: all that I have is yours. I know that your food is done, but I can give you plenty of fish and taro. We like you, and wish to have you here…Be happy – et ne pleurez pas.” Louis dropped his head into his hands and wept…’

Stevenson’s sense that, in destroying cultures like Ori’s and Alan Breck Stewart’s, we are unwittingly impoverishing ourselves, and thinning out the richness of human experience, struck a deep chord in me. As an adult, years after I first read Kidnapped, it led me to spend time in Canada and the U.S. with the remnants of indigenous North American communities, and to write my first book, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America (1998).

But my debt to Stevenson doesn’t end there. His greatest legacy, for me, is the way he works his vision into the novels themselves, allowing radical differences to be held in a kind of permanent dramatic tension rather than artificially resolved. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Master of Ballantrae he goes further still, making the conflicting characters (or personas) so intertwined that one cannot survive without the other.

It was his example that helped to make me a novelist. It showed me that fiction was the one form capable of embracing the polar opposites in my own character, and allowing me to bear witness to the world as I see it. As I embarked on my first novel, I felt – with an exhilarating stab – that I was finally entering a realm where the ghosts of Ewen Cameron and Andrew Wilson could co-exist — not harmoniously, perhaps, but at least with a grudging acknowledgement of each other’s presence.

James Wilson’s new novel, The Summer of Broken Stories, is published by Alma Books.

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