‘The first book I remember owning and cherishing: there it was on the table one Christmas morning, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I was a Jacobite for life after that day.’ Seamus Heaney, Mossbawn
Extract taken from The Scenery of Dreams: The True Story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped
By Lachlan Munro
Published by Deveron Press
There are few more beloved authors than Robert Louis Stevenson, both icon and enigma. There are few authors more instantly recognisable, but as the biographies pile up, the more elusive he becomes—puritan and sensualist, introvert and exhibitionist, aesthete and vagabond, invalid and adventurer—he retains a fascination that only increases with the passing years. Essayist, poet, and novelist, his autobiography is his work, and none better I think to glimpse this man-child than his meandering, dislocated, truncated masterpiece, his own personal favourite, Kidnapped. Loved by generations of readers, its popularity has barely waned, for it has all the ingredients of a great yarn: an inheritance denied, good versus evil, an adventure at sea, a swashbuckling hero, a shipwreck, an unsolved murder, a hazardous escape, then, a final redemption – of sorts.
I call his works autobiographical because the themes and characters in nearly all of Stevenson’s writings are derived from his experiences, and despite a vivid imagination, an examination of his poems and stories reveals that nearly all of the characters and incidents recur elsewhere in one form or another. He seemed incapable of writing anything that did not refer to some aspect of his early life, directly or indirectly incorporating memories, dreams, places, emotions, and the traumas of his early years, which he described thus:
My childhood was a very mixed experience, full of fever, nightmare, insomnia, painful days and interminable nights; and I can speak with less authority of Gardens than that of that other ‘land of counterpane.’ But to what end should we renew these sorrows? The sufferings of life may be handled by the very greatest in their hours of insight; it is of its pleasures that our common poems should be formed; these are the experiences that we should seek to recall or to provoke; and I say with Thoreau, ‘What right have I to complain, who have not ceased to wonder?
RLS, Letter to William Archer, 29th of March 1885.
But his sickly, cosseted, fear-filled frailty was also full of love and song from his mother, and particularly from his nurse ‘Cummy,’ who peppered his daydreams with stirring tales of religion, war, and witchcraft. These, combined with his extensive reading, and later his travels, would be the stuff from which he would draw inspiration again and again until his untimely death. In his essay The Foreigner at Home (1882) Stevenson wrote:
. . . the sense of the nature of his country and his country’s history gradually growing in the child’s mind from story and from observation. A Scottish child hears much of shipwreck, out-lying skerries, pitiless breakers, and great sea-lights, much of heathery mountains, wild clans and hunted Covenanters.
But, if his infant life was filled with adventurous imaginings, games, and escapes from his imprisoning bed, he also managed to escape growing up – his great escape, facilitated by a fragile constitution and family money, for attempts to become an artist are invariably at someone else’s expense. He escaped Victorian Edinburgh’s “blunderbuss conformity,” first by adopting a bohemian manner, developing intimate friendships, and secretly frequenting the city’s low dens, then by his foreign travels for health reasons, which he often played up. He escaped following the family tradition of becoming an engineer, and despite his Law degree, he escaped becoming a lawyer. His luminous, translucent, angular androgyny could make men fall in love with him, but he was attractive, and attracted to, older women, who could mother him, and these defined all his adult relationships. Finally, financially independent for the moment, he escaped to the other side of the world to what he hoped would be a tropical idyll. His most constant escape from reality and adulthood, however, remained his imagination, and his attempts to re-conjure his childhood in his writings. In 1884 he wrote to the poet William Cosmo Monkhouse:
After all your boyhood aspirations and youth’s immortal daydreams, you are condemned to sit down, grossly draw in your chair to the fat board, and be a beastly Burgess till you die. Can it be? Is there not some escape, some furlough from the Moral Law, some holiday jaunt contrivable into a Better Land? Shall we never shed blood? This prospect is too grey . . . To confess plainly, I had intended to spend my life (or any leisure I might have from Piracy upon the high seas) as the leader of a great horde of irregular cavalry, devastating whole valleys. I can still, looking back, see myself in many favourite attitudes; signaling for a boat from my pirate ship with a pocket handkerchief, I at the jetty and one or two of my bold blades keeping the crowd at bay; or else turning in the saddle to look back at my whole command (some five thousand strong) following me at the hand-gallop up the road out of the burning valley: this last by moonlight.
Stevenson would later dismiss this as: “an astonishing gush of nonsense,” but it is just too full of peculiar detail not to be true, and it was his attempts to recapture his vivid memories, and to consolidate his youth, that so much of his work was directly or indirectly concerned. David Daiches wrote that Stevenson, like Proust, was engaged in a ‘recherche du temps perdu,’ a recapturing of lost youth, an escape back to childhood:
Literature for him was but an extension of those childhood games of romantic make-believe that he has described so vividly in his autobiographical essays.
David Daiches ~ Robert Louis Stevenson: A Revaluation (1947).
Stevenson confirmed this in A Gossip on Romance:
Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance.
He taught himself to write well through imitation and practice, but his fictions were not only a form of play; Jenni Calder believed that in Treasure Island and Kidnapped Stevenson was inviting us to join him in the game, and as G. K. Chesterton shrewdly observed:
The dialogue is spirited and full of fine Scottish humours, but all these things are almost as secondary in Kidnapped and Catriona as they are in Treasure Island itself. The thing is still simply an adventure story, and especially a boy’s adventure story; such as is fitted to describe the adventures of a boy. And there are moments when it is the same boy; and his name is neither Hawkins nor Balfour, but Stevenson.
Both authors caught the reality that Stevenson retained his playful sense of inclusive adventure, but Chesterton’s description of this historical romance par excellence as simply a boy’s adventure story, is a simplification too far. Treasure Island falls into that category, but the genesis of Kidnapped was quite different, and much longer. Here, Stevenson addressed deeper issues of character, culture, history, and politics – a story in which his hero escapes attempted murder and is brutally shanghaied, and a mad boy is killed out of hand by a brutish drunk. There are bloody sword fights, a shipwreck, a government official assassinated, for which an innocent man will be hanged, all described with stark realism, but always with a pawky humour. It is an adventure story certainly, but this Peter Pan of Scottish literature had brought all his skills into play. Kidnapped was a synthesis of Stevenson’s own experiences drawn from his reading, his travels, his knowledge of Scottish history and landscape, his knowledge of dialect, and his knowledge of human nature.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that when reading Kidnapped, we are walking through Stevenson’s entire life.
The Scenery of Dreams: The True Story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped by Lachlan Munro is published by Deveron Press, priced £14.99