Friday, October 8, 2010

Stevenson takes on Scott, and wins - Scottish Stevenson

What have I read, four Scotch novels of Robert Louis Stevenson?  Some Scottish stories, too, none of which were among his best, except, perhaps, the ghost story ”Thrawn Janet.”  One of the novels, Weir of Hermiston, is unfinished.  I wonder if it would have been the last one.  His imagination was settling into the South Seas.  Inspiration struck in strange ways for Stevenson, so who knows.

He had proved his point, though, or at least a point I glimpse in these novels.  Stevenson had deliberately set himself up against Walter Scott, inventor of the Scottish novel, inventor of the historical novel, and, in terms of influence, the Most Important Novelist of All Time.  Stevenson was moving onto Scott’s turf, claiming it as his own.

Kidnapped and Catriona and The Master of Ballantrae are all set soon after the events of Waverley, Scott’s first novel.  The events are the most important of modern Scottish history, the Jacobite uprising of 1745, which resulted in one of the great romantic defeats, the suppression of the Highlands.  Kidnapped brilliantly plunges its young, innocent hero into the middle of the chaos, ongoing after six years.  Weir of Hermiston is linked more closely to Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian.  Stevenson is working with, pressing against, only the best Scott novels, at least.

Compared to Scott, Stevenson’s books are sleeker, faster, uncluttered, while still retaining a mild flavor of 18th century language.  Scott has trouble keeping to his story or getting to his point; Stevenson gets there all too quickly. Stevenson’s books are less ambitious in scope, although not in art, while Scott has a grander reach, which does not always serve him well, either.

In “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), Stevenson writes that, as a child, he “liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, 'towards the close of the year 17-,' several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls.”  That’s not quite how The Antiquary begins, but it does start with an inn, a real one (still in “A Gossip on Romance”):

The old Hawes Inn at the Queen's Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy.  There it stands, apart from the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half inland, half marine - in front, the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guardship swinging to her anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees.  Americans seek it already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined there at the beginning of the 'Antiquary.'  But you need not tell me - that is not all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet complete, which must express the meaning of that inn more fully.

Hawes Inn was so famous that tourists came to see it, but Stevenson was not satisfied.  Yes, Scott told a story about it, but not the story, or not the right story.  It took a few years, but Stevenson found his own use for the inn in Kidnapped (1886).

I should be clear – I don’t think Stevenson was really competing with Scott in the sense that he was trying to defeat or replace Scott.  Instead, Stevenson was measuring himself against Scott, at the time still widely considered the greatest novelist in English.  Sometimes, like Henry James, I wish Stevenson had wanted to measure himself against, I don’t know, George Eliot, or Henry James.  But Scott, that was plenty ambitious.

I want to point out a post at Lizzy’s Literary Life which has a fine Kidnapped-related photo and other links.  Now it’s Stevenson who draws the tourists to Hawes Inn.


  1. It is said that Billy Bones died in an upstairs room of The Pirates House, now a restaurant, in my city, Savannah, GA. The building has tunnels which lead to the wharf. Many a drunken sailor was carried unconscious through those tunnels to awaken and find himself working on a ship bound for who knows where.

  2. How funny. Too bad we can't visit Treasure Island itself!