Retro read–Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic, Kidnapped

Review by C.J. Bunce

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those classic authors many know first from the Authors card game, although Stevenson relatively speaking was a late edition to the game, which was well-established before the 1880s when his four best known works were penned: Treasure Island (1883), Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped (both 1886), and the book of poems A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885).  Of the stories, Kidnapped is the lesser known, and the novel that has seen the least adaptations from the author’s major works.  Can Kidnapped hold the attention of readers today?  Where does it stand among historical fiction?  Let’s dig into this classic piece of adventure writing.

Kidnapped is an amalgam of adventure story literature and historical fiction.  As with Treasure Island, the protagonist is a young man.  But Kidnapped’s hero is not seeking adventure.  David Balfour is 16-years-old when his parents die.  The fantastic, lengthy, 19th century style full title really says it all: Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; His Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws.  A local minister presents David with instructions left behind by his father, a direction to go to see his uncle Ebenezer Balfour, who lives in the House of Shaws in a far-off town.  David has his eyes on an inheritance and prospects of wealth, but when he arrives he encounters a frightening dilapidated manor, and his uncle is a cagey sort.

Before David can barely blink, his uncle first tries to create an accidental death for David, then he spirits him away to knocked out and bound, shipped away in a vessel called the Covenant, to be sold as a slave in the Carolinas (in the 18th century this was not an unheard of way that Scots made their way to the Americas).  He is, as the title says, kidnapped.  The high themes of this journey are “life is not fair” and justice is something that is often hard-fought for.  On his journey he manages to get folded into the duties of a pirate’s mate of sorts, and his life is described as later writers would convey in accounts from William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth, to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels.

But that part of the tale is brief.  Soon providence takes over and brings the ship into bad weather, heading back toward the Scottish Isles.  The Covenant collides with another boat leaving a survivor, Alan Breck Stewart.  The Covenant’s captain, who has already committed kidnapping, plots to kill Alan for his money.  David, new to the art of survival, politics, and everything else, joins forces with Alan, betrays “his captain” and shares word of the scheme.  The rebellion is mostly successful, and the most exciting component of the novel.  But further catastrophe results in a storm that takes David overboard into the sea, where he describes in detail–a bit too long-winded–his few days as a castaway on a desert isle, where he survives (again, only for 100 hours), on shellfish.  It makes you wonder if readers in 1885 saw how melodramatic David is about his experience on that island.

This takes us to approximately the midpoint of the story.  The next half of the book is less adventure and more filling in Stevenson’s ideas for the historical accounts he’s chosen to tie into this novel.

David is a fictional character, but Alan Breck Stewart was real, and part of a case centered on the murder of one Colin Roy, a member of the Campbell clan, and King’s factor.  Stewart was a Jacobite fighting under the name of France, who saw Colin Roy as his mortal enemy, having seized Stewart’s birthplace, a district of Scotland called Appin.  The real Colin Roy was murdered, and a trial convicted and hanged another man, James Stewart, for it, as Alan Breck Stewart ran off.  To this day, no one knows what really happened, and in the past decade a pardon request has been filed with the Scottish government for James.  Stories like this have no ending.

David Balfour is an interesting young man, and Stevenson never mistakes him for an adult.  This is a coming-of-age story, of a boy pulled from the only life he knew and thrown into adversity with no training or readiness for all the disasters that befall him.  All along the way he has a singular vision of getting his due–an inheritance based on very little of substance.  Stewart is the best character, a rogue any reader would want to befriend, and the duo of he and David work well together, despite disagreeing about nearly everything.

It is surprising how much of fellow Scot author Sir Walter Scott’s style and prose is in Stevenson’s work, despite the intervening half a century since Scott’s wide popularity.  Stevenson’s first half of his story is exciting, and it’s not surprising that he influenced genres thereafter.  The back half is more of a struggle to get through.  It’s like the denouement of Frodo Baggins’ long voyage home after the action has happened.

Stevenson writes a great piece of storytelling reflecting the culture and concerns of 1880s Scots.  Even with its slow parts, Kidnapped is an easy read, and it’s no surprise it has remained one of the “Great Books” for so long.  (Note: Stevenson penned a sequel to the book, called Catriona). 

Kidnapped is available in countless editions here at Amazon, and the Canterbury Classics edition is a particularly attractive hardcover edition with color photos, original footnotes, and early image reproductions.  Whichever edition you go for, make sure you get a copy with the footnotes, maps, and original artwork plates.

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