06 June 2011


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, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson.

There’s an article in a recent ( 5 June 2011) Observer about role models in literature; Samantha Ellis reflects on what she read as a kid. There’s a competition to win a set of the books she describes; you have to tell them your favourite childhood novel, and what influence it had on you.
Which set me to reflect: what had I read that had had a significant influence? As a lad, I’d read books like Treasure Island, The Thirty-nine Steps, Sherlock Holmes; did these have a significant influence? I wasn’t sure, though the deductions in Sherlock might have influenced my career choice.
Out of nowhere came Kidnapped. This is a boys’ romance, the story of David Balfour and how he met Alan Breck (Stuart) — “I bear a king’s name”; it mingles fact and fiction. The fact part concerns the Appin Murder on 14 May 1752. I should express an interest here: Colin Campbell must be a relative, though my forebears had returned to Ireland more than a century before. Yes, returned: the Scots came from Ireland.
I was perhaps ten when I read the book for the first time; and even then, I was puzzled by something in one of the introductions — for that is what they are — purporting to be a letter to Mr Baxter, Writer to the Signet, a reader. Stevenson admitted to some factual abnormalities in the book; he specifically stated that he knew the date of the Appin murder was wrong (it’s given as 1751 in the book).
This puzzled me at the time: why would an author deliberately falsify the date of something so relevant, so important? And why would he make this public in his introductory letter to Mr Baxter? It’s puzzled me ever since.
I’m not sure even now that I know the answer to this; perhaps, it was a way of disguising a novel, making clear the difference between fact and fiction; perhaps he meant us to believe that David’s memory was at fault; perhaps he actually knew who the murderer was — it’s said to be a secret known to only a few — and didn’t want us to know that he knew. Perhaps.
Whatever; this must have been one of the first — perhaps the first — clashes of exactitude, and just perhaps it lead me to be an Empirical Reader, a searcher for paradoxes, for details that just don’t fit.
The sequel to Kidnapped is Catriona, the further adventures of David Balfour, with some references to the trial of James of the Glens, but concentrating on his relationship with Catriona Drummond (Macgregor). Alas, when I first read it, I was far too young to understand what was going on. Mind you, Catriona is pretty turgid compared to Kidnapped: it’s no surprise that it isn’t nearly as popular as the original. Mistress “grey eyes” is utterly captivating. It took me a few years to understand what David saw in her.

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