Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Lest my yesterday’s sonnet give anyone the idea that I did not like Treasure Island, please allow me to disabuse you: of course I did! It’s just, you know, a little bit lighter than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or The Ebb-Tide, or what have you.

And lest anyone think that a “boy’s book” is not for girls, let me disabuse you of that too—I, for one, am just such a girl, and I don’t think there would be many takers for the notion that adventure stories hold no appeal for females. But what makes this really and truly a boy’s book in my mind is that it is told by a boy, and a rather young one. Jim Hawkins, the narrator of nearly all of the tale, has been asked by his elder companions after the fact to write down all that happened. I don’t believe it’s clear exactly how much time passes between the events of the novel and his writing of them, but he at least still seems to be young when he writes it, and certainly does his best to be faithful to his boyish feelings and reactions of the time.

This is, I think, what stops it being among Stevenson’s very best work, but there are still bits and pieces of lovely writing that reasonably do come from young Jim and his natural childish impressions. Here he is early on, when Doctor Livesey comes to Jim’s parents’ inn to attend to Jim’s father, and sits at table with a pirate staying there at the time.

I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow

Continue reading Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

“It’s a matter of asserting free will.”

I mentioned yesterday that Caroline begins The Comforters on a retreat, and I meant the kind of retreat lay Catholics go on to get away from the world for a bit and contemplate things. Outside the time period of the novel, Caroline converted to Catholicism. Before that she was living in sin with Laurence, an irreligious Anglo-Catholic of devout (but understanding) family. Caroline’s reason for conversion is unclear (that is, she seems simply to have acquired faith at some point), but she’s very serious about her faith and it’s changed their relationship significantly.

Muriel Spark too was a convert to Catholicism, so of course it’s tempting to see Caroline as at least somewhat based on herself. According to the Wikipedia entry on Spark, she considered her conversion “crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist.” Yet the same entry claims of The Comforters that “It featured several references to Catholicism and conversion to Catholicism, although its main theme revolved around a young woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel.”

Not that we should take Wikipedia as super reliable here anyway, but I must protest. The Comforters is almost supremely concerned with religion, especially with its relation to free will. Caroline’s determination to thwart the author is obviously along these lines, and the very fact that she can thwart the author—and yet still remains firmly a part of the book, just a somewhat different book&mash;falls very much in line with non-Calvinist Christian ideas about free will (n.b., though Spark was apparently never a Presbyterian, she was born and raised in Edinburgh).

And the whole effort to exercise her free will in this way is a matter of faith for Caroline, because her belief in the existence of the book is a matter of faith. She

Continue reading “It’s a matter of asserting free will.”

On Hyde’s purity of evil

Kevin asked yesterday whether I thought Edward Hyde was “purity of evil/selfishness incarnate,” and whether he had “*any* redeeming qualities.” Let’s take a look at the evidence.

The first time we hear about Hyde involves a description of one of the two violent crimes he commits that are witnessed and described in the novel. This first one involves him running into a little girl on the street, upon which he “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.” And this is exactly what, for me, was off or generally disappointing in the book: the evil sounds like little to hear, though everyone keeps insisting it is hellish to experience.

Everyone who encounters Hyde, from Mr Utterson to Dr Lanyon to Dr Jekyll’s servants to strangers in the street, seems to have a physical reaction to his evil. Their blood runs cold, they can feel it in their marrow, they are repulsed, they are disgusted. They can tell there is something not right about this man. Jekyll recognizes this:

I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

But what does that mean? Yes, we witness two violent crimes, where there is no doubt of the malevolence of the criminal and little question of remorse. Self-preservation is the closest Hyde comes to regret, or so it appears. But these are, as far as I can tell, the only real examples of “evil.”

Continue reading On Hyde’s purity of evil

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Back in October, as part of the Scottish literature reading challenge, Amateur Reader and Kevin of Interpolations had a series of posts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book I had hoped to have read by that time, especially because of my love of The Beach at Falesá and the fact that I’d already been jonesing for more Stevenson. Now I’ve filled in this reading hole and…well let’s not say I was disappointed.

I didn’t like it as much as Falesá. That’s all. It is better, probably “the best thing he ever wrote,” as AR says. And anyway there is lots in it for me.

As Kevin notes, “one of the most important vehicles of action in the story are letters and written documents,” and we know I’m beyond on board with this sort of thing. This is the epistolary tale done, at least for me, super right. The documents that form part of the narrative itself are deeply important to the plot, and there are loads of other documents embedded in the story that create an environment where such papers are generally important. Stevenson is good; this is sophisticated, not superficial, stuff.

And I’d like to take a shot at Kevin’s question about the three sets of three windows, or at least at a very minor part of it. One thing rather noticeable (and unsurprising) in the book is the doubling. There is Jekyll/Hyde, of course. There are two violent crimes committed by Hyde and witnessed. There are two letters Utterson must read to learn of what has gone on. There are two wills made out by Henry Jekyll, in nearly identical language but with different beneficiaries. There are even two envelopes containing the letter from Dr

Continue reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Highland Widow by Sir Walter Scott

Ah, The Highland Widow. Let me count the ways in which it is awesome.

First, look at that cover. We have Hesperus, not Walter Scott, to thank for that of course, but yum. (The firearms-loving consumption partner couldn’t understand why these two guns appear to be stuck in the ground. Who cares? Look at the almost-symmetry, and the orange!) We can thank Scott for the title, which I enjoy for personal aesthetic reasons (there is something wrong about liking the word “widow,” but I do). And to get to the work itself, it’s a novella (points!), it has a framing story (points!), and it’s about some awesome Romantic Highland business (double points!).

The framing story should actually get double points, as it’s (at least) a double frame. The Highland Widow is part of the Chronicles of the Canongate, narrated, like The Bride of Lammermoor, by a Scott-substitute, Chrystal Croftangry. But Croftangry has the story from one Bethune Baliol, who “undertook what was called the short Highland tour” several decades earlier and tells the story she heard from her bodyguard of Elspat MacTavish, the Highland widow herself.

Elspat “was once the beautiful and happy wife of Hamish MacTavish, for whom his strength and feats of prowess had gained the title of MacTavish Mhor.” Those feats mostly included stealing; he was a “cateran,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a former military irregular or brigand of the Scottish Highlands.” He went around demanding tribute and stealing your sheep if you didn’t give it to him. These wild Highlanders, you see, didn’t care about property rights. If MacTavish Mhor was strong enough to take what you had, and you too weak to keep it, what you had was justly his.

Eventually this reign of cateran terror is put to an end by redcoats

Continue reading The Highland Widow by Sir Walter Scott

A defense of The Bride of Lammermoor

For all the action I’ve given you so far, I don’t think I’ve given away really anything at all of the main plotline of the novel. If you read the book yourself, you’ll find out much faster, because Scott gives away the whole thing in his introduction. Or rather, he gives away the true story behind the novel: a lawyer of distinction marries a woman a bit above him, something of a Lady MacBeth. Their daughter becomes engaged without the knowledge of her parents, and her mother opposes the match upon finding out. After being bullied by her mother, the daughter breaks her troth and agrees to marry another. And then:

The bridal feast was followed by dancing; the bride and bridegroom retired as usual, when of a sudden the most wild and piercing cries were heard from the nuptial chamber. It was then the custom, to prevent any coarse pleasantry which old times perhaps admitted, that the key of the nuptial chamber should be intrusted to the brideman. He was called upon, but refused at first to give it up, till the shrieks became so hideous that he was compelled to hasten with others to learn the cause. On opening the door, they found the bridegroom lying across the threshold, dreadfully wounded, and streaming with blood. The bride was then sought for: She was found in the corner of the large chimney, having no covering save her shift, and that dabbled in gore. There she sat grinning at them, mopping and mowing, as I heard the expression used; in a word, absolutely insane. The only words she spoke were, “Tak up your bonny bridegroom.”

Within two weeks, of course, the good lady died, while her husband survived his wounds and refused ever to speak about the incident.

Scott gives

Continue reading A defense of The Bride of Lammermoor

The tidiness of The Bride of Lammermoor

Yesterday, talking about some of the excellent action in The Bride of Lammermoor, I may not have mentioned that they are all also excellent scenes. One of the things most apparent for me, reading Scott for the first time, was how skilled he was. Like with Flaubert, I was reading to some extent hoping to uncover these influences that have percolated down from Scott to, I guess, pretty much everyone who came after. He is another one who changed all of literature, &tc. And again, it’s hard to recognize, but it’s not at all hard to recognize how good he was. Every scene is carried off, the plot runs along just as it should, the principal characters are perfectly worthy of their Gothic story.

And then what I really began to notice was Scott’s parsimony. A lot happens in the novel, there are several settings, and the not-quite-omniscient (?) third-person narration closes in on various points of view as the story goes along. But nothing is wasted, nothing is not key to the main plotline, and despite the novel’s seeming to encompass so much, everyone is re-used to keep for a remarkably tight cast of characters.

First, the old woman Alice, a tenant of Sir William Ashton (and formerly of the Lord of Ravenswood). Ashton is out walking with Lucy and they meet and speak with Alice. Ashton shows his ignorance about his own estate in speaking to her, but she’s not just any old tenant either. She’s important to the Master of Ravenswood, serves as a major source of prophecy in a novel where prophecy is key, and will continue to reappear to gather and impart information.

Then we have Bucklaw and Craigengelt. We meet them at an inn, discussing a plan to spirit the Master of Ravenswood away

Continue reading The tidiness of The Bride of Lammermoor

The Bride of Lammermoor is super fun

I’d always thought of Sir Walter Scott as boring, probably due to too-early contact with the first few pages of Ivanhoe (and knowledge of its length), and when I began reading The Bride of Lammermoor I felt I was enjoying such things as I usually do anyhow, but that it was an awful lot of pretty dry exposition. Then, after the first real evening of reading it, I started to tell the consumption partner about what had gone on so far, to make conversation.

The first thing to really happen in the novel is the funeral of Allan Lord Ravenswood, a once-important lord who had lost his lands and then his rank, winding up with just one tower on a barren bit of coast and driven to a bitter death. “The pomp of attendance, to which the deceased had, in his latter years, been a stranger, was revived as he was about to be consigned to the realms of forgetfulness.” The funeral is grand and romantic: the train of mourners was so long the tail end had not left the castle gate by the time the principals reached the chapel. And the drama of Scottish history intrudes even here. Ravenswood wanted to be buried by a Scottish Episcopal priest, but a warrant had been issued to prevent it. Enter Edgar, “popularly called the Master of Ravenswood” and son of the deceased:

He clapped his hand on his sword, and, bidding the official person to desist at his peril from farther interruption, commanded the clergyman to proceed. The man attempted to enforce his commission, but as an hundred swords at once glittered in the air, he contented himself with protesting against the violence which had been offered to him in the execution of his duty, and stood aloof, a sullen

Continue reading The Bride of Lammermoor is super fun

“I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá

Almost 50 years after Herman Melville wrote Typee, which drew from his own experiences in Polynesia a few years earlier, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Beach of Falesá, one of its recognizable but much-altered descendants.

In many ways the two books seem nearly opposite. Typee‘s Tommo is afraid of the natives and bent on escape, but considers them basically charming. Wiltshire, the narrator of Stevenson’s novella, knows they can be dangerous but considers himself so comfortably superior, in every possible measure, that he has hardly any regard for the natives at all. Tommo wins Fayaway with romantic outings at the lake; Wiltshire picks his bride out of a crowd upon landing at the beach and weds her with a certificate to be “illegally married…for one week.” Tommo can never read the natives, always frustrated by unfamiliar expressions and exotic tattoos; Wiltshire believes:

It’s easy to find out what Kanakas think. Just go back to yourself any way round from ten to fifteen years old, and there’s an average Kanaka. There are some pious, just as there are pious boys; and the most of them, like the boys again, are middling honest and yet think it rather larks to steal, and are easy scared and rather like to be so.

The funny thing is, Tommo knows the same things about the natives on Nukuheva; there and in Omoo the Melville-narrator holds just about that exact opinion. He’s just not quite so blunt about it all.

By 1892, Wiltshire qua white man is a much older hand in the South Pacific. For one thing, he’s not a sailor, but a trader. He’s not there to explore or to see the world but to sell Western goods to the natives. He disdains the missionaries, blaming them even for the cheapness of

Continue reading “I was ashamed to be so much moved about a native”—Wiltshire on Falesá

Scottish Literature Challenge Recap

This week has been all about The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Amateur Reader’s challenge format has been great fun. Everyone should play along! I’m certainly looking forward to more of the clishmaclaver as the year progresses. In case you’ve missed anything:

I got under way with a brief introduction to the novel

Amateur Reader began with some excellent questions about Calvinists and incentives I took a long look at the devil, or someone very like him, and suggested we might actually take the editor at his word AR ran with it and explored the possibilities of nonfiction embedded in fiction I got down to the predestination question Then threw in some healthy Scotch common sense to round out the week AR found the Broken Specter at Arthur’s Seat

Good comments abound. Thanks very much to my gracious host for his crazy idea, and I hope you all enjoyed our havering. (Well, mine at least, and his erudite commentary.)