I have a confession to make: I do not enjoy reading Robert Louis Stevenson.
Oh, sure, I read Treasure Island when I was nine or ten. And as an adult I did manage to get through The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But I’ve also failed to get through Kidnapped many, many times. And now I’m slogging through The Master of Ballantrae for my reading project, and it’s just irritating the hell out of me.
I’m two chapters in, plus an in-story preface, and while I have a better handle on what’s going on than I did the first time I tried to get through it last year (I’m already further in than I got on that attempt), RLS is still failing to give me much handle by which to grab on and get into the story.
The opening takes place around 1745 and the Second Jacobite Rebellion, which is fairly important to the plot, as it takes one main character away from the others and causes them to believe he is dead.
Let me pause to observe that “Jacobite” and “rebellion” are two words yet to be mentioned in the novel. At all. You’re simply supposed to know what Bonny Prince Charlie’s being around and the year means. No notes, no asides, nothing to help orient the reader.
Look, when Sir Walter Scott covered his fictional Third Jacobite Rebellion in Waverley, written much closer in time to the events it presumed the reader was familiar with, he still managed to give enough detail that I, who am fairly ignorant of those events, had no trouble following his (cracking good) story.
(It is, perhaps, partly excusable in that the story is narrated in the first person, and such a person would assume that anyone reading it would “just know” all the background, but I still hold that it’s bad writing to give readers basically no handle at all if they don’t have the same background as the characters in the story.)
Then there are the characters. The lists and lists of names, and indirect mention of certain characters being referred to by different names or different titles at different times, and again no explanation of why. You’re just supposed to already know, I guess.
There’s also the thick, thick Scots accent he transcribes for certain characters. A lot of it I can work out from my own knowledge of how Scots speak, or from context. But some things are just tae oobscur tae ken fa me Moorcin eyre.
I imagine that RLS is one of the authors who inspired Heinlein to write in his own particular style — that is, to describe things without explaining them, and let the reader work out the hows and whys himself.
But that doesn’t work if you don’t give the reader any way to figure anything out. So far, RLS doesn’t do that.
Also, probably best not to get me ranting on how he gives just as little description or orientation for his fictional places as for real ones, so that all of Scotland exists in a foggy nether realm where things have no spatial relationships to each other in this reader’s mind. Argh.
It’s quite maddening, but I’m going to soldier on, because this is my project, dammit, and I will finish it. Eventually.
(This is probably going to be very funny, as the next two novels in the project seem to be rather over-written Victorian pieces, so I’ll soon be bitching about having too much description, after complaining about not getting enough. Call me Goldilocks.)