97. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1889

coverI posted a bit of a whine earlier about the difficulties I have reading Robert Louis Stevenson, but a funny thing happened after that.

The point of view shifted for a chapter, and that chapter was not only easier, it was a quick and entertaining read. Then things shifted back to the main(-ish?) narrator and, while not as smooth, the reading was certainly not as rough as before.

A few other things made the early bits slow going, apart from my apparent antipathy to the way RLS kicked stories off.

First, the title. I am unused to Victorian-era novels, and earlier, taking their titles from the villain. Generally speaking, if the title is after a character, it’s the protagonist, but that’s not the case here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Master of Ballantrae is Robert Louis Stevenson’s take on the sturdy old story-frame of the evil son versus the good son. And for all its many faults — many, many, many faults — it achieves its main goal exceptionally well. It is a remarkable portrait of how a sociopath operates.

The story begins with an unnecessarily distancing device, in which Stevenson narrates how he came into possession of the manuscript of the novel, which he presents as “real”. Then the story proper begins, and again distances the reader, for it is narrated by MacKellar, a supporting character in the narrative, inserted into the story at various points, sometimes well and sometimes awkwardly. As it begins, MacKellar makes his return journey to a fictional Scottish town, Durrisdeer, to return to service of the family Durrisdeer.

And here I pause to lay out another failing of Stevenson’s. While some of the characters are well-drawn, few of them cohere into full characters in the mind, to the point where names did not stick with me. Part of the fault is RLS’s insistence on rotating through all possible titles for each character, without explaining clearly the significance of each title. One is Just Supposed To Know, it seems.

And seriously, it gets confusing when “the master” and “my master” are two different people, and “the lord” and “my lord” are also two different individuals.

So I’m writing the first pass of this review with only the info I can recall, not referring back to the book.

The Durrisdeers as we meet them are a titled family basically in charge of the land around Durrisdeer. But the family is on hard times, having sold off much land just to service debts. There is the father, two sons, and an adopted daughter who is heir to both wealth and land, and is intended to marry the elder son.

The elder son, John I think, will become the titular Master of Ballantrae, and that title is never explained in a way that made sense to me. It functions as a title among “his” people, as a note that he is beloved even though he did not inherit the Lord Durrisdeer title. The Master of Ballantrae is a villain, known to be deceitful, manipulative, and a shirker of all responsibility. But he is also completely charismatic, and is his father’s favorite, though the father knows his faults, and beloved of all the people of Durrisdeer.

The younger son is… Henry? I think? He is the good son, but difficult to love because he is not outgoing, prone to depression, and not flashy and exciting in the way his elder brother is. He also knows full well that his brother is a monster, and is one of the few immune to the man’s charisma.

The not-quite-adopted daughter is, of course, entirely in love with Evil Son, and cares little for Good son.

When the Second Jacobite Rebellion is in the offing, Lord Durrisdeer decides that one of his sons will fight with it, and the other will support the Stuarts, so that whichever side wins, the family will retain their title and lands. The sons clash over who is to take the more dangerous role of fighting with Bonny Prince Charlie, with Evil son getting the honor, and Good son being despised by his tennants as a coward for not choosing to do so. (Of course, he is no such thing, but his brother puts it around because it suits him to have the story known that way.)

The rebellion doesn’t go off, and to follow Evil son’s exploits, we get narration from an Irish Rascal whom he fought alongside, and adventured with afterwards.

This is where the story picked up for me, because the Irish Rascal was a far more engaging narrator for me, and because it is during this section that I finally twigged to Evil son being unremittingly evil, a full sociopath. He flat-out murders someone who is, at worst, a slight inconvenience to him, and he does it simply because he knows he’ll get away with it.

The bulk of the story depicts how Boring Good copes with the continuing returns and retreats and regroupings of Charming Evil, until it gets to the ending, which is a wet firecracker of non-confrontation and Plot Convenience, unfortunately.

But the strength of the book, depicting the machinations of how Charming Evil works (often narrating it rather than dramatizing, but doing it so potently that it feels utterly real), is a genuine and compelling strength. Before “sociopath” was a word, Stevenson depicted exactly how such personalities operate, how they cannot even conceive of higher abstractions like honor and integrity, how they work social interrelationships to become puppet masters of a sort, getting each individual to act in a way the sociopath deems beneficial — and importantly, how such manipulations are in fact self-defeating, and destructive to everyone around them.

Was it worth reading? Surprisingly, yes. Is it an underrated classic? Not really.

I read the FeedBooks copy which was filled with typos and lazy typography (using all caps instead of italicizing, e.g.). So I’m linking the Gutenberg edition, which was probably the source for Feedbooks, but likely to have been cleaned up in the meantime.

Download The Master of Ballantrae from Project Gutenberg for free.

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This review of The Master of Ballantrae by D. Jason Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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