Stevenson's brooding historical romance demonstrates his most abiding theme, the elemental struggle between good and evil, as it unfolds against a hauntingly beautiful Scottish landscape, amid the fierce loyalties and violent enmities that characterized Scottish history. When two brothers attempt to split their loyalties between the warring factions of the 1745 Jacobite rising, one family finds itself tragically divided. Stevenson's remarkably vivid characterizations create an acutely moving, psychologically complex work wherein the brothers'characters, not the historical facts, shape the drama. The Master of Ballantrae opens in the old Scottish house of Durrisdeer, ancestral home of the Duries, a family divided by the Jacobite rising of 1745. Its adventure draws in seas voyages, piracy, buried treasure, magic and nightmare, and centers on the fatal rivalry between two brothers, James and Henry, and the wealthy and beautiful kinswoman who loves one brother but marries the other.
The story is told in the main by Ephraim McKellar, steward of Durrisdeer, and concerns the fates of the two Durie brothers, both during and after the Jacobite rebellion. In order to preserve the estate they will take opposing sides in the conflict. Against the wishes of his family, the heir and favourite, James, insists on joining the uprising, whilst Henry, well-intentioned, but beloved of no-one but McKellar, supports King George. When the uprising fails and James is reported dead, Henry becomes heir and takes all that formerly belonged to James, who retains only his title, Master of Ballantrae. However, James has survived, and bitterly blames Henry for his losses.
I did endeavour to consider the themes en route, but was initially rather dismissive of the whole thing as a fairly straightforward morality tale. It put me strongly in mind of a passage between Frodo and Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Rings, where Frodo suspects that the spies of the Enemy would ‘seem fairer and feel fouler,’ whilst Aragorn, as he himself quips, looks foul and feels fair.
It seemed an obvious point to make, that what looks well may be ill, and vice versa, but maybe that was not the point. Maybe the point was that we may know this, and still not feel it. I must reluctantly admit to a sneaking admiration for the Master, whilst experiencing a hint of contempt for Henry that would not be repressed.
Having apparently nailed it, the morality becomes more complex, as the Master’s few admirable qualities (namely courage and resolve) come to the fore, whilst Henry seems to become petty, vindictive and wholly unlikeable. Halfway through the book McKellar is seduced by the Master and it feels as though the reader is asked to pour their scorn on his hapless head. However, by the end of the book, certainly from my perspective, the reader is also won over by the Master, and must therefore question their own judgement, and reassess that of McKellar.
But… the waters are further muddied by the nature of the two narrators, both of whom are proven unreliable. We suspect that the Chevalier Burke exaggerates the wickedness of the Master to minimise his own culpability, and McKellar likewise impugns the Master, whilst praising Henry, as a function of his partiality.
This could also provide an explanation for our changing feelings toward the characters; but, as McKellar becomes enthralled by the Master, does his narrative become more impartial or does it in fact swing in the other direction?
There are too many variables to pin this story down; which left me with the following questions:-
Why did James insist on going to war? It must have been clear that the uprising stood little chance of success, and that he would suffer the consequences.
Throughout the book it is obvious that James projects the right image. This is why he is favoured. Maybe his choice serves to emphasize that he intends to prosper through his charm which, he believes, will negate the nature of his actions.
James is permitted to keep his title 'Master of Ballantrae,' which should have passed to Henry's son. This effectively traps James in the position of heir apparent, whilst the natural progression to Lord is denied him. Is this a calculated act of cruelty, provoking and also symbolising James' inability to progress beyond the hand fate dealt him?
Does Henry, as McKellar suggests, really lose his reason, or is this only McKellar's rationale to explain Henry's undesirable behaviour and his own lack of judgement?
My favourite part of the book is where we learn that McKellar, (not, it must be said, my favourite character) was ultimately fired by the final Lord Durrisdeer; presumably on grounds of intolerable interference!
The story of the Durie family is "framed" in the discovery of a hundred-year old manuscript written by the narrator, Ephriam Mackellar. A feud between the two Durie brothers: James, the elder and the Master of Ballantrea, and Henry, the younger, his pawn, span the period of history of the Scottish rebellion and battle of Culloden to the early settlement in the New World. The Master, supporter of the losing side in the rebellion and reported killed,actually escapes. Henry, not aware that his brother still lives, succeeds to the title, the estate and his brother's betrothed, Alison Graeme. The Master returns, to the surprise of his family, and proceeds to squander all the money he can get from the estate.
A third level of the narrative twines within this action, through the discovery of papers written by a fellow soldier of the Master, who related their adventures after fleeing from Culloden
(captured by pirates and becomming pirates themselves, acquiring and hiding treasure, committing a series of murders evidently for gain as well as for the fun of it).
Meanwhile the psychological "cat and mouse" game between James and Henry reaches flash point when Henry realizes that the evil James is planning to corrupt Henry's son as well as seduce his wife. They fight a duel. James is killed but his body mysteriously disappears before the family can establish his actual death.
Eventually James reappears, alive and well, at Ballantrea and the family decides to flee secretly to America. James discovers their new home and follows them. Meanwhile there is a political attempt (though feeble) to reinstate James as true Master of Ballantrae in England which causes Henry to loose his reason. The eventual show-down between the two brothers results in one of the worst fates of an evil-doer in literature. Let me just say that the "cat and mouse" game intensifies, the hidden treasure (real or imaginary) spurs horrific consequences to the searchers and James pays the price.
Power and control over others through psychological intimidation winds throughout the narrative. Vital pieces of information are witheld at crucial points from crucial characters and there is uncertainty of the reliability of certain narrators. Stevenson places the reader in the delicious position of sorting out what exactly is happening and attemping to determine the how and why of James and Henry's actions. The Master of Ballantrae will keep you thinking long after you finish the novel.
This specific edition is from 1968 (perfect year for Sean Connery and Oliver Reed to play the siblings) and is large type for those who need extra help. If you don't need the extra help for the eyes, it's kinda weird, but perfect really because this baby will knock about your bag and car and bus and will wind up very well-thumbed. I'd like a leather-bound edition, just so I can watch it sitting on my shelf. RLS!
Two Duries in Durrisdeer
One to stay and one to ride,
An ill day for the groom
And a worse day for the bride.
Book Season = Year Round