Yes, there are pirates and sea adventures. Yes, there are crossed love affairs and duels. And yes, there are shivery moments of speculation upon death and the devil, abundantly so. Well, what else would you expect from a book by Robert Louis Stevenson? Nevertheless, in this book, The Master of Ballantrae, what is in the forefront of the book for more of its length than anything else is a psychological case study of a family, its woes, its inner politics, its relationship to the outer world, and what brings it to grief. Again, this highly reputed examination of the family of the Duries in Scotland during the time of the Scottish-English wars and the years thereafter not only takes place in a reality that was romantic for many by its very nature, but also makes real what would seem an otherwise romantic situation, rendering it thus susceptible to the dictates of reason.
Briefly, the situation is this: Lord Durrisdeer has two sons between whom has grown up a fierce rivalry: his elder son, James the Master of Ballantrae, and his younger son, Henry. From the very first, there is a bitter feud going between them, though initially not in a sustained way. But it is the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the opposing English King George, and the family is split down the middle. This is not only due to where their allegiances and basic personality tendencies lie, but is also due to Lord Durrisdeer’s odd wisdom, of sending one son to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie while the other son, Henry, the second in line to the tltle, stays at home and helps represent the family as loyal to King George. Funnily enough, though this arrangement may seem like a highly fictionalized one, it is in fact an old tried and true method in the real world as we know it, even to the present day, for families in territories at war. It enables at least half of the family fortunes to be saved, along with (possibly) one future heir.
One of the less political things at issue between the two brothers is their mutual love and rivalry over Miss Alison Graeme, a cousin, whom it is more or less assumed will marry Jamie (James), not only because she loves him and is ready and willing, but also because her fortune could help restore the family’s finances, which are in a sad state. James puts on that he loves her, but he loves himself more, gads about among the women of the district, and even has a bastard child with one woman. When he goes to battle with the Prince, Alison sews the revolutionary cockade upon his cap; she continues to bear allegiance to him even when he’s away. Henry loves her too, but hopelessly and at a distance. Not only does James have all the romance to which a young woman might be susceptible behind his role, but Henry is a practical young man not given to moonshine and daydreams, too pragmatic a figure to cut a dash in the world.
The rivalry and finally actual hatred between the two brothers creeps in further when, due to the apparent death of James, Alison agrees to marry Henry to improve the family’s monetary situation. She continues to grieve and moan over Jamie’s loss, as does his father, Lord Durrisdeer, for whom he was the favorite son, and even after she has a child by Henry, and the title passes to him, they seem to shut Henry out from their fond recollections and reminiscences. But the real problem arises when James returns “from the dead,” and continues to taunt and bait Henry in secret and make nice to him in front of the others, all the while courting Alison, his wife, in spite of the fact that he has no real intention to win her away from Henry, but only acts in order to make trouble for Henry.
There is, to be sure, more than one perspective to this book, even though James seems like the very devil himself and acts fiendishly throughout. That he has abundant charm, a fine intellect, and a strong personality is shown as well. As Mackellar, the land steward who is Henry’s friend and confidant even more than he is his employee, says to James, it’s not so much that he is evil, but that he has the capacity to be so very right-mannered and good a person that is discouraging to his approval of him. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, however, James would “rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Mackellar’s perspective on the two brothers is the main narration device for most of the novel, though (as in other books using varying points of view) there are other narrators whose memoirs or editorial comments add sidelights to the narrative, which of course allows us to see that Henry too is flawed in his own particular way. After a certain point in the story, even Mackellar, loyal as he is to the family and Henry in particular, must realize that in Henry as well there are negative traits which bite deeply. Take the novel as a whole, the adventures and roamings, the war and sea tales and travels to India and the state of New York and the Adirondacks–the latter where Stevenson wrote some of the novel–are perhaps romantic, but at the same time, they provide the background and opportunity for the exhibition of the psychology of the two brothers’ interactions and mutual attempts to overreach each other.
Thus, a conflict which starts out in youth as a minor thing is gradually aggravated by opportunity for mischief on James’s part and stern and unforgiving resilience on Henry’s, and because of circumstances and chances, swells to fill the whole canvas of the changing locales in the novel. Though I’ve enjoyed Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I don’t think I’ve been as spellbound from start to finish with such a fine psychological study as I found in this book. I hope you will read its short number of pages and find it gripping likewise.