Laurence Davies (University of Glasgow)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Landscape with Fugitives’

Stevenson’s Scottish fiction often dramatises the experience of being on the run. My paper touches on ‘Heathercat’, St Ives, and The Master of Ballantrae, but its principal subject is Kidnapped. This ‘romance’ distills the blend of dread, black comedy, political victimisation, clandestine behaviour, and involuntary roaming that has been one of Stevenson’s headiest bequests to his literary and cinematic heirs.

Persecution and pursuit in literature have a lengthy ancestry, of course. Stevenson’s most recent predecessors in this regard were Godwin, Mary Shelley, Stendhal, Balzac, Sue, Hugo, Dumas, Scott, and Hogg, not to mention authors of boys’ books such as Mayne Reid and R. M. Ballantyne. Kidnapped is distinctive, though, for its combination of vivid first person narrative, intimate engagement with terrain, an almost exclusive preoccupation with the hunted rather than the hunter, and a central character who is quasi-innocent—unlike Alan Breck, who is more like the familiar Byronic outlaw. This mixture has endured in a wide variety of settings: from Buchan and Hitchcock to Greene, ‘Sarban’, Dorothy B. Hughes, Atwood, and the Taviani brothers. Like Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Kidnapped is one of

those cultural interventions that has changed the face of genres and tropes.

A convergence of cultural, personal, political, and environmental forces gave Kidnapped its distinctive character. In Stevenson’s narrative, stylistic immediacy joined forces with imaginative sympathy for the dispossessed, the persecuted, and the defeated. This sympathy was fed by his readings in the history of the Covenanters and the Jacobites and (in the case of the Covenanters) by his nurse’s store of oral traditions. By Stevenson’s time, the hill country environments where these dramas were played out had gone through drastic change. The landscape David Balfour crosses in his flight had lost much of its population, being turned from open ground to private territory where even the right to follow ancient tracks was fiercely disputed. Hard on the heels of the Hanoverian soldiers had come the military mapmakers, and by the early 1880s, the Ordnance Survey had mapped even the remotest corners of Scotland on a scale of six inches to the mile. The Highlands were now better known yet, in all but tourist centres, less accessible. Such paradoxes are implicit in Kidnapped which draw its power from dynamic tensions between game and earnest, freedom and captivity, known and unknown landscapes, political, psychological, and metaphysical dread.

Categorized as Abstracts

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