After being unable for a while to read fiction, having focused on films and film books for the entire semester, I’m reading again, and have been enjoying Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae. I didn’t notice, when picking up the book, that the subtitle was “A Winter’s Tale”. How fitting! It’s a perfect winter break novel.
The Master of Ballantrae is, in a way, an adventure story, full of blood, war, rivalry, pirates, savages, duels, murders, revenges, storms, deaths and resurrections, spanning over decades and across different continents. The book cannot compare to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is unsurpassable in Stevenson’s oeuvre, but underneath the excitement, fast pace, and dramatic moments of the adventure story, the stuff of boys’ fancy, there is a lot more. The Master of Ballantrae would be a great response to those who see Stevenson as a frivolous writer.
The novel is about the feud between James Durie, The Master of Ballantrae, and his brother Henry, and its tragic consequences. I don’t write reviews, so you will be disappointed if you expect a plot summary. Wikipedia will suffice. The book is enjoyable for the “adventures”, for the prose, and for the psychology. At the beginning, especially in the eyes of the narrator Ephraim Mackellar, the steward of the Durrisdeer estate and loyal “friend” of Henry, it appears that James (often called Ballantrae or the Master in the text) is evil, and the other brother is good. James is portrayed as a good-looking and dangerous man, well-mannered, calm, deceptively charming, manipulative, narcissistic, and deceitful; he is also greedy, and can be scheming and ruthless. Henry envies his brother—his father’s favourite son, and at the beginning of the story, his other chief fault is pride—he keeps a distance because of pride, refuses to explain himself because of pride, suffers in silence because of pride, proves himself more generous than his brother by paying James unreasonable sums of money and cutting down on expenses in his own family without explanation because of pride…, and thus suffers even more. The narcissistic and manipulative James, who describes himself as having a kingly nature, is an interesting and memorable character, but the proud Henry is an even more fascinating case study. More than the bad brother does, pride and envy, which gradually turns into hatred and bitterness, damage Henry, ruin his life and push everyone away if not for Mackellar’s interventions now and then. Worse, they change his heart. Later on, we find the brothers/ enemies mirroring each other; Henry shares some traits with the man he most hates and despises—rage, resentment, bitterness, vengefulness, cruelty (bordering on sadism), and inability to let go. I haven’t finished the book, but it seems like the kind of rivalry that never ends till both are destroyed. Henry becomes the very thing he hates, and lets darkness triumph.