*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Reading groups: All that a novelist knew about the devil

by
10 April 2012

Ross Collins enjoys The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

iStock

I OFTEN think of Robert Louis Steven­son as a victim of the post­humous success of his adventure stories. Although Treasure Island flopped in his lifetime (so much so that the commissioned sequel to it was scrapped), its place in popular consciousness has been sealed by its being a staple diet of 12-year-old boys at a certain sort of old-fashioned school, and by any number of Errol Flynn-style depictions.

There is no doubt that there is plenty of swashbuckling action in Stevenson’s work, but the immensely serious side to his writing has often been lost amid the sound of swishing swords and cursing pirates. The Master of Ballantrae, together with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both stand as significant attempts to plumb the depths of the human psyche, and, in particular, explore the nature of evil.

In The Master of Ballantrae, the story deals with the Durrisdeer family — in particular, the relationship between the two brothers: the Master (who is the elder), and the younger, Henry. It looks at how this relation­ship affects those around them.

The violent end of the story is revealed at the start, and it is clear from then on that the novel is less about what will happen than about how it will, or even why. This allows Stevenson to draw the focus of the reader in towards the characters and the issues of cruelty and sin that surround them, more than to the plot-line.

The character of the Master was described by Stevenson as “all I know about the devil”, and this is perhaps the key point to understanding the book. It is an exploration of the nature and effects of evil. Woman­ising, dissolute, violent, treacherous, and manipulative, the Master is seen as monstrous. He kills people who saved his life, spurns the mother of his child, and works to undermine his brother relentlessly.

Yet the depiction of him is much more subtle than this. Stevenson was concerned to portray evil as being part and parcel of ordinary life, and as having a face that was compelling, even attractive. There are instances in the Master’s life of extraordinary courage and tenacity, such as his fleeing from a pirate ship, and, later, fighting for days in Caribbean swamps.

There are also graceful manners — seen in his dealings with Henry’s wife, or indeed with the narrator of the story, Mackellar, the old family retainer, after Mackellar had tried to kill him. These glimmers of decency give a faint tug on the reader’s emotions. Perhaps we want him to succeed. Perhaps we even admire him. Perhaps we sympathise with him. Perhaps, this time, he will be redeemed.

But any such hopes are immedi­ately dashed by another cruel act. It is this exploration of evil as operating within the much greyer areas of normal existence that makes its portrayal so powerful.

At the start of the story, Henry becomes the formal heir to the title of his father, even though he is the younger brother, because the Master is presumed to be dead. Even though the Master returns alive, he is not given his “rightful place” as heir. This gives precise focus to his jealousy and quest for vengeance.

He draws on two biblical stories to justify his anger. The first is the parable of the prodigal son, where he, of course, is the prodigal, and Henry the grumpy brother at home. It fits in many ways. The brothers’ father is indulgent to a fault of the Master and his excesses, and Henry is indeed not pleased when his brother returns from the dead. There is, however, no sense of repentance from the Master, and that makes his identification with the younger brother of the parable fatally flawed.

He also falls into the habit of call­ing Henry “Jacob”, insinuating that Henry had cheated him of his birth­right by a trick played on his father. Again, the Master’s situation and the Jacob and Esau story have parallels, but there was no deception by Henry in his becoming heir, since everyone thought that the Master was dead.

Here, as elsewhere, the Master manages to twist scripture to justify himself and to humiliate others. In doing so, he offers the reader a vision of evil that is at once more dangerous and commonplace than any depic­tion of unmitigated violence or in­justice might be.

Stevenson explores in detail the effect of the Master’s behaviour on the rest of the family. This is a study of how evil eats away at the emotions, courage, and moral convictions of others. Each member of the family in turn loses something of themselves, as they are played with by the Master and as the story gathers pace towards its inevitable tragic end.

Yet, for all the seriousness of the themes that Stevenson pursues in The Master of Ballantrae, the story has a light­ness of touch which makes it thoroughly enjoyable. It is beautifully written. As such, it is an approachable study of the darker recesses of human nature. Its insights justify the higher regard for his talents that Stevenson’s peers had for him than our current view, dominated as it is by Treasure Island.

The Revd Ross Collins, a native Dun­donian, is an NS priest in the diocese of Salisbury who is developing micro­finance projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Master of Ballantrae is pub­lished in various editions, including one from by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-043446-0).

The Master of Ballantrae - Some questions

The French novelist André Gide described The Master of Ballantrae as all excellent, but such a heterogeneous mixture, like a sample-card, a display of the writer’s best wares. How far do you agree with Gide’s assessment?

The Master of Ballantrae - Some questions

The French novelist André Gide described The Master of Ballantrae as all excellent, but such a heterogeneous mixture, like a sample-card, a display of the writer’s best wares. How far do you agree with Gide’s assessment?

Why did James hate his brother so much?

Why did James hate his brother so much?

Have you read any other works by R. L. Stevenson? If so, how does The Master of Ballantrae compare?

Have you read any other works by R. L. Stevenson? If so, how does The Master of Ballantrae compare?

Do you think Stevenson is trying to convey any particular message with his book?

Do you think Stevenson is trying to convey any particular message with his book?

Who is Mackellar’s true master? With whom do his true loyalties lie?

Who is Mackellar’s true master? With whom do his true loyalties lie?

If you were to turn the book into a film script, which parts of the story would you most concentrate on?

If you were to turn the book into a film script, which parts of the story would you most concentrate on?

How do the personalities of James and Henry compare?

How do the personalities of James and Henry compare?

How might the story have been told differently if it had been penned by either James or Henry?

How might the story have been told differently if it had been penned by either James or Henry?

What part does Miss Alison/Mrs Henry play in the story? How are the children and other peripheral characters portrayed?

What part does Miss Alison/Mrs Henry play in the story? How are the children and other peripheral characters portrayed?

How truthful do you think Mackellar’s account was of the circumstances of the events in the book? How far do Chevalier de Burke’s writings give a different picture of the Master?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 May, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Shaping the Heart by Pamela Evans. It is published by BRF at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84101-726-6).

Book notes

How truthful do you think Mackellar’s account was of the circumstances of the events in the book? How far do Chevalier de Burke’s writings give a different picture of the Master?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 May, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Shaping the Heart by Pamela Evans. It is published by BRF at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84101-726-6).

Book notes

The author describes this as a book to be used, not just read, a “God-help” guide to fruitful discipleship. In order to assist with this, she provides biblical reflections at the end of each chapter. The chapters’ contents concentrate on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The whole is presented as a journey from foundations through learning to trust, coping with adversity, and obedience, and ending with fruit-bearing. Fruits form on trees only after much spadework and care; Evans shows how this is true also for our spiritual lives.

The author describes this as a book to be used, not just read, a “God-help” guide to fruitful discipleship. In order to assist with this, she provides biblical reflections at the end of each chapter. The chapters’ contents concentrate on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The whole is presented as a journey from foundations through learning to trust, coping with adversity, and obedience, and ending with fruit-bearing. Fruits form on trees only after much spadework and care; Evans shows how this is true also for our spiritual lives.

Author notes

Author notes

Pamela Evans trained as a doctor at the London Hospital, and worked as a GP, before moving into research in epidemiology, with a particular inter­est in cerebral palsy. In more recent years, she has become involved in counselling and in working with GPs on what she describes as work­aholism and other “respectable” addictions. She also leads Christian workshops, gives talks on her work and ideas, and is a spiritual director. She lives in Sussex with her hus­band; they have two married sons and are grandparents. She has also written Driven Beyond the Call of God (1999) and Building the Body (2002), both published by BRF.

Pamela Evans trained as a doctor at the London Hospital, and worked as a GP, before moving into research in epidemiology, with a particular inter­est in cerebral palsy. In more recent years, she has become involved in counselling and in working with GPs on what she describes as work­aholism and other “respectable” addictions. She also leads Christian workshops, gives talks on her work and ideas, and is a spiritual director. She lives in Sussex with her hus­band; they have two married sons and are grandparents. She has also written Driven Beyond the Call of God (1999) and Building the Body (2002), both published by BRF.

Books for the next two months:

Books for the next two months:

June: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

June: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

July: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

July: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)

*Until the end of June: we’re doubling the number of free articles to eight, to celebrate the publication of our Platinum Jubilee double issue.