Book Review: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

kidnapped

One book I read at least once a year is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. There is probably not a finer historical novel written.

Like any good novel, especially one that captures the imaginations of our students, it provides gripping drama from start to finish, with several areas of tension providing the stimulus for this great adventure story.

Students of all ages will be intoxicated by Stevenson’s good old fashioned and realistic story telling. More so, there are many areas suitable for the Catholic teacher to discuss moral fibre and virtue in the strengths and weaknesses of the characters.

Examples of virtue and vice abound in this book and an ongoing conflict in areas such as Catholicism and Protestantism and our duty to God and Country makes for the superlative adventure and compelling reading.

A good Catholic review is indispensable and my thanks go to the webmaster at edocere for permission to reprint some material in this review.

Summary:

The story is set in the mid-eighteenth century in Scotland. David Balfour is a boy who sets out in the world to seek his fortune and undergoes hardship and danger in his travels but returns as a man to claim his rightful inheritance.

Planning to cheat him of his inheritance, David’s uncle had him kidnapped. David strikes a friendship with Alan Breck, a fleeing Jacobite leader, who happens to be on the same ship as David.

At sea, David and Alan become comrades and go through quite a few adventures. There are many suspenseful events like sea battles and perilous chases across the Scottish hills.

As John Senior puts it, Kidnapped is a “bonny good adventure, it transports a colonial American boy back to his ancestral highlands and the Scottish honour, poverty, audacity, hilarity and spunk that still flows in his blood.”

Strong points:

  • The story is rooted in realism in a way that, for instance, Treasure Island or Ivanhoe is not. Stevenson’s knowledge of his country is based on observation. The accounts of some events such as the account of being washed ashore near Iona has almost a documentary immediacy fascinating to the reader.
  • The teacher will be able to give to the students some very interesting historical background on the Jacobite wars and the fight of the valiant Scottish Highlanders for the cause of the Stuart Catholic heir to the throne, “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
  • Robert Louis Stevenson was brought up a Presbyterian but as a man of fire and compassion, was drawn to the Stuart cause. David Balfour, a Protestant is attracted by Alan Breck. The Stuart cause is not explicitly supported but shown as gallant and self-sacrificing.
  • It is very interesting to compare the two main characters and to show both their defects and their virtues. David Balfour can be a bit dour, but he has his qualities. Alan Breck is vain and quarrelsome, but also has good points.
  • Kidnapped says as much about Stevenson as any autobiography. In David Balfour and Alan Breck “he gives substance to two sides of his own character, adventurer and rationalist, man of duty and man of passion, restless traveller with a mountain of Calvinist baggage to shoulder.”
  • More profoundly, Stevenson writes about two conflicting cultures within Scottish history which have become two deeply battling sets of sympathies within himself: The mercantile Lowland Hanoverian, law abiding and rational and the adventurous Highland Jacobite, romantic and sentimental. Deeper still, there is the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic cultures.

Cautions:

  • Some students may find the Scottish dialect difficult and will need help to understand some words. But this can be overplayed and just as it takes the reader a page or two to get used to the vernacular of Dickens, so to with Stevenson’s use of Scots.
  • Stevenson, in spite of his Catholic sympathies (he wrote a pamphlet to defend Fr. Damien), remains a Protestant. The teacher should point out how a Catholic novelist may have written differently on the same theme.
  • G.K. Chesterton wrote (and this is especially true of other novels like The Master of Ballantrae): “There is really and seriously an influence of Scottish Puritanism upon Stevenson; though I think it rather a philosophy partially accepted by his intellect than the special ideal that was the secret of his heart. But every philosopher is affected by philosophy; even if, as in the immortal instance in Boswell, cheerfulness is always breaking out.”

Editions:

There are so many out there that are worthy of mention but space permits me only to mention one or two.


Canongate published a Stevenson omnibus edition of his ‘Scottish’ novels; i.e. those which were set primarily in Scotland. I do like this edition and for the price tag, it’s fantastic value for money.

The edition includes the sequel to Kidnapped: Catriona, along with two other novels. At almost 900 pages, you can consider it an indispensable classroom resource.


Oxford World Classics at time of writing this review, also currently offering a good value edition both in paperback and for kindle.

It has a map of David’s route included and has an introduction introducing the historical elements that underpins the story.

For all available editions on amazon, see here.

Resources:

When you come to teach or just read this wonderful book to your students, there are fantastic free resources that you can support student learning.

The Robert Louis Stevenson website provides an excellent free teaching pack that includes chapter summaries, chapter questions and suggested answers, extension activities and lots of useful classroom activities.

See here for further excellent support materials.

Conclusion:

Kidnapped is really one of the best historical novels ever written, and has quite subtle characterisation and exploration of mood and motive, as seen especially in the self-analysis by David Balfour in the pages preceding the famous quarrel scene.

But central to the success of this novel over a long period of time is its narrative power. It is a great tale superbly told.

Without either the absorbing treatment of the post-Culloden theme, or the vivid colour and drama of the narrow escape from death in Uncle Ebenezer’s house, the battle of the round-house, the flight across the heather, the encounter with James of the Glen, or the re-visiting of the House of the Shaws, this novel would not have lasted.

It is not theme or characterisation alone which make it a perennial favourite, but rather its art of narrative.

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