10.08 Master of Ballantrae

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
October 2008 Meeting

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  1. I’m a big admirer of Stevenson. This isn’t a book I admire though. Why not try the Ebb Tide, which is %100 better than the Master of B. If you don’t know the Ebb Tide, it’s like Conrad, but written by someone who wasn’t Polish. I don’t recall it raising a smile, but I felt more sympathy with the characters in it than I ever did with any of Conrad’s dutiful sinners. I’m posting this because I feel that Stevenson is generally under-rated and needs a boost.

  2. moirabbc

     /  October 31, 2008

    I also found this book hard work because of the style and language although I do concede it had a certain charm. The Gothic wickedness of the Master’s character was hard to make sense of, unlike that of Heathcliff. The Master has privilege, good looks and a sense of adventure he is able to pursue, yet he wants both sides of the tossed coin. The Master also brought to mind the character of Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness.’
    I understand that both Burke and McKellar are not reliable narrators so the wickedness of the Master and the worthiness of his brother are in doubt. The reader is invited to sneer somewhat at the pitiable ‘old maid’ McKellar.
    I can appreciate the magical realism in say, ‘The Life of Pi,’ and the Latin trilogy by Louis de Bernieres but some of the strange events in this book, such as the ending, did not add any meaning for me.

  3. michelebbc

     /  October 31, 2008

    That’s an interesting point. It depends on how you define magical realism. One article I found describe’s it as ‘elements of the fantastic woven into the story with a deadpan sense of presentation’ and another ‘The presence of the supernatural in magical realism is often connected to the primeval or “magical’ Indian mentality, which exists in conjunction with European rationality.’ well that is definitly this book!

    Actually Richard, you’ve made me realise a lot of the books I love really could be described like that, but most were written well before any one came up with ‘magical realism’ as a pigeon hole for them!

  4. richardbbc

     /  October 30, 2008

    Malcolm’s comments set me thinking. Is it possible, with all those pirates and digging up dead bodies and candles burning outside while two men try and kill each other, that in some sort of bizarre way, Stevenson was a Victorian ‘Magic-Realist’?

  5. malcolmbbc

     /  October 30, 2008

    Oh dear, it seems that it’s my role to be “Mr Miserable” again!

    I really did not rate this book at all. It took me all month to read and there was little joy in it, too much like hard work. The language put me off (not just the dialect but the general archaic nature of it) and it wasn’t a pleasure to read.

    It may be “of the time” but I also didn’t like the references to native Americans/foreigners as savages.

    And talk about unrealistic! The pirate sections in particular just didn’t ring true for me … what should have been a rip roaring adventure just left me thinking that it was all very poor quality. The narrative travels to many different places, but I didn’t get a real sense of any of them.

    It struck me that my reservations were similar to those for Wuthering Heights – the book seems to contain a lot of “fuss” but nothing much actually happens and what does happen just doesn’t seem realistic.

    Sorry Michelle, just not my cup of tea!

  6. hilaryfender

     /  October 27, 2008

    Last year I read “Good Wives?” by Margaret Forster, which described the lives / marriages of Mary Livingstone, Fanny Stevenson and Jennie Lee in contrast to her own history. The text of ‘The Master’ resonated for me at times with some of the descriptions of the Stevensons’ lives (both together and individually).
    I was glad that bbc members didn’t give too much away at our discussion last week about the concluding chapters of the novel; I found it was quite a robust enough ending for a very testosterone-fuelled tale.
    A very satisfactory read altogether.

  7. Sarah

     /  October 26, 2008

    I was a little anxious about this choice of book, having previously failed miserably to read either Treasure Island, or Kidnapped. And in the first instance it did seem that my fears were well grounded, as I struggled with the Scottish dialect. I thought I acclimatised well, but at the meeting it was observed that the dialect is largely abandoned in the first few pages and, looking back, this does prove to be the case.

    Having surmounted these early teething problems the book proved to be surprisingly readable, a gripping adventure yarn that entices you swiftly through the pages.

    With a thought to our meeting I did endeavour to consider the themes as I progressed, but was initially rather dismissive of the whole thing as a fairly straightforward morality tale. It put me strongly in mind of a passage between Frodo and Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Rings, where Frodo suspects that the spies of the Enemy would ‘seem fairer and feel fouler,’ whilst Aragorn, as he himself quips, looks foul and feels fair.

    It seemed an obvious point to make, that what looks well may be ill, and vice versa, but maybe that was not the point. Maybe the point was that we may know this, and still not feel it. I must reluctantly admit to a sneaking admiration for the Master, whilst experiencing a hint of contempt for Henry that would not be repressed.

    Having apparently nailed it, the morality becomes more complex, as the Master’s few admirable qualities (namely courage and resolve) come to the fore, whilst Henry seems to become petty, vindictive and wholly unlikeable. Halfway through the book McKellar is seduced by the Master and it feels as though the reader is asked to pour their scorn on his hapless head. However, by the end of the book, certainly from my perspective, the reader is also won over by the Master, and must therefore question their own judgement, and reassess that of McKellar.

    But… the waters are further muddied by the nature of the two narrators, both of whom are proven unreliable. We suspect that the Chevalier Burke exaggerates the wickedness of the Master to minimise his own culpability, and McKellar likewise impugns the Master, whilst praising Henry, as a function of his partiality.

    This could provide an explanation for our changing feelings toward the characters; but as McKellar becomes enthralled by the Master does his narrative become more impartial or does it in fact swing in the other direction? There are too many variables to pin this story down; which can only be a good thing for a discussion!

  8. michelebbc

     /  October 24, 2008

    I find it quite difficult to be objective about this book, as I’ve read it so many times over the years.

    On picking it up this time I was instantly drawn in again by the style and writing and found myself reading every single word, no speed reading or skipping bits even though I know the story so well!

    I particurly like the way the novel is presented as ‘found documents’ gathered together by the author, giving him the opportunity to use many voices and show different versions of events. We are left to wonder how reliable each narrator is and often given hints that we should not take everything at face value. I particularly loved the memoirs of Colonel Francis Burke and could quite happily have read more from him, although it is amusing that he is cut short as an unreliable witness by MacKeller who in turn is cut short by RLS himself at a later stage.

    I love adventure stories, and to me this book combines adventure, insight into the human character and the way greed and misunderstandings can blight an entire life and a great anti-hero in Jamie, The Master.


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