Kidnapped; or the Lad with the Silver Button
Stevenson's gift for evocation, achieved by the combination of prose rhythm and poetic image, is so subtle and compelling that a reader might easily overlook its role in developing and furthering the narrative. Nothing in a Stevenson text is merely technical, nothing is without meaning, and that is especially the case in a novel as densely compacted of ideas as Kidnapped, one that joins historical incident with psychological truth. The novel is based upon a famous political trial in Inveraray in 1752, and focuses on the period immediately following the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746 after their final failed effort to retrieve the crown of England for the house of Stewart. It would be fruitful to examine the narrative in this context. In our own time we have forgotten how deeply historical Stevenson was, how familiar he was with all aspects of Scottish life and culture, and how determined he was to represent it in his fiction. Indeed, the choice of subject of Kidnapped is nothing less than a testament to his own country's history, ensuring that its transmission be shaped by a Scottish as opposed to an English reading. Stevenson provides that reading, and for all those devoted to the eighteenth century, and the unending studies of the last Jacobite rebellion, and the clan system, and the divergences between the Highlands and the Lowlands, and the clash between two cultures, and between three countries, Kidnapped is a model text.
Yet it is also a text that lives outside its own history, and independently of our knowledge of the real Colin Campbell's murder, or Robin Oig's hanging, or Alan Breck's exile, even though those hard facts are not just integral but essential to the narrative. The novel has clearly flourished in an array of national cultures where the barest outlines of the historical events are Greek to the audience. Even North American readers can hardly be expected to know the incidents that the story purports to narrate. What, then, enables it to move readers in spite of (or apart from) its historical vestments? Perhaps it is the unobtrusive way in which fundamental realities about the conditions of the world are introduced into the narrative. For issues that Stevenson uncovers under the guise of adventure, indeed in the form of adventure, such as innocence terrorized, or cruel and capricious violence, to name just one constellation, are profoundly affecting as experiences and timeless when considered as philosophical reflections. This is a story that begins with the offstage presence of death and the palpable feeling of abandonment: David Balfour has just become an orphan. The question of how he will manage makes for interest, as Henry James might say, but in the world according to Stevenson, nothing comes without pain and certainly not without grief. For the conditions of life are hard – Stevenson called it a "battlefield" in The Suicide Club – and victory, which at best is nothing more than survival, is not for the faint of heart.