March 13, 2012

Pieces of Eight

I didn't read Robert Louis Stevenson when I was a child, save for his poetry. I remember picking up my brother's copy of Treasure Island, determined to read it just to say I had; that resolution didn't last long. I can still recall confused ideas of pirates and blood and spots and a boy and money and maybe an inn and a mother - which I consider quite an accomplishment, as that sums up nearly the whole of the first chapter or two (which is as far as I got). But I was under the impression that the book was terrifying and gory and would have me cowering in fright, so I gave it up.

Thus went my first ill-fated foray into Stevenson's works. I didn't try again until last year, when in a fit of obstinacy and desperation I picked up The Master of Ballantrae - obstinacy because my sister-in-law, a wonderful judge of literature, had said she didn't like the book; desperation because it was one of those times where none of my books looked appealing, and I wanted something different.

I'll confess that I wouldn't advise others to begin their education in Stevenson by reading Ballantrae: it's a very odd sort of story. I liked it for the author's writing style and for the voice of the narrator, but the characters were nearly all hateful and nothing very riveting happened except one duel. And yet for some strange reason, I came out of it wanting to read more of Stevenson. (Maybe that was more of the obstinacy.) So last month I read Treasure Island, and now I'm reading Kidnapped, and Stevenson is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.

"...he seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen,
like a man playing spillikins."

- g. k. chesterton

So Chesterton described Stevenson's writing, and I can't help agreeing. His style is much blunter than, say, Dickens', but at the same time, it never wavers: it always remains constant. He always has that perfect word on the end of his pen. Sometimes I'll come out of the story to look at the writing itself, and I wonder if Stevenson ever had to sit there and stare at his paper until he could grasp the word he wanted, or if they always simply came to him. I'm sure they didn't, but in the finished product it is easy to wonder.

Another thing I have found interesting in reading these three books is the fact that all of them are written in first person, and yet the "voices" differ between them. In The Master of Ballantrae the narrator is an older man, so that is understandable; but in both Treasure Island and Kidnapped the protagonists are boys just becoming men, and I expected that the latter would have much the same tone as the former. Not so. They are each unique, each distinctly Jim Hawkins and David Balfour. Perhaps this is due to David's Scottish brogue compared to Jim's smoother English; perhaps it is because of the differences between the characters themselves. I admire it either way, and though I have never written a first-person novel, I hope that even my third-person narration pulls this off.

When I was first reading The Master of Ballantrae, I noticed that in some ways Stevenson's writing seems to resemble my own (although, of course, far better). I could hardly lay a finger to the reason, but that was the feeling I got; something about his style particularly speaks to me. Thus the reading can be a little frustrating, as I see elements that he captures superbly and that I want to understand and learn from: his balance of narrative and dialogue, in particular. I believe that in general he has more of the former (which is different from my writing, where I tend toward the latter), and yet I never find it heavy or want to skim - a temptation even when I read Dickens, grand as he is. That is something I admire and would wish to incorporate into my writing.

These, then, are my rambles concerning Robert Louis Stevenson.


  1. I love Robert Louis Stevenson myself, although I don't think I have ever noticed as many things about his writing as you did! The point about each book having it's own tone, despite each being in the first person is intriguing, and it makes me want to go back and read some of his works again. :)

    Thanks for sharing, and enjoy your newfound admiration of the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson!

  2. Yay, more Robert Louis Stevenson fans! I can never seem to find any in the "real world," only online ...

    I agree with you about the differences in tone between David Balfour and Jim Hawkins. I think David is a little more mature than Jim, but Jim experiences more growth during the course of the novel ... it's interesting how David and Jim's closest mentors (Alan Breck and Dr. Livesey) are so different and have such a different effect on them.

    And I also want to learn from his use of narrative ... it would be wonderful to be able to "move" the story with interesting narrative like he can. If you pick up any tips, please let me know. :-)

    And let us know how you liked Kidnapped when you finish it! :-)

    Love in Christ,

  3. Interesting point about the different voices. I was just morning that the voice for my second book didn't sound the same as my first book but I guess that can be good thing.

  4. I'm another Stevenson fan! The Wrong Box is hilarious after you get through the first few pages of details. Apparently he wrote it with his son in order to raise money for a boat trip for his poor health.

    On another topic, I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award, A small distinction which comes with a compulsory blog post!

  5. Eyebright - I am eager to read more of his works (The Black Arrow is waiting on my shelf), and I'm also curious to see if he maintains that uniqueness of voice in every book. It would be interesting to see how he did with third-person, but I don't know if he has any novels from that point of view.

    Vicki - Stevenson is rather neglected, isn't he? What do they teach children in schools these days?

    Interesting point about the mentors in the two books; I hadn't thought of that before. I did love Doctor Livesey, though: he was a trip. I haven't spent much time with Alan yet, but so far he is a lovable riot as well. His vanity is so amusing.

    I'll be sure to post my thoughts on Kidnapped on my Goodreads account. You can get to my page by clicking on any one of the books under the "Bookmarks In..." section on the right, and when I finish Kidnapped there will certainly be a review for it.

    Anne-girl - I am no expert, but I think that it can be a good thing for the voice of two stories to differ. When people talk about writers developing their "voice," they mean "style;" and that is something that will show in all your works by the very fact of its being your writing. It may and should evolve, but it will remain your style.

    Voices of narrators, on the other hand, ought to differ from one novel to another. Your protagonists, who are viewing and perceiving the events of the story, will each be unique; thus, their thoughts and reactions will also be unique. That changes the "voice" the story.

    So I think it really a misnomer to talk about a writer's "voice" without defining terms. There are at least two voices that influence a story: the writer's and the protagonist's. The former remains relatively constant (although hopefully developing more from story to story), while the latter fluctuates from one novel to the next.

    - I had not meant for that comment to be quite so long! I hope it clarified the concept of voices and didn't confuse the issue more.

    Felicity - I have never heard of The Wrong Box, but I'll be sure to check it out. Also, thank you for the award! I don't always manage to make another Awarding post, but I do appreciate it. I'm glad you think Scribbles and Ink Stains worth awarding!

  6. My experience with Treasure Island was exactly the same as yours...only I haven't gotten around to actually reading it seriously again. I did try The Master of Ballantrae (for the exact same reason that you did), which I feel very similarly about as you do. I don't like either brother much, and the duel, although exciting, seemed a little like the rest of the story--disjointed and random. I couldn't make the story work for me at all.

    As for Kidnapped, I really want to read it--in fact, I think I will take it out of the library--because I've seen the 1996 film version and love it. I have no idea how closely the movie follows the book, but taken as just a movie, it's FANTASTIC. The characters come to life brilliantly and the music is unforgettable. And if I can find The Wrong Box, I'll give it a shot too. (Thanks, Felicity!)

  7. Both books are told in third person. However the protagonists are very different. Thank you for the encouragement.

  8. Yaasha - "Disjointed" is a good word for The Master of Ballantrae; I would certainly not call it the best of Stevenson's works. But Treasure Island, despite its cliched reputation, is a very good book and excellently written. I just recently watched the 1990 adaptation of it, starring Charlton Heston and Christian Bale, and that was also highly enjoyable. (In writing this post I had difficult coming up with a title, so I flipped to the back of Treasure Island and read the last paragraph, and I found myself doing so in Christian Bale's voice.) I'll have to check out the adaptation of Kidnapped, too, as soon as I've finished the book. (No spoilers!)

    Anne-girl - You're welcome! And thank you: I am now thinking of writing a post on voices, and I always appreciate such inspiration.

  9. Have you read The new Arabian nights by Mr Stevenson ? I enjoyed his work for a week and a half after reading that book, what I mean by that is I was writing with his style for some time after that. The black arrow is very much worth reading if only for a good read, some said it was not as literary as his others like treasure island, but I found it just as enjoyable.
    I like how you said he writes in different voices, I have noticed that too but i love the way you put it.
    Rachel Hope
    Visiting you from >>

  10. I've never read anything for Robert Louis Stevenson, or quite honestly even heard much about him (shame on me!). But Dad did tell me he read Treasure Island when he was a boy I think and enjoyed it =D. I wasn't too impressed, 'cause I've been thinking it is just a typical, boyish adventure story :). But Dad was the one who introduced me to Sherlock Holmes (which I once thought to be, "oh, too adventurous and detective, a typical thing a boy would like!" and now seriously am a big fan of, so I guess maybe it is the same thing with this :). Would it be similar in style to Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson? I really love those exploration stories!

    It is quite true in fact, isn't it, "what do they teach in schools these days?" =D! I love the way you draw so much out of the writing style of authors in your readings, Abigail. It is a wonderful way to get better in one's own writing, isn't it!

    In His love,

  11. Hope - I have not read any Arabian Nights, new or otherwise, I'm afraid. Shocking, I know! But when I get around to doing so, I'll see if I can find his. I'm also looking forward to reading The Black Arrow; it's my sister-in-law's favorite, and she has very good taste in books.

    Joy - Stevenson's works are definitely "boyish adventure stories," but I think the quality of his writing saves them from being "typical." His books, however, are the sort that one either loves or hates: I haven't found much middle ground. The subject matter is similar to Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson in that Stevenson marks his writing with a love of travel, of exotic locales, and of peril and adventure; but again, his style is very unique. You'll have to give him a try and then let me know what you think!

  12. Abigail, I'm revisiting this post because of your more recent post on Robert Louis Stevenson's use of voice ... anyway, I just wanted to say that I'm glad you watched the 1990 version of Treasure Island because it is, in my opinion, the best. Trust me and don't watch the 1934 version. :-P

    And I also loved your description of Alan Breck as a "lovable riot." :-) He definitely has one of the most awesome personalities in all British literature, I believe.

    Have a great day!

    Love in Christ,

  13. I was sold on the 1990 version from the first just because it has Charlton Heston in it. I was a little uncertain about his playing Silver, but he did a great job. A young Christian Bale as Jim turned out better than anticipated, too. I just finished watching the 1995 Kidnapped the other evening, per Yaasha Moriah's recommendation; it differed from the book in many areas, but it was still enjoyable in its own right. And it has Michael Kitchen - what's not to like?

    Alan is a lovable riot, isn't he? So vain! He is the best part of the whole novel. I am divided on my favorite part; it's either the fight in the roundhouse or the scene after Alan and David quarrel. Alan's so very sore about his height.

    Thanks for commenting again!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
find me elsewhere
take my button


Follow by Email

published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

Bookmarks In...

Search This Blog