“The Master of Ballantrae”—RLS’ Great Gothic Novel

Years ago after my grandfather died, I discovered a complete set of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson in his garage, published in 1911. They were beautiful red books with gold engravings, and although I had previously read Kidnapped and Treasure Island as a boy and found them dull, I decided I would keep this set of books and maybe I would find I liked them because I was now older. And so I committed to read one of the twenty-six volumes every year until I finished. That was twenty years ago, but I have only made my way through nine of the volumes because I still find them fairly boring.

The Master of Ballantrae - published 1889

The Master of Ballantrae – published 1889

But this week that changed when I read The Master of Ballantrae. I knew there had to be a reason why people liked Robert Louis Stevenson and this fascinating novel makes up for all the others I had previously read, and I am writing about it because its wonderful Gothic tone and storyline totally captivated my attention.

The novel is set in the eighteenth century and tells of a father and his two sons, James “the Master” and Henry, and a young heiress, Alison, who is to wed the oldest son, but this is the time when Bonnie Prince Charlie is seeking to reclaim his throne and the Master decides to join him. What happens after to the Master is never completely clear. The family believes he has died, and in time the young lady weds the younger brother, Henry. And then the Master returns, a fugitive from the law since Prince Charlie’s campaign has failed. He has been wandering about the world and now come home, mostly because he wants money. The family cannot acknowledge him so he resides with them under an assumed name, and he soon sets about making all their lives miserable, constantly taunting his brother, bleeding the family of its wealth, and ultimately, insulting Alison by saying she is still in love with him.

What I find so fascinating about the storyline at this point is the tone of it and how much it resembles Wuthering Heights in that respect, including being told from the viewpoint of the steward, MacKellar, as Wuthering Heights was told from the servant Ellen Dean’s viewpoint. The Master of Ballantrae is not heavy in Gothic atmosphere and descriptions, but the tension among the family members reminds me of how Heathcliff leaves and returns after traveling in foreign parts, intent on his revenge.

In my constant quest to identify Gothic Wanderers, the Master fits the category nicely. Not only is he a villain, but Stevenson likens him to Milton’s Satan; he enjoys reading Richardson’s Clarissa, an implication that he is similar to that book’s villain Lovelace, who has frequently been compared to Satan as an attractive villain, and at one point, Stevenson tells us the Master is like a “magician who controlled the elements”—a reference to power that is typical of supernatural Gothic wanderers, especially the vampire, although The Master of Ballantrae, published in 1889, predates Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula is really the first vampire figure to have control over the elements, while earlier vampires and Wandering Jew figures are usually at odds with the elements, seeking to have Nature destroy them only to have it refuse to let them end their extended, miserable lives.

The Master is nothing if not a wanderer. Although he returns to Scotland to torment the family, he also goes off to foreign lands, including North America and India. In India, he finds a friend and companion, Secundra Dass, a native who travels with him, a man who will teach him the secret of rising from the dead, so to speak. And in New York, the Master supposedly buries a treasure in the wilderness. These two connections lead to the novel’s stunning end.

Of course, this is a novel of realism so there is no supernatural rising from the dead, yet the Master is depicted as if he almost has supernatural powers. After taunting his brother to an extreme, the Master and Henry fight a duel and it is believed the Master is slain, yet when Henry and MacKellar leave him to see to Henry’s welfare, when they return, the Master’s body has disappeared. He has managed to escape death and be rescued by smugglers off the coast of Scotland.

And finally (spoiler alert), at the end of the book, the Master journeys through the wilderness of New York to find his treasure but does not return. His brother, Henry, determined to have proof of his brother’s death so he can be sure his tormentor is finally dead, is led to the Master’s grave. Secundra Dass then digs up the Master, saying once before in India the Master faked death and was buried and regained life. For a moment, it appears that in New York he will also rise from the dead. The moment is gripping and sends the younger brother, Henry, to his death. MacKellar recounts the moment as follows:

“Secundra uttered a small cry of satisfaction; and, leaning swiftly forth, I thought I could myself perceive a change upon that icy countenance of the unburied. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they rose entirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face.

“So much display of life I can myself swear to. I have heard from others that he visibly strove to speak, that his teeth showed in his beard, and that his brow was contorted as with an agony of pain and effort. And this may have been; I know not, I was otherwise engaged. For at that first disclosure of the dead man’s eyes, my Lord Durrisdeer fell to the ground, and when I raised him up, he was a corpse.”

It is as if the Master has enacted a curse from the grave to kill his younger brother. But then the Master is unable to bring life back into his body, and Secundra Dass admits that while the trick worked in India, the ground is too cold in New York. And so the Master is also dead.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

These scenes of nearly rising from the dead recall tales of Resurrection Men, body snatchers who dig the dead from the grave. Dickens uses the term Resurrection Man in A Tale of Two Cities, and Stevenson himself had written a tale “The Body Snatcher” in 1884. I cannot doubt the idea remained of bodies being resurrected, and so he elaborated upon it in The Master of Ballantrae.

Altogether I found the novel fascinating. The first time I was convinced the Master had died, and yet he kept coming back and surprising me, so that I did not want to put the book down until I found out how it all would end. I was in fact disappointed that the story did not go on.

Stevenson’s reputation has declined since his lifetime, and there is good reason, for even his best known works, including Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, have been unable to retain my interest, but The Master of Ballantrae is an exception. It deserves a place among the great Gothic novels of the period, perhaps just a shelf below Wuthering Heights.


Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at www.GothicWanderer.com


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2 responses to ““The Master of Ballantrae”—RLS’ Great Gothic Novel

  1. ellenandjim

    Thank you for this eloquent review. This is the first time I’ve had a clear account of the book’s contents. I too had in my house copies of RLS: he was very acceptable to the people who made up sets of “classic” novels in the 1930s and 40s. Maybe because I didn’t try the famous one (Treasure Island) but read instead the short tales, prompted and inspired two of my life’s happy memories (my father read aloud to me the whole of “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and then “A Lodging for the Night”) I read on. As an adult I was taken by Jekyll and Hyde, and taught a number of times the novel with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly. For teaching gothic I’d assign his short horror tales (the vampire one that’s unusual, Ollala, Body Snatchers, Markheim I’ve done) I really like his travel books and also criticism. He’s a great stylist, writes with panache. He was a great friend of Henry James and there are letters.

    One of those books I don’t own by him is Master of Ballantrae; it gets a mediocre press as turgid; I used to wonder why it was a failure. Well it wasn’t 🙂 I am wondering how much it’s influenced by Scott or other Scottish authors.


    • Thanks for the comment, Ellen. The only other volume I read that I enjoyed was The New Arabian Nights, but The Master of Ballantrae completely held my interest and makes me want to go on to read more – The Wrecker will be the next one I attempt, though it may be another year before I do so. By the way, the 1950s film of the book with Errol Flynn has a plot that is far from the plot of the novel. I know I saw the film years ago and didn’t think much of it so my expectations were not high, but the book was far superior.

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