Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850. He was the son of Thomas Stevenson, a well-known engineer who had built many important lighthouses. As a child, and throughout his life, Stevenson was often in poor health, but he was constantly reading. He enrolled at Edinburgh University at the age of seventeen with the intention to study engineering, but ended up studying law instead. He became a qualified lawyer but did not pursue the profession, choosing instead to become a full-time writer.
Stevenson published many short stories and books over the early part of his life, but his first taste of real success came in 1883 with the publication of Treasure Island, a pirate-themed adventure novel originally published serially in Young Folks magazine. The magazine also published Kidnapped in 1886, the year which saw the publication of Stevenson's most famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson wrote several more novels before his death in 1894, and became friends with such literary figures as the American novelist Henry James.
Like Treasure Island, Kidnapped is an adventure story, and though it was published in a magazine for adolescents, it was read widely by adults. The story, also like Treasure Island, centers around a young man who becomes caught up with criminals and rogues. But where Treasure Island was primarily a book concerned with Britain and its struggles with piracy, Kidnapped is very much a tale of Scotland, and one of its themes is the struggle between the Catholic clans of Highland Scotland and the efforts of their Protestant British rulers to suppress them and their religion.
In fact, the theme of Highlander vs. Lowlander, or Jacobites vs. Whigs, is the main conflict that plays out in the course of Stevenson's novel. On the Whig side is the hero of the novel, David Balfour, the young lad who discovers he is heir to a great fortune, and on the Jacobite side is Alan Breck Stewart, the dashing Highland rogue who befriends David. The discussions between these two men, and their encounters as they roam the Scottish highlands, make Kidnapped one of Stevenson's most politically-charged novels. It also makes it a paean to his homeland of Scotland and its people.
Stevenson wrote during the late Victorian period, but his works share more in common with his fellow Scotsman Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in the early 1800s, than they do with British novelists of his own time, such as Charles Dickens or George Eliot. Scott's novel Rob Roy features several names and characters that also appear in Kidnapped.
Kidnapped takes place in the year 1751. The novel takes advantage of history that almost any reader of Stevenson's time would have been very familiar with: the Jacobite conflicts of the late 1600s and early 1700s. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Catholic King James I was dethroned as the King of England and Scotland. For nearly a century after that time James' supporters, known as Jacobites and primarily consisting of Scottish, Catholic clans, repeatedly attempted to return James or his heirs to the throne. In the novel, Alan Breck Stewart, a real historical person, is a Jacobite devoted to Scotland and what he believes are the true heirs to the throne of England. A number of battles occurred between 1688 and 1746. In that final year, James' grandson Charles Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") was soundly defeated at the battle of Culloden Moor, and fled to France. After that, while Jacobite sympathies and bitterness over the conflict lingered for decades, the Jacobites' threat to England was fairly extinguished. It is important to note that not all of the Scottish clans were Jacobite sympathizers. The Campbell clan, whom Alan hates, sided with England, and therefore enjoyed the greatest prosperity.
This is the history that lies behind the bewildering number of names in the second half of Kidnapped: historical persons, places, and clans are mentioned as if any reader would be acquainted with them, and many would have been in Stevenson's time. But Stevenson's gift for describing characters, places, and situations insures that modern readers are able to follow along despite the barriers of time and place.
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