Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson, a master of the Victorian adventure story, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. He was the son of Thomas Stevenson, a well-known engineer who had built many important lighthouses. He was often sick as a child, and respiratory troubles plagued him throughout his life. Stevenson 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.

As a young man, Stevenson traveled through Europe, leading a bohemian lifestyle and penning his first two books, both travel narratives. Stevenson felt constrained by the strict social norms of the Victorian era during which he lived, and many of his works demonstrate a sharp tension between upstanding duty and reckless abandon. In 1876, he met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, and fell in love with her. At thirty-six, she was more than ten years older than he, and, furthermore, she had also been previously married and had two small children. Two years later, he followed her as she returned to California to finalize her divorce, a journey he described in The Amateur Emigrant (1879). Stevenson and Osbourne married in California and spent their honeymoon at an abandoned silver mine.

Stevenson returned to London with his bride and wrote prolifically over the next decade, despite his poor health. Stevenson published many short stories such as “The Body Snatcher” (1884) 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 that also saw the publication of Stevenson's most famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It sold 40,000 copies in its first six months and ensured Stevenson’s fame as a writer.

By the late 1880s, Stevenson had become one of the leading figures of English literature. But even after garnering fame, he led an uneasy life. He traveled often, seeking to find a climate more amenable to the tuberculosis that haunted his later days. In 1888, a doctor advised Stevenson to move to a warmer climate for his health. Stevenson and his family set sail for the South Seas, arriving in Samoa and taking up residence there in 1889. There, he died suddenly in 1894, at the age of 44.

Background on Kidnapped

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 is an adventure story, as was Treasure Island, 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 Great Britain as a whole and its struggles with piracy, Kidnapped is very specifically a tale of Scotland, and one of its themes is the struggle between the Roman 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 versus Lowlander (or Jacobites versus Whigs) is the main conflict that plays out during Kidnapped. On the Whig side is the hero of the novel, David Balfour, the young lad who discovers he is heir to a great fortune. The representative for the Jacobite side in the novel is Alan Breck Stewart, the dashing Highland rogue who befriends David. The discussions between the 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 Stevenson’s Scottish homeland and its people.

Kidnapped takes place in the year 1751. The novel takes advantage of history that readers 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 1688-1689, the Catholic King James I was dethroned as the King of England and Scotland in favor of his Dutch, Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange. For nearly a century after that time James’s supporters, known as Jacobites and primarily consisting of Scottish, Catholic clans, repeatedly attempted to return James or his heirs to the throne.

In Kidnapped, Alan Breck Stewart, a real historical person, is a Jacobite devoted to Scotland and what he believes are the true heirs to the British throne. Several battles occurred between 1688 and 1746. In that final year, James’s 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 extinguished. It is important to note that not all 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.