Archives » Robert Louis Stevenson

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Penguin, 2007, 159 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

The 39 Steps cover

This is another story which, like Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” being familiar from film and television, people perhaps think they know.

In it, Richard Hannay begins as a bored ex-patriate in London who perhaps should have been careful what he wished for. His upstairs neighbour, who calls himself Franklin P Scudder, a man who refers to “the Jew” being behind the conspiracy he regales Hannay with, begs for shelter in Hannay’s flat for a few days till he can thwart said conspiracy. But of course Hannay returns to the flat one day to find Scudder dead and so has to flee under suspicion of murder. The majority of the novel then consists in Hannay being chased around southern Scotland in what is now Dumfries and Galloway getting into and out of various scrapes and predicaments which are sometimes evaded too handily, meanwhile solving the puzzle of the thirty-nine steps and disrupting the plans of his adversaries of the Black Stone. It all rattles along at a glorious pace without much pause for thought and incidentally allows descriptions of the landscape he flees through; a common Scottish authorial trait.

Unlike all three film adaptations I have seen – and the most recent TV one – there is not a woman companion in sight. Barring a wifie who provides shelter to Hannay one night there aren’t any women at all. It does, though, have the merit of being able to be read quickly.

I can only think that this creeps into that 100 best list for historical reasons. It has no literary pretensions. Buchan himself, in his preface (addressed to Thomas Arthur Nelson) refers to it as “the type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’”.

Once again the prose shows itself to be of its time: as in John Macnab, there are several unflattering mentions of Jews not in particular but as a type, and a “you’re a white man”, plus also here a Greek is referred to as a dago.

I note, too, a “minutes later” count of six or seven.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several editions at the library (they’re running a Buchan competition.) I chose this one because I liked the 1930s style of its cover. Yet the book was first published in 1915. Moreover the biplane is wrong. The text several times emphasises that Hannay is being chased by a monoplane. Buluwayo (Bulawayo,) Liepsic (context suggested Liepzig,) jiffey (jiffy,) – were these words spelled that way in the 1910s? – rung (rang,) whiskys (whiskies,) Karolides’ (Karolides’s.)

Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson

Canongate Classics, 1995, 303 p, plus xvi p introduction by Roderick Watson.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

Shorter Scottish Fiction cover

This is a collection of shorter works by Stevenson each of which has either a Scottish setting or theme (perhaps both.)

In The Plague Cellar a minister is summoned by letter to a meeting with a seemingly slightly deranged Mr Ravenswood who tells him, “to save our Church from its present wretched state,” he must enter a cellar in which all who have trespassed contract the plague. Ravenswood breaks down the door and goes in. Thrawn Janet* is a typically Scottish tale of possession by the devil and of the minister who witnesses it. The thrawn Janet of the title is his disfigured housekeeper, the subject of the haunting. The Body Snatcher* is the tale of Fettes, employed to take in the grisly charges of the body-snatchers and hand over payment for them, and of Dr Wolfe McFarlane who encourages his complicity in the most illegal aspects of the work. The Misadventures of John Nicholson include being robbed of a considerable sum of his father’s company’s money, fleeing to the US, coming back and as a result being suspected of theft, then stumbling upon a dead body. Despite this his story has – for a Stevenson tale – an unusually happy ending. This story contains the phrase, “Stupider men than he are now sprawling in Parliament.” Some things never change. The Pavilion on the Links is the setting for a tale of a dishonest banker, his daughter, the two men who wish to marry her and the Italians who seek revenge for their financial losses. The landscape round the pavilion and the building itself are described in detail, as is the Scottish habit. The following story The Merry Men is atmospheric, and very Scottish, a gothic tale of madness and shipwrecks; again chock full of descriptions of land- and sea-scapes, the Merry Men of the title being the fifty feet high breakers that boom and dance together off the not-quite island of Aros between the forty-six reefs and the land. Of a negro our narrator says, “I had almost forgotten, and wholly forgiven him, his uncanny colour,” a sentiment somewhat jarring to the modern sensibility. Despite being set in London, Markheim features that most traditional of encounters in Scottish fiction a meeting with the devil. Here it causes Markheim to examine his conscience.

The last section of the book has its own title, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” (and its own epigram) and contains the story everyone thinks they know; on its own one of the 100 best Scottish Books. However, the story title page omits the definite article and the title is given as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.* Once more the tale is set in London but as it uses the döppelganger trope could hardly be more Scottish. Except Hyde and Jekyll are not true döppelgangers, as they vary in appearance and stature. The story is seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, lawyer to Dr Jekyll who has made a strange provision in his will in favour of Mr Hyde. I can’t make up my mind whether this remove heightens or dilutes the effect Stevenson tried to imbue. Strange Case is an examination of the dualities within us all and a timeless warning about inability to control desire as well as an illustration of the perennial attraction of the dark side of human nature to the Scottish writer.

In the stories marked * there is displayed what was once described to me as a tendency to the throat-clearing preamble.

The figure in the cover art – a detail from Lord Advocate Prestongrange by N C Wyeth – to my mind bears a resemblance to the actor Charles Dance.

Pedant’s corner:- Some such as carpetted, exhibitted, noctious are noted in the text. These occurred in The Plague Cellar which was apparently an apprentice work which Stevenson disowned. Everyone … were (was,) augery x2 (augury,) inflamable (inflammable,) conscience’ (conscience’s,) wth (with.) And, in the introduction:- or (of.)

A Short Survey of Classic Scottish Writing by Alasdair Gray

Canongate Pocket Classics, 2001, 159 p

Short History Scottish Fiction cover

The book is diminutive in size (16 cm tall, 11 wide) but not content. It rattles through the history of writing in and by Scots from Anglo-Saxon times till the early 20th century. It focuses on what Gray – and most other commentators – consider to be the best in the tradition; hence classic in the book’s title. More recent Scottish writing is deliberately excluded as being too close for a proper perspective.

Several of the works mentioned in the survey were of course overlooked or even derided on first publication and it is only with time their merits have come to be recognised. Overall, though, the literary output from this small nation is shown fit to stand comparison with any.

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