Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the only child of Margaret Balfour Stevenson and Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse engineer. The formative years of Stevenson’s life were influenced by his father’s emphasis on duty and responsibility, and his mother’s warm affection.
Unlike most Victorians, Stevenson considered the romance a valid literary form. He claimed that the form provided mental relief from the pressures of everyday life and felt that romances needed to be written as carefully as any other type of literature. Thus, while Kidnapped may seem to be merely a good adventure story at first, it also should be appreciated for its substantial literary value.
The story takes place in Scotland and the waters around it in the summer of 1751. David’s travels take him over much of the Scottish countryside, especially the Highlands. Most editions of the novel contain background explanations that clarify the historical situation. The 1700s saw two Scottish rebellions against England caused by the decision that the House of Hanover would rule both countries. The Scots wanted their own royal family, the Stuarts, to rule again; they fought bloody wars in the attempt to accomplish this goal. The last revolt, in 1745-1746, ended with defeat for Scotland. By 1751 many of the Highland chiefs were either in hiding or had escaped to the Continent, and their followers were still supporting them with money and assistance.
In Kidnapped, more than in most romances, the characters personify the themes. The hero, David Balfour, illuminates the theme of a young man’s coming of age. David begins his adventures as a boy of seventeen and ends them as a man. During his several months away from home, he learns a tremendous amount about human nature, the perils of the sea and the open road, and the rewards of courage and steadfastness.
While Treasure Island benefits from being told mostly in the voice of the bright and observant young Jim Hawkins, it suffers from the fact that parts of the story-matters that could not be known to Jim-have to be told by a different character. Kidnapped, on the other hand, is told as a memoir, so that the text benefits from the consistency of one voice and the perspective of a distance in time. David, in the telling, can recognize things he could not know at the time of the action.
No social issues presented in this novel seem likely to prove controversial. The issue of rebellion, however, could be viewed as a sensitive subject. One might wish to consider the problem of how much obedience to the law is morally necessary in an individual, considering that David, for most of the book, consorts with people who are technically outlaws. Stevenson’s portrayal of these persons, though, is evenhanded.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Readers have noticed Stevenson’s fascination with duplicity. In what ways do various forms of duplicity play a large part in the novel?