Catherine Czerkawska is a widely published writer of novels, short stories, poems and award-winning plays for the stage and for BBC Radio 4. Her stage play about Chernobyl, Wormwood, was produced to critical acclaim at the Traverse Theatre and is now a set text for Scottish Higher Drama. The Price of a Fish Supper was written for the Oran Mor in Glasgow, later staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It has just been published in the anthology Scottish Shorts. Her novel The Curiosity Cabinet was one of three finalists for the Dundee Book Prize, and she is also the author of God's Islanders, a major hardback study of the history of the Isle of Gigha. Catherine has just completed a new novel, The Amber Heart, loosely based on her own Polish family history, and is planning a sequel and finishing a Scottish historical novel entitled The Physic Garden. She blogs at Wordarts. Below she discusses Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.
Catherine Czerkawska on Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
I first encountered Stevenson when I was very young, and confined to bed. I was an asthmatic only child and was more often at home than at school. My father, who liked to browse in second hand book shops, bought me a copy of A Child's Garden of Verses. They were perhaps the first poems with which I could identify, especially 'The Land of Counterpane' and 'The Lamplighter', which still gives me a pang of nostalgia for that early evening time, and the child I once was, peering out of a window into a darkening street, even though our small house in industrial Leeds had little else in common with Stevenson's Edinburgh.
Some years later, as a young playwright, living and working in Scotland by this time, I was commissioned to dramatize Kidnapped, and its sequel, Catriona, for BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial slot. This was in 10-hour-long episodes, something which would never happen now. Nobody is ever given that much elbow room, no matter how well-loved the novel. Ten hours of radio drama – some 600 pages of script - took up more than a year of my life. The recordings (with David Rintoul as David Balfour and Paul Young as Alan Breck) took place over many weeks and I enjoyed the books more and more as I worked on them, marvelling at the genius of the man who had written them.
Though Catriona is the sequel to Kidnapped, there are many years of Stevenson's life, and a good deal of maturity and sophistication, between the two books. Among much else, Catriona is about the relationship between the narrator of Kidnapped, David Balfour, and the eponymous Catriona, the feisty granddaughter of outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor (a less than flattering incarnation, this one, more Uriah Heep than Liam Neeson). The novel contains one of the best and most honest descriptions of youthful sexual frustration I have ever come across. Later, I dramatized Treasure Island, another labour of love. But if I were forced to choose a single Stevenson novel to take to my desert island, it would have to be Kidnapped. I loved it then, and I love and admire it now.
This is, for me, the ultimate Scottish novel, a powerful story with believable characters, speaking in dialogue which – all these years later – practically sings off the page. Kidnapped is narrated by David Balfour himself, but an older David, well aware of the foibles and pretensions of his younger self. The novel is a tale of unlikely but enduring friendship, of the 'getting of wisdom' for the likeable, if occasionally pompous, youthful protagonist, of the differences between Highland and Lowland cultures, of the moral dilemmas induced by the politics of the time; but most of all, it is an engrossing adventure, a tour de force of the storyteller's art which represents – I have come to realize – my holy grail as a writer.
My appreciation of Stevenson certainly influenced my own plays. I learned so much from his finely drawn characters and vivid dramatization of events. But now, when I am concentrating more on historical fiction than on drama, on novels rather than plays, I again find myself turning to Stevenson, remembering what it was and still is about his writing that has so engaged me over the years: enthralling stories, brilliantly told.
The depiction of the friendship between respectable lowlander, David Balfour, and the ferociously daring and dangerous Jacobite, Alan Breck, is masterly. It's worth quoting David's (and therefore the reader's) first dazzling impression of him:
He was smallish in stature, but well set and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark, and heavily freckled and pitted with the small-pox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming; and when he took off his great-coat, he laid a pair of fine silver-mounted pistols on the table, and I saw that he was belted with a great sword. His manners, besides, were elegant, and he pledged the captain handsomely. Altogether I thought of him, at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.
Later in the novel, and after many hair-raising adventures, there is another key scene, where a feverish David has a serious quarrel with Alan, who has gambled away all their money, challenging his friend to a sword fight, which Alan knows the younger man cannot win. Just in time, Alan realizes how ill David really is.
'Can ye walk?' asked Alan.
'No,' said I, 'not without help. This last hour my legs have been fainting under me; I've a stitch in my side like a red-hot iron; I cannae breathe right. If I die, ye'll can forgive me, Alan? In my heart, I liked ye fine - even when I was the angriest.'
'Wheesht, wheesht!' cried Alan. 'Dinna say that! David man, ye ken –' He shut his mouth upon a sob. 'Let me get my arm about ye,' he continued; 'that's the way! Now lean upon me hard. Gude kens where there's a house! We're in Balwhidder, too; there should be no want of houses, no, nor friends' houses here. Do ye gang easier so, Davie?'
There is a heart-rending quality to this scene that moves me, every time, a quality that makes me envy the achievement of it, the depiction of tenderness without sentimentality. In fact, when I was writing my novel The Curiosity Cabinet, my Highlander 'hero', Manus McNeill, owed a great deal to Alan Breck Stewart - another man whom one would rather call a friend than an enemy.
And because endings matter, because, as Stevenson well knew, novels should leave the reader giving a sigh of satisfaction rather than a murmur of frustration, our last sight of Alan Breck - before David enters the city of Edinburgh and a more or less secure future - is a small masterpiece of regret at a necessary parting, that still gives me the same magical frisson, no matter how many times I read it.
'Well, good-bye,' said Alan, and held out his left hand.
'Good-bye,' said I, and gave the hand a little grasp, and went off down hill.
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one back glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke, and cry and weep like any baby.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]