‘My Good Health,’ Part VI

An Adirondack scene, by William Hole, from “The Master of Ballantrae.” (Photo provided)

“I … have fallen head over heels into a new tale: ‘The Master of Ballantrae.’ No thought have I now apart from it.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, Christmas Eve, 1887, Saranac Lake

Dec. 24, 1887, was a Saturday, a day of the week which until recently, had been just another day in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. But as the new and first celebrity resident in Saranac Lake and new to fame, Saturday afternoons had become a weekly obligation to be sociable, like it or not. Because the author of the then-current blockbuster literary hit, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” was renting rooms for the winter from a local guide, the people of this frontier town had something new to talk about. Robert Louis Stevenson was in great demand to be seen, if not heard.

This created a problem for a modest genius who said of fame that “the thing at large is a bore and a fraud.” Plus, Stevenson was a renowned invalid which explained his presence in Saranac Lake as a patient of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Stevenson’s landlords, Andrew and Mary Baker of Baker Mountain notoriety, had three children at the time, namely, Ralph, 15 and his twin sisters Blanche and Bertha, 10. As a student at Normal School (present day SUNY Plattsburgh) a few years later, Bertha wrote an essay about the sought-after author sharing her family’s home:

“Many hearing of the presence of the distinguished novelist would call upon him but Mr. Stevenson always declined seeing them, giving stress of work as his reason for so doing. Even well known people would be turned away without an interview. He would often say ‘I should think people know that I am here for rest and do not care to be troubled.'”

To try and manage this new challenge, RLS established for the first time his “at home” policy, setting aside Saturday afternoons to be visiting hours for fans and the curious. It was on that Christmas Eve Saturday that Louis had to interrupt writing his letter to Colvin because the door bell rang (the bell can be rung to this day and it’s loud). “Here come my visitors … and have now gone, or the first relay of them; and I hope no more may come. For mark you, sir, this is our ‘day’–Saturday, as ever was; and here we sit, my mother and I, before a huge wood fire and await the enemy with the most steadfast courage.”

Alone again, Stevenson resumed telling Colvin about his new project, the story he had “fallen head over heels into … It is to me, a most seizing tale; there are some fantastic elements; the most is a dead genuine human problem–human tragedy.” In this case, the tragedy involves the downfall of a fictitious aristocratic Scottish family resulting from one of Scotland’s several failed attempts to establish independence from England. James Durrisdeer, aka the Master of Ballantrae, is the eldest of two brothers and he has dark qualities. Describing his new character to Colvin, he writes: “The Master is all I know of the devil; I have known hints of him in the world, but always cowards; he is as bold as a lion, but with the same deadly, causeless duplicity I have watched with so much surprise … ‘Tis true, I saw a hint of the same nature in another man who wasn’t a coward, but he had other things to attend to; the Master has nothing else but his devilry.”

“The Master of Ballantrae” is Stevenson’s first novel in the wake of “Jekyll and Hyde” and he is still preoccupied with his favorite duality theme–good and evil. His character, James Durrisdeer, is evil incarnate like he paints him for Colvin but in this story, the master’s dull and mediocre brother, Henry, stands in for “good.” Though not as well known as its predecessor, “The Master of Ballantrae” is still in print and long ago earned its rightful place in the Classics Illustrated comic book series, with one of its Adirondack settings used for the cover illustration. Like Arthur Conan Doyle said of this book: “If a strong story, strongly told, full of human interest, and absolutely original in its situations, make a masterpiece, then this may lay claim to the title.”

In the late 1990s the publishing firm of Random House, Inc. gave the green light to a new edition of “The Master of Ballantrae” for its Modern Living Classics series. They commissioned Ms. Andrea Barrett, an authoress in her own right with several published novels, to write a new introduction for them. Like the novel she is discussing, her approach is original by suggesting that Stevenson consciously or unconsciously conflated the evil of James Durrisdeer with the malignant effects of tuberculosis, or TB, a disease Stevenson had believed for a long to be his problem. Barrett also felt that Stevenson must have researched his supposed disease in an effort to help himself, that he would have discovered and read all on his own, the scientific papers published in German, in Germany, by Robert Koch, in which he described his discovery of the specific bacteria behind TB, the infamous tubercle bacillus. When Dr. Trudeau first heard about Koch’s achievement, he couldn’t wait to get a hold of it and went to pains to have an English translation sent to him ASAP. In the meantime, he set up his first laboratory so he could replicate Koch’s work as soon as he could understand it.

It is more likely that Stevenson heard about the tubercle bacillus from Dr. Trudeau or the nameless big city doctor who sent him this way. To picture RLS poring through medical journals is to be clueless about the man. Louis refused to even acknowledge his invalidism rather than research it. “My illness is something outside of myself” he would say and then go off and almost kill himself again with his policy of denial. Dr. Trudeau sensed this, writing in his book that “Mr. Stevenson’s view was to ignore or avoid as much as possible unpleasant facts and live in a beautiful and ideal world of fancy.”

Andrea Barrett came to Baker’s to see first hand the rooms in which Stevenson had written the first half of The Master of Ballantrae. Her text indicates that she didn’t know that Dr. Trudeau had declared his chain-smoking patient to be TB free. To cut to the chase, Ms. Barrett’s introduction would have worked better for a reprint of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When Stevenson wrote that he had bottomed out, health-wise, in Bournemouth, England. He still thought he had TB at the time and that living there made him feel “like a weevil in a biscuit” he said, unable to do practically anything. Those were the days when he could almost taste the malignancy of his disease, whatever it was, corrupting his entire being, a virtual living death where it might not be such a surprise to have a monster like Hyde show up in a fevered dream, like he did.

Ms. Barrett’s theory fits like a glove over ‘Jekyll and Hyde” in Bournemouth but not with “The Master” in Saranac Lake. Within days of settling into Baker’s, Louis tells Bart Simpson that “the dreadful depression and collapse of last summer has quite passed away.” As the winter progressed the weather got worse and like sane people everywhere who don’t like pain, the members of the Stevenson expedition complained about the cold too, but Louis was careful how he did it. To Sidney Colvin:

“My dear Colvin, This goes to say that we are all fit, and the place is very bleak and wintry, and up to now has shown no such charms of climate as Davos, but it is a place where men eat and where the cattarh (catarrh, cattarrh or cattarrhh) appears to be unknown. I walk in my verandy in the snaw, sir, looking down over one of those dabbled wintry landscapes that are (to be frank) so chilly to the human bosom, and up at a gray, English-nay, Scottish-heaven; and I think it pretty bleak; and the wind swoops at me round the corner, like a lion and fluffs the snow in my face; and I could aspire to be elsewhere; but yet I do not catch cold, and yet, when I come in, I eat. So that hitherto, Saranac, if not deliriously delectable, has not been a failure; nay, from the mere point of view of the wicked body, it has proved a success.”

To be continued.


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