William Palmer on Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped

The Flight in the Heather

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I saw the set of books through the window of a second-hand furniture shop in Oxford a couple of years ago. Each with a dark-blue spine stamped with a gilt palm tree, they ran across the top of one of those ‘modern’ sideboards from which Nigel Patrick and Laurence Harvey used to help themselves to drinks in 1950s films. I went in at once and found a complete set of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, in thirty-five volumes, printed in 1924, bound in soft leather and in superb condition. I bought them for money I couldn’t afford and carried them triumphantly away in a variety of wrinkled carrier bags that the owner pulled out from under his counter.

I’m not going to pretend that I started to read them in order though. I am a huge admirer of Stevenson, but dull Prince Otto comes before Kidnapped and its sequel Catriona, and it was with those two that I started.

I’d first read Kidnapped when I was about 13. It has always been touted as a boys’ adventure story; and until fairly recently Stevenson was dismissed by most critics as surviving only as an author for children. His fellow-writers have seen another figure; for Henry James he was ‘a most gallant spirit and an exquisite literary talent’, and it is not until you read him as an adult that you appreciate the enormous influence that Stevenson had on later writers such as Conrad and Greene, and a whole crew of writers of political and spy novels.

In a sense, Kidnapped, first published in 1886, is the true successor to Treasure Island (1883). The earlier book presents a compelling adventure through the eyes of a boy, Jim Hawkins. But Jim remains a boy, and it is the essential of a true children’s story that the boy or girl remains forever in their childhood world, however thrown into danger they may be for the duration of their stay: the story happens to them, they triumph and then they resume their lives as immortal young heroes. Bu

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About the contributor

William Palmer’s latest novel, The Devil Is White, was published last year.

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