In our first Inspirations from the Bookshelf of 2020, Barbara Henderson celebrates Robert Louis Stevenson.

I remember it vividly: a newly arrived student at Edinburgh University, I was beginning to get the hang of this damp, foggy country. Scotland does atmosphere pretty well, doesn’t it? Sitting upstairs in the red leather armchairs at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal Mile, I watched the mist crowd out the light of the streetlamps. The real Deacon Brodie inspired one of the books on my course reading list, I was told. That day, I had unearthed an old leatherbound copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in one of Edinburgh’s West Bow bookshops.

Deacon Brodie was a respectable Edinburgh city councillor by day and a burglar by night.
And that dark, rainy winter afternoon, I fell in love. Just like that. The atmosphere! Robert Louis Stevenson was a master at evoking a sense of menace, a sense of threat. His Victorian Edinburgh did not seem so very far away from the cobbled streets I was looking down on. The book is short, but utterly accomplished: place (London) and characters (a range of Victorian gentlemen) blend into one another in a heady cocktail of story.  And, in its own subtle way, there is magic: a scientific medical experiment turns the respectable and likeable Dr Jekyll into his evil alter-ego, Mr Hyde, a murderer and all-round despicable creature. How? Stevenson does not concern himself with that question one bit. Instead, he just gets on with the story, told from multiple viewpoints, revealing and resolving a plot that dances its way from beginning to end. The power of the potion to transform is dealt with in a single sentence about the liquid changing colour. A single supernatural dimension in a believable historical world. And then you have sentences like ‘she had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy’ and ‘the fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city’. I was smitten.

From The Master of Ballantrae, illustrated by W.B. Hole

Reading more Stevenson, I discovered The Master of Ballantrae and The Weir of Hermiston, both of which I loved, but the knockout blow came from a short story called 'Markheim'. If you like your seasonal reading a bit creepy, there is nothing better than the mysterious visitor to the shopkeeper on Christmas Eve. Oh, he has a way with villains, Stevenson has!

Of course, the book which comes to everyone’s mind when Stevenson is mentioned is the ubiquitous Treasure Island. Who could forget young Jim and his adversary Long John Silver? Strangely, I took to this one the least, and always wondered why. It had it all, really: a fantastic villain, a child at the mercy of adult greed who has to find his own way in the world, plenty of sailing in dangerous waters, treasure and gunfire. Then I realised – I loved the Scotland which Stevenson created! I was much less fascinated with the South Seas – give me the atmospheric, foggy world of a damp Scottish day instead, preferably in winter!

When I came across the real-life incident which inspired my own smuggling novella Black Water, published by Cranachan last month, I drew heavily on the Stevenson school of adventure-writing. It took place in February, by the sea, featuring smugglers and excisemen, quicksand and cannon-fire, rising tides and a race against time. A child is at the mercy of adult greed and duty, and I really hope (in a sadly desperate way) that someday someone will say: ‘This story has Robert Louis Stevenson echoes’ – there would be no higher compliment. In a pale imitation of the one who has gone before, I’m trying for atmospheric, foggy, tense - a world full of intrigue, bravery and recklessness, too.

Who knows? Maybe, one day in the future, a young person will fall a little bit in love with my book. It’s what we all dream of, isn’t it?

Barbara Henderson lives in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland and writes Middle Grade fiction, much of it historical. The smuggling novella, Black Water, is her fourth book.

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Picture credits:
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Deacon Brodie Tavern, and Master of Ballantrae from Wikimedia Commons

Author photo from author
Black Water cover by Anne Glennie, internal illustrations by Sandra McGowan

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