“Weir of Hermiston” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Of all unfinished novels, Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston is the one I most wish had been completed. There’s Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course, but that’s really Dickens trying to do a Wilkie Collins: I’m sure it would have been very good – even the unfinished stump we have is very good, if not, perhaps, quite top drawer Dickens – but it would still have been Dickens dressed in the borrowed robes of Wilkie Collins. But Weir of Hermiston is pure Stevenson. While the literatures of England and of Ireland have contributed some of the very finest of novels, Scottish literature, frankly, hasn’t. Even the odd masterpiece it has produced – Confessions of a Justified Sinner, say, or Sunset Song, seems to elude widespread international recognition. Weir of Hermiston, had it been finished, could well have put the Scottish Novel more firmly on the literary map.

I wonder to what extent Scott may have been responsible for all of this. In his own time, and possibly for at least a century afterwards, Scott was, arguably, the most famous, and, perhaps, the most influential novelist in the world. Since the death of Scott, the novel developed in all sorts of ways, but I wonder whether it was the case that Scottish novelists felt themselves too much under Scott’s shadow. I really do not know: those better read in Scottish literature, and, indeed, in Scott’s novels themselves, are in a better position to answer that. But the shadow of Scott is very apparent here. And what seems remarkable to me is that, far from being intimidated by it, Stevenson seems, if anything, inspired.

The time is the early years of the nineteenth century, when the aftershocks of the French Revolution were still being felt; and the place is between Edinburgh and the Scotland-England border. Indeed, it’s the very time and place in which Scott himself had lived, but which, by the 1890s, when Stevenson was writing this, had become “historical”.

The central tale concerns a conflict between father and son. The father is Weir, laird of Hermiston, and a hanging judge. In the brilliantly drawn early chapters, Stevenson narrates, with all the verve and concision of the master storyteller that he so undoubtedly was, the melancholy facts of Weir’s marriage: Weir had married for social position, and once married, had, within that very patriarchal society, treated his wife with the utmost contempt: he had, effectively, bullied the unfortunate woman to her death. The story of the marriage could have made a remarkable novel in its own right, but it is here a prologue to the principal drama – the conflict between Weir, and his son, Archie.

Stevenson’s art was that of a storyteller. He was certainly aware of the various developments that had taken place in the novel, and was no dab hand himself at the various other elements that, already by the 1890s, was displacing the story, the plot, away from the centre of interest: nonetheless, it was the plot that Stevenson was primarily interested in. And the plot that Stevenson sets up is fascinating. Weir’s son, Archie, a law student in Edinburgh, witnesses to his disgust the casual and unfeeling contempt his father displays in court for a man he sentences to hang. Interestingly, Stevenson does not tell us what the crime of this man was: it is the routine disregard his father shows for the life of a fellow human being – reflecting as it does the similar disregard he had shown for the life of his own wife, Archie’s mother – that disgusts him. Unable to hide his feelings, Archie makes clear in public what he thinks of his father; and his father, who, despite everything, actually loves his son, orders Archie back to his family estate in the border country, away from the public eye.

In the border country, we are very much in Walter Scott territory. Like Scott – and also like Burns, to complete the triumvirate of Great Literary Scots – Stevenson loved folklore, and he loved the sounds and rhythms of the local dialects. The story of the brothers Elliott, and the terrible revenge they took on the man who had killed their father, is almost mythical, like some ancient story handed down through generations. One can but imagine the delight Stevenson must have taken in revisiting in his imagination the sights and sounds of his homeland, and refashioning its folklore, while writing under the torrid sun of the South Sea Islands.

The plot is beautifully set up. Archie, now nominally the Laird of Hermiston, falls for the Elliotts’ sister, Kirstie; meanwhile, a friend from Edinburgh, whom Archie doesn’t quite trust, comes to visit. Everything seems set up for a stirring drama. But then, it all stops abruptly: in 1894, with only one third or so of the novel written, Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage. What may well have been the Great Scottish Novel remained unfinished.

Stevenson had not quite decided on how the plot was to continue, but the ideas he was playing with are fascinating. What he knew would happen was that Archie would kill his Edinburgh friend. He had initially planned for Archie to be tried by his own father, who would have no choice but to sentence his own son to the gallows, but since Scottish law wouldn’t have allowed a son to be tried by his father, Stevenson had to give up that idea. Plan B was to have the wrong person charged with the crime, and Archie’s father, in trying this person, to realise who the real killer was, ordering the defendant to be released, and recommending the arrest of his own son. What would happen after that remained unsure. In some of his notes, it seems Stevenson played with the idea of the daring Elliott brothers rescuing Archie from prison, but it’s hard to see how such a gung-ho plot development could fit in with what was becoming, by this stage, an intricate psychological study. But it is all conjecture: there can be no right answer to “what happened next?” since Stevenson himself seemed to have been undecided.

Stevenson is remembered primarily as among the finest of storytellers: it would be a sad day indeed if children no longer grew up with Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He was also the author, of course, of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Nabokov surprised everyone by writing about this, alongside such undoubted masterpieces as Madame Bovary, Bleak House and Metamorphosis, in Lectures on Literature, but I for one have never doubted that Stevenson’s story deserves to rub shoulders with the very best: in terms of brilliance of conception as well as mastery of execution, it is a tremendous achievement. There are also a handful of short stories of the highest quality, as well as essays, travel books, and a quite delightful collection of children’s poetry. What is missing in his oeuvre is, I suppose, a full-length novel. Of course, there’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but, for all their merits, these were books aimed specifically for children; and other novels – The Black Arrow, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae – all display potential rather than its fulfilment: indeed, they are all essentially children’s novels. There is no major full-length novel aimed specifically for an adult readership. Weir of Hermiston could have been that novel. Here, far from being intimidated by the legacy of Scott, Stevenson happily embraces it, and renews the tradition for his own times. It seems terribly sad – and not just for the history of the Scottish novel – that it remains unfinished. But what was completed remains, I think, a quite fascinating read.

 

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Scott wrote several novels as “very fine” as Hogg’s, and they were among the most famous on earth. John Galt’s The Entail is better than any of them. I reject the premise of your first paragraph!

    The bad turn later Scottish writers took was into the so-called “kailyard novels,” a highly sentimentalized local-color picture of Scotland. The genre was demolished, as with high explosives, by the brilliant The House with the Green Shutters (1901). It’s author, George Douglas Brown, also died young.

    Early on, Stevenson stayed out of Scott’s shadow, but eventually he deliberately measured himself against Scott, most clearly in Kidnapped (1886) which borrows some of Scott’s settings. By Weir, a decade later, honestly I would say that he is out of Scott’s shadow, any intimidation long squashed, working in his own imaginary Scotland. He challenged Scott and won.

    Reply

    • How fascinating! I do not know Galt – indeed, I barely know Scott. That’s it! The Entail is now firmly on my readng list.

      The House With Green Shutters is indeed, as you say, a brilliant book. Yet am I wrong in saying that his novel – along with The Entail , Confessions of a Justified Sinner /em> etc. aren’t really as well-known as they deserve to be? Even in Scotland, they aren’t that well known! Even a reasonably well-read Scot is more likely to be better acquainted with Irish writers than with Scottish.

      Yes, you’re quite right: I plead guilty to underestimating Scottish literature in my post. But its relative lack of recognition continues to puzzle me.

      Reply

    • One of my first big events on Wuthering Expectations was a two week appreciation of John Galt. So I have done my part!

      A well-read Scot is more likely to be better acquainted with 20th century Irish writers than Scottish writers, but more likely to be better acquainted with 19th century Scottish writers (especially Scott and Stevenson) than 19th century Irish writers, with Jekyll and Hyde canceling Dracula and Treasure Island balancing Dorian Gray.

      The 20th century Irish literary boom is an amazing phenomenon. Almost beyond belief.

      Reply

      • I think, Tom, in your last comment here, you’ve shattered my point about Scottish literature: there certainly is more there than I had indicated. But it is so little known outside Scotland – or even, in some cases, inside Scotland – that it’s all too easy to underestimate it. I looked through your posts on John Galt: why is he not better known? Why do the Scots hide their literary lights under the bushel? Who knows. But once I’m back in Britain (I’m currently on a work trip in Japan), and once I have recovered fully from this damn sciatica, I shall certainly go into a good bookshop and get myself some of John Galt’s novels.

  2. Posted by Jason on March 18, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I will give it a go , my previous with Stevenson goes not much further than jeckyll and Hyde along with aborted childhood attempts on Treasure Island and Kidnappped .

    Reply

  3. Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 18, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    A Scots Quair will always be for me – even if it is a trilogy… – ‘the’ Scots novel of all time. Another who died young, Grassic Gibbon (not his real name, of course), writes perfectly of his area of NE Scotland – all while sitting (like RLS, faraway) in a small room in London. It is also, I would dare to say, quite feminist: and it always astounds me how great novelists – of which RLS is undoubtedly one – so perfectly immerse themselves in characters with very different personalities. Now must go re-read Weir. PS: Always enjoyed and admired Wilkie Collins – whose books I tend to read straight through, in one go – much, much more than Dickens.

    Reply

    • Even studying “Sunset Song” for my Scottish Highers didn’t put me off. The entire trilogy is remarkable, but “Sunset Song” is just a bit special, I think.

      Reply

      • Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 23, 2016 at 3:44 pm

        “Just a bit…”?! How dare you?! Seriously, anything that wasn’t ruined by exams and study is certainly remarkable.

        I also have a very thick (and increasingly worn) paperback, entitled ‘Smeddum’ – which sells itself as “A Lewis Grassic Gibbon anthology” – containing lots of published and unpublished stuff – and which shows what a versatile and talented writer Mitchell really was. Worth getting hold of – even if you have to travel to his small corner of Scotland to find a bookseller with it in stock! (I bought mine from the wonderful shop in Logie Steading, near Findhorn!) Either that or ‘A Scots Quair’ would be my desert island book.

        Anyway, back to RLS… – and apologies for going so wildly off-topic.

      • Is it this book you mean? I really should get hold of this – anything written by Lewis Grassic Gibbon should be worth a read.

      • Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 25, 2016 at 5:24 pm

        That Smeddum *looks* right – but the description sounds like it’s for the third part of Quair…!? If it’s got around 1,000 pages, then it’s right. I’m just amazed you found it on Amazon…!

  4. Posted by Michael Harvey on March 18, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I’ve read the tantalising ‘Weir of Hermiston’ twice. It would surely have been Stevenson’s masterpiece….

    Reply

    • There’s a lot to choose from: I don;t think Treasure Island or Kidnapped can be surpassed as adventure stories, and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is every bit as good as Nabokov thought it was. But yes, Weir of Hermiston would certainly have been a masterpiece.

      Reply

  5. Oldgit
    Waverley, Rob Roy, Bride of Lammermuir are great Scott novels in the true sense of the word. Stevenson is a personal favourite of mine. I read Kidnapped every year. But his travel writings are exquisite: An Inland Voyage, Travel on a Donkey, Across the Plains are the work of someone who could bring the fantastic to drying paint. His character sketches are similarly impressive. His humane treatment of Fr Damien reflects how good a man RLS was.

    Reply

    • Hello Stephen,
      I have read some of Stevenson’s travel writing – not all – and have loved what I have read. He is wonderful company – intelligent and articulate, and, as you say, wonderfully humane: just the kind of person you’d want to accompany on travels. Kidnapped and Treasure island were huge childhood favourites, and I don’t think either can be surpassed.

      I must admit, though, that am not too well-read in Scott, and I do need to put that right.

      Reply

  6. I have struggled my way through the odd Scott, but as far as I know the only Stevenson I have ‘read’ was at primary school when our teacher read it to us; he was an excellent reader of stories, giving every character a different ‘voice’. I have always remembered hime reading this and another one about I think Martin Frobisher. The books seemed to aimed at boys more than girls – did we have more boys in our one-teacher school (I think so) or was it to encourage the boys to read more? I think he also read us Swallows and Amazons. But not Anne of Green Gables or What Katy Did or Little Women.

    Reply

    • It’s strange how even some 40 or 50 years ago – when I was growing up – children’s books (teh classic ones, at least) were effectively gender-segregated: boys read Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Coral Island; girls read Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Heidi. They were different times, of course, but I think it would be a mistake to discard these “gender segregated” titles: they remain wonderful books, however much out of phase they may be with modern tastes.

      Reply

  7. I would add Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian to Stephen’s list of the best Scott novels.

    Several years ago, I picked as the second-best thing Stevenson ever wrote a chapter from The Silverado Squatters, a travel book about his honeymoon in Napa Valley. He really was one of the great travel writers.

    “aimed at boys” – Stevenson had great difficulty writing female characters. One way to deal with the difficulty was to write books with no women, or almost none, which he did several times. I was pleased to find that Weir of Hermiston has a wonderful heroine – Stevenson was overcoming his limitation. If only he had lived longer.

    Reply

  8. Tom, The Silverado Squatters is another fine book from Stevenson. Reading his whole journey to California from Glasgow tells you something about the man. As does his novels like St Ives. He could always see things from the other side. But oh my love is Kidnapped. It brings me home to Scotland, to the hills and the sea salt on the air.

    Reply

    • I first read Kidnapped when I was about 9 (that’s nearly 50 years ago now!), and was growing up in Kirkcaldy. It was tremendously exciting, partly because it was among the first books I could read by myself and enjoy (I had arrived as an immigrant from India only some four years earlier). Every time we passed the road sign for South Queensferry I’d remind myself that’s where David Balfour got kidnapped!

      Reply

  9. Your question as to why so few Scottish novels have entered the ‘canon’ is an interesting one. I suspect Calvinism must share some of the blame with its deep-seated dislike of anything ‘entertaining’. This is perhaps why great Scottish writers of the 18th century (Adam Smith, David Hume, James Boswell) were not writing fiction.

    However, books regarded as ‘parochial’ rarely enter the canon – hence Galt’s absence, the acceptance only of Stevenson’s novels set in England, and Scott’s most famous novel being Ivanhoe. It was Andre Gide who reintroduced Hogg’s Confessions to the world, not the caretakers of English literature.

    Scotland (not famed for health!) has also seen more than its fair share of writers die in their prime (Stevenson, George Douglas Brown, Grassic Gibbon), as well as many who only wrote one or two novels.

    Even today a writer like James Kelman, twice short listed for the Man Booker International Prize, is rarely mentioned in coverage of the UK novel, though to be fair Scotland has often looked down on its own literature by, for example, not teaching it at school or university. As everywhere in the UK, positions of influence in education and the arts go to disproportionately to those privately educated, but Scots who are privately educated are anglicized in more than their accent. (This also divides Scottish writers more than in England).

    The situation in Scotland has improved over the last 20-30 years, but recent surveys of the novel (in the Guardian and by the BBC) show that perceptions haven’t.

    Reply

    • A Danish friend of mine once jokingly referred to composer Carl Nielsen as “world-famous in Denmark”. Similarly with works such as Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or A Scots Quair: even just south of the border, these books aren’t particularly well known, and it’s hard to figure out why.

      You make an interesting point that so many major Scottish writers wrote non-fiction. Also, rather interestingly, Scotland has produced possibly more than its fair share of great storytellers– i.e. writers who could maintain interest principally or even mainly through the plot -: in my personal canon, the finest storytellers of the 19th century were Dumas, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle: two out of three were Scottish. The tradition continued into the twentieth century, I think, with John Buchan, and, more recently, George Macdonald Frazer. In short, Scottish writers knew how to spin a good yarn!

      Also, who remembers that James Barrie, say, or Kenneth Grahame, were Scottish? I have even seen them referred to as “English writers”!

      Reply

      • Posted by blatantnotlatent on March 23, 2016 at 3:52 pm

        This reminds me of the fact that my best friend – born in Glasgow; raised in Edinburgh – now living in deepest Warwickshire, like me – had not heard of Grassic Gibbon. He was rewarded with an admonitory Christmas present of ‘A Scots Quair’; and, of course, fell in love with it. [He loves ‘Wind in the Willows’, too, of course – being the Badger to my Mole – and never stops reminding me that Grahame wrote with a Scots accent (albeit probably very posh…)! (Even Wikipedia describes him as “British”, though….)]

      • Posted by witwoud on March 23, 2016 at 8:30 pm

        Alex Salmond certainly remembers that Grahame was a Scot, ridiculously citing The Wind in The Willows as a great Scottish novel. (I know, it was obviously a wind-up.) According to him, it’s full of Scottish virtues such as the importance of friendship, and so on. Personally, I think it’s about as Scottish as Stephen Fry eating a cream bun in Fortnum and Mason while humming “Jerusalem”.

        Mind you, I can never see Mr Salmond without immediately thinking of Mr Toad, so I suppose there’s that.

      • Ha ha ha! I try not to get involved in party politics on this board, but I can’t help thinking that the comparison of Salmond to Toad is most unfair: Toad would never have heaped praise on the lovely Mr Putin… However, it’s an intriguing question: at what point does an attachment to the landscape and the cultures of the place where you grew up turn to nationalism? Having grown up in Scotland, I have an attachment to all things Scottish, but I do run a mile from all sorts of nationalism.

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