‘A Genuine Influence’: A Mystery in Scarlet and Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson apparently drew upon his childhood memory of A Mystery in Scarlet and adult reconnection with it when writing his 1889 novel The Master of Ballantrae, often recognized as one of his most sophisticated and haunting major works.  Critics have shown that a major inspiration for The Master of Ballantrae was the popular fiction of RLS’s childhood. His nurse, Allison Cunningham (‘Cummie’), read penny dreadfuls to him from periodicals. Perhaps remembering this context, the adult Stevenson associates ‘the appeal of romance to the world of make-believe and day-dream inhabited by the child’ (Irvine 28). On shopping excursions, he read the visible pages of leading serials and scrutinized their illustrations, ultimately inventing resolutions to stories when the final instalments were inaccessible through the glass (Lèger-St-Jean, “Serialization” 119). The library at Balfour, his family home, contained many periodicals (Norquay 19), and in 1864, Stevenson began buying penny dreadfuls for himself (Brown 175). They evidently included the London Miscellany. Stevenson notes that during this period, “Errym” was a “poor old favourite” (qtd. in Brown 183), and the “Correspondents” column in the fourth issue of the London Miscellany, published on 17 March 1866, asserts that the periodical “arrives in Glasgow every Wednesday” (96).  

In the early 1880s, Stevenson reread his old penny dreadfuls, searching for remembered but lost titles and writing about his juvenile reading experience (Brown 175). This was a timely choice. For a variety of reasons, the notorious penny dreadfuls and bloods received a burst of new attention. Frost’s aforementioned memoir is one example. Charles Henry Ross, the author and cartoonist who created ‘Ally Sloper’ and probably the early "female detective" Ruth Trail (Ruth the Betrayer 1886), recalls Rymer’s 1840s penny blood The Lady in Black, or, the Widow and the Wife in his 1883 memoir Behind a Brass Knocker: Some Grim Realities in Picture and Prose (84). Another recollection of Rymer’s work appears in an anonymous Athenaeum review of Henry Buxton Forman’s edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s prose. Exasperated by Shelley’s overcooked, gory, sadistically sexualized prose fiction, the reviewer concludes that:

The author of the “penny dreadful” may be an epic poet in the bud; and, moreover, that the long-expected poem of the age is to be looked for, not from a writer who begins with prose as delicate as Mr. Matthew Arnold’s or Cardinal Newman’s, but from a master of that more vigorous and picturesque style adopted by the author of ‘Ada the Betrayed’ and ‘Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood’. (297)

That author was Rymer, as Stevenson might have known from the London Miscellany’s attribution of Varney to “Errym.”  Stevenson appears to have jumped on this bandwagon. In 1879, he checked out “Errym’s” Edith the Captive, a John Dix penny-parts production, some copies of which have handsome color illustrations, out of Edinburgh’s Advocates’ Library (Norquay 20). Later in the decade, he published the Scribners’ ode to Rymer and his request for A Mystery in Scarlet. According to James Robinson, Stevenson “recognised that nearly all of” the penny press's fiction “was trash” (5), but it still exerted a powerful hold over his imagination. As Richard Ambrosini explains, reading penny dreadfuls fundamentally shaped Stevenson’s literary style. His "fascination with popular fiction allowed him to investigate the mechanisms underlying the pleasure of reading, from which he derived a model largely based on the sub-genres of the adventure novel" (Ambrosini 32).  

This influence, I wish to argue, is particularly evident in the major novel he wrote immediately after his rediscovery of A Mystery in Scarlet, The Master of Ballantrae (1889). In his essay ‘The Genesis of The Master of Ballantrae’ (1886), Stevenson acknowledges the ‘spirit of emulation’ that the ‘third or fourth perusal of’ another penny dreadful, Captain Marryat’s The Phantom Ship, provoked in him (135). He found that “not less than Homer, Milton, and Virgil,” the penny novelist “profited by the choice of a familiar and legendary subject the same summary elliptic method” (135). Admittedly, “The Genesis” does not mention A Mystery in Scarlet by name, but neither does it denominate another firmly established influence upon The Master of Ballantrae: James Hogg’s 1824 Gothic sendup The Private Memoirs and True Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Martin 108)Like that novel, A Mystery in Scarlet has many similarities with The Master of Ballantrae. Firstly, the preface of the latter identifies it as a mystery. Mr. Thompson offers the ‘editor’ “something really original by way of dessert. A mystery” (6).

“A mystery?” I repeated.

“Yes,” said his friend, “a mystery. It may prove to be nothing, and it may prove to be a great deal. But in the meanwhile it is truly mysterious, no eye having looked on it for near a hundred years; it is highly genteel, for it treats of a titled family; and it ought to be melodramatic, for (according to the superscription) it is concerned with death.” (ibid)

While the major incident of The Master of Ballantrae is, as Stevenson states in “The Genesis,” “the notion of the resuscitated man” (137), the disappearance of an apparently murdered male body is also an early, definitive incident in A Mystery in Scarlet. As Mackellar explains, after Sir Henry Durie appears to have killed his estranged elder brother, James Durie, Master of Ballantrae, in a duel, “there was the blood-stain in the midst; and a little farther off Mr. Henry’s sword, the pommel of which was of silver; but of the body, not a trace.” Mackellar recalls: “My heart thumped upon my ribs, the hair stirred upon my scalp, as I stood there staring—so strange was the sight, so dire the fears it wakened” (119). And like the would-be murderer and victim of this novel, those of A Mystery in Scarlet are estranged brothers contending for a title and fortune: King George II and his secret elder brother, the titular ‘Mystery’. The Master even compares himself to a disenfranchised king: “I was born for a good tyrant,” he informed Mackellar. “I have a kingly nature: there is my loss!” (191). A Mystery in Scarlet’s protagonist, royal guard Markham, who finds himself torn between the two royal brothers, anticipates Mackellar, equally an ambivalent servant of two masters trying to find his own loyalties and values.

Seeing the echoes of A Mystery in Scarlet in The Master of Ballantrae may help to expose that novel’s dramatization of the cultural controversy concerning penny dreadfuls and, more generally, popular fiction. An “elegy on the impossibility of romance” (Tomaiuolo 85), The Master of Ballantrae pits a brother ripped out of the world of Rymer’s dreadfuls against his “stolid” younger sibling, described in and perhaps representative of realism. Whether their story is to be told in an embellished or dry manner is a central question from the ‘Preface’ onwards. Mackellar’s portfolio is “a novel ready to your hand,” after some necessary alterations (“work up the scenery, develop the characters, and improve the style”), claims Thompson (8). From beyond the grave, Mackellar does not want his tale worked up and romanced. “My pen is clear enough to tell a plain tale,” he insists (29), and complains of the romantically unsavory Burke, “it was not the brutal fact, but a very varnished version, that he [Burke] offered to my lord” (87). Indeed, Burke praises the “gallantry of Ballantrae” (50), not unlike the gallantry of another pirate, the highwayman hero of Rymer’s Edith the Captive. Still, Mackellar himself, in his attempt to elucidate the Master’s wickedness, falls into bloody tropes drawn from Rymer. Finding the Master a “bloodsucker… drawing the life’s blood from Durrisdeer” (75), he echoes the imagery of Rymer’s Varney, the Vampyre, a text mentioned by Stevenson, with its aristocratic vampire Sir Francis Varney. The Master’s mistress, Jessie Broun, shares a name with the heroine of another ‘Errym’ serial mentioned in The London Miscellany, The Sepoys, or, Highland Jessie, a Tale of the Present Indian Revolt. Published by Reynolds in 1858, this penny blood dramatizes the story of apocryphal Highland Scottish heroine Jessie Brown. Mackellar concedes that the Master is the ultimate romance hero: “he was the very person to captivate a boyish fantasy” (164). And yet, clinging to realism’s valuation of psychological complexity, he assumes the Master “could be so bad a man” had he not “all the machinery to be a good one” (176). Unfortunately, that isn’t how penny dreadfuls work. In A Mystery in Scarlet, George II has no submerged capacity for good. Moreover, he is specifically a serialized hero. Burke’s memoirs are presented only in fragments, giving the reader an experience like Stevenson’s consumption of partial dreadfuls in the shop-windows of early-1860s Edinburgh.

Stevenson defends the penny dreadful by making the Master an adventurous and genuine reader in comparison to Mackellar, who avoids secular reading entirely and does not read anything recreationally, critically, or creatively. While the Master reads the scandalous Clarissa, perhaps an eighteenth-century antecedent to Victorian bloods and dreadfuls, has “a few books” in his colonial tailor shop (205), like the English artisans to whom the penny dreadfuls were marketed, tells Mackellar a romantic, blood parable (183-5), and reads scripture as “a source of entertainment only” (179), Mackellar proudly insists the Bible is “all [his] library (178). While Stevenson encountered the dreadfuls as a child, and revisited them in adulthood, Mackellar avoided this journey, never having had a childhood. “I had never been young,” he insists, and “was not formed for the world’s pleasures” (181). However, the Governor of New York follows the Master’s adventures like an incomplete serial, too. When he meets the Master, he claims to know “some broken ends of your adventures” (196). If the Governor consumes serial fiction, Stevenson suggests, it cannot be a childish or terrible thing. According to Saverio Tomaiuolo, The Master of Ballantrae is distinguished by interrelated themes of “mastery” and “disinheritance,” including hereditary, political, and “literary … mastery and authority” (85). The paralleling of these three types of authority and disinheritance link the suspense plot of A Mystery in Scarlet, reprised to some extent in The Master of Ballantrae, with the topical question of the moral authority of the midcentury penny press and the fin-de-siècle adventure genres it generated.


Works Cited

Ambrosini, Richard. “RL Stevenson and the Ethical Value of Writing for the Market.” The Edinburgh Companion to RLS. Ed. Penny Fielding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. pp. 27-40.

Irvine, Robert P. "Romance and Social Class.” The Edinburgh Companion to RLS. Ed. Penny Fielding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. pp. 27-40.

Lèger-St-Jean, Marie. "Serialization and Story-Telling Illustrations: R.L. Stevenson Window-Shopping for Penny Dreadfuls." Media and Print Culture Consumption in Victorian Britain. Ed. Paul Raphael Rooney and Anna Gasperini. London: Springer, 2016.

—. “‘Long for the Penny Number and the Weekly Woodcut’: Stevenson on Reading and Writing Popular Fiction.” Journal of Stevenson Studies 9 (2012): 207-232.

The London Miscellany. London: Charles Jones, 1866.

Martin, Maureen. Mighty Scot: The Nation, Gender, and the Nineteenth-Century Mystique of Scottish Masculinity. Albany: SUNY Press, 2009.

Mehew, Ernest, ed. Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Norquay, Glenda. Robert Louis Stevenson and Theories of Reading: The Reader as Vagabond. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Robinson, James. "A Reliable Author and his unreliable critics: the fall and rise of Stevenson's literary reputation" The Journal of Stevenson Studies 8 (2011). pp. 5-16

Ross, Charles Henry. Behind a Brass Knocker: Some Grim Realities in Picture and Prose. London: Chatto and Windus, 1883.

“Shelley’s Prose.” Athenaeum (4 September 1880): 297-8.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Genesis of the Master of Ballantrae.” Essays in the Art of Writing. London: Chatto and Windus, 1905. pp. 134-142.

—. The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale. Ed. Emma Letley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

—. “Popular Authors.Scribner's Magazine. (4 July 1888): 122-8.

Tomaiuolo, Saverio. "Under Mackellar's eyes: metanarrative strategies in The Master of Ballantrae." Journal of Stevenson Studies 3 (2006): 85-110.