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30 ...... Simplicity A brother is slain in a duel in the pitch of night, the scene lit only by tall candles set upon the frozen ground. “I have left him lying beside the candles,” says the servant Mackellar before he runs from the house of Durrisdeer to recover the Master’s body. From quite a far way off a sheen was visible, making points of brightness in the shrubbery; in so black a night it might have been remarked for miles; and I blamed myself bitterly for my incaution. How much more sharply when I reached the place! One of the candlesticks was overthrown, and that taper quenched. The other burned steadily by itself, and made a broad space of light upon the frosted ground. All within that circle seemed, by the force of contrast and the over-­ hanging blackness, brighter than by day. And there was the bloodstain 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. 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. I looked right and left; the ground was so hard, it told no story. I stood and listened till my ears ached, but the night was hollow about me like an empty church; not even a ripple stirred upon the shore; it seemed you might have heard a pin drop in the county.1 When Stevenson wanted an image of sharp contrast, he stuck with ordinary words—black, blackness, brightness, 31 ...... brighter, light. Not a single word in this vivid passage is long, showy, or foreign. Mackellar even describes his trepidation in familiar clichés: “my heart thumped,” “empty as a church,” “you might have heard a pin drop.” To avoid clichés like the plague is a decree in all creative writing workshops, but Stevenson knew what he was doing. In the preface he invented to frame The Master of Ballantrae, the imaginary editor (initials “R.L.S.”) singularly praises the “baldness” of Mackellar’s narration and refuses to “work up the scenery” or “improve the style.” Although he had some trouble hitting Mackellar’s voice, it turned out to be a likable one to Stevenson . Indeed, the editor of the preface sounds rather Stevensonian when he claims, “I would have all literature bald.”2 When his stepdaughter Belle once asked for a definition of literature, Stevenson replied, “words used to the best purpose —no waste, going tight around a subject.”3 Stevenson got the idea for The Master of Ballantrae one freezing winter night walking on the verandah of his cottage at Saranac Lake. He had just finished rereading Frederick Marryat’s The Phantom Ship and, “moved by the spirit of emulation,” wondered if he could make a similar tale “of many years and countries, of the sea and the land, savagery, and civilisation.”4 The characters in The Master are so uncanny , the plot so impossible, the whole thing so rapturously strange you can miss how carefully designed it is. Stevenson thought a novel must be like thread running merrily off a reel. But to craft a story demands directness, restraint, a purposeful and uncluttered method. Striking situations and dramatic dialogue, he wrote to James, “are prepared bydeliberate artifice and set off by painful suppressions.”5 Perhaps more than anything else, good prose demands careful choice of detail. Realism forces detail; romance suppresses it.6 ...... Laboring under the shadow of Honoré de Balzac (1799– 1850), influential founder of European realism, mid-­ 32 ...... Victorian authors strove to be “true to life.” To this laudable end, they tended to accumulate details to the point of absurdity . One of Balzac’s novels opens with this long description of a room: The paneled walls of that apartment were once painted some color, now a matter of conjecture, for the surface is incrusted with accumulated layers of grimy deposit, which cover it with fantastic outlines. A collection of dim-­ ribbed glass decanters, metal discs with a satin sheen on them, and piles of blue-­ edged earthenware plates of Touraine ware cover the sticky surfaces of the sideboards that line the room. In a corner stands a box containing a set of numbered pigeon-­ holes, in which the lodgers’ table napkins, more or less soiled and stained with wine, are kept. Here you see that indestructible furniture never met with...


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