- Queer Wanderings: Transatlantic Piracy and Narrative Seduction in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae
“SURE, NO ONE COULD WISH to read anything so ungenteel as the memoirs of a pirate, even an unwilling one like me!”—so declares Chevalier Burke, James Durie’s Irish companion and (briefly) narrator as he “pass[es] swiftly” over the “pretty fortunate business” of their time as pirates.1 Yet Burke’s swiftness runs counter to Robert Louis Stevenson’s clear interest in The Master of Ballantrae in the allure and structure of this “ungenteel,” violent episode in which James, or “the Master,” stages a mutiny and steals a treasure after having been taken prisoner by the grotesquely violent Captain Teach. Upset by the Master’s abrasive imperiousness as they bury the treasure in upstate New York, Burke later notes how he “had contracted on board the pirate ship a manner of address which was in a high degree unusual between gentlemen.”2 Piracy becomes in Stevenson’s novel a “contracted … manner,” a contagious mode of performance shaping not only the Master’s identity—and his homosocial and homoerotic circulation “between gentlemen”—but also the form of the narrative itself. Rather than reading Stevenson’s novel, in George Moore’s well-known terms, as “a story of adventure with the story left out,”3 this article traces how the fleeting narrative of James Durie’s adventures as a transatlantic pirate captain haunts The Master of Ballantrae (first published in Scribner’s Magazine from 1889 to 1890). The episode, detailed in the chapter entitled “The Master’s Wanderings,” queerly unsettles the novel’s relation (through the voice of the novel’s principal narrator, Ephraim Mackellar) to more ordered forms of narration associated with the domestic, the national, and the reproductive. [End Page 184]
While recent critical approaches have underlined The Master of Ballantrae’s analogic links between James and Henry Durie’s fratricidal bonds and Scotland’s torn national identity, not enough has been said about the transatlantic trajectory of the brothers’ symbolic and erotic struggles. The novel’s twinned “themes of national identity and desire and hate between men” signal for Maureen M. Martin Stevenson’s struggle with “both the impossibility and necessity of narrating Scotland,” a narrative project pitted against the impossible standard of Walter Scott’s “novelized” Scottish masculinity.4 While Martin draws important connections between nation, gender, and sexuality in The Master of Ballantrae, this discussion redirects critical attention to the transnational frame, setting, and structure of Stevenson’s novel as a crucial context for reading its analogic movements across national, gendered, and sexual narrative forms. In The Amateur Emigrant (written 1879–1880 but not published until 1895), Stevenson imagines his own Atlantic crossing—travelling as an anthropological participant-observer, incognito in the steerage class—as an unstable exercise in pleasurable passing and surveillance. He uses his marginal, “amateur” position (travelling “[o]ut of my country and myself”5) to stage a stinging critique of transatlantic working-class emigration as built on an illusory dream of “whole new empires … domesticated to the service of man.”6 Likewise in The Master of Ballantrae, Stevenson imagines the Atlantic passage of the novel’s brothers and their narrator as both a queerly pleasurable unseating of the self and an illusory, imperial pursuit of transformation in “a savage country.”7 As the setting for both the Master’s formative piratical adventure and, later, for his seduction of Mackellar, the Atlantic figures forth an uncanny space outside or between nations in which Stevenson’s novel probes the queer forms of mastery that order national narratives.
Critics have long commented on the heterogeneity of Stevenson’s narrative structure in The Master of Ballantrae. Carol Mills, for instance, describes the novel as a “hybrid” story of Scottish “historical romance” and international “adventure yarn”: “at a fundamental level it is experimental, intermingling the two sub-genres in the manner of a collage.”8 Rather than reading the novel as a “collage,” however, this article will consider the significance of sequence for the arrangement of Ephraim Mackellar’s manuscript as well as the various paratexts attached to it. Stevenson’s novel draws readers into an anticipatory...