Book Of A Lifetime: Russell Hoban

Weir Of Hermiston, By Robert Louis Stevenson
Click to follow

"Pity, and at the same time a bewilederd fear of this explosive engine in his arms, whose works he did not understand, and yet had been tampering with." Explosive engine indeed! This is what Archie Weir feels on attempting to part with young Kirstie Elliot. They love each other passionatley but Archie's father, Lord-Justice Clerk of Edinburgh, will never allow them to marry. And at this point in the story, Robert Louis Stevenson most inconsiderately died, leaving the work unfinished and the reader hanging.

Archie's father is Adam Weir, a judge who enjoys sending men to be hanged. Earlier in his career he married plain Jean Rutherford, regarded by all and sundry as old-maid material. Beauty meant nothing to him; he chose her because she looked as if she'd be obedient. She was certainly that, but blood is thicker than small beer and she came of a race of drinekrs and brawlers who flouteed laws and conventions alike. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, and her son Archie, the hero of this tale, inherited from his father a strong will and from his mother a healthy streak of rebellion.

Young Archie, revolted by his fatehr's pleasure in sentencing to death Duncan Jopp, a wretched creature too dim to know what was happening to him, publicly shouts his protest at this "God-defying" capital punishment. Archie's relation to his father is such that he lives between the hammer of that iron man and the paternal anvil of his iron principles. After Archie's public outburst, the hammer comes down on him smartly and he is rusticated to his father's estate of Hermiston.

There he finds the two Kirsties who are the dounble female lead of this story. Kirstie Elliot, the housekeeper, "was now over fifty, and might have sat for a sculptor. Long of limb, and still light of foot, deep-breasted, robust-loined... she seemed destined to be the bride of heroes." After this salivating description, one might reasonably hope that... But no. Never mind.

Kirstie's niece Christina, also known as Kirstie, is seen by Archie in church, where "she glowed like an open flower". Inevitably they fall in love, Archie Laird of Hermiston and pretty Kirstie who is in a class below him. Because of this social difference, Archie's brutal father will never allow them to marry.

Is there any chance of a happy ending? Stevenson said in a letter to JM Barrie that "If a book is to end badly, it must begin to end badly". 'Weir of Hermiston' certainly follows that dictum: it begins with a violent emotional split between father and son that nails the colours of unhappy ending firmly to the novel's mast. Writers, however, tend to be unreliable, and Stevenson seriously considered tacking on an ending in which the lovers escape to America. Happily, that ending never happened.

Where are they now, those two? Nobody knows, but they're out there somewhere, sailing the seas of my mind until I join their creator where he has gone.

Russell Hoban's new novel is 'Angelica Lost and Found' (Bloomsbury)