One generally reads a book, especially a famous book, with greater interest when one knows something of the personal history and the character of the writer. There are, however, exceptions to the rule. There are writers whose life-story is best told not in, but by their books; and R.M. Ballantyne was one of these. Many schoolboys will be content to know him simply as the man who wrote their favourite books – Hudson Bay, The Coral Island, Martin Rattler, and a score or two more; but even these will appreciate his work more highly when they know how much of conscientious devotion and how much of labour and personal risk were involved in his method of doing it. It is in this sense that Ballantyne’s stories are to a large extent autobiographical, and it is in this sense that he deserves the title of “Ballantyne the Brave” affectionately given him by his successor as a writer for boys, R.L. Stevenson.
Robert Michael Ballantyne was born at Edinburgh, April 24, 1825. His father, Alexander Ballantyne, was brother and junior partner of John and James Ballantyne, the printers and friends of Sir Walter Scott. His mother was Randall Scott Grant, daughter of a Dr. Grant of Inverness. Of his boyhood there is not much to tell. His sister, Randall Ballantyne, who possessed a good deal of literary ability, used to speak of him as a bright and clever boy, not much given to hard study, but fond of reading and of story-telling, with a decided turn for adventure and romance; always affectionate and upright. He attended the Edinburgh Academy for some time; but his regular schooling was meagre, and one of the regrets of his life was that he had made so little use of his opportunities in this respect, such as they were. The ease and fluency with which he wrote were mainly the result of practice, and they increased as his years advanced.
While Ballantyne was still a boy, the family circumstances made it necessary that he should begin the battle of life on his own account. He tells us in his Personal Reminiscences that his father was one day reading in the newspapers an account of the exploration of the north coast of America by Messrs. Dease and Simpson. Dropping his paper and looking over his spectacles, he said to his son,—
“How would you like to go into the service of the Hudson Bay Company, and discover the North-West Passage?” Dease and Simpson were officers of the Company when they made their discoveries.
“All right, father,” said the boy – or words indicating acquiescence. It happened that a relative of the family held a high post in the Company’s service, and through him young Ballantyne obtained a clerkship under the Company with a salary of £20 a year. He sailed for Hudson Bay in 1841, when he was sixteen years of age. The appointment was in all respects a fortunate one. The country and the life suited his adventurous disposition, and were the means besides of developing a literary faculty of which he had previously been unconscious. In fact, his sojourn in the wilds of North America was what made him a story-teller and a writer of books for boys.
It is unnecessary to describe with any detail the events of the six years spent in the Hudson Bay Territory. Ballantyne has himself told the story of that time in his own charming way in Hudson Bay. He sailed from Gravesend in June 1841 in the Prince Rupert, one of the sailing ships of the Company, and after a rough and stormy voyage he landed at York Factory in August. The posts at which most of his time was spent were York Factory, where he remained for two years at a stretch; Norway House, near the north end of Lake Winnipeg; Fort Garry, in the Red River Settlement (now Manitoba); Tadousac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River; and Seven Islands, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He sailed from New York for England in May 1847, almost exactly six years after his departure from Gravesend.
Ballantyne himself described his Hudson Bay life as “a hard, rough, healthy life.” He and his comrades spent most of their time in trading in furs with the Red Indians. A little office-work had to be done, but much more of canoeing, boating, fishing, shooting, and, he adds, “wishing, and skylarking. It was a ‘jolly’ life, no doubt, while it lasted, but not elevating.”
How then did it make him an author? The answer is found in the necessity he felt to adopt some occupation to relieve the loneliness of existence. In those days they had a mail only twice in the year – one in summer by the Company’s ship, and one in winter through the trackless wilderness by sledge and snow-shoe. With a winter of eight months’ duration, and a temperature often of 50 below zero, time was apt to hang heavily on his hands. With a view to lighten it a little, he wrote long letters to his mother in Scotland – necessarily long because of the interval between the mails. Whenever he felt a touch of home-sickness, he got out his sheets of “imperial” paper and “entered into spiritual intercourse with ‘home.’ To this long-letter writing,” he adds, “I attribute whatever small amount of facility in composition I may have acquired.”
These letters, however, did not form his book. The idea of a regular and continuous narrative did not occur to him until near the end of his stay in Canada. During the wearisome months he spent at Seven Islands, on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in 1846, with no companion but his French-Canadian “man Friday” and factotum, and no neighbour nearer than within seventy or eighty miles, he was desperately lonely. He had no books, or newspapers, or magazines, or literature of any kind; no game to shoot, and no boat to fish from. “But I had pen and ink, and, by great good fortune, was in possession of a blank-paper book fully an inch thick.” He knew that his mother would read any amount of his outpourings, and he wrote without stint. Even then he had no idea that his manuscript would ever become a printed book. “It was merely a free-and-easy record of personal adventure and everyday life, written, like all else that I penned, solely for the uncritical eye of that long-suffering and too indulgent mother.”
After he had been at home for two or three years, the manuscript book was handed round among relatives and privileged friends. It came under the eye of “a printer-cousin,” who offered to print it, and ere long Hudson Bay was published by the Blackwoods, was praised by the press, and turned out a distinct success commercially (1850).
His literary consciousness, however, was not yet awakened. He looked on himself as a business man, and accepted a partnership in the firm of Thomas Constable and Co., printers in Edinburgh. After the publication of Hudson Bay he allowed several years to pass without putting pen to paper in the way of literary effort. Even then the effort was not spontaneous: it was the result of a suggestion from the outside. The late Mr. William Nelson had been impressed with the interesting character of Hudson Bay, and with the undoubted literary power it revealed. Happening to meet Ballantyne in 1854, he asked him how he would like the idea of taking to literature as a profession. Ballantyne was taken by surprise, and answered vaguely; but when the suggestion was promptly followed by “an order” for a story, he agreed to make trial, and the result was The Young Fur-Traders – Ballantyne’s first story-book for young folks, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in 1855. The rest of his life was spent in writing similar books, at the rate of one or two a year. He estimated that, besides occasional articles, he had written “something like eighty complete stories.”
In everything he undertook, Ballantyne was actuated by earnestness of purpose. When he resolved to become a literary man, he made literature his business; but it was a business in which he took the greatest interest, and from which he derived real enjoyment. He settled down quietly, when about thirty years of age, to the busy life of a story-teller in his house at Millerfield Place, near the Meadows, on the south side of Edinburgh. Besides his regular production of works of fiction, he contributed occasional articles to magazines and newspapers. He was also an accomplished draughtsman, and he painted cleverly in water-colours. Though only an amateur with the brush, his pictures were on several occasions hung on the walls of the Royal Scottish Academy beside those of professional artists.
In his earliest stories, The Young Fur-Traders and Ungava; a Tale of Eskimo Life, he drew upon his own experiences in North America. When that material was exhausted, and he had to resort to fresh fields, he relied partly on authentic books of travel, but more on personal visits to the scenes described. To indicate the kind of books from which he derived information, mention may be made of Ellis’s “Polynesian Researches,” Olmsted’s “Journey through Texas,” Scoresby’s “Arctic Regions,” Kane’s “Arctic Regions,” and Greely’s “Arctic Service.” He was always on the watch for travellers who could give him first-hand information. Much of the material for Ungava was got from an old retired “Nor’-wester” who had lived long in Rupert’s Land. He obtained information which he used in Blue Lights; or, Hot Work In the Soudan, from Miss Robinson, the soldier’s friend.
Few writers of fiction have been so exact or so conscientious as he was regarding his facts. He made occasional mistakes. He tells with gusto how he blundered in The Coral Island regarding cocoa-nuts, which he described as growing on the trees without the outer fibrous case, and how months or years passed before any one drew his attention to the error. Considering the number of his books and the wide area of the world they cover, the severest criticism admits that his slips were trifling and remarkably rare. One charge to which he was never fairly liable, and about which he was rather sensitive when it was even hinted, was that of “drawing the longbow.” He said that he “had always laboured to be true to fact and to nature, even in my wildest flights of fancy.” Testimonies to his accuracy have not been wanting. With reference to an exciting incident in Blue Lights, a certain colonel wrote to him to say that it was his son who had commanded the gallant band that performed the exploit.
The amount of trouble he took in order to secure that kind of realism was extraordinary. Before he wrote The Lifeboat, he went to Ramsgate and spent some time there in close friendship and alliance with the coxswain of the Ramsgate boat. The information for The Lighthouse he gathered during a residence on the Bell Rock Lighthouse for three weeks as the guest of the keepers. To understand The Floating Light, he spent a fortnight aboard the Gull lightship, off the Goodwin Sands, and he wrote in The Scotsman (March 26, 1870) a graphic account of his visit, which attracted a great deal of notice. To gain the knowledge requisite for writing In the Track of the Troops, he spent some weeks with the commander of H.M.S. Thunderer on board of his ship. As a preparation for Fighting the Flames, he obtained permission to join the Salvage Corps of the London Fire Brigade; and he donned the uniform of the corps, and went careering through the streets of London on fire-engines.
For most of his other books he adopted a similar plan, and even took long journeys and voyages to obtain accurate information, and local colouring and feeling. Thus Deep Down took him to Cornwall; Erling the Bold, to Norway; The Pirate City, to Algiers; The Settler and the Savage, to the Cape; The Young Trawler, to the North Sea fishing-ground.
As a further means of ensuring accuracy in details, he was careful to submit his proof-sheets to experts when that was possible. Thus the proofs of Fighting the Flames were gone over by the late Captain Shaw, the head of the London Fire Brigade, and those of Post Haste by Sir Arthur Blackwood, Secretary to the General Post Office, St. Martin’s-le-Grand.
Apart from the general purpose of all his books – namely, to describe adventures, and to convey information in a pleasant way – many of them were written in support of definite causes and institutions. Thus The Lifeboat was intended to enlist the sympathy of young folk with the work of the “Royal National Lifeboat Institution.” In acknowledgment of his valuable service, the Institution presented him with a beautiful model of a lifeboat, which stood in a glass case in his study, and of which he was very proud. In the Track of the Troops was written to discredit war, though some hasty critics condemned it as having the opposite tendency. Dusty Diamonds was based on the work of Miss Macpherson and Dr. Barnardo in the slums of the East of London. The Young Trawler deals almost entirely with the religious mission to the North Sea fishermen.
His stories are books of incident rather than books of character. The personalities in them were not finished portraits: they were rather boldly-outlined sketches; but as far as they went they were consistent and clearly defined. All his books are characterised by a pure and healthy tone. He wrote no line that he or any one else could desire to blot.
Himself an earnestly religious man, Ballantyne was never ashamed of the religious tone that appeared in many of his books. He knew well that some persons thought there was too much of religion in his stories, while others thought there was too little. Believing that it was impossible to please every one in this matter, his rule was to satisfy his own conscience and to exercise his own judgment. “When I write,” he said, “on a subject which has religion for a basis, I must not let the feelings of worldly people destroy the religion in my books.” (From “How I write Boys’ Books.” — The Quiver, April 1893.)
He was a most industrious writer, and he did not restrict himself to certain hours. He generally began work soon after breakfast, and he worked on as long as he felt inclined to continue. He confessed that he often worked too long at a stretch, and that he did not take enough of exercise. Though not endowed by nature with a very robust constitution, he enjoyed fairly good health during the greater part of a pretty long life. He worked steadily as long as his work lasted, and he did not object to solitude. Sometimes he retired with his materials to a lonely village where he was unknown, and remained there till his book was finished.
Ballantyne was not very fastidious in matters of style. His language was well chosen, and he wrote easily and with directness; but he did not profess to be a stylist, and he never indulged in fine writing. He seldom re-wrote what he had written, and while he revised carefully he polished or “dressed” his style very little. His English is always simple and business-like.
In 1866 Ballantyne married Miss Jane Dickson Grant, daughter of the Rev. William Grant, minister of the parish of Cavers, Roxburghshire. Their family consisted of three sons and three daughters, all of whom survived their father. One of the sons became a tea-planter in India, another a soldier, and a third a sailor.
Ballantyne continued to live in Edinburgh till 1873, and after sojourning temporarily in London and elsewhere, he settled down at Harrow-on-the-hill in 1878, and there he remained till the end of his life.
He died at Rome, on February 8, 1894. Having been in feeble health for some time, he had accepted an invitation to spend the winter with friends at Tivoli; and he died on the homeward way.
He was buried in the English cemetery at Rome, and a few months later, friends at home placed a white marble monument over his grave, bearing the following inscription:—
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