Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
The mid-nineteenth century, mid-European Principality of Grunewald. Prince Otto has escaped from the group he was hunting with and has forged off on his own, over the boundaries of his own country into that of Gerolstein, a neighboring duchy, somewhat of a rival with Grunewald in a political sense . The approaching dark finds him on the brink of a small river, bounded by dense pine forests, cheerfully gurgling and foaming its way over numerous waterfalls and cascades. Idly riding along the bank, he sees a farmhouse in the near distance and decides to spend the night there. He’s welcomed by an aging farmer and his son, peasants of the soil, embedded in their own ground for centuries. But they, the Gottesheims, are in a quandary over land taxes, and are afraid of losing the farm through foreclosure. Prince Otto offers to buy it for four thousand crowns.
Next morning, after a sealed bargain, Otto returns to his palace in Mittwalden, the capitol of Grunewald, to discover that a complicated political situation that has been developing over the last few years, is about to manifest unpleasant results. Due to his non-interest in governmental affairs, the country has been ruled by Otto’s wife, Serafina, and her buddy, Colonel Gondremark with the result that a healthy revolutionary party has arisen, complaining of excess taxes and the loss of ancient social privileges. Gondremark’s ambition is to invade Gerolstein and to found his own empire; to that end he has persuaded Serafina to ramp up the military and to acquire machines of war: cannon, powder, rifles and ammunition. She doesn’t really like Gondremark much, but in Otto’s absence and his abandonment of his responsibilities, she finds it easier to believe the Colonel’s soothing excuses and to be carried along with his ambitions.
Otto, belatedly, realizes that his negligent conduct has endangered the state, but his overwhelming feelings of guilt lead him to an unbalanced perception of the situation: he thinks he’ll just let himself be abdicated and thrown into prison, because that’s what he thinks he deserves. But his friend Dr. Gotthold persuades him that not taking action is the refuge of a coward, so Otto dissolves the cabinet, foiling Gondremark’s war plans. But Gondremark persuades Serafina to sign an edict calling for Otto’s imprisonment.
As a sort of side-light, Gondremark’s mistress, Mme Von Rosen is enlisted by Otto to steal four thousand crowns from the state treasury with which to complete the sale of of the river farm from Gottesheim. Instead of stealing the money, and implicating Otto in treachery, she gives him the money from her own resources.
But Otto is sent to prison anyway by the nefarious plotting of Goldremark, and Serafina, awakening to the deep plots of her co-ruler, runs off into the extensive pine forests surrounding the capitol, gets lost, has an epiphanical encounter with nature, and realizes she loves Otto dearly in spite of his failures.
(Spoiler Alert) Aided by Sir Crabtree, a passing English naturalist, she and Otto reunite on the road to Gerolstein, buy the farm and live happily ever after. And a revolution burns the palace to the ground, Goldremark is severely wounded, and a republic is formed. Mme Von Rosen, who has been traveling with Crabtree, rushes to the aid of Godremark, whom she really loves, and the two escape across the border to the shores of Bohemia (as cited in Hamlet).
This is not one of Stevenson’s best efforts. He took a lot of trouble with it, rewriting it three times, and fiddling endlessly with some of the unruly bits. But the prose is magnificent, especially the descriptions of nature: the trees, meadows, pine forests, rocky river beds, the sky and the weather. His description of Serafina’s awakening during her solo trek through the woods is by itself worth reading the book for: it’s some of the finest nature writing i’ve ever read. The book mostly suffered from having too much in it, imo. Creators of posts like this one learn pretty quickly that they can’t include every detail of a book if they are to produce a comprehensible result. It’s a difficult process to master, and few, including me, can claim to have achieved it. Writing clearly but not eliminating the interesting side-lights, is an art equivalent, possibly, to conducting a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring without letting the French Horns drown out the flutes…