Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887

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by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887

Of "Thrawn Janet" Henry James wrote, "a masterpiece in thirteen pages." It was the first work by Robert Louis Stevenson to which the epithet could be satisfactorily applied. In the same essay, which appeared in Century Magazine in April 1888, James wrote, "Before all things he is a writer with a style," and he developed the theme of Stevenson as the self-conscious craftsman. In Stevenson's early essays and travel descriptions there were hints of the dark, wild world in "Thrawn Janet" (collected in The Merry Men; 1887). "Even in the names of places," Stevenson wrote in Winter and New Year, "there is often a desolate, inhospitable sound; and I remember two from the near neighbourhoods of Edinburg, Cauldhame and Blaweary." The latter name became Balweary in "Thrawn Janet." As a child Stevenson heard frightening tales from his nurse about an evil personified by the devil. Yet "Thrawn Janet" could not have been predicted from his previous writings. A considerable shift of focus was required for Stevenson to justify the name given him by the Samoans—Tusitala, the teller of tales.

The plot of "Thrawn Janet," in which a young, liberal minister comes to believe that the devil has entered the body of one of his parishioners, might appear to be of only anthropological interest. Stevenson himself wrote in Note of what he regarded as a defect: "It is only historically true, true for a hill parish in Scotland in the old days." Yet he admitted that "the story carries me away every time I read it." Elsewhere he remarked on "the Scots dialect" being "singularly rich" in wintry terms, and he quotes four adjectives, "snell, blae, nirly and scowthering," but he is equally effective in creating it by the suffocating atmosphere in which the tragic and distorting events in "Thrawn Janet" happen:

About the end o' July there cam' a spell o' weather, the like o't never was in that countryside; it was lown an' het an' heartless; the herds couldna win up the Black Hill, the bairns were ower weariet to play; an' yet it was gousty too, wi' claps o' het wund that rumm'led in the glens, and bits o' shouers that slockened naething.

This has the authority of the teller of folktales. The storyteller is cast as "one of the older folk" who "would warm into courage over his third tumbler." Earlier in the story Stevenson introduces the reader to the minister as he is 50 years after these strange events, "a severe, bleak-faced old man dreadful to his hearers." As a young minister he required a housekeeper at the manse. Janet M'Clour was recommended by the laird. The folk told him that Janet was "sib [bound] to the de'il," which the minister rejected as superstition. Matters came to a head when the minister intervened in an attempt to drown Janet to discover if she were a witch. On the following day the minister escorted Janet to the manse: "There was Janet comin doun the clachan—her or her likeness, nane could tell—wi' her neck thrawn, an' her heid on ae side, like a body that had been hangit, an' a girn on her face like an unstreakit corpse."

In Scotland the neck of a chicken is thrawn to kill it. This is common parlance, but "thrawn" many also refer to a twisted face, expecially one distorted by pain. The minister, however, "preached about naething but the folk's cruelty that had gi'en her a stroke of the palsy." Events culminated in a night that "fell as mirk as the pit; no a star, no' a breath o' wund." Hearing noise from Janet's room, the minister ventured to seek her there:

An' then a' at aince, the minister's heart played dunt an' stood stock-still; an' a cauld wund blew amang the hairs o' his heid. Whatten a weary sicht was that for the puir man's e'en! For there was Janet Hanging' frae a nail beside the auld aik cabinet: her heid aye lay on her shouther, her e'en were steekit, the tongue projected frae her mouth, an' her heels were twa feet clear abune the floor. "God forgive us all!" thocht Mr Soulis, "poor Janet's dead."

This grotesque theater in the vernacular is ended by the minister's use of the King's English; his speech throughout is informed by the King James translation of the Bible. By such writing Stevenson puts himself in the Scottish tradition of the expression of evil through the figure of the devil, or "deil." He may be presented as a figure of fun in the dance of the witches in Robert Burns's Tam o' Shanter, with horror as he possesses the soul of Robert Wringhim in James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or with the zest of the storyteller set to create belief where none may seem possible in Sir Walter Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale." This element is in Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet," but it has the wider implication that the nonrational may destroy the reasoning mind, which was the apprehension of Stevenson.

—George Bruce