The third story in the Robert Fraser Trilogy - from The Stickit Minister's Wooing - first published 1900
Critical review of The Stickit Minister Wins Through
We have to be happy with the title as the story thus far has been unremittingly hopeless. It is hard, indeed to see in what way Robert Fraser may ‘win’ given the situation he finds himself in. Alec is in a state of confusion. There is a delay of some time while the religious observance of ‘taking the buik’ is concluded. Robert has put his faith in his brother and so keeps his faith in God. We might simply see this as a couple of hours wasted. Alec is moved by Robert’s faith but there is some indication that he does not share it. Each to his own. Once more Crockett shows that nothing is simple.
A knock on the door forces action. Henry’s inaction is about to result in Robert’s hastened death. And yet the consequence brings about a conclusion which, in perverse way might be seen as, if not a happy ending, then a fitting one. Robert dies in the arms of his beloved. But is this enough to lift a sense of waste, loss and anger? For me, no. For Alec I suspect no. For Crockett… we can only speculate. But I do think it shows him offering less a homily, more a chance to interrogate our own perceptions.
In this story there is clear religious imagery and symbolism. Light and darkness are used figuratively. Weather is employed both to give realism and metaphor. Crockett is well aware of his writer’s toolbox. He gives us jeopardy and suspense and pain and emotional engagement. And finally, even within the resolution, he offers us a choice. Perhaps the suggestion is that God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is simply that we should make the most of our lives while we have them and not try to be ‘our brother’s keeper’ or protect those we love by distancing ourselves from them.
Henry finally does something good with his life – a small pay back to his brother. Robert and Jessie have a final moment of union. The ending of this story (and of the trilogy) is, I suggest, immensely complex and profound. Alec tells it:
His brother and I went toward him with a quick apprehension. But the Stickit Minister turned from us both to the woman, who took two swift steps towards him with her arms outstretched, and such a yearning of love on her face as I never saw before or since. The sullen lout by the fire drowsed on unheeding.
‘Jessie!’ cried the Stickit Minister, and with that fell into her arms. She held him there a long moment as it had been jealously, her head bent down upon his. Then she delivered him up to me slowly and reluctantly.
Henry Fraser put his hand on his heart and gave a great sob.
‘My brother is dead!’ he said.
But Jessie Loudon did not utter a word.
Robert goes to the woman he loves. She ‘delivers’ him up to his brother. His brother finally understands what he has lost.
What of Jessie’s speechlessness? We can read it as pain beyond endurance, or an inability to understand. There is no resolution – perhaps Crockett wants us to understand that love between a woman and a man is of such a unique and complex nature that we can only speculate and should not judge.
And what of Alec? He is left to recount the story. His grief is still palpable. His love is clear and his sense of loss is not resolved. As narrator he is every bit as central to the story as the others. His perspective is every bit as valuable. And he is, at least to some extent, Crockett’s mouthpiece, so we may speculate (which is all we can do of course) on his perspective.
Crockett may have received some sense of closure in his own grief from writing these stories. He may have been repaying a debt to a loved relative. To suggest that these works are melodramatic is to undermine his integrity as a writer. Any close study reveals they are far from trivial and much more than simply pandaring to the tastes of a market for sentiment or melodrama. They show depth, guts and bravery on the part of the writer, whose perspective waxes and wanes as he moves in and out of the characters, real and imaginary, who populate the story.
In these three, slender, stories, we find a depth and power of writing which should alert us to Crockett’s skill. All it takes is open eyes and an appreciation of authorial intent. You don’t even need to be religious. Just believe in the author as he believes in his characters and you are half way there to an appreciation of a unique voice that has been overlooked for far too long. Surely 125 years is long enough for us to gain a new, cleaner and more healthy perspective on Crockett’s writing.
Available to read online at McStorytellers HERE from March 22nd 2018
Review of the title story from the collection 'The Stickit Minister's Wooing' - (2nd in the Robert Fraser Trilogy) first published 1900
Critical review of The Stickit Minister’s Wooing.
As in the first story, weather is used to set the scene in this sequel. Crockett refers back to his own published work (and a historic ‘event’) the Sixteen Drifty Days in a way that reminds us of his skill in cross-referencing his own work and indeed in his skill at showing multiple (and unusual) perspectives in his writing.
While in the first of the Robert Fraser trilogy, Crockett retains a distances himself as narrator, telling the story mainly from the third person, though he relatively quickly resorts to dialogue and lets the characters reveal themselves thus, in this story he shifts perspective from the start. The ‘familiar’ story of Robert Fraser is now told in the first person by Alec McQuhirr, son of Saunders, and one of Crockett’s familiar fictional alter egos.
As such it becomes Alec’s story as much as Fraser’s. There is a touch of personal reminiscence about it, as Crockett, in Alec’s form, describes the reality of coming back from college to discover a man he respects at death’s door.
The gift of Tennyson’s poetry is a key to hidden depths.
‘For I loved Robert Fraser, and I will not deny that my heart beat with expectation as I went up the little loaning with the rough stone dyke upon either side — aye, as if it had been the way to Nether Neuk, and I going to see my sweetheart.’
We see the poignancy of familial love, suggesting that Crockett still mourns the loss of his cousin (the template for Fraser) and wishes to honour his memory. Crockett fictionalises throughout and we cannot assume that the ‘real’ Robert had a lover whom he lost – but the emotion is honest even when the story is fictive. Certainly Crockett is keener to show the humanity of the man – it’s a love story more than a didactic one.
The description of the dying man is well observed. From the smile they exchange, both knowing they lie and the ‘veins blue and convex upon the shrunk wrist’ Crockett draws us into the reality of an experience which is familiar to many.
At such a time smiles, and gifts, take place of words. There are no honest words to be spoken. Alec offers a volume of Tennyson. We can imagine him (and Crockett) purchasing the book and feel the anticipation of when he would give it.
‘I had cut it to save him trouble, and written his name on the blank page before the title.’ The depth is in the detail and as readers we are drawn into a whole world of hope and memory which surely touches us personally – booklovers especially will not fail to be moved by the words:
‘I shall never forget the way he looked at it. He opened it as a woman unfolds a new and costly garment, with a lingering caress of the wasted finger-tips through which I could almost see the white of the paper, and a slow soft intake of the breath, like a lover's sigh.’
Alec understands the power of a gift – and the uselessness of the giving. A sense of hopelessness pervades but it is the living man rather than the dying who is the most hopeless. It is Crockett’s skill of imagery which moves the reader most. It is not a dissection such as a medical man would offer, but a poem in prose imagery – in which no word or phrase is wasted. The words work to explore the ideas (and the reality) behind them in a powerful way. That they touch our emotional response is both intended and inevitable. If we reduce this to melodrama it is ourselves we diminish, not Crockett or his characters.
Fraser reveals, in much greater detail than the original story, the act and consequences of his covenanted pact with his Maker. We cannot help but think that while he may have acted with the best of motives, he made wrong choices – certainly in the case of Jessie Louden. He sought to spare her pain later on, but this was not in his gift. Her lack of understanding of his action resulted in them both paying a painful (and unnecessary) price. But his own understanding may have been flawed. He tells Alec that:
‘though the lassie's heart was set on me, it was as a bairn's heart is set, not like the heart of a woman.’
It is hard for the reader to judge the truth of this and Crockett does not come down on one side or the other (at least not yet) but simply explores the consequence of the action.
We might consider whether perhaps Fraser should not have lost faith in life when he discovered his ailment. It is the loss of faith in life rather than a loss of faith in God which I find particularly interesting in this story. Those of a religious bent may read it differently. I simply point out that a religious belief is neither a pre-requisite nor a particular benefit when reading Crockett’s work.
The story then progresses to the other, closer love. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ was the obvious text for ‘The Stickit Minister’ story, and we are forced even more in this story to conclude that the answer is no. Henry is clearly not worth the bother. As if a dying man is not enough to deal with, Crockett twists the knife by showing us that Fraser has given his all to a man who now will not even help the woman he loved by visiting her when her children are sick.
Initially Alec (and the reader) are unaware of this, simply seeing Henry as a wastrel. But the full enormity of his betrayal in response to his brother’s love is revealed in the course of the story. We might well suggest that Robert Fraser is a man who loves ‘not wisely but too well.’
The title suggests that this is a love story. It is clearly also a story of unrequited love. The love story of Robert and Jessie, while perhaps in the background, is the central concern. Unrequited love is quite a big enough topic for any story. Crockett adds more in order to give us more depth and a variety of perspectives from which to address the issue of love. The love of a man for his brother and the love of one man for a kinsman are shown in parallel – as much as Robert cannot ‘help’ Henry to live a good life, nor can Alec help Robert to stay alive – never mind to live in hope.
Alec’s description of Henry is clear and uncompromising. We see a man gone to bad. Alec has not seen him in some time and Crockett uses both plain and figurative language to deliver his verdict:
‘A handsome young man he was then, with a short, supercilious upper lip, and crisply curling hair of a fair colour disposed in masses about his brow.
He entered, and at the first glimpse of him I stood astonished. His pale student's face had grown red and a trifle mottled. The lids of his blue eyes (the blue of his brother's) were injected. His mouth was loose and restless under a heavy moustache, and when he began to speak his voice came from him thick and throaty.’
He is everything that Robert is not, and a clearer example of why ‘common men’ are worth more to Crockett than those of status is evidenced in this description and the following exploration of Henry’s character and behaviour.
Alec cannot bear the exchange and Crockett plays us as he takes the young man out with a deliberate and delicate digression on ‘young love’. And brings us back to the central issue with the arrival of a woman who we do not then know to be Jessie. Her love for her children has brought her back to Robert’s door, in her desperation for Henry, the doctor, to help them. Somehow we already know (even though we do not know who she is) that Henry will not help. Crockett winds us up to the big reveal when we discover that Henry is not just an ordinary ‘bad’ man but in a symbolic sense, when he should pay his brother back, he will not do so. Thus we see morality in the extreme hidden in the small minutiae of domestic social detail. This is clever and powerful writing.
Alec does what he can, and Robert begs his brother to intervene. Henry finally accedes and Robert (not for the first time) trusts him. We guess that this will not end well. We do not yet know the full impact of the situation but as Henry departs Robert reveals it:
‘Robert, why are you so troubled about this woman's bairns?’ I asked.
He did not answer for a while, lying fallen in upon himself in his great armchair of worn horsehair, as if the strain had been too great for his weak body. When he did reply it was in a curiously far-away voice like a man speaking in a dream.
‘They are Jessie Loudon's bairns,’ he said, ‘and a’ the comfort she has in life!’
Crockett ends the story (or this part of it) with Robert’s explanation to Alec of his failed relationship with Jessie and gives a clear picture of the pain he has endured ever since. We are forced to conclude that whereas he cares nothing of being termed ‘stickit’ or a loser, Jessie’s actions have broken him. Giving up on life and love happened together and the consequences have been immense. The story is left on this cliff-hanger as there is a final part to come.
Story available to read online at McStorytellers HERE from March 21st 2018
To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Crockett's bestselling collection 'The Stickit Minister and other common men' this is the first of three critical reviews. This review covers the title story 'The Stickit Minister' which is the first of a trilogy of stories about Robert Fraser.
Critical review of The Stickit Minister
The title story of Crockett’s collection opens with a wonderfully evocative pastoral view. Perhaps rural rather than pastoral. The ‘bask blowy day’ and ‘snell’ weather takes us instantly into 19th century rural Scotland as easily as a Van Gogh landscape takes us into the 19th century rural France.
Cairn Edward is a fictionalised version of Castle Douglas, a small market town in South West Scotland. Crockett grew up in this environment and his writing offers a realistic picture of the landscape and the people.
The third person narrator introduces us to the title character, Robert Fraser and to Saunders McQuhirr. These are both drawn from life: Crockett’s second cousin Robert is the template for the ‘stickit minister’ and his grandfather William is the template for Saunders.
Robert Fraser is about to impart a secret. Saunders is reticent to hear. Fraser explains how a trip to the doctor led him to make a choice, which we might interpret as a sacrifice. It is a choice based on a realistic understanding of his prospects, in both financial and practical terms. He takes what he sees as the only sensible course of action. The blow which has fallen on him is not one he wants to impact on either his brother or his beloved. His decision will have a detrimental impact on them both all the same.
late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
We might read this as a loss of faith, or simple pragmatism. Either way, the choice made, Fraser gets on with his lot. Because he kept his reasons secret, he has been vilified by the aspirational society around him, becoming the butt of their jokes and labelled a ‘stickit’ minister. This is not strictly accurate in any sense, given that a ‘stickit’ minister was actually one who could not get a ‘living’ and in fact Fraser never completed his training. He is more a ‘stickit’ man than a ‘stickit’ minister and even then, he is only ‘stickit’ in the eyes of those who do not know the truth. Basically, he is seen as a failure and he lives with that slander in order (as he sees it) to give his brother and his beloved better chances in an uncertain world.
Crockett shows that Fraser’s decision, while worthy of the man, backfires on him. His brother, though a combination of lack of understanding and lack of character, fails to appreciate the sacrifice and remains demanding; while his beloved marries on the rebound. Neither brother nor beloved understands why Fraser has acted as he has. Thus neither is in a position to make good choices, and so it is perhaps inevitable that his sacrifice will, to some degree, be unsuccessful in outcome.
But Crockett is eager to show the goodness of the man.
‘it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper.’ says Fraser. And he has tried to live up to his responsibilities. His illness no doubt were a main part of why he failed in his farming endeavours, but we cannot help but see Henry as ungrateful at the least. While we see Henry thus, Robert refuses to blame his brother. Crockett, though, leaves us in no doubt as to which man is the ‘greater.’ Thus he reveals that the ‘common man’ has more worth than the Doctor – a position reminiscent of Burns. It offered, and still offers, a challenge to those in the professions, those with aspirational leanings. The story can be read from multiple perspectives (a fact Crockett was doubtless well aware of) but it is surely hard for anyone to side with Henry rather than Robert.
Robert has been unsuccessful both in his farming and in his struggle for life. As he reveals to Saunders that he is about to lose his tenancy, Saunders responds with reasonable and passionate indignation. Fraser delivers the killer blow, making it clear to Saunders that he is dying and such things are no longer of any importance to him. The underplaying of the word ‘flit’ for death, far from being melodramatic, shows a poignant use of language. This is a tour de force of short story writing for its depth and skill and has plenty to reveal to modern readers and writers.
Read the story for yourself online HERE at McStorytellers
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