“an exceptional guide for exploration of the neglected author who is its subject”.
This new edition of Dr. Donaldson’s literary biography, first published in 1989, is still the only substantive work of its kind on S.R. Crockett. By what criteria is an example of such a genre best judged? Most importantly, any literary biography should illuminate the life and work of its subject. Donaldson achieves this despite her literary biography’s several weaknesses.
Donaldson deals successfully with a variety of important issues concerning Crockett. Donaldson explains why Crockett gave up his Free-Church ministry. She details his literary beliefs and his success and waning popularity as a writer. Most notably, she lays to rest the notion of Crockett as a “Kailyard” author.
Dr. Donaldson’s is a scholarly work with neigh-on 30 pages of “Notes”. No one should be put off by this. Donaldson’s style is highly accessible. Her use of short sentences is particularly powerful: “This was the end of his Galloway boyhood”; “Crockett knew his trains”; “To this [his literary credo] he remained faithful”, and so on.
Donaldson never resorts to mere opinion. Her judgments are invariably evidenced by textual evidence. Her close analysis of what Crockett wrote and what critics wrote about Crockett is invariably enlightening. Not all would always agree with her (!) but, for instance, she makes a persuasive case for “The Grey Man” as the “best-written of all Crockett’s books”.
There are weaknesses. Crockett’s fictional output is prodigious and Donaldson is inclined to skip over Crockett’s later work. Where her coverage is comprehensive too much is plot summary. For example, Donaldson gives almost 20 pages to the plot of “The Raiders” despite describing it as having “elementary simplicity”. Summary can have merit. Intending readers can decide whether or not to read the novel in question. A major disadvantage to Donaldson’s “life and work” is that the summaries sometimes overshadow her critical judgments of Crockett’s literary work and her account of his non-literary life.
Donaldson is best when doesn’t pull her critical punches. For instance, writing about “Cleg Kelly”: “After this, Crockett’s imagination goes wild, as it often did when he was left to devise his own plot…” Or “Unfortunately, by his spendthrift extravagance of event and character, Crockett in the ‘Men of the Moss Hags’ used up the best of his genuine Covenanting material; he had to fall back on his own imagination for the rest.”
Donaldson is adept at the pithy comment. For instance, of “The Lilac Sunbonnet”: “The love-story runs its course, with hesitations and misunderstandings like all such”. There is a lovely comment at the end of her chapter on “Cleg Kelly” “It is all too much”, Donaldson writes, “The reader is stunned to laughter at the wild inconsequence of it all…” My particular favourite is Donaldson’s summation of Crockett as a writer: “Over-estimated when he began to write, he has suffered since from continuous under-estimation”.
Unsurprisingly, Donaldson’s stance is that of a literary critic. To an extent this blinkers her judgement of Crockett who, on his own repeated admission, wasn’t writing “novels of purpose” but serial fiction for the popular market. Hence Donaldson’s criticism of the likes of “Ione March” (“It meanders rather than progresses from one episode to another, sometimes hiccupping badly in transition”) is unfair. Crockett isn’t writing to a three-decker novel structure but meeting the “spec” of serialisation with its different style and narrative requirements.
As a literary critic, Donaldson makes the expected connections between Crockett and other Scottish authors, particularly Sir Walter Scott, R.L. Stevenson and Annie S. Swan. What comes as a shock is her illuminating comparison between his use of sexual symbolism in “The Lilac Sunbonnet” and DH Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”. She draws resemblances between “The Raiders” and Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” that are as surprising as they are revelatory. Other, much briefer, connections with other Crockett novels are equally intriguing, for example with Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”.
Unfortunately, Donaldson’s information about much of Crockett's non-literary life intrigues but doesn’t satisfy the reader. For example, she comments how “Crockett writes about strong women”. Yet Donaldson has little to say about Crockett’s “gentle-born” (sic) English wife. Ruth remains the “shadowy background figure” that she appears in “Sweetheart Travelers”. Perhaps she was a “literary-widow” as much as a golfing widow. Donaldson lauds Crockett’s golfing prowess (Crockett is said to have beaten Tom Morris and to have been given six stokes by Willie Auchterlonie, in their time both winners of The Open Championship). Yet information about how Crockett became so proficient at golf is lacking.
This new edition of Donaldson “life and work” has a stunning cover. Here is Crockett, an immense figure in his blue-grey Inverness coat and cape clutching a copy of “The Lilac Sunbonnet” and gazing soulfully heaven-ward, as caricatured in an 1897 coloured lithograph in “Vanity Fair”.
The new edition includes a previously omitted chapter on Crockett’s writing for children. Fascinatingly, it is here that Donaldson is most successful at bringing together the literary and non-literary aspects of Crockett’s life in her analysis of how these “best sellers” of their time came to be written and how Crockett, with four children of his own, is unsentimental about Victorian childhood innocence.
Cally Phillips who has done so much to promote Crockett’s worth as a writer provides an illuminatingly lucid “Introduction” to the new edition. She rightly describes Donaldson’s literary biography as a “gateway”. Donaldson’s “The Life and Work of Samuel Rutherford Crockett” is an exceptional guide for exploration of the neglected author who is its subject.