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