A man destined to be Stickit?
In 1893 S.R.Crockett in his early thirties, married with 2 small children. He was working as a Free Kirk minister in Penicuik, supplementing his income by writing. On March 20th, he experienced that most profound of experiences – first publication.
He had, of course, been publishing short stories/articles in magazines since his student days in the late 1870s, and he had self-published a volume of poetry under the pseudonym Ford Brereton in 1886, but The Stickit Minister was his first ‘real’ published work in book form. Any writer will know the anticipation and fear that goes with that time. Any reader can almost imagine it.
Following publication, in April ‘The Daily Chronicle’ reviewed him as ‘a New Scottish Master.’ Crockett, and The Stickit Minister became an overnight success. As his biographer Donaldson notes: ‘Its appearance was timely. The public in the nineties craved above all novelty. The great figures of the Victorian era were all dead. The sense of high purpose which had informed serious literature had relaxed… a new kind of ‘popular’ author was in demand, created by the many magazines with short stories catering for travellers on the rapidly expanding railway services.’
The first edition was dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson. The Stickit Minister went into a second edition in early May, reportedly selling 200o copies in a month. As well as the dedication, the second edition went out complete with a prefatory ‘Letter Declaratory’ to Robert Louis Stevenson’ with whom Crockett had been corresponding since 1888. In March 1893 ‘Crockett sent RLS a copy of The Stickit Minister (1st edition) with a letter saying that RLS owed him 2 letters. The book didn’t arrive because Crockett didn’t register it. Over the next six months various letters went back and forth between the two.
Piecing together the correspondence between RLS and SRC is a jigsaw fraught with complications, not least because of ‘edited’ versions of the correspondence from RLS’s side and the loss of letters from SRC’s side. This work is ongoing, for more information click HERE
1893 was a busy year for Crockett. Determined to make hay while the sun shone, he spent the year consolidating, negotiating with his new publisher and expanding his contributions to serial magazines. He was already working on The Lilac Sunbonnet and The Raiders – the breakthrough for the latter came in August 1893 when he first met the Macmillans of Glenhead. John Macmillan took Crockett into the Galloway hills and he ‘found’ some of the locations for The Raiders. It was to be the beginning of another good and fruitful friendship.
Crockett later wrote: "Before the publication of this book, The Stickit Minister, the best expression of my youth, The Lilac Sunbonnet, was well in hand. It should have been my third book, but its publication was delayed, and in the meanwhile The Raiders was written. This story was begun in January, 1893, and was finished in February, 1894. The actual writing of it only took me two months, the rest of the time was spent in reading up my subject, in taking elaborate notes, and in poring over my maps.'
There is more on the origins of The Lilac Sunbonnet and The Raiders in Crockett’s correspondence with publisher T.Fisher Unwin. Again, this is a work in progress, but for more information go HERE. This correspondence also offers a good insight into the working relationship and the hopes, dreams and realities of Crockett’s first foray into book publishing.
Serialisations of what would become the short works published by T.Fisher Unwin in the Autonym Series in 1894, Mad Sir Uchtred and The Playactress were running in magazines through the autumn. Crockett also spent time nurturing a friendship with J.M.Barrie, another correspondent of RLS, when in London. They spoke of going to visit RLS in Samoa. But real life got in the way of that adventure. Life might have been quite different for both Crockett and Barrie had they gone.
Crockett’s third child George was born on 5th December 1893, just shy of 9 months after publication of The Stickit Minister. Draw your own conclusions! George was subsequently to be immortalised as ‘Toady Lion’ in Crockett’s children fiction and Maisie (his eldest) was already known to all as ‘Sweetheart.’ Crockett’s wife Ruth was ill after George’s birth and Crockett was kept busy trying to juggle his life on all fronts.
For Crockett, as for most if not all ‘overnight success stories’, his success was a long time coming. From 1890 onwards he was more or less editing the Glasgow based ‘Christian Leader’ magazine singlehandedly. His writing included serials such as The New Naturalists and Literary Vignettes and it was his work on the serials Ministers of our Countryside and Congregational Sketches that brought him to the attention of William Robertson Nicoll (‘The British Weekly’ and ‘The Bookman’) who described Crockett’s pen portraits as ‘frank and penetrating studies.’
Biographer Islay Murray Donaldson notes that: ‘Crockett’s acerbic take on ministers (as in Rev Pitbye) was fresh and original in the context of the douce respectable content of the ‘Christian Leader’ magazine.’
Nicoll was a big hitter in publishing at the time and he put Crockett in touch with new writing publishers T.Fisher Unwin. In 1892 they agreed to publish 24 of his stories/sketches under the title The Stickit Minister and other common men. Crockett wrote: Almost all the tales in The Stickit Minister appeared in…The Christian Leader. I used to get as much as a guinea apiece for them.
In 1893 Crockett was definitely seen as a new talent, and his writing somewhat risqué rather than nostalgic or kailyard. Donaldson explains: ‘The lively, biting sketches of country parishes, parishoners and ministers leap out of the page at the reader from among the worthy but not especially exciting News of the Churches, Temperance Notes, reprinted sermons.’
By contrast, and soon enough, the call of ‘Kailyard’ was made and Andrew Nash, who acknowledges that Crockett does go ‘beyond’ Kailyard, still suggests; ‘In terms of the Kailyard debate, the central Crockett text is The Stickit Minister.’ Therefore, if one is to lay the Kailyard ghost to rest, lifting its curse from that book would surely offer a fatal blow.
In its day comparisons were inevitably also drawn with Barrie who had had success with Auld Licht Idylls and A Window in Thrums five years earlier, and inevitably with the more recent success The Little Minister. Crockett will have read this work, and his own work The Lilac Sunbonnet offers an interesting comparison to Barrie’s Little Minister. It is not derivative and as Stevenson suggested, Crockett was outdoors to Barrrie’s indoors. All three of them were offspring of Scott, Galt and Hogg to a greater or lesser degree and all three pushed forwards the Scots romance tradition in prose.
In 1893 Crockett was at the start of a publishing journey that lasted twenty years, until his death in 1914. The rest, as they say, is history adventure and romance. 125 years after his first success, with over seventy published works to enjoy, surely it is time for us to reappraise all his work with the benefit (but without the blinkers) of hindsight.
Donaldson ‘The Life and Works of Samuel Rutherford Crockett’ (1989) Chapter 4 (2016 updated edn)
Nash ’Kailyard and Scottish literature’ (2007) Chapter 3.
Buy the new paperback edition of Donaldson's Life and Works HERE
Buy the 2014 Galloway Collection paperback edition of The Stickit Minister and other common men HERE
Buy the 2014 Galloway Collection paperback edition of The Stickit Minister's Wooing HERE
Or if you want to read digitally:
Buy the 2014 Galloway Collection ebook of The Stickit Minister and other common men HERE
Buy the 2014 Galloway Collection ebook of The Stickit Minister's Wooing HERE
If you want to try before you buy, you can read the 'Robert Fraser' stories online at McStorytellers:
from 20th March The Stickit Minister HERE
from 21st March The Stickit Minister's Wooing HERE
from 22nd March The Stickit Minister Wins Through HERE
Become a member HERE and download the FREE 64 page PDF Stickit 125