‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ is short and shocking. Originally serialised in a popular magazine in 3 episodes it offers, in its thirteen chapters, a Gothic style story set in Covenanting Times. This in itself is intriguing. The basic story is of Sir Uchtred who is cursed by a Covenanting Minister (Alexander Renfield.)
We are swiftly taken into a world of allegory and symbolism (though you can ignore all this and simply read the fast paced and gruesome story) The curse is that of King Nebuchadnezzar - which sees him cast out as a beast on the hills.
Crockett’s great strength in writing was his power of natural description and ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ opens our eyes to this in an immediate fashion but the heavily laden symbolism of the popinjay and the wounded white mountain hare ensure that, for those who want to read a little deeper than the blood and guts and madness, there is much food for thought.
In Crockett’s day there was a furore about his title character’s name. And charges of plagiarism. For the T.Fisher Unwin edition he offers an ‘advertisement’ which points out that the character is not based on William McDowall of Garthland. It is fiction not fact.
The contemporary ‘dispute’ illustrates something that was to dog Crockett all his career – arguments over the nature of ‘historical fiction.’ It was a relatively ‘new’ thing in the 1890’s and Crockett could certainly be credited with an involvement in the emerging ‘genre’ of historical fiction. Thus reading Crockett is of great interest both to those who like historical fiction and those who are interested in the development of historical fiction.
Crockett stated that he wrote ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ complete in one sitting, on waking from a dream, and it certainly has that nightmare, chaotic quality one would expect. Shades perhaps of Coleridge’s ‘dream’ poem Kubla Khan – but in prose form. While not thoroughly typical of Crockett’s historical or adventure writing, it is a good place to start an exploration of the writer – if you like to be gripped and hurled along a story from beginning to end.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Gender-related issues that have current resonance…
Of the quartet of principal protagonists in “Love in Pernicketty Town”, Reston Rigg is a mesmeric evangelist who dominates and controls women; Adrian Ross, the first-hand narrator of the bulk of Crockett’s story, is incorrigibly flirtatious; Persilla Potter, (“maid-of-all-work” at Dr. Cassells’ School House) has her own male harem; and Hester Vane (the evangelist’s “First Soloist”) is a tragic victim of male-dominance.
Crockett straightaway captures the appeal of the alliteratively named Reston Rigg through colourfully well-chosen detail. Like a modern movie mogul, the evangelist arrives in Longtown in his “gold and pale blue motor car”. Crockett’s portrayal of Rigg’s megalomania and narcissism is convincing and compelling. Much later, Crockett sums up Rigg nicely in the latter’s own words: “I have not preached Jesus Christ but Reston Rigg”. Rigg is one of Crockett’s evilest villains. The evangelist uses the gospel to cloak an abhorrent predilection for teenage girls, making pregnant two of the three featured in the novel.
Crockett represents Adrian Ross’s behaviour amusingly. But to what extent is Adrian’s flirting unacceptable by contemporary standards? Rigg bends women to his will by the power of his personality. Adrian similarly employs flattery and kissing. Adrian outrageously flatters Miss Sheba Saunders, his landlady, in order to persuade her to plead his cause to the Longtown “Pernicketties”. When she agrees he showers her with kisses. If nothing more, Crockett’s Adrian is a convincing portrayal; but of what? A heterosexual male? A philanderer? A Casanova? A ladies’ man? By Adrian’s own admission he falls in love with all three of the Cassell girls “very promptly and on first sight”. Ostensibly, his nightly visits to the School House are to gain information about Jan or June Cassell but, from the moment he encounters Persilla, Adrian is enamored of her, flatters her subtlety and pays for her “allegiance” with kisses. He is immediately struck by Hester’s unworldly beauty (“a weary angel”), later finds her “a woman bitter, contemptuous, mordant in satire, ready for all adventures...” and ends up sharing confidences with her.
Crockett’s Persilla Potter is a marvelously well-realised comic creation. We never laugh at Persilla (or her views on men). We laugh with her. She is a mirror image of Rigg. She dominates McVeagh (the night policeman), Ebenezer Watson and half a dozen other male suitors (including Adrian), revelling in the thought that “RSVP” on her “At Home” cards stands for “Return soon – visit Persilla” (and, as she tells Adrian, “that is just what they do”). Adrian reports that “to male sight she was only a little crisp-haired, red cheeked, flashing-eyed thing”. What Crockett achieves is to convey the “piquancy of [Persilla’s] personality and the ever-fresh wash of her ideas” – Adrian’s own words before Persilla packs him off into “the practicable cupboard” (just in time to avoid the uninvited Ebenezer).
Crockett’s portrayal of Hester as a victim of male dominance is psychological realistic and uncannily contemporary. Hester’s story, as told to Adrian, is familiar enough. She was a naïve 16 year-old who succumbed to a controlling male. Hester is intelligent enough to realise what is happening to her. Yet she feels she can’t escape as that will negatively affect the man who previously dominated her. Hester’s flaw is that she continues to believe there is “good in him, deep under, where only god’s eye can see”. Hester’s tragedy is that, ultimately, her belief proves fatuous.
“Love in Pernicketty Town” is a remarkable novel.
Crockett anticipates many current gender-related issues – male dominance and control; the acceptability of aspects of male behaviour towards women and the respective roles of men and women. How would we react to Adrian and Persilla if Crockett had switched their gender?
“Love in Pernicketty Town” has those “big”, powerfully written and highly atmospherically cinematic-like scenes that Crockett writes so well. The revivalist meetings in Reston Riggs’ marquee are terrifically created. As a novel it has two weaknesses. Crockett doesn’t sufficiently develop the “persnickettiness’ of the Longtown inhabitants to bring them, and this trait of theirs, to life. Crockett rushes the novel’s end and mismanages the denouement. The result is clumsily melodramatic – not satisfyingly dramatic.
Reviewed by Stewart Robertson
Showcases Crockett’s skills as a writer…
“The Red Axe”, a less than well-known romance by an undeservedly less than well-known novelist, showcases Crockett’s skills as a writer.
Typically of Crockett he creates totally believable imaginary worlds. The novel’s opening sets the scene brilliantly. For the first time in his young life, the ten year-old Hugo Gottfried, the novel’s first person narrator – sitting high in the Red Tower of Thorn (“the chief place of arms, and high capital city of all the Wolfmark”) – sees the home-coming of the “famous foraging” Duke Casimir.
The puzzles multiply. Why is city “rebellious”? What is the “fearsome food” for which the bloodhounds “raven” in the courtyard below? Why is Hugo so alone “just because” he has crimson patches sewn on his shirt, winter wristlets and on both his stockings? And what might his father do in the Hall of Judgement or “in the deepest parts of the castle where the walls are eighteen feet thick”? It is impossible not to read on.
Crockett’s characters are strongly delineated. The adolescent Hugo is the archetypical love-sick loon who rejects the notion of following his father’s profession and leaves home to find himself entangled with a naïf and a married woman. The novel contains one of Crockett’s nastiest villains. Despite his frightening “Black Riders”, Duke Otho is “crowned” but not quite in the way he anticipates! As far as “strong” Crockett women go, Ysoldinda is a corker. Arms round Hugo’s neck, her emerald eyes looking directly up in into his, Ysoldinde is liberated from all convention and has much to offer:
“Love me – Hugo – love me even a little. Put me nor away. I will be so true, so willing. I will run your errands, wait upon you, stand behind you in battle, in council lead you to fame and fortune…And this maid, so cold and icy, so full of good works and the abounding fame of saintliness…She shall be abbess of our greatest convent…Only do you, Hugo Gottfried, give me your love , your life, yourself”.
Crockett comments that Ysolinde “might have tempted even Saint Anthony to sin”; but she has a point about Helene. Crockett presents the latter too blandly to provide the dramatic contrast the novel requires. To the reader Helene is forever “the little playmate”, the sobriquet that Hugo gives her from the start and uses almost throughout; she isn’t a maturely drawn character.
The plot is fast-paced, for the most part, with wonderful set-pieces. These include an ingress of mounted “cavaliers of death” into an impromptu on-going monastery mass that screens the fugitives for whom they seek; a rigged trial; and (best of all) one of those un-clichéd last-minute and unlooked for reprieves of an innocent heroine (before the hero cuts off her head with his red axe). There are unexpected twists and turns throughout, not least involving two characters (the incomparable Boris and Jorian) who appear to have slipped in from Crockett’s “Joan of the Sword Hand”. The suspension of our disbelief may be stretched to its limit at some points but very willingly so. The ending and the dénouement may be corny; they are also wholly satisfying.
Review by Stewart Robertson
“Deep Moat Grange” shows Crockett’s mastery of yet another genre. His narrative pace barely slackens culminating in a sensational ending; his writing is shot - through with powerful figurative language that adds a strong pictorial dimension to plot and characterisation.
Crockett subtlety differentiates the “voices” of his various narrators. Joe’s voice is highly conversational; Elsie (as written in diary form) provides an observational account of what happens. Joseph Yarrow’s, Aphra Orrin’s and Miser Hobby’s stories take the form of a letter, a confession and a legal testimony respectively, each with its concomitant language and different style.
Young Joe Yarrow is a close literary cousin of Adrian Mole who would delight readers some 80 years later – naïve in experience but pretentious in his opinion, not least of the opposite sex: “She always had her hair tied behind her head with a blue ribbon, and then falling all in a mess about her shoulders. It wouldn’t stop still, but blew out every way with the wind, and was a nuisance. I would have had it cut off, but Elsie wouldn’t. It was yellowy coloured.”
The scenes involving Joe and Elsie are most amusing; those with Joe and Harriet Caw (very much a prototype Pandora) are even funnier. Crockett’s handling of Elsie’s jealousy of the Caws (Harriet and her sister Constantia) is nuanced in its portrayal and entertainingly credible in its psychology.
“Mad” Jeremy is psychopathically scary from the outset. On spotting Joe and Elsie on the other side of the moat he “jerked out a big ‘gully’ knife, and rushed to the canal bank, leaped into the middle, driving the black scum of water everyway, and almost before we could think he was upon us”. Other characters are scarier still, less overtly evil but subtly screening their callousness towards human life in what is the very personification of horror.
Dr. Islay Murray Donaldson in her seminal literary biography, “The life and times of Samuel Rutherford Crockett”, tersely describes “Deep Moat Grange” as “perhaps his worst book”. Donaldson is surely wrong in a judgment that reveals more about her literary taste than Crockett’s substantial achievement in writing Gothic horror.
PLEASE NOTE - RAIDERS 125 members can get a free digital copy of Deep Moat Grange (plus 'How Elsie Danced for her life' and a contextualising introduction FREE from October 24th-31st 2018) CLICK THIS LINK
LOVE IN PERNICKETTY TOWN
This book published in 1911 is one of Crockett's later books and the plot takes place around that time, evidenced by one of the characters turning up in a car which turns out in the story ro be a Mercedes. I took quite a shine to this book.
The story takes place in a town called Longtown portrayed in the book as being in Scotland (Longtown is actually in England). Crockett has in the past been good at adjusting the geography of Scotland, in the book, Longtown is the principal town of 'Cheviotshire', the Cheviot hills run from north Northumberland into the south east of Scotland. In chapter 4 “Cheviotshire is bounded on the north by the River Drum. On the east it extends to the spumy tides of the Glaswegian Firth, a jutting estuary of which cuts it nearly in two. To the south a spur of the green Cheviots bars the horizon, and the county is named after them”. This would appear to turn Scotland upside down. For the first five chapters the reader considers Longtown to be in mid country near the Cheviot hills.
Chapter 6 sudenly makes the mid country location a nonsense “We were making for Dutchmans point a promentory which looked right out to the tiny spark of the Solway Reef Lighthouse” - “The smooth waters of the Dutchmans Lake spread away to the south
– salt waters edge”. Chapter 10 reference to “the Isle wood”. Chapter 20 reference to Dutchmans Lake being tidal – Isle peninsula – harbour. Chapter 22 reference to harbour – fishing boats and nets. This now points to Longtown being Kirkcudbright which has St Mary's Isle (a promentory), Manxmans Lake (shallow tidal lake), harbour, fishing boats and nets. The big difference is that Kirkcudbright does not have “a population of twenty thousand” and is many miles from the Cheviots.
Now to the story – the principal character is Adrian Ross the classics master at Longtown High School young and recently qualified, as to background there is reference to him playing as a boy in Cotton Street, Cairn Edward (Castle Douglas), he lodges with a Sheba Saunders, a mine of local information and gossip. The headmaster of the school is Dr Erasmus Cassells a head in the air academic with three teenage daughters June, January (known as Jan) and May, there is no mother, June becomes the love interest of Adrian. The cook/servant of the Headmasters house is Persilla Potter quite a fan of the young men in the town. There is going to be a visit from an evangelist, the forerunner, Saul Adam, comes to setup and prepare for the arrival of Reston Rigg the mesmeric evangelist preacher who tours the country and is financed by “Lady Benthorn of Bournmouth the banker's rich widow” Rigg's object is to rescue the souls of sinners. Reston Rigg duly arrives complete with chaufeured blue and gold car, caravan, huge tent and a choir led by principal singer and soloist Hester Vane. The forerunner marches at the head of the procession blowing a silver gilt horn. The procession ended up at a piece of land owned by wealthy auctioneer Tim Jimson and his wife Sarah, it was Sarah who had given permission much to her husband's disgust.
Adrian Ross had become a member of the clerical club, the members of which were all the local churches ministers, they indulged in discussion and arguments, unfortunately they give rise to some rather tedious parts of the book.
The first meeting of Reston Rigg's group takes place and as usual with such meetings of mesmeric evangelists, those who have been suitably moved by his words are invited to a “semicircular altar-rail, with a broad step in front of it – a glorified 'penitents
bench' – and both the rail and the raised step were covered with red cloth”. Reston Rigg said that anyone who came forward and knelt before him at the 'penitents bench' would have come forward because “my eyes shall meet theirs, and they shall read the command 'Obey or perish!' They will obey”. First forward is Saul Adam the forerunner who explains how much of a sinner he had been and how he had been saved by Reston Rigg. Several other people came forward and knelt down including Sarah Jimson, as he was about to close, Jan Cassels ran forward and knelt down. Adrian Ross, who was accompanying the three girls and had a suspicion that Reston Rigg had been looking at the girls, also ran forward, not to participate but to rescue and pull away Jan Cassels who said that she would forever hate him for taking her away; she had been totally mesmerised by Reston Rigg and only wished to be with him and join his entourage, she does not shake off this obsession and this causes future troubles.
The book continues with some very exciting plots which I am not going to comment on as it would spoil it for another reader suffice it to say that the book ends with death, sorrow and joy. This book by Crockett has a title which is its worst possible advertisement for the book.
Reviewed by Kailyard
Historical romance with a capital “R”…
“Joan of the Sword hand” has many of the sub-genre’s typical features “writ large”.
Crockett has not one but two pairs of lovers whose future marital union would seemingly be well-beyond the bounds of possibility. His principals are fascinatingly glamorous. There is a dastardly villain (and a Muscovite to boot!) whose longed-for comeuppance appears well-nigh impossible. The settings are exotic. Preposterous titles abound – for a start, Joan is the Duchess Joan of Hohenstein (which gives her retainers ample opportunity to shout “Hoch” in her support). The fast-moving plot is shot-full of unlikely co-incidence, dark secrets, disguised identity and gender confusion. There are deeds of derring-do, thrilling rescues and gloriously over-written description.
All in all it’s great fun to read! So readers everyone, re-charge your tankards with Wendishland ale and toast: “To Duchess, Joan… ‘Hoch’”. “Hoch”. “Hoch”… again and again and again…
William Douglas? James Douglas? Laurence MacKim? Who will provide the love for which Margaret Douglas craves? Crockett’s three very different men are psychologically convincing from the outset. Margaret, Crockett’s narrator, provides a mature woman’s irreverent view of love and life. She begins as a teenage princess who, much to her chagrin, is “dispatched like a bale of goods” to a French convent. She finishes title-less but as connubially content as her best friend, whose marital relationship Crockett uses to emphasise the inadequacies of Margaret’s first and second marriages.
“Maid Margaret” has those cinematic-like scenes typical of Crockett at his best: on a wild night in “the deep middle” of a Scottish winter, an unexpected rider appears at the walls of Thrieve Castle seeking vengeance; father and son fight each other to near-death, two-handed sword against Lochaber axe; an unchristened baby, the last in the line of Black Douglases, is baptised at night in Balmaghie kirkyard. Each fully engages the reader but it is Margaret’s personal drama that is most moving. Crockett’s novel of Galloway’s “fair maid” transcends time and place (mid-15th century Scotland). Historical romance is transmuted into a classic tale of what becomes a woman’s double search for identity and love that has contemporary resonance.
Review by Stewart Robertson
Note that Maid Margaret is the sequel to The Black Douglas.
“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.
Review by Stewart Robertson:
A cinematically descriptive novel of Scotland’s “killing time”…
“The Men of the Moss-Hags” is set in what its central character refers to as 17th century Scotland’s “Killing Time”.
Circumstances, rather than personal choice, engage William Gordon in the tangle of history. In the presence of the Privy Council of Scotland, he readily admits his presence at the Sanquhar Declaration , Ayrsmoss and the conventicle at Shalloch-on-Minnoch (and, in consequence, is sentenced to be beheaded rather than hung!)
Crockett’s set-piece descriptions are superbly cinematic, highly visual and with dramatic focus on an individual character. The Cameron Bothers riding into Sanquhar smacks of a Western shoot-out. At Ayrsmoss, as Richard Cameron raises his sword and his score of men charge the dragoons, the first lightning bolt shoots down “glittering into the moor like a forked silver arrow”. Claverhouse leads his troops against the assembled “Seven Thousand” at Shalloch-on-Minnoch only to dramatically pull up at the last burn, dismissingly snapping his fingers at the Covenanters on the other side. On Wigtown Sands, William’s final image before he is dragged off to prison in Edinburgh, is of the first salt wave touching Margaret Wilson’s lips as she movingly continues singing the twenty-fifth Psalm.
Crockett exploits William as narrator to significant advantage to the reader providing each event with the immediacy that brings history to life. William is an “unshowy” protagonist. Crockett uses Will’s cousin (the dashing Wat Gordon of Lochinvar) to accentuate his character in much the same way as Allan Breck does for David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped”. William prefigures the archetypal 20th and 21st century refugee who, with others similarly displaced from home and heritage, are obliged to take to the hills and become “the men of the moss-hags”.
“The Men of the Moss-Hags” has a trio of strong women – William’s mother, sister-in-law and (eventual) wife – each of whom Crockett presents unromantically and realistically, salutary reminders of how the “Killing Time” affects more than the men forced to hide among the moss-hags.
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
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