“Mad Sir Uchtred” and “The Play Actress”
These two novellas have much in common. Redemption is central to both. The Curse of Nebuchadnezzar is lifted and Sir Uchtred regains his sanity when he pities the injured brother who has sought to kill him. Gilbert Rutherford (“The Great Preacher”) has often preached about charity but he learns its true meaning from Bessie Upton, the play actress of the novella’s title. Rutherford’s consequent behaviour towards his dead son’s ex-wife enables her to come to terms with her past life and die redeemed.
Young children are critically involved in both stories. In a dramatic denouement, Philippa (Sir Uchtred’s wife) commands five-year old Pierce to “take by the hand that man who sits naked on the brae, girt about with skins, and lead him hither. He is thy father!” In “The Play Actress”, Ailie, another five-year old, turns Rutherford’s life topsy-turvy. For example, the erstwhile Great Preacher, instead of coming to the parlour to “tak’ the Buik” on a Sabbath night, is overheard singing his granddaughter to sleep:
Katie Bairdie had a coo,
Black and white aboot the moo;
Wasna that a dainty coo?
Dance, Katie Bairdie!
Each novella features a prototype of the “strong” female familiar from Crockett’s later fiction, a woman who is dependable in adversity and bold in action. Philippa rebuffs the sexual advances of Uchtred’s brother and remains faithful to her mad husband. When the crowd cry that the madmen will tear Pierce to pieces, she unhesitatingly turns on them: “Let the child do his mother’s will and God’s. Who are ye to say the Almighty and Philippa Dowall nay”? Bessie Upton forcibly rejects Rutherford’s offer to leave her sister and join Ailie in Scotland. “Is that your own message or your Master’s?” Bessie asks, rebuking Rutherford for his narrow view of charity. On her own initiative, Bessie has boldly brought Ailie from London to Galloway despite considerable personal cost: “I love the child more than my life. But she must be brought up away from her mother, from the life in the city, from everything – and from me”.
Both novellas include the dry humour and the exactness of the exactness of descriptive detail that feature strongly in Crockett’s later work. For example, Sir Uchtred threatens to shoot Gibbie Macallister, one of his cotters. Uchtred grants Macallister safe-conduct to a “scroggie thorn”. Gibbie ambles towards the bush (in order to save his breath), calmly strips off his “knee breeks” and races for his cottage and his life. Sir Uchtred “breaks into a great fit of laughter” at the sight of Gibbie “skimming over the moor with his brae shanks twinkling under his upper garment”. We laugh too; but readers better realise Gibbie’s fear from such humorous detail as the way in which Gibbie has his “porridge-pot set legs outward in the narrow window” in order to barricade his cottage against potential attack by Sir Uchtred.
Both novellas deal with issues that are freshly contemporary. “Mad Sir Uchtred” portrays an individual who, for whatever reason, displays signs of severe mental illness. Current concerns, especially in criminal law, relate to our understanding of mental illness and the extent to which behaviour such as Sir Uchtred’s is involuntary. The incident involving Gibbie Macallister is amusing but what if Sir Uchtred had killed Gibbie rather than laughing at him? How culpable would Uchtred have been? “The Play Actress” raises a raft of issues around fractured families, drug addiction and urban poverty.
Of the two novellas “The Play Actress” is the superior in my opinion. Its narrative is more fully developed; it could have been relatively easily extended into a more substantial work. Perhaps Gilbert Rutherford could have returned to Scotland to face the wrath of the kirk session as marshalled by the likes of “Girzie of the Manse” and Mistress MacClever, the kind of “bodies” that Crockett would later feature in “Love in Pernickety Town”? In “The Play Actress”, Crockett’s narrative moves easily from Galloway to London and back again, in consequence gaining much from its contrasting descriptions and a greater range of characters. Galloway is “a stirring farm-town out upon the wide moors”, “a pleasant place up near to the sky with the wind blowing over it”. In contrast, London is “The City of Great Babylon”. Galloway has its characters associated with the “Kirk of the Hill” (notably William Greig of the Nether Larg, one “of the great Society of the Encouragers who make the world go round”). London has the crowd at Siddons Theatre, the inhabitants of the Essex Street boarding house, its wicked Lords and memorable street people.
Crockett’s characterisation goes much deeper in “The Play Actress” than in “Mad Sir Uchtred, particularly in his portrayal of the complex Gilbert Rutherford, a character whom Crockett convincingly develops as the narrative progresses. Even the minor characters are vividly brought to life. It only takes Crockett a few lines to communicate what a person is like. For example, Mr Augustus Curistor, “an admirable make-up for a lord” and first encountered toasting his toes by his wife’s boarding house fire, is “the perfect gentleman – as indeed he often said to himself”.
Cally Phillips provides separate introductions. Each introduction is typically helpful (contextualising both novellas within the Crockett canon) and provocative. Phillips memorably describes Mad Sir Uchtred” as “Gothic horror removed to Covenanting times”; but, perhaps, her notion that “Mad Sir Uchtred” is emblematic of contemporary Scotland is a step too far? She commends “The Play Actress” for showing “the human spirit… warts and all”. She suggests it exemplifies Crockett’s “greatest strength as a writer of fiction”: “his ability to show that there are no small or ordinary people – that everyone has adventure and romance as part of their life ‘story’and it is when this birth right is denied that the human spirit wavers and life becomes truly impoverished”. I’m still thinking about that!
S.R. Crockett’s “The Firebrand” is a rip-roaring historical romance set in Spain during the 1830s when Maria Christina was Queen Regent. Scots-born Rollo Blair, the “firebrand” of the novel’s title, accepts a mission impossible. This to bring the Queen Regent (and her daughter, Isabel) from her summer palace on a journey through a Spain ripped apart by civil war. Will Rollo succeed against all odds?
Crockett handles his hero’s repeatedly likely demise with typical assurance. “The Firebrand” is particularly strong on dramatic last-minute rescues! Yet episodes of high drama are movingly juxtaposed with moments of contemplative tenderness. Most moving is the discovery of the body of a four year old plague victim by La Giralda, the old gipsy woman who accompanies Rollo, and the her subsequent laying of a wooden doll in the dead child’s hands. The novel’s opening is a terrific tease. The reader assumes Ramon Garcia, the protagonist in chapters 1 and 2, is “the firebrand”, whereas he is only another member of Rollo’s party, Rollo only appearing in chapter 3. The novel’s ending has half a dozen clever twists with the title of the final chapter (“Ave Concha Imperatrix”) attesting, yet again, to the enduring appeal of “strong” female character to Crockett.
Crockett brings the novel’s many characters to life but, with the exception of Rollo and his beloved Concha, they remain little more than one-dimensional. Rollo becomes more measured in his actions as the narrative progresses. Crockett uses Rollo’s other male companions to provide positive behaviour models, in particular Sergeant Cardono – aka José Maria of Ronda (a figure akin to Silver Sand in “The Raiders” and other Crockett novels).
From the outset Concha is conscious of her sex appeal and exploits it unashamedly (latterly, of course, solely on behalf of Rollo!). As Crockett’s plot unfolds, circumstances provide Concha with opportunities to display her good sense, reliability, resourcefulness and courage. The lovers’ most tender moments are at times of great adversity – when Rollo and his party are completely surrounded at the Queen Regent’s summer palace and when Concho, unprotected against the plague, accompanies Rollo in collecting bodies for the death-cart. Crockett’s superb description of the plague conveys its horror compellingly. “Hands off”, thunders Rollo when he stumbles and, in steadying him, Concha’s fingers almost touch the cart’s contents. “Concha Cabezos, how dare you come hither?” he shouts. Her answer utterly confounds him: “Rollo, I came because you dared.”
Crockett is a master of every genre he tackled. How would he have managed a western? The outlawed Ramon Garcia gains the sobriquet of El Sarria. Crockett describes him as “the man without a friend” (shades of the spaghetti western here!). On the basis of two of the last minute rescues in “The Firebrand”, Crockett would have no problem with the 7th Cavalry coming over the hill in the nick of time. Crockett’s descriptions of Spain evoke the landscape of Sergio Leone movies. How would Crockett have dealt with the indigenous Indians? Probably in the same balanced way he deals with the gitanos, the Spanish gypsies. On the one hand, they constitute a mob intending to kill everyone and plunder; yet, individually, they represent a significant force for “good” throughout the novel, notably the Sergeant, La Giralda and the remarkable Concha who admits to El Sarria that she has gipsy blood.
Review by Stewart Robertson.
Searching through house-clearance “stuff” at our local car boot sale, I discovered a battered Australian-published (!) first-edition of A.A. Thomson’s “Let’s See the Lowlands”, its jacket somewhat torn (but, at 20p, a book presumably worth more than what I paid for it?!). Thomson (1894-1968), best known for his books on cricket, was also a champion of S.R. Crockett.
Thomson fondly recalls “a book, which, as a boy, I read by candlelight, with eyes opened wide and heart a-bumping”. His summary of The Raiders, the novel by which many 'Crocketteers' first encounter the author, would entice any reader: “[It] tells, in one whirling spate of adventure, a tale of these grey hills and glens, of the fierce gypsy folk, of smugglers and cattle-reivers and of how a brave Galloway lad brought home his true love from peril amid the mountain crags”.
Thomson is self-deprecating about “Let’s See the Lowlands”, describing it as “a poor disjointed chronicle of somewhat aimless wanderings”. In reality, it is a clever Boswell and Johnson-type travelogue with the Yorkshire-born Thomson (in the role of a patriotic Scot) as “Boswell”. Balaam, his fictional friend, is “Johnson” – notionally a journalist commissioned by his editor to write a series of articles on the Scottish Lowlands. Balaam has strong feelings about Scotland (a country he regards as “regrettable”) and the Scots (“morally, intellectually, biologically, ethnologically…a mistake”!). The ensuing repartee between the two men is highly amusing.
Criss-crossing the Scottish Lowlands, Thomson makes a point of visiting Auchencairn, Balmaghie, Castle Douglas, Heston Island and other places with Crockett associations, quoting liberally from Crockett. Only 16 years after Crockett’s death, Thomson notes that “They say that no one reads S.R. Crockett nowadays”. Thomson maintains that “if I have persuaded one reader to pick up The Raiders and recapture the spirit of the boy, reading breathless, by candle light, then when I die… I shall die happy”. Who knows how many future Crockett readers (not least in Australia!) Thomson inspired?
Ps. On the basis of my enjoyment of “Let’s See the Lowlands” I’ve read two further Thomson books – Let's See the Highlands (1931) and The Breezy Coast: Berwick to John o'Groats (1932) – and can recommend all three.
Driving the A77 will never be the same…
Driving the A77 will never be the same after reading “The Grey Man” … through Maypole and past Culzean Castle, to Girvan and, finally, Ballantrae with wonderful views of Ailsa Craig almost the whole way…
No longer will the town of Maypole be a traffic bottle-neck but where Marjorie Kennedy cradled her dead true-love, traitorously killed at the direction of her father-in-law.
Typically of Crockett, his magnificent realisation of atmosphere and scene is achieved largely through carefully chosen detail. Marjorie leaps from her horse. The snowflakes blow “in upon her unbound hair”. She “very gently” takes “a fine silken scarf, soft and white” and kneels “low down upon her knees, clasping hands and holding the last fold of the napkin ere she covered his face from sight”.
There is a smack of Shakespearean tragedy about the death of Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany, a sense that something fine has passed and that the world is a poorer place. Marjorie smooths the cloth on his face “with mighty love in the caressing of her finger tips”. “Good-night, dear love”, she says, “lifting it for the last time and kissing his brow”. “It is sweet, even thus in death, to tell thee that I love thee!’ Bargany’s opponents – a sept of the same Kennedy clan – lift their cross spears and, “setting them again on the shoulders of men”, carry him away.
Crockett, as appropriate to the occasion, is also a great comic writer. No longer will Culzean Castle be a Scottish National Trust property but where Launcelot Kennedy (the novel’s narrator) climbs a rope ladder to his bedroom in the White Tower after a gaudy night at Maypole fair. To young Launce’s considerable irritation, hauling up the ladder, he finds his purchases at the fair – cakes and comfits, sweetmeats, bottles of Canary wine and personal gewgaws – are no longer attached (and he falls back, hitting his head on one of the beams in his bedchamber’s ceiling). Nell, Marjorie’s younger sister, has snaffled the food items and threatens to smash Launce’s broad-bellied bottles of wine on the reef 200 feet below. Crockett cleverly develops the Launcelot/Nell relationship in counterpoint to Gilbert/Marjorie’s love, brilliantly capturing the frisson between the former through sparkling repartee.
With Launcelot, Crockett creates the ideal narrator. He is a sensitive and discerning first-hand observer and, as it suits the author, a frequent participant in the novel’s action. Most importantly, what Launce sees and experiences impacts on his character. The result is a convincingly rounded portrait of an initially self-centred and callow teenager who becomes a mature young adult in the course of the novel. Critical to Launce’s development is the near-to-certain death situation he faces protecting Nell and Marjorie in the cave of Sawny Bean (the Ayrshire cannibal) between Girvan and Ballantrae. Launce realises that he loves Nell but that he will, in all probability, have to kill her! The cave scene is typically Crockett and superbly done, cinematic-like in its visual imagery and use of suspense, with Crockett focusing on the actions of individual members of the vast crowd present.
John Mure of Auchendrayne, the grey-cloaked “man” of the novel’s title, is one of Crockett most dastardly villains, a classic manipulator of situations and weaker characters (in particular his son, James). “The Grey Man” has one of Crockett’s wonderful tone-setting opening chapters. Against “the noble tower of Ardstinchar flaming to the skies” the Barclay Kennedys swear an oath of vengeance against the Cassills Kennedys. Launce’s father, returning home from a funeral in Ballantrae, with Launce (then a boy), identifiers all the members of the Barclay party except for the mysterious cloaked man we later learn is John Mure. The latter emerges from the darkness and throws a bloody Bible into the flames. The sense of calamitous revenge and impending tragedy is palpable.
Crockett’s handling of Mure is completely different from the way he develops Launcelot but equally effective. Crockett gradually weaves his villain into the narrative, on each occasion bringing him increasingly into the limelight yet deliberately never developing his character or motivation. This makes the devilish John Mure as convincing and frightening a portrayal of evil incarnate as can be found in literature. In a chapter that is full of irony, Launce and his friend, the Dominie of Maypole, accompany Nell to visit Marjorie at Auchendrayne. They find JohnMure expounding on a Biblical text to his servants and warning those who refuse “the right gospel way”. The Dominie asks Mure straight-out: “Do ye believe what ye read?” To this, Mure replies, “Whatever is a means to an end, that I believe in…” Significantly, the chapter is entitled “The Devil is a Gentleman.” Crockett deliberately promotes Mure’s lack of common humanity. When Mure finally has Launce at his mercy, Crockett has him fiercely rejecting the possibility of fighting Launce man-to-man: “…who said I was a man? Do I act as other men? Is my knowledge like that of other men? Do I company with other men?”
In “ her “The Life and Work of Samuel Rutherford Crockett, Dr. Islay Murray Donaldson maintains that “The Grey Man” is “a more assured and better written book than any which Crockett had written before or was to write after it”. This is debatable but “The Grey Man” is one of Crockett’s best novels. As Donaldson admits, it has flaws. Coincidence is unforgettably rife, notably when Launce, the Dominie and Nell, returning by boat from Aisla Craig, just happen to be in the right place at the right time to rescue a bound and gagged Marjorie when she is thrown off the mainland cliff by the Mures, father and son…. But who would not be willing to suspend their disbelief given the inventiveness of Crockett’s narrative, the pace of the novel and the brilliance of Crockett’s writing?
Through Maypole and past Culzean Castle, to Girvan and, finally, Ballantrae with wonderful views of Ailsa Craig almost the whole way… driving the A77 will never be the same…
Post script: Do be careful, on a dark night, if stopping in the layby at the headland some 11 miles southwest of Girvan (below which is Bennane Cave, the erstwhile dwelling of Sawny Bean)… Always have a set of bagpipes to hand such as was carried by the Dominie of Maypole in “The Grey Man”.
While these reviews usually cover Crockett's own work, here is a work which may be of interest to folk engaged in Discovering Crockett's Galloway...
In this new work, D.M.Gibson offers advice on how to undertake several excursions around the Solway Coast from the Powillimount Shore and the Coastal path, taking in various caves and arches and then offshore to Hestan Island. Many of these places are written about by Crockett, some with fictionalised names. To start at the end, obviously Hestan Island is Crockett’s Rathan Island. Most people are aware of The Raiders connection but not so many are aware that the island features in no fewer five other works by him. I have still to do a proper exploration of the contextual similarities between various other places named in this fascinating guidebook, but already find it offers the opportunity (with pictures!) to help fill in the gaps from the familiar fictions. Crockett writes of Balcary Bay and renames White Point Bay as White Horse Bay. Powillimount is mentioned in Crockett as is Southerness (as Satterness sometimes) The Needle’s E’e is also referred to on more than one occasion. Piper’s Cave and Brandy Cove seem like good possibilities for many of the settings in The Smugglers. If you are interested in trying to ‘find’ the Dulse and Aumry Caves, or the steps at Red Ha’an,this book may help. Further along the coast we find the footsteps trodden by characters in The Moss Troopers, and Silver Sand. As for the underground passage mentioned in The Dew of Their Youth, Orchardton Tower, also used as the setting for Silver Sand’s home Appleyard Tower, is still an evocative and interesting place to visit for those who cannot scramble the cliffs or cross to the Island. Armed with this book and Crockett’s works, much more insight can be gained as to this wonderful part of Galloway. And what better time, 125 years since the publication of The Raiders (the novel which effectively put Galloway on the literary map) to start exploring the places written about in this, and many other of his works. My own work, Discovering Crockett’s Galloway Volume 2 - Island and Inland gives the general reader a place to start from fiction and D.M.Gibson’s work offers a complementary dose of fact and good practical information to turn your imagination into reality.
I look forward to getting together with D.M.Gibson and ‘comparing notes.’ Crockett himself was interested in geology, writing: ‘Now these caves of the Solway are in a different rock to that which goes along the greater part of the seaboard. There comes in here and there a softer rock, of the nature of a freestone, which the water makes great play to excavate. I would that I could take you to see these wonderful spurs and arches that have been cut out of the rock by the genius of the water. There are many sorts of caves there and I used to play many a day by the length of Isle Rathan’, so I am sure he would appreciate Gibson’s book. And what’s good enough for Crockett, is more than good enough for me.
So how do you get hold of this book? It’s currently available in local outlets in Dumfries and Galloway.
and you can buy Discovering Crockett's Galloway (Volumes 1 and 2) from the Crockett Collection at www.unco.scot
Historical romance almost at its best…
“Anne of the Barricades” is historical romance almost at its best. The narrative gains considerably from the events being reactively unknown (at least to me!). The setting is 1871 when the radical socialist and revolutionary Commune government rules Paris. The novel culminates in the "la semaine sanglante" when the French army broke through the Commune’s improvised barricades with a consequent blood bath.
Crockett is particularly good at conveying the febrile atmosphere of a city under siege. He very cleverly provides the reader with multiple perspectives through the eyes of Jean de Larzac, at different times in charge of the bombardment of the capital, a spy in the besieged city and at the head of a body of soldiers on the Paris streets. Crockett neatly manipulates matters so that his two female principals are on the opposite sides of the barricades. His portrayal of the differing affection that Anne and Nini have for Jean is entirely believable.
From early in the narrative, readers can anticipate how matters must end for Anne; but that doesn’t prevent us momentarily wondering whether or not she will accept Jean’s offer of safe conduct from the city. Crockett achieves genuine heroic status for Anne – no mean feat – in a death that is movingly selfless. Our final, memorable, view of her and her father is also Jean’s, the pair climbing the undefended barricade, “two misty figures enshrined in the mystery of the setting sun”.
Nini Auroy is the most fully developed of the three main protagonists. Crockett convincingly turns her from the confident but shallow Opera artiste to a woman of deep feeling almost overcome by anxiety about Jean’s fate. Crockett misses the opportunity to develop Jean’s character more fully. De Larzac remains the stereotypical soldier throughout – almost unthinkingly following orders, being chivalrous to women whatever the circumstances and taking unthinking delight in weaponry and the destruction it causes. Anne is even less fully developed. We first meet her as a school-marmish figure teaching English to 100-strong batches of gendarmes. Goodness knows how she turns into a revolutionary!
‘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.
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