‘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
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