“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!
‘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
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