Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills reviewed by Cally Phillips

S.R.Crockett the 'Vanity Fair' celebrity 
Tomorrow  as you will most likely be completely unaware, is the 100th anniversary of the death of author S.R.Crockett.  Some of us will be at the Laurieston memorial for 11am and then going off on a walk/picnic/outdoor ‘reading’ of his work – and those who survive will make their way further west to Wigtown for the publication ‘launch’ of The Galloway Collection, which brings Crockett’s Galloway based fiction (all 32 volumes) back into print in a commemorative edition.

So it seemed fitting to put up a review.  I’ve selected Volume 30 which is actually two of his shorter works;  ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ and  ‘The Play Actress.’  

Crockett was a prolific writer (the Galloway Collection only touches about half of his published output) and these two ‘shorts’ which were originally published in serial format and then as novellas, offer something of an insight into the variety of his work. Of course when someone has published over a 30 year career it can be hard to typify their work. With Crockett the underlying elements are History, Adventure and Romance (in various combinations).  You’d think that offered something for everyone then, but why is he no longer read?

Well, in order to be read it helps if your books are in print and people know you ever existed.  And if a weeks a long time in politics, a hundred years is a long time in publishing. Times change. Fashions change. Marketing strategies change.  Writers, yes, even great writers, fall by the wayside. And this is what has happened with Crockett.

Crockett was quite a ‘celebrity’ in the 1890’s – bursting onto the ‘scene’ in 1893 with ‘The Stickit Minister’ ( a collection of short stories from the previous 10 years he’d spent writing for magazines)  This was published by T.Fisher Unwin who was a champion of ‘new’ writers in the 1890’s.  Something obviously clicked, because in 1894 T.Fisher Unwin published Crockett a further 3 times.  ‘The Raiders’ is a smuggling/adventure/romance very much in the vein of R.L.Stevenson (who died in 1894 and who had a friendship by correspondence with S.R.Crockett) and is the one novel anyone who has heard of Crockett might have read.  But T.Fisher Unwin did what all publishers worth their salt do when they put their money behind a ‘new talent’ and in the same year published both ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ and ‘The Playactress’ in separate editions – talk about flooding the market?! Crockett had already 'proved' himself in the popular magazine market but T.Fisher Unwin gave him the step up to the 6 shilling novel.  In 1894, Crockett was everywhere in the public consciousness – he was the ‘next best thing’  of the late 1890’s. It meant he could get out of a ‘safe’ but somewhat restrictive career as a minister and become a full time writer. Living the dream? He certainly had his day in the sun, but that sun has long set. A hundred years on I think it's time for a new dawn. And like T.Fisher Unwin, I've put my money (and more importantly my time) where my mouth is. 

Writers reading this will appreciate the years that go into becoming an overnight success and will not be surprised that a writer could turn out 4 books in one year. Remember Ian Banks/ Iain M.Banks? And there are numbers of other writers who use pseudonyms when their output is either prodigious or cross genre.  So Crockett’s ‘stats’ are not that unusual. It is true that Crockett was a prolific writer and in the 20 years from his first success in 1894 to his death in 1914 he managed on average 2-3 publications a year.  He loved to write, was a natural storyteller and he of course had bills to pay. He generally wrote one Galloway (or Scottish) based novel (or collection/short stories) a year and one ‘European’ based novel.  His output might seem prodigious but it’s worth remembering that he had a ‘bank’ of writing from the 1880’s to draw from. Yes he worked hard, and yes he worked fast. And yes he wrote to order – he got his ‘break’ and he made the most of it – and yes he wrote in a style that is not ‘fashionable’ today but none of these are reasons NOT to read him.  I come to praise Crockett, not to bury him.

I believe there are a huge number of people who will enjoy reading Crockett’s fiction and the difficulty is in trying to find a place for them to start.  I won’t say that ‘Mad Sir Uchtred of the Hills’ or ‘The Play Actress’ are paradigm examples of his work but they offer a view of the range and, since they are early career works, the promise of what was to come. As such, they are a good place to ‘dip a toe’ into the Crockett stream.
Without more ado:

‘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 from such a work.  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.

The new Collection, published April 16.
In ‘The Galloway Collection’ edition ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ is followed by the other ‘short’ work published in 1894 by Unwin’ ‘The Play Actress.’  This is on the surface a completely different kettle of fish.  The obvious  biblical analogy it is that of the prodigal son (daughter or even grand-daughter in this case) but it is a contemporary story which travels between the rural world of Galloway and the urban poverty of London.  As  an author, Crockett writes about social history but is also himself a part of a social history. Another good reason to read him. 

Gilbert Rutherford is preaching locally and at the end of the service a woman dressed in black brings him a grand-daughter (Ailie) he never knew of. This is the child of his now deceased son which Bessie (the child’s aunt) has taken from her dissolute mother (the dead son’s wish)and brought to be reared by his grandfather.  This presents Gilbert with all sorts of emotional and practical challenges.  He does not shirk his duty but he also determines to challenge his prejudices and, once Ailie is set up happily in Galloway, he travels to London to find out what is behind this ‘story’  and deal with the family issues. He is drawn into what he has always believed is the immoral world of the theatre and finds himself both facing the reality of urban poverty, and challenging his views of ‘goodness.’   This is an urban reality we might recognise from a Dickens novel and is every bit as good.  Crockett developed this story theme several times in his later work (most notably in ‘The Moss Troopers’ where he considers the ‘evils’ of London and in ‘Sandy’s Love’ where he delves into ‘the theatre’ and London life once again.)

So, with ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ and ‘The Playactress’ the reader has the opportunity to see Crockett’s take on history, adventure and romance and hopefully the two short stories will whet the modern  reader’s appetite for more. The good news is that now there are plenty of Crockett novels to choose from in ebook and paperback format.

You can buy The Galloway Collection ebooks direct from the publisher HERE and paperbacks (as well as Kindle ebooks) are available from Amazon.   If you want to find out more about S.R.Crockett (and why wouldn’t you?) you can join The Galloway Raiders – a free online society founded  on the 100th anniversary of his death to bring him back to life at least in the only form of immortality currently available – fiction.  If you join The Galloway Raiders this week there are special deals on ebooks and you could have read ‘Mad Sir Uchtred’ and ‘the Playactress’ by the time everyone is gathered at the memorial to pay their own tribute.  You may become a fan. You’ll certainly have found a whole new library of books to read. Let’s hope it’s a long, hot summer.