Friday, 6 June 2014

Cleg Kelly by S.R.Crockett reviewed by Cally Phillips

Cleg Kelly. (Volume 20) of The Galloway Collection.  First published 1896. 

If one wants to bury the myth that Crockett is exclusively a ‘Kailyard’ writer one need read no further than ‘Cleg Kelly.’  The character of Cleg is that of the gamin/urchin, whose archetype stretches from Gavroche in ‘Les Miserables’ to The Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver’.  Cleg more than holds his own with these giants, as well as all the others in the same mould.  The name ‘Cleg’ which is the Scots word for a kind of horsefly, reminds one of Hugo’s assertion, through Gavroche, that a flea can bite even the highest in society.

The character of Cleg Kelly first appeared in 1893, in two short stories in ‘The Stickit Minister’ (Volume 13)  He was such a popular character that a series of ‘adventures’ were serialised in  ‘The Sunday School’ (The Christian Leader) magazine and ‘Cornhill’ Magazine, 1895 which were then published in novel form in 1896.

Based on Crockett’s 1880’s experiences in Edinburgh while studying divinity and working as a ‘city missionary’, in Cleg we see Crockett’s attitude to urban poverty very clearly.  The first half of the novel is set in Edinburgh, but then moves to Galloway. At a time when all the shift was from rural to urban, this fact alone is interesting and ‘Cleg Kelly’ offers a diametrically opposite move to that of Dickens’ character Pip in ‘Great Expectations,’ the great English novel of social class/mobility.  But the rural sections are no more sentimentalised or idyllic than those of the Edinburgh slums.  There is a prolonged exploration of the railways and their impact on ordinary people.  I  contend that Adventure Forty Seven stands up alongside Orwell’s ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ as an example of socio-political writing in the critical vein.

‘Cleg Kelly’ is robust – it opens with Cleg denying the existence of God and ends (or nearly ends) with the blood and guts death of a drug-crazed aristocratic military man.  The through line, dramatic (some might say melodramatic) as it sometimes is, is Cleg’s life.  It is no accident that the book isn’t divided by anything as mundane as ‘chapters’ but is marked by the ‘adventures’ Cleg has in his life.  Of course in one respect Cleg is larger than life,  but in a more important respect he represents ordinary life itself. I contend that he is not to be dismissed as a ‘stereotype,’ but rather accorded the respect of ‘archetype.’

For all the ‘adventure’, co-incidences and bizarre encounters in Cleg’s life, the novel is riven through with realism. Crockett’s strength of character description lies in the fact that we can believe them to be real people – and this is because they were based on real people. You can guarantee that Crockett met more than one version of Cleg Kelly during his time in Edinburgh.

‘Cleg Kelly’ was dedicated to J.M.Barrie ‘ WITH THE HAND OF A COMRADE AND THE HEART OF A FRIEND and those with an interest in ‘Peter Pan’ (particularly in the genesis of the character) would do well to read ‘Cleg Kelly.’ It’s interesting to note that this was some two years before Barrie met the Llewellyn Davis boys who became the model for Peter Pan. Several incidents from ‘Cleg Kelly’ find their way into ‘Peter Pan,’ most notably ‘the kiss.’  The ‘what’s a kiss?’ question Peter asks Wendy in ‘Peter Pan’ was written by Crockett in the serialised ‘A Galloway Herd’ as early as 1891, but here makes it into publication as Boy Hugh’s question – and must surely have influenced Barrie’s own version.  Vara Kavanagh is in many ways a Wendy to Clegg’s Peter.  But there is much more to the characters than that. 
All in all, ‘Cleg Kelly’ is not just an enjoyable novel, but an important one – both as a ‘myth buster’ and as an example of socio-political fictional writing of its time.

To buy the book of the week in ebook format (Kindle or epub) from Ayton Publishing for £2.99 click HERE
(You can also buy it as an ebook from Amazon UK or US)

To buy the paperback copy in UK from Amazon click HERE and in the US click HERE