The Orraman continues his exploration of our Edinburgh Boys...
Scott, Stevenson and Crockett
Everyone has heard of Walter Scott. He’s such a great Scottish writer that he’s even taught in English Literature Courses. (pause for ironic laughter) He has the mother of all monuments built to him in Edinburgh. He is well known as the author of the Waverley Novels (despite the supposed craving for anonymity at the time of publication) and he’s probably the least read bestseller of all times.
For the century after his death he was still widely read. All of our other Edinburgh Boys owe a debt to Scott. Stevenson and Crockett were brought up on Scott; both record reading him avidly for pleasure in their boyhood. Buchan still had plenty of good things to say about Scott. Leatham waxed lyrical about him as you can see here. I’ve already written about why his star waned and why I think no one reads him any more. See HERE
In terms of the blight of the bestseller, nearly all Scott’s works were bestsellers in their day, perhaps making it all the more remarkable that while he is still written about extensively, he is much less widely read. He’s become the icon of Scottish literature – ironically, because that means we pay greatest homage to a writer we rarely read and what does that tell us about the state of Scottish attitudes to literature? (Note I am not talking about the state of Scottish literature -and/or fiction – which is vibrant. I am talking about attitudes to reading, which are often if not always quite at variance with output from native writers.) I blame the concept of the literary canon, but that’s another story.
At the very least we can conclude that times change and with them both literary styles and reading ‘fashions.’ I’m revealing no secrets when I say that early 18th century style of writing with its somewhat cardboard characters and overlong descriptive passages, has fallen strictly out of favour with the modern reader. It is certainly an acquired taste, and one that many people do not fancy acquiring – not simply for the style but for the content. That’s certainly my excuse.
Scott represents a world that I have nothing in common with, and want to have nothing in common with. His perspective is that of the landed gentry and however well it is claimed he writes his ‘common’ people, he is definitely writing out of his class when he does so. He sees Scotland as North Britain. He is a Tory. Today he would definitely be Better Together. And all of this shines through in his writing. That’s my main reason for not reading him – ideological and cultural incompatibility. I doubt most people put this much thought into it. He’s just ‘boring’ is probably enough. It’s a salutatory lesson that writing which was considered edgy and exciting beyond compare even in the mid 19th century, is now completely old hat. There is much to be learned from Scott it’s true, but not that much to be ‘enjoyed’ in terms of fiction. We learn, to paraphrase Shakespeare (that ultimate literary ‘icon’) you can paint your fame and status an inch this but to this (nothing) you’ll come. There is no guarantee of immortality in literature. And the bestseller is as much of a writer’s blight as obscurity. It’s just a different canker.
Our next Edinburgh boy blighted by the bestseller, Robert Louis Stevenson is, I believe, a Scottish writer whose star is currently on the rise at least in the fashion of iconising and expanding the canon. He has certainly taken long enough to have risen from his obscurity. Forty years ago he was considered a children’s writer, (usually said with disparaging tone) and certainly not purveyor of ‘proper literature.’ Canons aside, his renaissance has been slow but steady. A lot of it depends on building and then keeping a reputation alive. The work of the Stevenson Society has been central to this. Stevenson’s blight is slightly different to Scott’s. With him we experience the Rise, Fall and Resurgence of a reputation.
While it’s arguable which of three of his ‘bestsellers’ is the one which casts the biggest blight, I suggest it is Treasure Island. You may disagree and offer up Kidnapped or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. What all three have in common is that most of us will have encountered (and possibly firstly encountered) one or all of these in forms other than the original. Treasure Island is best known as a film and cartoon, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll have both been filmed and Dr Jekyll was doing the rounds as a stage play from the 1880’s What all of these have in common is that none of the adaptations is particularly faithful to the original story. So the question is, did the films kill the books? Does familiarity breed contempt? Or are we just preternaturally lazy when it comes to reading ‘originals.’ Do we unwittingly subscribe to the ‘Never mind the quality feel the width’ cliché.
I have recently re-read all of these Stevenson works and they all surprised me. Treasure Island seems singularly inappropriate as children’s fiction and Kidnapped is much more than the ‘snippets’ I remembered of it. I still contend that the scene where David Balfour is sent up the ruined stairs in the dead of night by his wicked uncle is one of the most powerful and horrific scenes in fiction – leaving at least as deep a psychological effect on the reader as anything in the more obviously psychologically inspired Jekyll and Hyde. But beyond that I had vague memories of the flight in the heather, the fight in Round House, and little more. If you want to revisit Stevenson, I would recommend reading Kidnapped immediately followed by Catriona. It puts many things in perspective, including the role of Alan Breck Stewart. Reading them as a continuous narrative gives a completely different perspective to the story of both.
Treasure Island and Kidnapped are both set in the 18th century but they are worlds away from Scott’s 18th century. Perspectives on history change with time and how Scott saw the relatively recent past is vastly different from how Stevenson (and in his turn Crockett) saw the same period. In turn these offer (at least for me) a more interesting perspective on that period – one which holds its values up to question – though I suspect that for many 21st century readers the joy of viewing a 19th century perspective of the 18th century is rather too rarified a pleasure.
Jekyll and Hyde is set more contemporary for Stevenson, and I like it for that. It fits nicely into the contemporary fiction of a kind of post Gothic psychological drama, but once again reading the book (or re-reading it) is likely to offer the reader quite a different experience from the sort of created iconic collective memory we may have developed of it. Placing it in context with other works of the period is also a useful and interesting experience.
The ‘real’ Stevenson as writer is blighted by Treasure Island, and to a lesser extent by the other two mentioned works, and the blight is that people do not explore further. And there is so much more. From Master Of Ballantrae to his non-fictional writings, from A Child’s Garden of Verses to his journalistic writing Stevenson is one Scots writer who is definitely worth investing time in reading. And (no insult intended to children’s fiction) he definitely deserves more than being dismissed as purely a children’s writer.
As Scott influenced Stevenson, so in his turn Stevenson influenced Crockett. Each man picks up the baton and carries on the Romantic tradition in Scots fiction – a tradition horribly overlooked. Romanticism is seen as an English, primarily poetic tradition, but it lingered (and developed) long in Scottish fiction.
It may seem strange that Crockett – termed on the centenary of his death in 2014 as ‘Scotland’s forgotten bestseller’ is considered thus blighted. He is, after all, forgotten. Like Scott, he is little read, but for completely different reasons. Crockett writes history adventure romance stories (often all three genres in one novel) which clearly owe much to the Romantic tradition established by Scott and Stevenson, but also to the realist tradition of Galt and the super-natural Romance of Hogg. Yet he is unique in his own style and it is the kind of style that has today morphed into Outlander. He could out Poldark Poldark and his tales feature smugglers, gypsies, and most importantly ordinary rural folk whose experiences show us that there are no ‘little’ people in history it’s just that the little people are too often overlooked in a culture obsessed with royalty, celebrity and status. Crockett’s writing turns all this on its head.
Of the reasons why he is a blighted bestseller I could write for hours. Perhaps the two most obviously significant are that he came from a completely different class than Scott and Stevenson. Crockett was of the working class and was propelled into celebrity status as mass market publishing took over. He trained as a minister but he was no ‘gentleman.’ Like the Galloway he wrote about, the rough edges of Crockett were never fully rubbed away. And his writing is all the better for that. Crockett is in nowise aspirational in his tales. He rails against hypocrisy wherever he finds it – and he finds it everywhere. This minister turned novelist, born the illegitimate son of a dairy maid was the Dickens of his day. But unlike Dickens, he never took control of the means of his own production. He wrote for and edited journals but he never owned them. He turned to A.P.Watt, the inventor of the literary agency, to manage his business affairs, and he just kept writing. He died at an inappropriate time (just before the start of the First World War) and had no ‘champion’ to keep his memory alive. So his work went out of print. Beyond Galloway he was quickly forgotten – the blight of the bestseller culture. You are only as good as your last chart hit! Bestsellers are by their very nature usually time-limited. Longevity is more about continual promotion and marketing – keeping the writer in the public consciousness – rather than anything to do with the quality of the writing.
Which brings me to the other way in which Crockett was blighted by the accolade ‘bestseller.’ He was a victim of the very promotional hype which pushed him to stardom. His first ‘bestseller’ was a collection of ‘sketches’ from magazines entitled The Stickit Minister. Stevenson loved it and wrote an introduction to the second edition. Off the strength of this, in 1894 (ironically the year Stevenson died and the mantle was just waiting to be picked up) Crockett burst onto the scene with no fewer than four publications. All of them bestsellers. The two full length novels The Raiders (which bears some comparison to Kidnapped) and The Lilac Sunbonnet (bearing some comparison to Barrie’s The Little Minister) sold in their droves. The Raiders especially has remained the one Crockett novel everyone who has ever heard of him, has heard of. But it is no more representative of his prodigious output (some 67 published works) than Timon of Athens is of Shakespeare’s. If it’s all you read of Crockett it won’t give you a fair picture. Yet for years it was just about the only Crockett novel in print and certainly the only one anyone ever wrote or talked about or referred to.
I would not that comparisons often suggest derivativeness, but Crockett is not derivative. He is unique. He learns and draws from a wide range of Scottish fiction before him, but he has been ‘pigeonholed’ too easily and victim of what was frankly no more than a smear campaign by the Scottish Renaissance ‘Modernists’ who claimed his work was Kailyard without properly defining that – and, I suggest, without properly reading his oeuvre. It’s easy to give a dog a bad name in publishing and mud sticks. Like condemning Stevenson to be seen as a children’s writer.
It is time for a mature reflection on our Edinburgh boys – taking context into account – acknowledging the bestseller blight that has developed – and returning to primary texts with an open mind and a willingness to view from a less jaded perspective.
Next month I will have a look at our other three Edinburgh boys - J.M.Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan – and see how they too were blighted by the bestseller.
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