In our new series of articles 'The Blight of the Bestseller' Orraman explores the legacy of the Edinburgh Boys.
You remember ‘The Edinburgh Boys’? In the following months I want to explore the relationship between the men and their work – specifically looking at the blight of the bestseller. But in case you’ve come late to this party I’ll give you a reminder of our ‘boys’ and their pedigree. Or at least the public face of them according to Wikipedia. Isn’t that the first port of call for everyone’s research these days? I should caution that an encylopedia is only as good as its editors. While Wikipedia is nominally open to all, if you don’t have the technical skills to add your knowledge then however much ‘real’ knowledge you have, it won’t find its way onto the site. A consequence of this democratisation can be that the most prominent information isn’t the most important, relevant (or even correct) and yet is sourced by people who just want a quick ‘google’ for ‘facts.’
One of my aims is to illustrate how much further you need to go to actually know anything about our ‘boys.’ The other is to read into the gaps. The places the average surfer perhaps doesn’t bother to go.
The consequences of cheap/mis-information are both deep and broad. So while Wikipedia does offer a quick, cheap, snack – it’s not always good for you and it can’t replace a properly cooked meal – if you pardon my analogy.
The first thing I’ve done is given you the unadulterated thumbnails of our boys as found on Wikipedia, complete with photos of our ‘boys’ in all their glory.
Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, FRSE (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) was a Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet with many contemporary readers in Europe, Australia, and North America.
Scott's novels and poetry are still read, and many of his works remain classics of both English-language literature and of Scottish literature. Famous titles include Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor.
Although primarily remembered for his extensive literary works and his political engagement, Scott was an advocate, judge and legal administrator by profession, and throughout his career combined his writing and editing work with his daily occupation as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.
A prominent member of the Tory establishment in Edinburgh, Scott was an active member of the Highland Society and served a long term as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1820–32).
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer. His most famous works are Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde andA Child's Garden of Verses.
A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson now ranks among the 26 most translated authors in the world. His works have been admired by many other writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Proust, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Cesare Pavese, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov, J. M. Barrie, and G. K. Chesterton, who said of him that he "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins."
Samuel Rutherford Crockett (24 September 1859 – 16 April 1914), who published under the name "S. R. Crockett", was a Scottish novelist.
[Crockett offers us a chicken/egg conundrum. As Scotland's Forgotten Bestseller we must ask - is there no information about him because he is not worth reading or is he not read because there is no information about him?]
Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM (9 May 1860 – 19 June 1937) was a Scottish novelist and playwright, best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. He was born and educated in Scotland but moved to London, where he wrote a number of successful novels and plays. There he met the Llewelyn Davies boys, who inspired him to write about a baby boy who has magical adventures in Kensington Gardens (included in The Little White Bird), then to write Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a "fairy play" about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who have adventures in the fantasy setting of Neverland.
Although he continued to write successfully, Peter Pan overshadowed his other work, and is credited with popularising the then-uncommon name Wendy. Barrie unofficially adopted the Davies boys following the deaths of their parents.
Barrie was made a baronet by George V on 14 June 1913, and a member of the Order of Merit in the 1922 New Year Honours. Before his death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which continues to benefit from them.
Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was an Irish-Scots writer and physician, most noted for creating the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and writing stories about him which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction.
He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC (/ˈbʌxən/; 26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940) was aScottish novelist, historian and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada, the 15th since Canadian Confederation.
After a brief legal career, Buchan simultaneously began his writing career and his political and diplomatic careers, serving as a private secretary to the colonial administrator of various colonies in southern Africa. He eventually wrote propaganda for the British war effort in the First World War. Buchan was in 1927 elected Member of Parliament for theCombined Scottish Universities, but he spent most of his time on his writing career, notably writing The Thirty-Nine Steps and other adventure fiction. In 1935 he was appointed Governor General of Canada by King George V, on the recommendation of Prime Minister of Canada R. B. Bennett, to replace the Earl of Bessborough. He occupied the post until his death in 1940. Buchan proved to be enthusiastic about literacy, as well as the evolution of Canadian culture, and he received a state funeral in Canada before his ashes were returned to the United Kingdom.
You may feel this is all you want to know about any of our authors. But it’s certainly not enough to make any kind of informed decision about what they write and why you might want to read it. Which is what I’m all about.
To save you some work I’ve put together a quick table – an overview of some of what I think are the most relevant pieces of information (and filled in a couple of the more obvious gaps) Of course there is more information on each Wikipedia page, but there are also inconsistencies and poorly researched information.
Everyone who does research privileges certain information and I am no different. But what I’m starting to do is read between the lines, and I encourage you to do this to – to find out what we are not being told. From this start point I will talk at greater length about each man in the coming months:
If you cannot read the table on the page, then please download the pdf version for reference.
With regard to the information above, I'm noting a few things of interest and which I will comment on further in specific articles:
Dates – These pretty much speak for themselves. One thing to note is the age at which each man died (longevity can have a profound effect upon ‘success’ in publishing terms. Also the dates of the writers career. For how much of their lives were they making a living (or actively pursuing) literary pursuits?
Scott (60s) Stevenson(40s) Crockett (50s) Barrie (70s) Conan Doyle (70s) Buchan (60s)
Nationality Note that all bar Scott are titled Scottish. As any Scot will know you’ve really ‘made’ it when you are no longer Scottish but ‘British’. Also note that for literary purposes Scottish writers are often described as ‘English’ literature – this is certainly the case with Scott. It’s quite a can of worms. For another time.
In the 19th century Scots tended to be referred to as North British. Luckily we’ve got over that now!
Family The class the author starts off in and the class he marries into are important factors not clear from this table. Note that all of them have responsibility for at least 3 children during their lives (not always their own)
Education Apart from Buchan all were educated at Edinburgh University. Their education prior to University is of course also important and ranges from home-schooling, to parish schools to public boarding school.
Profession This is not a ‘self-defined’ category but rather a retrofitting from the point of the editor/s. Note that Crockett isn’t even listed as Novelist whereas Buchan’s political profession is rather ignored.
Writing Style/Literary Movement Again, highly suspect because retrofitted. Periods and literary styles are mix-matched. Scott is claimed for Romanticism (but Stevenson and Crockett are not) Stevenson and Crockett are labelled Victorian/Edwardian (which is often the kiss of death for ‘literary’ types. Worse, Crockett and Barrie are labelled ‘Kailyard’ an increasingly discredited appellation and in both cases inappropriately applied. Buchan is simply listed as ‘Adventure Stories’ which would have infuriated him. Similarly Conan Doyle is crushed by the power of Sherlock Holmes. Put simply, there is MUCH more to this section than ever meets the eye and yet surely it is one of the most important to be accurate and clear about if you are trying to inform a new readership?
Famous Works This of course will form the backbone of my future pieces. Again it is woefully inadequate reflecting either the superficiality or plain ignorance of those editing the sections. But of course these are how the men ARE remembered: Scott for the Waverley novels, Stevenson primarily for Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Crockett not at all (though The Raiders is the one anyone who has read Crockett is most likely to have read) Barrie for Peter Pan , Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes and Buchan for the Thirty Nine Steps. These are all fine books but my contention in the pieces that follow will be that they have done as much harm as good to the reputations of the writers who wrote them.
Titles/Political leanings You’ll note that four of our men end up being ‘Sir.’ So they are definitely in the elite, as often from their political as their literary stances. But politics hardly gets a mention. Scott is noted as a Tory. Wikipedia is pretty quiet on the others. Again there’s a lot of ‘class’ to look at in the lives of our writers as this plays (I contend) quite an important role in how they are remembered. We still live, after all, in aspirational times.
I hope this has given you something to ponder until next month. And maybe even encouraged you to either read some of the ‘famous’ works or explore into some of the lesser known aspects of our Edinburgh Boys.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.