The Orraman explores whether 1894-1895 were vintage years or vinegar in Scots fiction.
Last month I introduced you to the man who first coined the word ‘kailyard’ in anger, Miller. If you were paying attention you’ll remember the article he wrote in the New Review in April 1895. If not, divert now and read it HERE.
If you took his word for it, you would be damning two of our Edinburgh Boys right away, but I suggest that his article was simply one of thousands jockeying for position in the febrile battlefield of ‘literature/fiction’ being fought out at the end of the 19th century.
I’m not looking to strike a balance but rather to show some alternatives as to what was being written at the time – with the hope that it may get you thinking (and exploring) for yourself.
The internet is a powerful tool. Of course if you have academic privileges it’s a more powerful tool, but if you are a non academic affiliated Scot you can still get access to some of these simply by joining the National Library for Scotland and browsing their digital collections.
My research database of choice is the ProQuest Platform. Other databases (many, too many) are available and the first thing they do is make you realise just how expansive journalism, criticism and fiction were way back then. We tend to get stuck with ‘the classics’ – which are often no more than the victors in some other war – and either forget or never know, that there have always been loads of interesting writers out there who ‘never made it’ or ‘never lasted.’ And that this is in no part down to the ‘quality’ of their work but more down to the commercial viability or exploitation of them and their reputations. Which is in and of itself often just a reflection of class privilege. So if you want to get down and dirty and find writing that is off the ‘canon’ from days gone by, I suggest that starting to delve into online databases is the way to go. It also offers a transferable skill that may encourage an awakening towards a more ‘engaged’ use of current search engines. Too often people wait to ‘be told’ what is good to read. We should remember that search engines are tools not intelligent beings with your own best interest at heart. You need to engage with your own search or you are simply being spoon fed not ‘best’ but ‘most profitable.’
But back to the ‘boys.’ If we take a snapshot of 1894: Barrie was still dividing his time between fiction and drama. Conan Doyle was similarly trying to contain the public’s desire for Sherlock Holmes and direct them to his more ‘serious’ writing. Crockett had taken the world by storm with a 4 books in a year offensive stagemanaged by his agent A.P.Watt and publisher T.Fisher Unwin. Stevenson upped and died (and didn’t even finish his work in progress) and John Buchan was writing short stories and critical work and preparing for his first published novel ‘Sir Quixote of the Moors.’
All were employed by the publishing industry, and their journalistic writing is as often as interesting as their fiction! If you start looking at the magazines and journals of the day, you begin to see the ‘positioning’ of the press and the ‘marketing’ which was just as much of a feature then as it is now. I’m particularly interested in ‘The Bookman’ which was William Robertson Nicoll’s ‘baby’ and the ‘New Review’ edited by W.E. Henley which generally took an opposite stance. Henley ran the National Observer in the 1890s (which had been known as the Scots Observer until he went to London) and when he left that he set up the New Review which he edited until 1897.
The two men (and their respective publications) stand on opposing sides of the battle for hearts, minds and most importantly, cash of the ‘reader.’ But they were competing on much the same ground for what we might recognise as ‘market share’ of a fast moving and very lucrative marketplace. They were editors of magazines in the ‘middle’ of the market - There are many other journals to choose from, and all of them really interesting – as long as you remember they are not the last word on anything, rather a window into a world as turbulent as the New Statesman, Spectator and the like of our own time.
At the end of 1894 the cataclysm happened. Stevenson died. It took till the January editions for the obituaries to really start flowing, but flow they did.
‘Bookman’ in 1894/5 offers a range of obituaries to Robert Louis Stevenson, including a poem by J.M.Barrie in January 1895. If poetry floats your boat it might be worth you trying to track it down. I wasn’t that enamoured of it, so I didn’t bother to copy it – but that’s just my opinion.
-Crockett also wrote an obituary of RLS which you can access here (although you will have to sign up – for free – to the Galloway Raiders site). From 1893, Crockett and Barrie had been planning to go and visit Stevenson in Samoa. They left it too long. Had Barrie not got ill (and then married) in 1894 and Crockett not become an ‘overnight’ success after a decade of trying, things might have been very different. As it was, they were left to pay tribute to a man who was, to a great extent, a mentor to them both – and to a whole school of Scottish Historical Romance. Even Buchan learned a thing or two from Stevenson (and dare one say it, from Crockett.)
W.E.Henley, editor of The New Review was a close friend of Stevenson. He is perhaps better known today for his poem ‘Invictus’. But while we’re still in the land of Bookman. SRC also wrote a piece on JMB’s books in November 1894. http://www.gallowayraiders.co.uk/jmbarrie.html
So much for The Bookman. It’s not so easy to track down New Review articles but a dogged search can get one access. I found an article published in October 1894 titled ‘The Coming Book Season’ which offers an overview of contemporary ‘quality’ writing. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it offers so much more. It deals with the role of publishing, the ‘issue’ of the libraries, the decline of the three volume novel, the fear of ‘sensationalism’ as distinct from Romance, (and particularly of ‘women’s’ sensationalism’) and I can’t help but feel it is bothered by the ‘popularisation’ of reading. Doubtless there are many ways to read this article, but I certainly think it’s worth a look at to give yourself some more background to the milieu in which our ‘boys’ were working. [We'll post the whole article in next month's edition of Gateway] I also am led to speculate whether J.M.Barrie in writing ‘Sentimental Tommy’ in 1889 may not have had a nod over his shoulder to this kind of attitude. Also, in his ‘drawing room’ plays such as ‘Quality Street’ (1901), ‘The Admirable Crichton’ (1902) and ‘What Every Woman Knows’ (1908)
The ‘Coming Season’ article was written for the New Review by Arthur Waugh. Who he? Critic, publisher, father of Evelyn and it looks like one of the ‘gang’ of Henley, Millar and Waugh. I feel like I’m starting to see the people behind the pens. It may all be speculation but it’s starting to make me realise that reading any of these articles will tell me at least as much about the people, their positions, perspectives and dare on say prejudices, than about the actual writers under discussion.
I am beginning to build up an interesting speculative theory here. New wine in old vats anyone? Until the death of Stevenson, no one seems to have big issues with Crockett and Barrie being influenced by him – or that they might be part of the same ‘movement’ but once he’s dead he gains a mythic status and Crockett especially is distanced from him. The Colvin edited letters seem to suggest that Crockett was not a ‘friend’ so much as a tag-a-long. This is at odds with the Crockett side of the archive (although most of their correspondence is lost) but it does seem that a preservation order on the memory (and status) of Stevenson comes at the cost of allowing Crockett his place as a Scots historical romancer. Instead, the seed of the ‘Kailyard’ is planted. It’s just my speculation of course but… stranger things have happened.
And while we’re on the topic of strange things… how about our other Edinburgh ‘boy’ – Conan Doyle?
Here’s a contemporary article on the then Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (yet to be knighted)
Dr. A. Conan Doyle, the novelist, whose public utterances on the platform are arousing so much interest, receives all flattering attentions with the greatest modesty. Although Dr. Doyle is the author of Micah Clarke, The Great Shadow, The White Company, and The Refugees, four of the acknowledged great novels of recent years, and though he is the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most remarkable characters in modern fiction, Conan Doyle has no desire to be hero-worshiped. Anyone who has met him cannot help but be charmed with his simplicity. Consistent with all this, we have Dr. Doyle's own word to the effect that he will positively not write his impressions of America. An English magazine offered him a big price for his impressions, but the novelist refused.
Dr. Doyle is better known in America as the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective, rather than as the author of historical novels. For this reason it seems that there is a widespread supposition that he is a sort of practical detective. As a matter of fact, however, Conan Doyle says that he has not even the instincts of a detective, adding that he is not in the least degree either a sharp or an observant man himself. When he is confronted by a particularly difficult problem he simply tries to get inside the skin of a sharp man and see how he would solve it. The fact is, Conan Doyle does not wish to pose as an authority on detective service, though he has expressed his opinion that the finest detective service is done in Paris. If the actual detective service of Paris, however, is the best in practice, France has turned out no detective stories to compare with Doyle's own detective narratives.
It is obvious to anyone who has talked with Conan Doyle that he prefers to go on record as a novelist rather than as a writer of detective stories. His novels are works that required long and laborious research, and present the life of the times they depict in the most faithful and realistic manner. They fasten the interest from the beginning, and though realistic they can yet be classed among the most stirring of historical romances. In his lectures Dr. Doyle is giving us some idea of the labor of writing a historical romance, and yet it has been noticed that the public prefers to hear how he conceived and worked out the mysteries involved in his detective stories. When I asked Dr. Doyle to explain not only how he put his puzzles together, but how he manufactured them, he simply replied that he thought the stories themselves fully explained the mechanism.
Conan Doyle, in personal appearance, looks more like an athlete than a literary man. The stoop in his broad shoulders is the only outward sign of his calling. He has big, bright, blue eyes that are sympathetic and inspire confidence, and there is a ruddy glow of good health, of cheerfulness of mind, and of kindliness of heart in his face. He converses in a simple, offhand way, which, however, never drops into absentmindedness.
Dr. Doyle is thirty-five years old. In a casual meeting with him it is impossible to determine whether he hailed from England, Scotland, or Ireland, but he himself has informed us that he was born in Edinburgh, where he spent the first nine years of his life. At a time when most boys would have contented themselves with the fantastic masonry of alphabet blocks, he was building stories with his limited vocabulary. "My companions used to tease me for stories day and night," says he, "and it was only necessary to bribe me with a tart to set me going." He went to Stonyhurst College when a boy of nine, and remained there seven years. After a term of study in Germany he went to Edinburgh, and took the regular course in medicine. It did not cure him of his literary tendencies, however. There was no remedy for them, but he found relief in trying his hand at a short story. "I sent it to Chambers's Journal," he says, "and I suppose its return would have utterly discouraged me. But they kept it, and sent me a check for 3 pounds. He then secured the post of surgeon on a whaling ship bound from Peterhead to the Arctic seas, where he passed his majority, near N. lat. 81 degrees, and had some exciting adventures with the rifle and the harpoon. The head of a Polar bear killed by him on this voyage adorns his book-case at his present home in Norwood, just out of London. He qualified in medicine on his return and shipped again as surgeon bound for the west coast of Africa. He finally settled in Southsea, Wales, and began the practice of medicine with only £3 in his pocket. Meanwhile, he continued to write stories, but never earned more than £50 a year by their sale. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, a short story written while he was at Southsea, appeared in the Cornhill anonymously, according to the law of that distinguished periodical, and was credited to Robert Louis Stevenson. Then he conceived the character of Holmes, whose adventures were to be harmonized with a correct science of deduction. The Study in Scarlet was produced, and had a very large sale.
"I had entertained the notion for a long time," he said to an interviewer, "that a historical novel could be made successful without the conventional plot, but simply through the interest that could be created in a string of characteristic scenes and incidents. Micah Clarke was written agreeably with this plan. Then I went back to Holmes again, and wrote The Sign of Four. The White Company followed, presenting a picture of what to me is the most interesting period of English history."
While this work was progressing, the doctor came to London, where he made a special study of eye surgery, intending to limit his practice to the treatment of that organ. But orders began to pour in upon him for stories, and it soon became evident that he would have to shift out of his practice, and he did. The Refugees followed, and when he came to London to give himself wholly to a new profession, his fame had gone before him and had crossed the sea, and was on the tongues of men in the remotest outposts of Britannia. Since then, his stories have become popular in America, and in this, his first visit to us, he finds that his name is by no means a strange one to the majority.
(Gilson Willets, 1894 – I have not been able to confirm the journal this article comes from – I got it via third party online website! Gilsen Willets was an American, born 1868 and died 1922, and I think he worked in films)
And let’s not forget the new kid on the block in 1895. The ‘King’ Stevenson may be dead but Buchan was going to be the new ‘King’ if he had anything to do with it. Crockett might be best positioned in 1895 but 20 years later he was dead and Buchan was the boy to be reckoned with. Guess which side of the tracks Buchan came from? Crockett surely never stood a chance.
While in 1894 both Barrie and Conan Doyle were fairly seasoned and Crockett was the new bestseller, Buchan was a mere lad of 20.
Here is a notice in The Bookman October 1895.
MR. JOHN BUCHAN.
THE author of "Sir Quixote of the Moors," just published by Mr. Unwin, and of a great deal else to come in the very near future, has surely a more precocious literary record than any other of our time. He has some years of journalistic work behind him; and at the present moment be is a scholar of Brasenose, aged twenty.
Mr. Buchan was born in Perth, lived for thirteen years in a little sea-coast town in Fife, and seven years ago went to Glasgow. At the University there he gained distinction in philosophy, and last winter he won a scholarship at Oxford. For many years his summers have been spent in Upper Tireeddale, whence his family originally came; and from continual wandering among the bills in all weather he came to know them and their people intimately. He has always been an enthusiastic angler, and his first published paper was on that subject, and appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1893. Subsequently he wrote a good many articles on kindred subjects in that magazine. In the same year he edited a small edition of Bacon's Essays for the "Scott Library." In January, 1894, was begun his series of articles in Macmillan's Magazine dealing with the wilder life of the Tweedside Hills, the tramps, and poachers, and drovers, storms, and nights spent on the heather, all the raw material from which so many writers of romance have drawn, from Scott to Stevenson-two writers, by-the bye, whose influence Mr.Buchan specially owns. These articles have been collected, and are to be published by Mr. John Lane early in next year. Another book, soon to be issued, is a small anthology of fishing songs, collected from the whole of English literature.
His only published work of fiction as yet is "Sir Quixote." There his aim was to trace the psychological effects of certain aspects of scenery and weather, as well as to examine the results of the conception of honour in certain circumstances. A book ·of short stories from his pen will appear before the summer. On a long historical novel he has been engaged for nearly three years; it deals with the adventures of a Scots gentleman, a Platonist and a scholar, in the late seventeenth century. * That, too, he expects to have ready for publication before the summer.
When one mentions that Mr. Buchan has also done a good deal of journalism, it will be owned his record is an extraordinary and an interesting one for a writer of twenty years of age.
(*The novel was John Burnet of Barns – which owes far more to Crockett than Buchan would ever admit!)
I’ve read Sir Quixote and it is clearly the work of a ‘juvenile’ and could be termed ‘derivative’ in a number of places. It also reads like he got bored, or distracted – it ends in something of a hurry. But it’s well worth a read – you can see something of the later Buchan, but it’s really interesting to note the different ‘style’ of language. He was certainly much freer twenty years later in The 39 Steps. ‘Sir Quixote’ offers a good illustration of how writing changed over that period.
I would of course remind you that Buchan isn’t maybe an ‘Edinburgh Boy’ proper, in that he didn’t attend the University (unlike the others) but he became Rector. Make of that what you will.
We’ll look more at the phenomenon of ‘New Writers’ and how they were touted through the publications of the day as well as the Curse of the Bestseller in future months. There’s something to look forward to eh? In the meantime, why not reacquaint yourself with some of our Edinburgh Boys fiction? There are much worse ways to while away your time.
Orraman, July 2016.
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