The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan

Bibliobazaar, 2008, 298 p.

 The Guinea Stamp cover

Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish literature knows the source of this book’s title, a title which jumped out at me from the shelves of a local library. And there the quote lay at the bottom of the title page, the affirmation that position in society is no indicator of moral probity.

The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a that.

When George Fordyce, here, in conversation with his mother, refers to this quote as “that Burns rot” it adds confirmation to what we already knew, that he is the villain of the piece.

Mind you, that title page also has a subtitle A Tale of Modern Glasgow. Given that the novel was first published in 1892 and is set in the 1880s it hardly applies now.

The centre of the book is Gladys Graham, newly orphaned daughter of impecunious painter John, taken in by her skinflint uncle Abel, and transported from her Lincolnshire home to live in his dingy warehouse in Glasgow where she meets his assistant, the steady Walter Hepburn. She slowly softens Abel’s heart and on his death he bequeaths her both a large country house – the ancestral seat of the Grahams – near Mauchline in Ayrshire, plus a fortune to go with it.

It is almost impossible to read this sort of stuff without imagining parallels with Dickens. Not that we see any of him, but what we are told of Gladys’s father says he was Micawberish, her uncle is plainly Scrooge and Walter a mixture of Pip and Oliver with a bit of Bob Cratchit thrown in.

Gladys’s inheritance of course inserts obstacles to her destiny. Her new status certainly does not allow her to remain living in the warehouse with Walter. This throws her into the orbit of society types. It is here that she meets George Fordyce, to whom her indifference presents a challenge to be overcome. Any thought of contact with Walter and especially his wayward sister Liz is to be abhorred. But Gladys’s early poverty has imbued her with a keen sense of herself and of her purpose. She resolves to help the less well off.

When accused by Abel of impudence Liz replies, “Some folk ca’s the truth impidence, because they’re no accustomed to it.” Liz later disappears and Walter fears the worst, “The innocent must suffer for and with the guilty always. There is no escape,” he says and as Gladys’s chaperone, Miss Peck, tells her, “Women are the burden-bearers and the scapegoats always.”

The prose is of its time, but even then it may have appeared overwritten, now it seems dreadfully so. There is a high degree of telling rather than showing and Swan adopts the technique, not so much of foreshadowing, as of outright telling us what is to pass later. There is, too, a touch of melodrama to the proceedings and that title, whatever the twists and turns along the way, always has us in its tram-lines.

Pedant’s corner:-
There are some antique spellings such as waggon and chaperon plus we had, “in which the Fordyce household were concerned.” A household is singular. Gladys’s first intended chaperone, Madame Bonnemain, is said to be from Shandon on the Gairloch. That would be the Gare Loch. Gairloch is a completely different place.

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