Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

A veritable account of ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’ scrieved by Harry Langton.
Quercus, 2014, 368 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Fair Helen cover

After all these years, all those novels, you’d think there would not be much more to say on the subjects of love, sex and death. But they are the human driving forces; or fears. There isn’t really much else to write about. And Greig has a heart and a talent to match anyone’s.

In Fair Helen Greig adds himself to that long line of Scottish authors who have illuminated the byways of the country’s history, in this case the last gasps of the Border reiving tradition. James VI – referred to as Jamie Saxt in the text – sits in Holyrude awaiting the death of “the Auld Hag” (as our narrator Harry Langton calls Elizabeth of England) to fulfil his destiny and incidentally ensure the end of the border feuds. Langton, though flawed, is an engaging guide to the times; discursive, reflective, and prone to the occasional footnote. If the setting and vocabulary were not enough (an appended “Scots Guide” defines some of the non-English words used: my favourite of these, houghmagandie, is given as sexual shenanigans but that fails to recognise the connotations of exuberance) the attentive descriptions of landscape and evocations of other works of Scottish literature, “Timor mortis conturbat me, indeed,” “a mere mouse running before the coulter blade,” “‘How can they stay sae fresh and fair?’” would anchor Fair Helen firmly. (That some of these references post-date the novel’s times only makes them the more redolent.)

Early on we have a warning about the trustworthiness of text, “What is the point of gossip and story if not to exaggerate our lives to the scale we believe they should be rather than the small affairs we fear they truly are?” – and there is that “veritable” in the strapline – yet the tale purports to be the true story of the tragedy described in the border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’. Greig’s choice of narrator is subtle, being none of the three main actors in the events that led to balladry. Harry was cousin to Fair Helen (Irvine) and friend of Adam Fleming, her lover, though not so close to the man whom she is contracted to marry, Robert Bell. Langton’s presence at, and contribution to, the outcome of the affair is approached via his entanglement not only with the lovers but also with the coming man, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch. Langton notes that, “Rarely is it fortunate to come to the attention of the high heid ones.” But Helen has words of advice when, “‘I am much changed,’ I said, ‘And the world has grown ugly.’ Her hand squeezed my wrist. Her grip was strong and urgent. ‘Think that and they have won.’”

Through Langton, Greig is also overly modest. “I contemplated my Thucydides. The wars of Greek city-states did not seem so distant. If they appeared more noble, perhaps, it was just they had better writers.” The meat of his quote from Montaigne, “‘The public weal requires that men should betray, and lie, and massacre,’” is alas followed too closely to this day.

Greig has been described as a post-Calvinist author. This is explicit here in passages such as, “The rediscovered voices of Antiquity have offered a vision of a greater, kinder, more humane and playful life (scarcely in Scotland, ma foi, not till the hoodie craws of the Reformed Faith back away from the carcass of this my only true home!)” The older Langton reflects, “There is no dancing in the inn courtyards now, religious fanatics denounce and rule, witches still confess under torture and our songs are all grim or piously false as ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’,” and, “Women have become douce-like, modest, eyes downcast as though feart to trip on their own feet, and men are penitential. The flesh is sinful and chastity rated far higher than charity,” adding cuttingly, “It is a wonder that bairns still get born at all.” The women and men Langton knew in the borders in the far-off days of his youth, “were … otherwise.” He tells his latter day patron, Drummond of Hawthornden, (in whose library he leaves a copy of Love’s Labours Won, a gift from a strolling player in London, another knowing authorial touch,) “‘Reform may have banished corruption,” (of the church.) “It would also banish wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness.’” And thinks to himself, “And fornication.”

As to the country itself, “Here all about lay Scotland, dark and dreich and dear. Cloud-shadow scurrying over hill and burn, cold wind and dry branch, our hard humour and hidden hurts. Here affection came wrapped in insult as sweet fruit in burnt pie-crust. Tenderness was hidden under armoured jacks, with only keening pipes and fiddle and human voice to tell the heart’s ways.”

The novel is threaded with a sense of loss. This could perhaps arise only in that the story is narrated by an old man, “My soul is an old horse-trough that lies forgot in a field, its rotting boards mottled with fungus and moss,” remembering the past – were it not that this sort of deep nostalgia is a familiar strand in Scottish literature. And the Scottish fixation with death is marked by, “The skull and hourglass we Scots inscribe on our tombs to counter any pious suggestion of the life to come.”

The hyper-critical might carp that the story is merely (merely!) a recapitulation of Romeo and Juliet – the Fleming and Irvine families are after all in feud when they first get together – but star-crossed lovers are a literary staple and here there are complications; an end to the feud is negotiated but Helen’s engagement to Bell is announced at the celebration which marks the reconciliation. Fair Helen is a delight and, despite any lack of Calvinism, still Scottish to the bone. As in That Summer and Electric Brae Greig makes you care about his main characters and portrays the others as rounded.

Pedant’s corner:- That mention of high heid ones looks odd as it is usually rendered as high heid yins. We have maw as mouth rather than stomach, hung at times (when hanged is used elsewhere,) Lucretius’ (Lucretius’s.) “As we forded the stream I look off to my left,” (looked,) Longshanks’ (Longshanks’s,) snuck in (sneaked? tucked?), their force were (was,) had began (had begun; or merely, began,) snuck (definitely sneaked.) I also thought I caught a continuity error when Langton hands Mrs Smeaton’s packages to Jed Horsburgh, who is in custody for protecting Adam Fleming.

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5 comments

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    What a review! Much of it went right over my head. Are you a professsional academic or literary man (or rather person)?

    Is Greig a sort of James Joyce minus the jerking around of the reader?

    I actually read all of the Waverley novels, some of them more than once. Scott was, for me, surprisingly accessible. I hadn’t known that he had a sense of humor.

    Should I give Greig a try?

  2. jackdeighton

    Denis,
    I’m not a professional academic; and a literary man only in that I read literary fiction as well as SF. Plus I have written fiction myself of course.
    As to whether Greig is like Joyce I have no idea; he’s one of the authors whose work I haven’t sampled. The only Scott I’ve read is Ivanhoe. I think I tried The Talisman as a youngster and gave it up.
    Greig is brilliant and I would say not difficult to read.

  3. jackdeighton

    Denis,
    I forgot to mention in my previous reply that the Walter Scott in this book isn’t the author. The book is set about 200 years too early for that.

  4. Peggy Ann

    Jack, I’m going to have to read some of or at least one of his books. This sounds very good.

  5. jackdeighton

    Peggy,
    All his books that I’ve read so far have been excellent.

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