Crossriggs by Jane & Mary Findlater

(The title page has Mary & Jane Findlater) Virago, 1986, 382 p, plus viii p Introduction. First published 1908.

Crossriggs cover

In Crossriggs, a town an easy train ride from Edinburgh, the locals have always looked up to the inhabitants of the Manse, for many years the preserve of the Maitland family. The present incumbent is not a Maitland but the people still look to Robert Maitland, who has come back to live in the town, for advice. The book, though, mainly focuses on Alexandra Hope (known as Alex) whose father Alexander is an idealistic fruitarian and a bit of a no-hoper, and seems to the reader to have no visible means of support. Through Alex the Findlaters make much of the fact of the family’s poverty (illustrated mostly as a matter of not enough food and money. But these things are relative; they have a kitchen-and-house helper in Katherine, and a drawing room.) Important to the overall story arc is the inhabitant of the local big house, Admiral Casillis, now blind. We are told that nothing much happened in Crossriggs till Alex’s sister Matilda had to return from Canada to her childhood home – with her five children – when her husband died, and the Admiral’s grandson Vanbrugh (Van) came to live with him. But even after this nothing much happens in the text for a long while.

To help support the six extra mouths Alex is of course forced to take a job, a process she finds embarrassing. She undertakes to read to Admiral Casillis every day bar Sundays, for two hours each day, mostly the newspaper. The youthful Van is struck by her and takes to visiting the Hope household on almost a daily basis. He is too young for Alex who strives to avoid confronting his regard for her. A public reading at another big house leads to Alex taking on more readings in town (Edinburgh.) In the meantime she turns down John Reid’s marriage proposal with the excuse to herself that she is too busy and has to provide for her nephews and nieces. It is Maitland, though, who bails out her father from an unwise guarantee and pays for the children’s education. She is of course in love with Robert Maitland who it seems has an equal affection for her but both cannot express it as he is already married. Her affection shows itself in an inability to control her verbal meanderings in his presence.

There are instances where the character’s language reflects the writers’ times. Van expresses dissatisfaction with his grandfather’s treatment of him. Alex replies, “‘If you had to work hard for your living, like me, you’d find you had more to think.’” His riposte is one decidedly not for those sensitive to modern properieties. “‘If I’d been allowed …. to work at anything that interests me, I’d slave like a nigger.’”

We also, twice, have another expression of prejudice. The first is when Alex says to her niece someone is, “‘-a little Jewish. She stopped.’ Sally flushed. ‘Why are Jews so nasty, Aunt Alex?’”
This is not really excused by Alex’s reply. “‘They’re not dear; far from it. An ancient race, the cleverest and noblest in the world in many ways,’” with some added excuse about Jews being an Eastern people and “fond of colour.”
Later we also had, “‘And he’s really not so -’ Matilda paused. Alex …. remarked gently – ‘Semitic, dear, is the word you want.’”

The book suffers a little from us being introduced to too many characters too early, giving the reader little chance to get to know them and hence care about their fates. However, the later appearance of the fateful Miss Orranmore gives us no doubt as to the kind of woman she is. Its main theme is of pride and conformity but like much serious literature Crossriggs treats with love – albeit obliquely and mostly unspoken – and death. Here any sex is resolutely off-stage, or at least only revealed by its usual consequence. Paul Binding’s Introduction says that the Findlaters – who wrote separately as well as together – had early success (Virginia Woolf was among their admirers) but their popularity dropped off in the 1920s. seems a very Victorian era novel. The thought, “‘You don’t suppose, do you, at your age, that the things one doesn’t speak about are the things one forgets?’” has, however, not lost any of its pertinence.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover; Mathilda (in the text it’s Matilda,) Locheanhead (Lochearnhead.) Otherwise; some nineteenth century spellings, repellant (repellent) etc, “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’,) “you mentioned seventeen shillings” (actually two shillings a day = twelve shillings for six days, but Alex had enquired about two and six a day = fifteen shillings,) some missing commas before pieces of direct speech, ramshakle (ramshackle.) Chapter XVIII’s heading is omitted and starts at the top of the page where the other chapters started lower down. These next, with missing letters within words, must have been in the original publication from which this edition looks to have been reproduced, [“every bead twin king” (twinkling,) “rath r” (rather,) Matida (Matilda,) “one f” (one of,) “bo anical” (botanical,) “‘W hear’” (We hear,) “momen ” (moment,) ] “sound asleep more once” (once more,) “Aunt E. V. regarded he with her penetrating glance” (regarded her,) “so that is was not difficult” (so that it was,) Cassilis’ (Cassilis’s,) an opened quote that is never closed.

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