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The Gates of Eden – A Story of Endeavour by Annie S Swan

Read Books, 2008, 319 p. First published 1893.

This is a facsimile reprint (presumably via photocopy) reproducing the original in all its aspects – including illustrations at each chapter heading and one of Swan opposite the title page – of an edition published in 1893 by William Briggs. The title page has the writer’s married name (Mrs Burnett-Smith) after her author’s credit.

I would not have picked this up (my previous reading of Swan left the impression of her as an adequate talent but not worth seeking out) had it not been lent to us by a friend since part of it is set in the nearby village of Star (aka Star of Markinch.) I am therefore familiar with the local places mentioned, Star (Swan has her characters refer to it as the Star,) Markinch, Kennoway and the Lomond Hills. Swan actually lived in Star for two years but in her biography said she didn’t much like the place. However, “it did give her two books.” Of which I assume this is one.

It is essentially the tale of two brothers, Alexander (Sandy) and Jamie Bethune, whose mother had died in childbirth. Sandy is apparently favoured academically and his father sets him down for the Church. James is designated to keep his father’s holding at their croft. His better education, eventually graduating from University at St Andrews, leads to Sandy having a high opinion of himself and coming to look down on his young adult sweetheart, Mary Campbell, whose broad Scots manner of speaking he thinks will ill become him in his first charge at Lochbroom where he is in any case captivated by Beatrice Lorraine, the daughter of a widower recently moved to a big house in Lochbroom.

Meanwhile James is taken under the wing of the local schoolmaster and taught Latin and literature but it is only once the boys’ father has died that James strikes out on his own, seeking a job on a newspaper in Edinburgh to work his way up. His attendance at St Giles leads to its minister, Doctor Kinross, inviting him to his home and befriending him. It turns out that Kinross and Lorraine are brothers-in-law and James too meets Beatrice but recognises a deep sadness in the Lorraines’ lives.

What follows is fairly predictable, Sandy proposes to Beatrice, who turns him down, James eventually gets a job in London whereupon Beatrice asks him to seek out her disgraced brother, whom her father has sworn never to see again.

The Gates of Eden is a reasonably typical Victorian novel, overly sentimental at times, not too taxing, and one where virtue is rewarded. Even Sandy comes to his senses. It has the style and cadences of its origins but some people may have difficulty with the very broad Scots of the inhabitants of Star. There are, too, occasional interpolations by the author which tend to break the suspension of disbelief.

And once again we have that intimation of the Scottish character of yore, “she belonged to a stern, undemonstrative race, who deemed any exhibition of the finer feelings a sign of weakness.”

Pedant’s corner:- cotttage (cottage,) “‘these sort of gatherings’” (strictly speaking ‘sorts’ but it was in dialogue,) ““Lux Benigna”” (later rendered as ‘Lux Benigna’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “insolvable problem” (Victorian usage? – insoluble/unsolvable,) a missing full stop, a missing ‘close quote’ mark at the end of a piece of direct speech.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Mistaken by Annie S Swan

BiblioBazaar, 2009, 100 p. Returned to a threatened library.

Mistaken cover

This is an odd little book. The oddness begins with its printing. I picked it up in a Fife Library and discovered it seemed to be photocopied. The publishers BiblioBazaar make a virtue of reproducing the original texts (in this case from 1883) as they found them – with whatever minor errors of blurring, indistinct pictures, missing or marked pages that may entail.

The oddness doesn’t stop with the reproduction though, as the novel itself (well it’s more of a novella) strikes a really strange note. It’s as if Mistaken is a religious tract that discourages the following of religious instincts. The “heroine” Margaret Wayland is a proselytiser spreading the word among the “arabs of Hackney” but the author would have us believe the true heroine is her mother, Mrs Wayland, who has devoted herself selflessly to the family and has been brought to sickness by it. Margaret’s brother and fiancé both want her to forego her missionary efforts and run the house instead to relieve the mother’s burden. Her indulgent father has educated her – perhaps beyond his means – and is at first unwilling to demand she takes her mother’s place.

The book – under the guise of honouring your father and mother – seems to be arguing that education of a woman is unwise as it leads to her thinking thoughts of her own and perhaps escaping male control. Not very sisterly. But Swan was a Victorian and makes Margaret bend to her authorial dictat.

Apart from this emphasis on religion (can there be an apart from that?) the only connection to Scotland in the book is that Mrs Wayland is sent to the isle of Bute for a rest cure and falls in love with the place.

Pedant’s corner:- Missing end quote on the title page, knit as a past tense, arabs of Hackney (presumably street arabs,) an opening quotation mark where none was required.

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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