ScotLit 35, 2007 |
The great writers, those who still resonate down the generations, do so because their vision was not confined by or restricted to the circumstances of the age in which they lived. But should we not make space occasionally to celebrate some of the humbler hewers of words? Those who, in their own day and in their own way brought the pleasures of reading to many, but whose appeal has not outlived them? They too have things to tell us: of the causes and concerns of their times, of the ebb and flow of literary fashions and, if only by default perhaps, of the art of writing.
An apposite candidate is, I would suggest, James Grant, novelist, historian and lifelong champion of Scottish rights.
Grant was born in Edinburgh in 1822 and died in London in 1887. He came of Highland stock, his forebears being Grants of Corrimony in Glen Urquart, a Jacobite-leaning cadet branch of the powerful Strathspey clan. His paternal grandfather was a highly respected advocate, doyen of the Edinburgh bar, while his father was an officer in the Gordons, a veteran of Wellington’s Peninsular campaigns. His maternal grandfather, Captain Andrew Watson, was a second cousin of Sir Walter Scott.
James set out to follow his father’s profession, taking up a commission in the 62nd Regiment only to give it up two years later. For a time thereafter he studied with David Rhind, the Edinburgh architect, but it seems he had already formed a passion for history and had an itch to write. His first novel, The Romance of War, which drew extensively on his father’s experiences, was published in 1845.
Its success with the growing readership for novels of adventure, and at that time especially for military novels, led to its inclusion in Routledge’s Railway Library – one-volume inexpensive reprints sold on W.H. Smith’s new station bookstalls. By 1857, Smith’s sales figures showed that the Library’s most popular authors, after Bulwer Lytton and Captain Marryat, were Miss Austen, the Mesdames Gaskell and Trollope, and James Grant.
After The Romance of War and Adventures of an Aide-de-Camp (1848), Grant was regarded as one of the masters of his chosen genre. Many of his subsequent novels were based on campaigns in which Scottish regiments had featured prominently and his title pages often identified him as ‘The author of Adventures of an Aide-de-Camp’ or ‘James Grant of the 62nd Regiment’. His reputation as an expert on all things military resulted in his being consulted by the War Office during the army reforms of 1881. His personal collection of militaria can be seen in the War Museum in Edinburgh Castle.
This early success persuaded Grant to make a living entirely by his pen. He wrote a further fifty or so novels, short stories, articles, biographies and miscellaneous works on historical or antiquarian topics, his inspiration usually Scotland’s past, occasionally its present. But competition in his chosen market was intense, and though his energy never flagged, changing tastes and the proliferation of new practitioners gradually sidelined him. The Scottish themes had to give way to rousing tales set in the expanding Empire, and increasingly his audience was a juvenile one: enthusiastic readers of his fiction in their boyhood years included Thomas Hardy and Neil Munro. While his works were reprinted often in his lifetime and some achieved foreign translation, he never repeated his early success, dying ‘destitute’ as one of his obituarists dolefully claimed.
A few of his titles lingered in print into the twentieth century – The Romance of War, The Yellow Frigate (1854) – in such collections of ‘classics’ as those brought out by Nelson and Collins. Indeed, the Frigate, some of the action of which is set in medieval Dundee, was relaunched in a 1984 paperback edition by a local publisher. His Old and New Edinburghremained a respected work of reference for years after Grant’s death. Beyond these little is left. His two sons died childless; Routledge, his first publishers, did not preserve records of their association with him. He has become a footnote, a literary mini-Ozymandias, his stone toppled, face down, in St Mary’s R.C. Cemetery, Kensal Green.
It has to be acknowledged that, even applying the most generous critical standards, one could not claim that Grant advanced the craft of fiction. His novels are a hard read today: they scarcely qualify as Scott Lite, far less Scot. Lit. Plots are perfunctory (there is effectively only one, which, with minor variations, serves them all); character and action are only haphazardly related; and the narratives are overloaded with historical and antiquarian detail. He regularly interposes his opinions as well as his learning, often blatantly diverting his storyline to provide opportunities for outraged animadversions on the plight of Scotland. Nonetheless, his yarns do not lack pace, rushing on as they do from one dramatic incident to the next, propelled by either the chronology of historical events or, where structurally necessary, by shameless coincidence. ‘Dashing’ is the word favoured by the kindlier contemporary reviewers.
Of course it is easy to point up the weaknesses: they are the weaknesses of writing against the clock to feed a public greedy for this kind of stuff, a new readership increasingly able to afford increasingly affordable book prices. Grant was no worse than the more fashionable Lytton and Ainsworth, and while one critic reviewing the achievements of the leading writers of romantic fiction in the mid-century said of Grant:
… unfortunately his object is to supply the booksellers with quantity rather than the public with good quality. Two novels a year is his average; he is very moderate and forbearing not to publish twice as much.
he nevertheless conceded that he had:
… a quick, lively, fiery pen, capable of great achievements.
And it is this capability, tantalisingly discernible amid the fustian, that can be cited as one justification for commemorating his work. For it is not difficult to find passages in most of the novels and in his non-fiction where Grant drops sensationalism for realism; where he achieves such imaginative penetration of a scene or an incident – a riot, the High Street of Edinburgh in the sixteenth century, a military column complete with camp-followers trudging through a winter rainstorm, the red dye seeping out of the soldiers’ greatcoats – that the effect of his crisp description is positively filmic. This, from Oliver Ellis (1861), is part of the description of the battlefield of Fontenoy:
Rusty cannon-shot half-buried in the earth; three-cornered hats, hussar and grenadier caps, belts and cartridge-boxes, were yet lying thickly, as the peasantry and plunderers had failed to glean up everything; and the white ammunition paper was whirling, like autumn leaves, in the eddies of the wind.
The paper is a masterly touch.
Other rewarding discoveries the patient reader will come across are a talent for poker-faced satire, the more surprising since his obligatory ‘comic’ characters and situations are achingly unfunny.
Admittedly it is pointless to speculate that, had he enjoyed the financial security of some of his rivals and freedom from the restrictive conventions that limited authorial scope in his day, Grant could have raised his game, so to speak, and acquired real literary stature. Nevertheless it is possible to sense from his treatment of, for example, the relations between men and women, that Grant, writing two generations on, would have been more interested in and more interesting on this topic. As it is he takes risks: his heroes and his secondary heroines are at least unmistakably sexual beings.
The heroes are usually soldiers, and for much of the story are on active service abroad. After they depart, news from home brings them word that their insipid fiancées have married a rival, or letters miscarry or some misunderstanding arises which leaves the young men ostensibly fancy-free. Thereupon, military duties permitting, they enthusiastically woo exotic ladies who, being foreign, do nothing to discourage them.
In describing these encounters, Grant allows himself interesting liberties. In The Romance of War, Ronald Stuart attempts to seduce a nun, for heaven’s sake; Allan MacInnon in Laura Everingham (1857), enjoys a full-blown adulterous affair. To maintain the proper Victorian double standard these various mesdemoiselles and signorine have, of course, to meet dreadful fates (a handy cholera outbreak carries off Sister Antoinette) leaving the hero free to return to Scotland and his true love emotionally unencumbered: ‘—but that was in another country / And beside the wench is dead.’
Of course, such episodes have always been narrative clichés in picaresque fiction and thrillers (think Bond girls). Grant can do better than this, however. Fanny Clavering is friend and temporarily sister-in-law to the eponymous Stepford heroine in Laura Everingham, and is clearly intended to represent a healthier attitude to the man-woman thing. She is beautiful: ‘Lola Montes-looking’, ‘Di Vernon-looking’; rich; witty; ‘painfully outspoken’; athletic (point-to-point, archery and billiards); and a merciless coquette: ‘the pet of the Household Brigade’. An intriguing blend of Becky Sharp and Joan Hunter-Dunn – but the care with which Grant works Fanny into the events of the novel signals her importance.
She ruthlessly dismisses Laura’s romantic sentiments:
One lover is worth a hundred friends
and is quite clear as to her beau ideal ..
—I should like a man with a lofty presence—a man of whom I should feel proud, even when I had tired of him and ceased to love him.
Despite being kidnapped by Turkish bandits, Fanny survives intact (whether intacta has been unclear throughout) and marries the only other character in the novel with creative credibility – a violent, saturnine man below her social station. The reader – this reader anyway – finds this convincing and quite satisfactory … and hankers to know how it works for them.
However, the case for rescuing James Grant from obscurity and acknowledging his modest contribution does not depend only on glimpses of what might have been. Another – and probably more cogent – argument derives from his relationship with Scotland and from the influence of that relationship on his writing. His consistent aim is to memorialise the values and traditions he saw as unique to Scotland and which he feared were threatened by the arrogant indifference of her English neighbours and the uncaring acquiescence of the Scottish mercantile and professional classes (his denunciation of the bourgeoisie resounds through every tale).
This decision to follow an almost exclusively Scottish muse was mirrored by his one foray into political action when, in 1852, he and his brother John were founder members of the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. The NAVSR began respectably enough under the patronage of the Earl of Eglinton and with the support of W.E. Aytoun, Hugh Miller, eminent churchmen and several royal burghs and the wildly enthusiastic encouragement of the student bodies of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Its demands were reasonable enough: more Parliamentary time for Scottish affairs and the rectification of various breaches of the Treaty of Union. The campaign failed to fire the interest of the Scottish public or the Scottish press, however, and a series of rowdy meetings in the two cities incurred the opprobrium of the aforementioned bourgeoisie. The movement faltered and died, though many of its claims were met over the succeeding decades. (Grant continued to raise grievances, most of which related to the improper use of heraldic devices on flags and coinage, another of his fields of expertise).
It is likely that Grant’s reputation as a lightweight – if successful – novelist did not help to make the movement popular among the thinking classes; it is equally probable that his reputation as an activist did little to enhance his standing as a man of letters. Yet this concern to define ourselves in terms of an honourable balance of past dignity and present pragmatism is a gowping nerve in the Scottish body politic to this day, and Grant was brave enough to probe it in his life and in his literature, however clumsily.
And while ‘clumsy’ may be one of the words that comes readily to mind in summing up his literary crusade in Scotland’s name, there can be no doubting his genuine love for his native land. Sentimentalised it may be, uncritical the use of sources and over-lavish the detail, the real relish with which he sets about recreating a scene from Scottish history is unmistakable. Many of his vignettes linger in the memory long after the daft plots they grace are forgotten. His fictional characters may be one-dimensional, but his real heroine was Scotland.
To these two claims that can be made on Grant’s behalf – that he could write well even if his reach exceeded his grasp; and that he can at his best convey enough of the essence of our history to make us want to re-explore it for ourselves – could be added the recognition that his writing life covered those extraordinary forty years in which Scotland expanded as an industrial nation, extended itself as a partner in empire-building yet shrank as road, rail and steamship opened up its ancient fastnesses. Grant’s novels set in his own times offer fascinating perspectives on the Victorian world view. A salute is surely due to one of our first modern professional writers nearly one hundred and twenty years after his death. He got few in his lifetime.
Copyright © David Menzies 2007