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Fantasy, Reality and the Woman Question:
a re-reading of William Black’s fiction

Margery Palmer McCulloch
ScotLit 29, Autumn 2003

An invitation earlier this year to talk on the gothic element in William Black’s fiction led me into unexpected territory. For what I found in my three selected novels – A Daughter of Heth (1871), A Princess of Thule (1873) and Macleod of Dare (1878) – was not the exploitation of Highland landscape and history for the purposes of gothic or romance scenarios attacked by many previous critics of Black’s work, but a preoccupation, in these three novels at least, with themes involving the need to distinguish between fantasy and reality in human relationships.

William Black was born in Glasgow in 1841. He began adult life as an art student, but then turned his attention to writing and, like many writers and artists in the later nineteenth century, he moved to the publishing and artistic metropolis of London. There he worked as a journalist, being assistant editor of the Daily News for several years. He was also a war correspondent during the Franco-Prussian War of 1866. He became an extremely popular novelist, able to resign from his editorial post in 1874 to concentrate on fiction writing. In the nineteenth-century volume of the History of Scottish Literature (1988), Douglas Gifford calls him the ‘darling of the lending libraries’, while, earlier in the century, George Blake criticised him for ‘exploiting the romantic-sentimental aspects of his native country’ in his craving for popularity. Blake adds that ‘out of his American royalties [he] could afford to drive up and down the front at Brighton in a horse-carriage of his own’. From my recent reading, however, it seems to me that Black has perhaps been unfairly judged by his critics and that it might be time to look at his fiction in a different context.

The first thing that strikes me is that it does not seem particularly helpful to try to fit Black into any recognised canon of the Scottish novel. There is no nationalist agenda in Black as there is in Walter Scott’s reconciliation themes or Neil Gunn’s regenerative ones. And while one could argue that in some of his fiction he holds up the Highlands as an exemplar of the simple, uncorrupted life, the many qualifications needed in such a reading make it only partly sustainable.

Nor do Black’s scenarios fit satisfactorily with the gothic novel. There are certainly vivid evocations of sea storms and wild, threatening Highland mountain landscapes in his books, and in Macleod of Dare these combine with the melodramatic story of a young Highland chieftain’s obsessive love for a woman who will not love him, bringing this novel close to gothic themes in the wild drama of the deliberate ‘accidental’ drowning of both partners in its storm-tossed ending. Yet rather than a concern with such motifs for their own sake, what characterises Black’s plotting is an investigation of the distinction between fantasy and reality, a journey of discovery undertaken with difficulty and sometimes without success by his male characters in particular; and an exposure, perhaps unwittingly, of the ‘woman question’ which so perplexed late Victorian society. Black’s novels seem to me to be situated, therefore, not in any recognisable tradition of Scottish fiction writing, but in the social and moral framework of late Victorian Britain. Black himself appears to be at home in the identity of a North Briton who has successfully migrated to the metropolis of London to play his part in the life of that city and shows nothing of the sense communicated in John Davidson’s poetry of being caught between cultures.

While the popularity of Black’s novels in the lending libraries testifies to the success of his British role, what we have in him also is a late Victorian moralist, even if the morality is at times ‘tipped’ with Scotch features. Idleness is not condoned; a secular version of laborare est orare underpins his actions, whether this appears in the guise of cooperative work between laird and crofters in the Highlands, or disapproval of the dilettante life of the upper classes in the metropolis. Improvement of the lower classes, metropolitan and Highland, is also a recurring motif, while descriptions of Highland landscapes and seascapes in both A Princess of Thule and Macleod of Dare reflect not only the Romantic and post-Romantic fascination with the ‘sublimity’ of such wild places, but also the late Victorian belief in art as a moral force. However, the area of late Victorian morality and social philosophy which I find most interesting as it is reflected in Black’s fiction, is the ‘woman question’ which was increasingly preoccupying Victorian society in the late nineteenth century. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that Black’s narratives explicitly interrogate this theme, but that they have implicitly within them the Victorian preoccupation with relationships between the sexes and with the changing role of women.

After this general setting out of my stall in relation to my view of William Black’s fiction, I’d like now in this short article to pursue some of these ideas through a consideration of A Daughter of Heth, one of the most Scottish of Black’s novels with regard to setting and one which deserves reprinting. The book is set, not in the Highlands or in London, but in Lowland Ayrshire. Glasgow, where Black was born, is an additional minor setting, but from the sharply observed depictions of the Ayrshire manse, with its views of the island of Arran, the coastal town of Saltcoats and the surrounding countryside, it would appear that boyhood expeditions before his departure for London must have engendered familiarity with the Ayrshire coast which is very convincingly depicted here. This early book is also a strongly Scottish work in relation to the religious connotations of its manse setting and its title, and in the considerable amount of Scots language used in the speech of its characters. Here, the Gaelic Highlands, which more usually represent Scotland in Black’s work, are represented only in the minor character of the fiddler Neil, with his Highland English speech.

The book’s title, A Daughter of Heth, refers to the Genesis story of Abraham who, an outsider, was given land by the sons of Heth in order to enable him to bury his wife Sarah. Later in the family story , Rebecca, the mother of Jacob, sent her son away for safety to the land of the children of Heth in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, whom Jacob had cheated out of his inheritance. On this occasion, Rebecca fears to lose her son to the daughters of Heth. A daughter of Heth is therefore both a stranger to be feared but also one who can give help. In Black’s narrative, the strictly religious Cameronian servant, Andrew, is suspicious of the young French woman who comes to stay with her uncle at the manse, and is hostile to her later proposed marriage with the minister’s eldest son: ‘it was an ill day for him that she came to the Manse. [...] Ay, indeed: when the young man turns away from his ain folk, Leezibeth, to marry ane o’ the daughters o’ Heth’. Yet as we see as the narrative unfolds, the young stranger brings warmth and vitality into the lives of her Scottish family and their acquaintances, although she herself suffers from the coldness of their repressive religion and its values.

I suggested earlier that rather than glorying in romantic settings and plots for their own sake, Black constructs scenarios which lead his protagonists from the falsity of romance and myth to the reality of human relationships. Falsity in A Daughter of Heth is represented by the insular, superstitious responses of the Ayrshire Scots to the French girl who comes among them with her strange accent and unidiomatic English; her unusual clothes and manners; and, worst of all, her Catholic religion, which immediately categorises her as one of the damned in the minds of the most extreme Calvinists and troubles even her more moderate minister uncle. Gossip and superstition also surround the life of the young laird, Lord Earlshope, whose frequent absences from his castle, together with rumours about the private life he leads abroad, condition the locals against him. A Daughter of Heth, however, is not a didactic text which sets out an ideological position. It is, in its story-line, a tragic romance. Yet, in his presentation of the thought, speech and action of the orphaned French girl who has come at the end of her schooling to the household of her father’s only brother, Black reveals both the intolerance which can exist within Scottish Calvinism and the boorishness of the behaviour of her parochial male cousins – behaviour one might interpret psychologically as both a product of the inculcation of narrow, rigid beliefs and a reaction against the repression of their natural spirits.

It is not at all easy to draw ‘good’ fictional characters – as we see even in the works of significant realist novelists such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – but Black is remarkably successful in his characterisation of Catherine, or Coquette, as she was playfully nicknamed in childhood: a name which in her new Scottish context takes on all the mythical associations of the flirtatious, immoral French as seen by unsophisticated foreigners. Coquette’s genuine delight and expertise in music, as opposed to her boorish cousins’ rejection of it – ‘we dinna learn music at the schule, ye gowk’ – and her distress at the way the ‘people groaned rather than sung’ the psalm tune in church; her reverence for the natural world and her surprise that her French God is not allowed to be the same God as that worshipped by her new Scottish acquaintances but is considered an anti-Christ, unforcedly draws the reader’s attention to the ignorance, bigotry and suppression of vitality in the dour Scottish religion which oppresses her. And this reader response is strengthened when we watch the girl’s own vitality gradually drain away as she is conditioned to believe that she is always in the wrong, that there is something essentially warped about her life, although she cannot understand what this can be. Although Coquette’s presence among them does in fact modify the repressive attitudes of her new family and servants and induces a happier atmosphere in the home, the impression remains of a deadness of spirit at the heart of the life of this fictional community which cannot open itself to the human need for love. The portrayal of Coquette here, with the girl’s memories of her French homeland and upbringing, reminds me very much of Liz Lochhead’s present-day portrayal of Mary Stuart in her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, especially in her dealings with the religion of John Knox and her inability to understand the manners of her strange new country.

Black’s characterisation of Coquette and the difficulties of her situation brings forward also the Victorian ‘woman question’, the dependent status of women in society and the absence of opportunities open to them. When Coquette talks to Lord Earlshope of her unhappiness in Ayrshire, he sympathises with her, but can offer no solution. He comments: ‘If a man dislikes the people he is among, he has merely to go away. But a woman is very dependent on the temper and disposition of those around her’. Similarly, a woman of her time was very dependent upon a man’s choice in relation to marriage, even if her heart’s choice was elsewhere. Coquette has been brought up with the more explicit social contract implications of marriage prevalent in her French birthplace and she surprises the Glasgow-based Lady Drum who befriends her by the expression of her willingness to marry the man her parents – or in this case her uncle – should choose for her. Yet, despite Lady Drum’s insistence on the importance of choice in relation to romantic love (and perhaps a wealthy aristocrat such as herself was in a position to exercise choice), the girl’s understanding of her situation is more realistic. Having fallen in love with Lord Earlshope, with whom she can converse about music and other interests she holds dear, and who, instead of mocking her ‘unintelligible Babel o’ a tongue’, can actually converse with her in it, she cannot hope for an acceptable relationship with him, since he does not speak of marriage. On the other hand, her cousin Tom’s obsessive protestations of love and of his intention to marry her can be seen to wear down her disinclination to agree to such a union, especially when she knows her uncle would welcome it.

Although Earlshope ultimately lets Coquette know of his love for her and this sets in motion the tragedy of the plot, Black does not present the young man in a stereotypical way as a rakish nobleman, an exploiter of those less powerful than himself, but as someone who suffers from the social and religious rules concerning marriage. Having made an imprudent marriage in extreme youth, he is now – like Dickens’s character Stephen in Hard Times – bound to a woman who is a drunkard, who no longer loves him and who publicly abuses him wherever she finds him: hence his long absences from his Ayrshire home. During an excursion to the Western Isles on his yacht with Coquette and her uncle and friends, he brings up the question of marriage and divorce, although the latter word is not explicitly used. Speculating about the changes that can occur over the years in a relationship contracted in extreme youth, he asks: ‘Why should the old marriage bind these two new persons? [...] they have outgrown it.’ Yet, like Dickens’s Stephen, Earlshope’s youthful mistake prevents him from ever making a new relationship. In the eyes of church and society, the love between him and Coquette is a sin, although a marriage for Coquette with someone she does not love would be considered acceptable. I think that one of the interesting outcomes of reading historical social novels – even those by the darlings of the lending libraries, perhaps especially those – is that one understands ever more clearly that so many human troubles and tragedies are caused, not by sinful behaviour in the people concerned, but by the social and religious mores of a given period which, ironically, can be overthrown in future times as society and its values change. This kind of tragic outcome is at the heart of Nancy Brysson Morrison’s historical novel The Gowk Storm, a prize-winning novel of the interwar Scottish literary revival; and it is also, of course, at the heart of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, published a few decades after the story of Coquette and serialised recently on television when I was reading Black’s novels.

A Daughter of Heth has its ‘gothic’ moments in the wild, threatening seascapes of Loch Coruisk and Loch Scavaig; and its episodes of tragic romance in the ill-fated, aborted elopement of Coquette and Earlshope, which ends in his death in a storm and her own death after marriage to her cousin who, ‘blinded by his exceeding happiness’, is not initially able to acknowledge the depth of unhappiness in his wife. Nevertheless, this book is, for me, primarily notable for its depiction of the reality of human relationships and human needs, and its exposure of a world conditioned by superstitious ignorance or romance.

In his discussion of Black’s fiction in The Scottish Novel (1978), the American scholar Francis Hart remarks that ‘my suspicion [is] that Black’s genuine fictive impulses were tragic’ and adds that Black ‘had to defend himself against public protest at unhappy endings’. I would agree that Black is more successful in his tragedies, for in A Princess of Thule, published two years after A Daughter of Heth, the sudden character changes which facilitate the happy ending and the clichéd formula of the failed artist suddenly becoming the talk of the London metropolis ring falsely. In contrast, Black’s tragic endings do not arise out of some fated happenings beyond human control, but are the outcome both of human psychology and the social conventions put in place and kept in place by the actions and unquestioned beliefs of human beings.

On the other hand, while A Princess of Thule is apparently so different from A Daughter of Heth in its happy ending, its dual Highland and sophisticated London settings and its involvement with the life of an artist – an unacceptable occupation to the Cameronians of Ayrshire – there are in fact some interesting similarities in the presentation of the young women in the novels. Both Coquette and Highland Sheila lose confidence in themselves when thrust into a society which can recognise no values and customs but its own. The French speech of Coquette and the Highland English of Sheila both arouse ridicule, although Sheila’s artist husband had initially been enchanted by her Highland way of pronouncing and structuring English. In A Daughter of Heth, the wearing down of Coquette’s confidence and vitality is depicted gradually, but in the later book, this transformation happens too quickly. It is difficult to reconcile the strong-spirited and physically strong Highland girl who could sail the boat and organise help for the crofters and villagers with the submissive and dutiful wife who sits alone in her new London home, unwilling to stand up for herself when her husband increasingly makes his social outings without her. Nevertheless, when we bring the portraits of these two heroines together, we see that the same forces of ignorance and rejection of the one who is different are at work. Caught in the fantasy world he himself had constructed, the artist Lavender had seen Sheila as ‘a beautiful wild seabird’. Back in the everyday ambience of the London he knows, ‘he did not wish to gain the reputation of having married an oddity’. Yet, as Lord Earlshope commented in the earlier book, while a man could walk away from uncongenial companions, a woman, and especially a wife, was entirely dependent on those close to her, oddities or not.

Limitation of space has confined this re-reading of William Black’s fiction principally to A Daughter of Heth, and in its rich Lowland Scottish context this is probably the novel in which Black has most to offer late nineteenth-century Scottish fiction. Yet its playing out of the difference between fantasy and reality in human relationships is found even in such a different and apparently gothic romance as Macleod of Dare. Francis Hart comments that ‘for Black the substitution of a false reality is always destructive’. This, I believe, is the lasting message of his fiction, the best of which deserves to be re-presented to readers not as Scottish gothic romance but as part of the social and moral context of late Victorian Britain.


Copyright © Margery Palmer McCulloch 2003


Last updated 23 August 2010.