Friday, June 18, 2021

Naught but ravening wolves: DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, The King's Curate (1930)

The best I could do for a cover pic

It is, perhaps, not easy to be haughty towards a man whom one has recently saved from a ravening mob.

This is perhaps a misleading opening for a review of a novel that hardly shows Dorita Fairlie Bruce in her most humorous form. But it’s peculiarly difficult to sum up The King’s Curate in any one quotation, and “ravening” is a darn good word (Bruce uses it at least one other time in the novel, from which scene I took this post’s title).

Dorita Fairlie Bruce is of course best known as one of the best-beloved authors of girls’ school stories, along with the likes of Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham. The King’s Curate is the first of Bruce’s loose series of nine Colmskirk novels, only actually a series by virtue of being set in roughly the same area of Scotland over the course of several centuries. Later volumes occasionally echo earlier ones, and in those with contemporary settings (the five I discussed here back in 2015) there are a handful of cameo appearances by characters from one novel in another. All or most of the nine novels sort of straddle the line between adult fiction and girls’ stories, with some veering more toward one side and others veering the other.

The five “modern” Colmskirk novels are the most widely known today as a result of having been reprinted a few years ago by Girls Gone By. For whatever reason, GGB declined to reprint the four historical volumes from the series, and the first two, The King’s Curate (1930) and Mistress-Mariner (1932), have achieved an almost mythical status of being both unfindable and, for some readers anyway, unreadable. The first is certainly well-deserved, and I wouldn't be reading them myself if it weren't for my Fairy Godmother. They almost never come up for sale, and when they do it's for the price of a downpayment on a London flat. (Thank you FG as always!)

But is the latter judgment accurate? 

As I mentioned, the first four Colmskirk novels are all historical in subject matter, but these first two in particular are written in a self-consciously old-fashioned style. Though Curate was published in 1930, readers would do better to pretend they're reading a slightly less formal Sir Walter Scott or Emily Brontë, as that's the sort of style Bruce seems to have been aiming for. And probably more the former than the latter, as there is also a fair amount of Scots dialect.

But don’t change that dial just yet! Let me first note that, undoubtedly in common with at least some of you, I tend not to read historical fiction much, I tend to avoid dialect of any kind like the plague, and I tend to prefer literary stylistics that match the time in which they were written. Yet, despite those tendencies, I somehow fell immediately under the spell of The King's Curate and didn't want to stop reading. This is surely because, whatever her faults, Bruce is first and foremost a cracking good storyteller.

The King’s Curate is set in the years following the massive upheavals of the English Civil War (late mid-1600s, for those of you as vague on history as I was). A fascinating period, and one the ins-and-outs of which I readily confess I couldn’t possibly summarize. But one needn’t have studied one’s history books terribly well, as Bruce escorts you effortlessly into the thick of things. Patrick Mellish, who has been a Royalist soldier during the war, accepts a posting as curate in the parish of Kirkarlie in Ayrshire, a bittersweet return to the land of Braidheugh, the estate occupied by his family for hundreds of years but confiscated from him to be given to one of Oliver Cromwell’s cronies. The cronie is now deceased, but his daughter, the formidable Anne Carstairs, is carrying his torch as a passionate Covenanter and a force to be recognized in her primarily Covenanter community.

Mellish, who has come to terms with the loss of his family estate, accepts the commission reluctantly, reopening old wounds for the sake of his sister Alison, who has one of those literary illnesses where one wastes away living in a city but revives miraculously when removed to the countryside. (For what it’s worth, I feel as though I too might miraculously revive if removed to the Scottish countryside right about now…) And of course, Alison’s fragile, waifish vulnerability seems to prove irresistible to every male who comes into her proximity:

It seemed, in those days, as though a sudden sight of Alison Mellish bereft men of their breath for the moment, and set them to finding comparisons whereby they might explain her to themselves.

Not long after their arrival in Kirkarlie, Patrick rescues Anne when her horse bolts, and then in dutiful fair play she rescues him from angry villagers. In due course, we also meet Master Ebenezer Baldie, a Protestant minister living in a cave and preaching to his flock in a quarry under careful security as the tides of persecution shift, and, very much on the other side, Ned Crichton, an old soldier friend of Patrick’s who arrives in town as the leader of a band of "redcoats", sent to smoke out those pesky folk who insist on worshipping in ways not prescribed by the king.

Drama ensues, quite satisfyingly, and it’s quite difficult to stop turning pages, even for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

I started reading The King’s Curate rather ambivalently, for the reasons I mentioned above, but I really was seduced almost immediately by the characters, the interesting historical backdrop, and Bruce’s skillful plotting. I actually rather wish GGB had taken the plunge and published all nine of the Colmskirk novels, as I think quite a few readers would have been delightfully surprised. And for those of you who subscribe to The Scribbler (as surely most of you do), TKC was also reviewed, with similar enjoyment, by Elaine Pyrke in Scribbler No. 3.

One small quibble. "Daft Jock, the village idiot" is a rather unfortunately described (but thoroughly lovable) character. But though his nickname and some of the descriptions of him are grating to modern sensibilities, this is partly ameliorated by the fact that Bruce makes it clear that, though the locals can’t comprehend him, he's really far more an "Eccentric Jock" than a daft one. He happens to occasionally perceive the word of God bringing him instructions and inspiring him to action, which is unusual but certainly fortunate for the happy outcome of the tale. Plus, he's a musician, playing eloquently on his hand-made flute, and musicians are surely allowed a certain amount of eccentricity--had he come along in the Sixties, he might well have been a pop star.

Oh, and as for the dialect, the majority of it is from the lips of Jock himself (perhaps this is why the villagers think he’s daft? because they can’t understand what he’s saying?), and although it occasionally takes a wee bit of sounding out and some imagination, one really gets the hang of it fairly quickly.

I’ll also mention that Bruce’s work almost always contains a certain amount of Christian content, reflecting her own sincere and practical beliefs. On rare occasions in her books, this can become heavy-handed (as in Toby at Tibbs Cross, for example, at least for me). In The King’s Curate, however, in a time and place completely enmeshed in religious conflict, it’s quite fitting and historically interesting, and perhaps even rather relevant to today. Those in the U.S. at least might pause reflectively when one character exclaims:

“Naught but ravening wolves, and an unequal war, waged in the name of religion. Religion—pah! 'tis become but another word for politics!''

Just saying.

Now it’s on to Mistress-Mariner for me, which I can only hope is equally entertaining. And, indeed, I have books 3 and 4 of the Colmskirk series, A Laverock Lilting (1945) and The Bees on Drumwhinnie (1952), queued up on my TBR shelves for after that. I’ve always meant to get round to all of these (ever since I reviewed the latter five books in 2015, in fact), and it seems like the Late Pandemic Era is the time I’ve been waiting for!


  1. Well who knew? That DFB occupied herself with such tales? Although I possess, and have read, the latter Colmskirk books, I had no clue that there were two more historical ones.

    Sad to hear that they are out of my price range - I rather fancy them. I have a very soft spot for DFB.

    I hope all is well with you both Scott. Strange year isn't it? I seem to be taking up permanent residence in the Czech Republic, thanks to covid.

    1. It's really quite entertaining Gil, and you already know what a good storyteller DFB is.

      We're doing well here. Hope things are improving rapidly in the CR as well, though I'm sorry you haven't been able to get back to the UK.

  2. I've read some of her unfortunately named Dimsie books and found them pleasant but slightly overrated. I do like historical fiction and would probably prefer these books. But the question you haven't answered, Scott, which is really essential if you are going to spend time in 17th century England is - are you a Cavalier or a Roundhead? I assume you are a Cavalier (dashing hats, lost causes) but I don't think you can be neutral . . .

    1. Ha! Well, you might be right, but on the other hand I do have a very round head! :-)

  3. One of the reasons I don't read much of a certain type of historical fiction is that the useless Stuarts are so romanticised. Mary Queen of Scots (tiresome woman) is a heroine (DFB contributes to this myth in the Springfield books). Writers are almost always on the side of the cavaliers and the King. 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie, the drunken sot who caused the ruin of the Highlands, is seen as romantic. Probably the most famous children's book about the period, The Children of the New Forest, is all for the King. For an old Cromwellian like me, this is all madly irritating. I am Right but Repulsive, obviously :-)
    The best children's book about the Civil War (which was a terrible conflict, BTW), is, IMO, Simon by Rosemary Sutcliff. Two childhood friends end up on different sides and the author's attitude is fair, not partisan. Perhaps I should write my own blog post about this, rather than taking up space on your blog!

    1. Very interesting Barbara. Since my knowledge of the Civil War is limited (though I do know how terrible and destructive is was), I suppose I just go with the flow of whatever book I'm reading. But I imagine it's a bit like the US Civil War, where lots of authors have romanticized the South, which always makes me cringe. Gone with the Wind has a lot to answer for!

      And yes, do write a blog post about this!

  4. Interesting review, Scott, but I don't think this is a book for me.

    First up, anything with more than a paragraph of dialect gets put back onto the Return to the Library basket on the hearth (yes, I do keep all my library books there, when not by my bed, so they won't get incorporated into my own endless stacks.)

    And I'm not keen on books where the woman says, "He's the most infuriating/exasperating/impossible man I've ever met!" either before or after (or during) he's saved her from a ravening mob. Or wolves.


    1. Well, to each their own Susan, but you'll be missing out!

      I take it you're not a fan of Georgette Heyer either then? Aren't her men often infuriating/exasperating/impossible?


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