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!