Twenty years ago I was working on a comparative analysis of The Lilac Sunbonnet and The Little Minister, as part of a PhD thesis (never completed) which tried to contextualise both authors in the spectrum of Scottish literature, more specifically the Scots Romance tradition.
Over the past twenty years I’ve developed and refined my thesis and find that the questions are still there to be explored. With the 125th anniversary of the first publication of The Lilac Sunbonnet, it seemed like the best time to open the box again and see what I could make of the treasure. Crockett is still completely under-researched and undervalued in the history of Scottish literature. That is both a shame and a travesty.
My aim over the past five years has been to engage with the questions and the stories and to make them
available for other readers, general and academic, in the spirit of sharing enquiry and developing knowledge. So in 2019 the opportunity arises to bring both books back into focus via digital medium. Weekly online ‘episodes’ reflects the original publishing process, but instead of waiting till October to read the whole book, you can get it immediately in paperback from the Unco Store. PAPERBACK VERSION HERE
An free ebook version will be available soon for Galloway Raiders members.
I hope you will enjoy reading (or re-reading) The Lilac Sunbonnet in 2019, however you choose to engage. Before you begin, you might like to read The Prologue and this piece about the first 500 words. Hopefully it will whet your appetite for what’s to come.
BY THE WAYSIDE
As Ralph Peden came along the dusty Cairn Edward road from the coach which had set him down there on its way to the Ferry town, he paused to rest in the evening light at the head of the Long Wood of Larbrax. Here, under boughs that arched the way, he took from his shoulders his knapsack, filled with Hebrew and Greek books, and rested his head on the larger bag of roughly tanned Westland leather, in which were all his other belongings. They were not numerous. He might, indeed, have left both his bags for the Dullarg carrier on Saturday, but to lack his beloved books for four days was not to be thought of for a moment by Ralph Peden. He would rather have carried them up the eight long miles to the manse of the Dullarg one by one.
As he sat by the tipsy milestone, which had swayed sidelong and lay half buried amid the grass and dock leaves, a tall, dark girl came by—half turning to look at the young man as he rested. It was Jess Kissock, from the Herd's House at Craig Ronald, on her way home from buying trimmings for a new hat. This happened just twice a year, and was a solemn occasion.
‘Is this the way to the manse of Dullarg?’ asked the young man, standing up with his hat in his hand, the brim just beneath his chin. He was a handsome young man when he stood up straight.
Jess looked at him attentively. They did not speak in that way in her country, nor did they take their hats in their hands when they had occasion to speak to young women.
‘I am myself going past the Dullarg,’ she said, and paused with a hiatus like an invitation.
Ralph Peden was a simple young man, but he rose and shouldered his knapsack without a word. The slim, dark-haired girl with the bright, quick eyes like a bird, put out her hand to take a share of the burden of Ralph's bag.
‘Thank you, but I am quite able to manage it myself,’ he said, ‘I could not think of letting you put your hand to it.’
‘I am not a fine lady,’ said the girl, with a little impatient movement of her brows, as if she had stamped her foot. ‘I am nothing but a cottar's lassie.’
‘But then, how comes it that you speak as you do?’ asked Ralph.
‘I have been long in England—as a lady's maid,’ she answered with a strange, disquieting look at him. She had taken one side of the bag of books in spite of his protest, and now walked by Ralph's side through the evening coolness.
‘This is the first time you have been hereaway?’ his companion asked.
Ralph nodded a quick affirmative and smiled.
‘Then,’ said Jess Kissock, the rich blood mantling her dark cheeks, ‘I am the first from the Dullarg you have spoken to!’
‘The very first!’ said Ralph.
‘Then I am glad,’ said Jess Kissock. But in the young man's heart there was no answering gladness, though in very sooth she was an exceeding handsome maid.
It is often said that one makes a judgment on a person based on the first few seconds or minutes and the first chapter (or in this case the first five hundred words) have just as essential a job to do. So without further ado, let me offer some critical commentary and analysis on the Prologue of The Lilac Sunbonnet.
We are thrown straight into the story, and Crockett sets out his stall admirably, giving us marker points to remember throughout. The scene is rural Galloway. Ralph is a bookish young man come from Edinburgh and is out of his depth in the natural surroundings of the Glenkens. It should then, come as no surprise when I claim that this is a transformative novel.
Both Ralph and the reader will be transformed in their understanding. Ralph, head in books, initially is unable to see reality. And if the reader approaches the novel from a similarly blinkered perspective (that of the modern urbanite) they will miss the point of the transformation just as easily. When, as too often, this novel is viewed as an exploration of ‘nostalgia’, the reader’s blinkers are fully on. Indeed I contend that any dismissal of this as a ‘Kailyard’ work actually prevents a clear reading of the text.
To suggest that the novel is about an enclosed and nostalgic past is certainly at odds with the authorial intention. Far from being a parochial expression of the nostalgic rural past, The Lilac Sunbonnet throws down a challenge. The novel works towards an explanation of transformation in terms of the conflicting perspectives of the urban and rural condition in Scotland in the mid to late 19th century. Thus it subverts the dominant discourse that ‘progress’ occurs when Scots move from country to town.
In his later works Crockett frequently employs this reverse journey from civilisation to nature. We might see The Lilac Sunbonnet as an exemplar of Romanticism in prose. While we may be more familiar with Romanticism as part of an English poetic tradition, Crockett comes from the Scots Romance tradition. Many other features in the novel will explore this Romantic view.
The novel’s central transformation is in understanding, of self, of social class and of love itself. It occurs through a transgression of the perception of heroism. We see it here when Ralph is described:
‘He was a handsome young man when he stood up straight.'
Ralph’s status as hero is immediately qualified. The qualification shows Crockett’s humour at play. As he pokes fun at his hero we are reminded that Crockett, like Ralph, was tall. The sentence immediately reminds us of the frequent chastising of gangly adolescence to ‘stand up straight’. It evokes empathy. Ralph is not a stock character, but as with so many of Crockett’s ‘heroes’ he offers a realistic picture of a young man (albeit a romantically inclined young man.) His realism derives from experience. In Ralph Crockett acknowledges his own youthful experience and emotion - though we should always beware of too closely connecting Crockett with his characters. He is a novelist, telling stories, or as he puts it ‘leein’ at large.’ In a letter of 28th September 1894 Crockett wrote to a friend Mr Lawrie as follows:
…on my soul, I think ‘The Lilac’ the better book. I have a curious feeling about letting it go. There is such a desperate lot of myself in it. Every cottar, ploughman, herd, every crickett’s chirr, every hen scratching was just so, and just my friend when I was a boy.
But no one will know that. I am always a little depressed when I launch a big book.
The emotional engagement is immediately recognisable to any author.
The transgressive hero is one (of many) signs that in this novel nothing will be as it seems. And for Ralph, choosing his heroine is a significant point in his transformation. Crockett often places his heroes in the position of having to choose between heroines - often sisters- and he had real life experience of this too.
In the Prologue we are also called to consider the role of heroine. On first encounter, we might expect Jess Kissock to fit this role. She is, after all, ‘slim, dark-haired’ but the transgression of discovering she is a lady’s maid presages the discovery that she is not the ‘real’ heroine of the story. It also serves to further elucidate the issues of status and clash of cultures which are key aspects of the novel.
The hierarchical inequality of man and woman, of urban and rural and of social class are explored in the novel and language is used as a primary device in this context in a number of ways.
Crockett follows Barrie in respect of the fact that he is writing in the Victorian Idyllic Tradition (though both also subvert this) where the literary devices of humour and pathos are important elements.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE.
The relationship of the Scots and English languages and their significance in cultural hierarchy is also explored. The use of Scots words (a cottar’s lassie) is offset against the formal English speech of:
‘I am myself going past the Dullarg’.
‘Thank you, but I am quite able to manage it myself.’
Ralph is confused by Jess’s language, her actions, and therefore her motivations. He will not accept ‘help’ from a woman, and especially not from a country woman.
She picks him up on it. She reconfirms that their unequal status means that he should expect her to ‘wait’ on him. But her words suggest that the action is really about ‘sharing the burden.’ That the burden is books suggests it might be about ‘sharing the knowledge.’ The books are significant as they represent learning. Greek and Latin means that they are relatively inaccessible. And yet it is Ralph who needs to learn. He is the one out of his cultural comfort zone.
By resistance to her share carrying the books, Ralph potentially deprives Jess of knowledge of himself and his world. He shuts her out. She wants to be inclusive. But she takes her place by his side and shares his ‘burden’ irrespective of his protest. This shows us the difference between the country/community ways and those of the urban hierarchy.
In the context of the hierarchical relationship we see Jess as the ‘Native’. She is proud of this status, triumphant about the fact that she is the first person he has met from this ‘new world.’ She is the conduit for his transformation and because of their unequal status we can see her as vital in the transgressive nature of the journey. Ralph’s final response to his situation shows that he is not happy to be moved from town to country.
‘In the young man’s heart there was no answering gladness.’ He is blind to the attractions of women at this point because he is caught up with religious theory.
Among other things, The Lilac Sunbonnet shows us the folly of pursuing religion, life and love in a theoretical, fanatical or unquestioning manner. Crockett’s central thesis in the novel might be framed as: God is love and love is found in nature. This is the journey Ralph undertakes. But the path to true love, as we all know, never runs smoothly.
Here Crockett mixes realism and romance, fact and fiction. The setting of the novel can be quite accurately placed, but only if one knows the fictional version of the map he uses.
Ralph gets off the coach on the Cairn Edward (Castle Douglas) road. It goes on to Ferrytown (Stranraer). The eight miles to Dullarg, suggests that the destination of The Dullarg is the Duchrae. However, there is a conflation in that Dullarg Manse is more likely Balmaghie Manse.
In modern terms we can follow this route along the A713 turning across the bridge at Glenlochar near Crossmichael towards Balmaghie and on to Laurieston. The journey is one well known to Crockett as it’s the one his family took every Sabbath in boyhood from Little Duchrae (bypassing Balmaghie Kirk) to Castle Douglas to the Free Kirk.
Craig Ronald is a fiction most likely conflated from Netherhall Cothouse, Neuk Farm and various other places nearby including Drumbreck and Little Dornal.
The tipsy milestone is a marker unknown to me, but I can guarantee it would have been known locally in Crockett’s day (and perhaps still by some locals)most likely along the A713 between Castle Douglas and Glenlochar.
Much has been made of the symbolism of the lilac sunbonnet. Forty years ago Dr Donaldson undertook an interesting comparative analysis of The Lilac Sunbonnet with D.H.Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ in chapter 5 of ‘The Life and Work of Samuel Rutherford Crockett’ (full text available here) which reveals the hidden sexuality of the symbolism.
And we can note that Crockett throws the Sunbonnet ‘bait’ in as early as the Prologue. In a seemingly innocuous, perhaps even irrelevant detail we learn that Jess is back from a trip to buy ‘hat trimmings’ - alerting us to her part in the novel - The Lilac Sunbonnet. We might question the meaning of the action: ‘This happened just twice a year, and was a solemn occasion.’
The reader might dismiss this as a flight of the author’s fancy, dismiss it as humour or another extraneous detail thrown in randomly for colour. Not so. The solemness of the hat trimmings alerts us to the significance of the event and the purchase, calling into question how women attract their mate, but more than this, it offers a conduit into an exploration of the rural calendar.
The biannual activity reflects realistic detail not just of fashion ‘seasons’ but ties in with the ‘feeing’ markets. Twice a year (May and November) rural workers went to market to gain their employment. So the purchase of new hat trimmings reflects not just the importance of dressing oneself up in one’s best light to ‘sell oneself’ best in terms of love, but also in terms of employment. This is what I mean when I say that Crockett embeds all kinds of important details within what seems like a ‘light’ text.
In the Prologue, Crockett has laid bare the scene with all its complexities, while at the same time delivering 500 words that are quick and easy to read. That doesn’t happen by chance but by design and is the mark of an accomplished writer. I have spent four times the words in discussing it, and could find much more to comment upon. Thus I contend that this opening Prologue stands up to any definition of a ‘classic’ or ‘good’ novel.
I hope that if nothing else the analysis I’ve offered will make you think more deeply about what you are reading. Forget parochial Kailyard nostalgia. Take the blinkers off if you have preconceptions. Remember as you read that you may be ill informed to the point of prejudice and that prejudice can prevent one from seeing clearly. This is one lesson Ralph learns through the novel, and it is one Crockett can still teach the modern reader.
Perhaps one might consider that there is no such thing as a poor book, just a poor reader. The Lilac Sunbonnet has plenty to offer a modern reader and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have every time I have read it over the past twenty years.