Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

Book 64 of 90

Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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36 thoughts on “Flemington by Violet Jacob

  1. That sounds interesting. The Jacobites did get ridiculously romanticised … I think it was partly due to Walter Scott, and partly because it all got mixed in with the romanticisation of the Highlands led by Queen Victoria. Bonnie Prince Charlie was an idiot who would have been a disastrous king! Ooh, I just looked up The Flight of the Heron on Amazon, because I couldn’t remember if I’d read it or not, and it says that it’s actually dedicated to Violet Jacob, so definitely a link there!

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    • Oh, that’s interesting! There’s definitely a similarity between the books but not enough of one for The Flight of the Heron to feel like a copy. Each of them has given a very different spin to the basic idea. Ha, yes, when I was a young Scots lass I was all misty eyed about Charlie and the Jacobites, but when I started actually understanding the history, I realised that as a Glaswegian I’d probably have been on the other side! This is why we should never learn history… 😂

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  2. I have to admit I completely fell for the over-romantic interpretation of the Jacobite rebellions when I was a child (singing Over the Sea to Skye with much pathos, I seem to remember). I would like to read a more nuanced history of it (although fiction is probably good too).

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    • I was exactly the same – we Scots might not be good at much but we do do a good lament! Then when I learned the actual history a bit more, I realised that as a Glaswegian I’d probably have been against the Jacobites! Came as a tragic shock to my psyche… not sure I’ve ever properly recovered… 😉 Well, when I was studying Scottish history at Uni and hadn’t read the set text, I once answered an essay question based purely on what I’d gleaned from The Flight of the Heron, and passed with flying colours, so the history in it must be fairly accurate… 😂

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  3. I always appreciate an author who at least tries to present a balanced picture of events like the Jacobite rebellions, FictionFan. It makes for much more interesting writing and characters. More to the point, it reflects the way events probably were, in my opinion. And it sounds as though this one has a good, solid plot, too, beyond the context. You make a good point, too, about the use of language. It’s hard to know with books like this exactly how much of which language/dialect to use. I’m glad you liked this one so well.

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    • It is intriguing to see how often Scottish authors have returned to the subject over the centuries, and how the romanticisation of it has ebbed and flowed over time. I still think most of our fiction makes it more romantic sounding than it actually was – a bit like American Civil War fiction, maybe. Our very own Lost Cause! And in both cases, probably a good thing it *was* Lost! 😉

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    • It was one of the ones I read before the plague struck, but happily I’m enjoying speeding through all the short books I picked for my 20 Books of Summer, so fingers crossed they’ll drag me back to normal! 😀

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  4. I must admit my heart sank when I saw the blurb and subject matter of this novel on one of your TBR Thursday posts, as I’m becoming increasingly tired of the same distorted or romanticised narrative about the Jacobites being churned out time and again. I’m glad this was more nuanced than some, and it sounds like it was entertaining in parts too. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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    • I’m increasingly fed up with our national Jacobite obsession too, especially since as you say it’s so romanticised. I reckon about half of the books I chose for the Scottish section of my Classics Club list have turned out to be about the Jacobites in one way or another, and the other half have been deeply depressing 20th century looks at how miserable we are as a race. Frankly, I reckon it’s the books that make us miserable! 😉

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  5. This may have a lot going for it, but I’m afraid it just doesn’t appeal to me. (my wish list and TBR are both breathing a sigh of relief) I’m glad it was a positive experience for you, though!

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    • I feel an awful lot of Scottish literature probably isn’t very interesting to anyone other than Scots! Maybe that’s true of ever country, of course. The story of the Jacobites is interesting and I did enjoy this one, but even I feel I could live without reading another book about them! Which is a pity since I think my next Scottish classic might also be set then… 😉

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  6. The Flight of the Heron is actually dedicated to Violet Jacob and D.K. Broster mentions that she was inspired to write the book after visiting friends in Scotland. I’m pretty sure that must have been Violet Jacob in her grand family home the House of Dun which is well worth visiting. I must get my hands on a copy of Flemington.

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    • Oh, that’s interesting! The two books definitely have a lot of similarity in the basic premise but they’re also different enough for The Flight of the Heron not to feel in an way like a copy. I really must re-read it – between this book and your review I’m yearning to spend some time with Ewen again… 😉 And I do think you’d enjoy this one – it’s quite fun to compare the different treatments.

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  7. Balanced history is a good thing, but I’m not sure this would make it into my TBR pile. Right now, I’m too busy analyzing nonfiction picture books like What Do They Do With All That Poo? for a discussion on layers in nonfiction. Don’t you wish you were me?

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  8. There’s something so deviously exciting reading about a strong-willed female character from a long long time ago. I find they are so cunning and intelligent that it makes me want to desperately talk to them, see if I can get any tips, etc. I just love the sneakiness I think…

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  9. This sounds wonderful – I think this will be one for the ever-lengthening wishlist! I don’t think I’ve read anything set during this time period, and I don’t know very much about the Jacobite rebellions except a rather fuzzy memory of learning about Bonnie Prince Charlie at school.

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    • Because I’ve been trying to read more Scottish classics, I feel I’ve been stuck in the Jacobite period for ages! It is an interesting period though, and it’s intriguing to see all the different approaches authors have taken to it. If you do read this one sometime, I hope you enjoy it!

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  10. I’m glad you enjoyed this one, I did too. You’ve given a clear outline of the political complexities of the time too. Although I’m really interested in historical stories (or stories from history), I’m not sharp on knowing or remembering political contexts, which means that stories like this one are both fresher and more confusing for me until I sort out allegiances and contexts. It was interesting to have the Hanoverian perspective presented as a valid point-of-view in a fractured Scotland compared with other stories about that time. Like you, I really appreciated Jacob’s rounded depiction of the motivations and moralities for each ‘side’. I also loved the depiction of landscape and the interesting and colourful characters in both Flemington and the Tales. Jacob managed to create engaging characters whether more extreme (Christian Flemington and Skirling Wattie) or of a quieter character (Archie Flemington). I found the Tales an easy and refreshing read in early lockdown; it took me a bit longer to make the reading commitment to Flemington, but I was very glad once I did.

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    • I haven’t read the Tales yet, but must remember to at some point. It’s funny how the Jacobite story changes all the time – not the facts but the interpretation. Even in my own life we’ve gone from it being romanticised through a phase where it was more seriously evaluated and seen more as a civil war than a Scotland V England thing. And now with the rise of rampant nationalism we seem to have gone back to seeing it as battle for freedom from England, which it never was. Partly I suspect it’s because, as I’ve said before, we weren’t really taught our own history at school much, or well, but I hope that’s changed now, so I don’t know why young people still choose to believe the mythology rather than the reality. If I was a Highlander of a Jacobite clan, I might still feel nostalgic for the “King over the Water” – the deposed Stuarts – but as a Lowlander from a Protestant background my forebears would undoubtedly have been on the side of the Hanoverians. So I found it interesting that Jacob didn’t demonize the Hanoverians – it’s still quite rare. The only other of the Scottish classics I’ve read that doesn’t romanticise the Jacobites is The New Road, which I think was written at much the same time as this, so perhaps that was another period of re-evaluation, though why at that time I can’t think. Next up is The Bull Calves, written some thirty years later just after WW2, so it will be intriguing to see how it was perceived by then…

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  11. Yes, I’d like to do read along for The Flight of the Heron. I found a cheap omnibus Kindle version of the series, so ready whenever you are. Thanks for the link to Pining for the West, another simpatico blog that I’d like to keep up with 🙂

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    • Oh, great! I’ll need to finish my 20 Books of Summer first, so maybe September-ish? But can I check my review schedule and get back to you – bunging 20 books into the mix always messes me up! I’m glad you liked Pining for the West – she’s about a million times more knowledgeable than me about Scottish authors so we can both get tips from her… 😀

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