The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

Book 67 of 90

However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 247…

Episode 247

A tiny increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 209. So fortunately I’ve managed to avoid a book famine for yet another week – phew!

Here are a few more that will be on the menu soon…

Factual

A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Courtesy of William Collins via NetGalley. I wouldn’t normally be attracted to a book about a sex scandal, but I thoroughly enjoyed another of Toobin’s books on Patty Hearst, American Heiress, and I’m hoping that, although the blurb doesn’t say so, this one might explain the whole Whitewater thing which was behind the Clinton scandal, and which I never fully got to grips with at the time…

The Blurb says: The definitive account of the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandals, A Vast Conspiracy casts an insightful eye over the extraordinary ordeal that nearly brought down a president.

First published a year after the infamous impeachment trial, Jeffrey Toobin’s propulsive narrative captures the full arc of the Clinton sex scandals – from their beginnings in a Little Rock hotel to their culmination on the floor of the United States Senate with only the second vote on presidential removal in American history.

Rich in character and fuelled with the high octane of a sensational legal thriller, A Vast Conspiracy has indelibly shaped our understanding of this disastrous moment in American political history.

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Scottish Classic

Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Another from the Scottish section of my Classics Club list and I bet you’ll never be able to guess what it’s about – the Jacobite Rebellions! It’s just as well really that the Rebellions happened or there would be pretty much no classic Scottish literature… 😉 It’s also vying for the award for Shortest Blurb, which is surprising, since it’s a brick-sized book…

The Blurb says: Over a summer weekend at Gleneagles, the Haldane family gather. It’s 1747 and a cautious Scotland is recovering from the ’45 rebellion. To the party the family bring their own suspicions and troubles, and the weekend takes a dramatic turn when one of them conceals a rebel Jacobite in the attic.

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Crime

Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon

The first of the two Maigrets I’ve included on my 20 Books of Summer list, which I’m already falling seriously behind with. And an even shorter blurb! At this rate I’ll need to do a song and dance routine to fill up space at the end of the post…

The Blurb says: During an undercover case Inspector Lognon is shot in a room he was sharing with a beautiful woman who has since disappeared. Inspector Maigret retraces Lognon’s secretive last few days and is drawn into the darker side of the art world.

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Classic Fiction on Audio

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy read by Tony Britton

Sadly I didn’t get on with the narrator of the du Maurier I intended to listen to, so quickly abandoned it and have already started this one. So far Tony Britton is doing a marvellous job and I’m thoroughly enjoying the story, which I wasn’t sure if I’d read before, but am now sure I haven’t…

The Blurb says: In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper. Subtitled ‘A Story of a Man of Character’, Hardy’s powerful and sympathetic study of the heroic but deeply flawed Henchard is also an intensely dramatic work, tragically played out against the vivid backdrop of a close-knit Dorsetshire town.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?