The historical novel often gets a bad press, especially in Scotland where Sir Walter Scott has cast a long, and unfairly prejudicial, shadow. As if to prove my point, this month’s novel, ‘Fair Helen’ by Andrew Greig, is inspired by the Border ballad, ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’, which was published by Scott in Volume II of ‘The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. But, if talk of Sir Waldo is putting you off, then think again. ‘Fair Helen’ is a thrilling tale set in a time and place which deserve to be discovered and explored.
Hugh MacDiarmid once proclaimed “Not Burns, Dunbar”, meaning that Scots should be looking further back than Robert Burns, Walter Scott and James Hogg to the early makars, such as William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, to understand best its own history or culture, and this is exactly what Greig does in his novel. Set in the late 16th century, the narrator is Henry Langton, an educated and well travelled man who is called back to Scotland to aide his friend, Adam Fleming, who believes himself in grave danger. This sets the scene for swordplay, affairs of the heart, discussions about Athenian democracy, references to Michel de Montaigne, and ballad mongering at its best.
If you know your Scottish ballads, you may be aware of why Adam is so afeart for his life. He has fallen for the legendary charms of Helen of Annandale, who is the ‘Fair Helen’ of the novel’s title. What unfolds is a classic love triangle, with Harry on the sidelines to report events, (another common literary technique used in Scottish literature. Think Edward Waverley in Scott’s ‘Waverley’ – damn, I mentioned him again). The story behind the song has been referred to as Scotland’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’, but Greig takes that idea to weave a story which touches on the politics and obsessions of the day, and beautifully portrays a time in Scotland’s history where town and country living was starting to become distinctly different.
There’s only one thing that we can possibly have as our musical interlude, and it’s a performance of the song which inspired Greig’s novel, ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’. This is a live version by Unusual Suspects, and it is quite gorgeous:
I was drawn to ‘Fair Helen’ as this is a part of Scotland I know well, having been brought up for some of my childhood, in and around Annandale. When my mum found out about this book she was excited as she grew up knowing about Fair Helen and Adam Fleming, and many of the other ballads from that part of Scotland. It is a rich and rewarding tradition, and if you are not aware of it then ‘Fair Helen’ is a great place to start.
Greig has written a novel which captures 16th century Scotland, but with a vivacity, and often crudity, which would make Chaucer, or indeed Henryson, proud. There are enough belches, farts and double entendres to cater for the basest reader. Imagine Alasdair Gray crossed with James Hogg and you have an idea of what to expect.
Greig’s language is perhaps the book’s greatest triumph, as he manages to use the Scots of the time but make it seem exactly what it would have been, everyday speech. There is an index at the back if you wish to know the exact meaning of ‘clart’, ‘cleuch’ or ‘coory’, but my guess is that you won’t need to as you’ll know more of these words than you may think, and even if you don’t it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book. That’s the greatest achievement of ‘Fair Helen’; it is a timely reminder, if anyone needed one, that Scotland has a rich and varied history, language and culture to be explored, to be shared, and to be proud of.
*’Fair Helen’ is dedicated in memory of Gavin Wallace, who, as Greig writes ‘…cared for our literature and its makars.’. I would like to echo those sentiments here as Wallace, who passed away last year, was a man whose enthusiasm for Scottish writing and writers was inspirational to me, and many others.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Frank Kuppner’s ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is described as ‘a novel, of sorts’ and is as enigmatic as that description suggests. It is part investigative journalism, part tour of Glasgow and part autobiography…or is it?
Written to be one of Polygon Books Sigma series of the late 1980s, which set out to challenge the perceived notions of what literature could be, it is one of those books which keeps you guessing until the very end not only because of the content, but due to the style and form itself. And then you have to start again to see just what you’ve missed.