Friday, October 28, 2016

Stories by English Authors: Scotland by J. M. Barrie, et al.

Nae muckle tae gie excited abit
Sir Walter Scott
This is the fourth book I’ve reviewed from the ten-volume Stories by English Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each book in the series is titled after the location in which its stories are set—Scotland in this case, of course. The title is misleading, however, in that the series apparently uses the word “English” to mean “British.” The six authors represented in this collection of short fiction are in fact Scottish, not English. Some of Britain’s greatest literature has come from Scotland, but this isn’t it. Despite the presence of luminaries like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, this volume doesn’t admirably represent the state of Scottish literature in the late 19th century.

One problem with Scottish tales, if those included here are any indication, is that authors often feel compelled to dress up their stories in uniquely Scottish local color, starting with the requisite Scottish accent, and apparently the thicker the better. Thus, all the dialogue in these six stories has been transcribed into the Scottish brogue, with varying degrees of success. “No” becomes “nae,” “know” becomes “ken,” “much” becomes “muckle,” and so on. This presents two problems. First and foremost, it can be a pain to read, and sometimes you can’t even figure out what’s being said, so the very story that’s being told is obscured. The second and more vexing problem is when the story itself is rather inconsequential. The author’s primary intention in writing the piece is to demonstrate his prowess in transcribing the highland dialect. In such cases, you end up with formulaic, run-of-the-mill stories dressed up in the trappings of picturesque Scottishness. At least a few of the entries here are guilty of this greater sin.

Perhaps only because I approached this book with optimism, its first entry is its best. In “The Courting of T’nowhead’s Bell” by J. M. Barrie, a young weaver courts his sweetheart, but he’s not the only young man in this rural village who aspires to be the girl’s husband. The competition between the two suitors is quite funny, but you have to wade through the thick accent to get at the humor beneath. Another humorous tale, “The Glenmutchkin Railway” by “Professor Aytoun” has the potential to be funny, but it goes on way too long. It’s about two con artists building a pyramid scheme around an imaginary railroad, but it gets bogged down in stock market minutiae.

The two entries by Scott and Stevenson are worth mentioning because of the authors’ illustrious careers, but the stories included here are far from their best work. Both stories touch on the horror genre and might have been truly scary if not for the painstaking decipherment required to read the text. Scott’s “Wandering Willie’s Tale” concerns a tenant farmer who is denied a receipt for payment of his rent, and has to go to hell to get one. In Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet,” a fearsome preacher takes as his housekeeper a woman accused of dabbling in deviltry. There are a lot of spooky goings-on, but in the end they don’t add up to anything that makes sense.

Rounding out the collection are “A Doctor of the Old School” by Ian Maclaren and “The Heather Lintie” by S. R. Crockett, probably the least interesting works in the book. Scotland deserves better. How about some Arthur Conan Doyle? It seems these six stories were chosen for their diligent efforts to render the charming national accent into text, with less thought given to their literary merit.

Stories in this collection
The Courting of T’nowhead’s Bell by J. M. Barrie 
“The Heather Lintie” by S. R. Crockett
A Doctor of the Old School by Ian Maclaren 
Wandering Willie’s Tale by Sir Walter Scott 
The Glenmutchkin Railway by Professor Aytoun 
Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson

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