‘Her thoughts were very far away, for she had the happy power of forgetting the outer world altogether when she read anything that interested her.’ —Crossriggs, 1908
A good novelist knows how to begin an absorbing chain of events, and signal to the reader, in effect ‘settle in, I’m going to tell you a story‘. In a Victorian era novel, a beloved formula might commence with a sleepy village. The villagers and their dwellings are sketched out–they are ‘much of a piece’, as they say–but you just know the wonderful fodder for a good narrative is beginning to build.
Next might be mentioned—a brief mention, lest the reader make too much of it—the sad affair of a good-for-nothing relation who is connected to the Big House; a relation who has had the sensibleness to take himself off to parts unknown before the story begins where he can then die offstage without troubling the reader. The good news is, he leaves behind a handsome young heir, who then moves back to the sleepy village and intrigues everyone with his slightly foreign manners. And then… well, let the authors tell us:
‘Then and there happenings began.’
Crossriggs, written in 1908, is a novel I knew I would enjoy after reading just the opening lines. A story doesn’t have to be great literature for us to get lost in it, or care about the characters and what happens to them.
I like to break up my reading periods with a walk outdoors, if weather permits. In the fresh outdoor air the scenes and conversations continue to play in my mind, though with a feeling of being slightly offstage. My walk the other day (and accompaniment to this book) took me along mossy, overgrown paths and the recent scars of a fierce windstorm that toppled quite a few beloved old trees around town. It was a storm that—for our typically mild Pacific NW weather—seemed very ill-suited to an April day.
But for all that, it did make the rugged Scottish landscape of Crossriggs seem not too far from my own, and I came home to become easily immersed in the world cleverly crafted by the Findlater sisters. (Thanks to the excellent reviews of a few book bloggers, previously Liz and Ali, and most recently, Jane, I was moved to finally get down to reading a book I’ve had in my library and on my TBR pile for quite some time.)
If you’re in the mood for a good period piece, with well-drawn characters, and one that is not too mawkish, sentimental or wordy (like some Victorian literature can be) you should give this one a try.
The Findlater sisters had a vigorous intellect, a lively curiosity, and a shrewd sense of humor. They also had an aunt who, as a biography informs us, was ‘well remembered in Edinburgh society as “a fascinating creature who sang Gaelic songs and wrote verses.”
The aunt sounds delightful. I would be curious to know if her presence made its way into any of the Findlater characters.
For the story of Crossriggs, this sisterly writing duo pairs two fictional sisters, Alex and Mary. The two sisters are of very different dispositions, which provides some interest (with the winning gold star of personality going to Alex, of course, because it is mainly her story), and they live with an eccentric, kindly old father. He provides some entertainment, being a Victorian age vegan, a pacifist with dreams of living off the land, and never far from his well-thumbed copy of the Iliad. Homer, while glorifying war and bloody deeds of valor, made it all so poetic.
‘Old Hopeful was reading aloud to them all. The arrival of a family of five was nothing to him , and an hour or two had sufficed to restore him to his full flow of benevolent optimism.
“Delighted to see you, Robert!” he exclaimed. “We were just having an hour of Homer before the boys went to bed. Tales of windy Troy! Brave days—brave days! These youngsters are to be envied, hearing them for the first time.”
The Hope household is poor, but they are genteel. The fires, in this cottage, die out early on frigid evenings for want of fuel, but a candle stays lit while tired eyes and restless minds read eagerly into the wee hours.
I became utterly immersed in my visit to the village of Crossriggs, and enjoyed being transported back in time; even as the porridge was inevitably scorched, the pudding became watery, the long evening walks across the green became bitter cold, the candles sputtered out, and Old Hopeful fell asleep once again with his worn copy of Homer.
The Findlaters had an eye for detail, and of course, a woman’s knack for conveying the homely bits of information that make a story come to life.
“How well I remember it all!” they wrote… and, with that, introduce us to the main characters and tone of the village that was Crossriggs.
We meet the crusty Admiral Cassilis, his handsome nephew Van, and an unusual creature of animal vitality named Dolly Orranmore who wears the wrong shade of green but still manages to look fiercely attractive while she strides about with a whip and a pack of dogs. We also meet the inscrutable Robert Maitland, and Maitland’s aunt, the venerable Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland with her ramrod back. It is she of whom the authors wrote nostalgically…’we shall never look upon her like again.’
‘It was a sight to see her walk down the street of Crossriggs, with head erect, her unflinching green eye looking here and there, observant of the life around. The village trembled before her…’
The quaint village of Crossriggs might take a page from an Austen novel or even bring in a whiff from the Cranford tea tables. Although there are far too many men in Crossriggs to be Gaskell’s Cranford, Alexandra Hope would have fit in very well with a female dominated society. She runs their small, impoverished household with efficiency and spirit, has high ideals, a restless intellect, and never lacks for opinion. She can be ruthlessly critical of people she doesn’t like, but generous to those she does. I can’t say I always liked Alex; her criticisms of other people were often harsh and repetitive, her high-mindedness could be a bit much at times, but she also came crashing down into periods of self-doubt and outright depression. In short, she is painted in real life tones, and just like any of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. Alex surprised me—she was a refreshingly honest character for this era of novel.
There is a love interest throughout the book, with more than one face. The truth from her own heart Alex can barely think of, and there is no internal dialogue on that subject until later in the book. The reader is not fooled, but is never quite sure how things are going to work out. (Those clever authors had me jumping through a couple of hoops, bless their hearts…)
The dusk was falling, and the air was very still…. How many times, Alex thought, she had walked down that avenue in all weathers! She knew it now under every possible aspect, from the frosts of winter to the green delight of spring and the sleepy warmth of summer—here she was round again to another winter! How quickly the last year had gone; would every year of life glide past at this astonishing pace now! She remembered when the years were long, when a child’s joy in April was un-shadowed by the thought that spring would be over in a few weeks, when a childs’s wonder at winter was untouched by any hope of spring…. ‘Perhaps the child’s is the true way of living—it makes a sort of eternity while it lasts.’
Through it all, the disappointments, the grieving, and the small triumphs, Alex kept a firm hand on her integrity, and an immovable stance on her high moral ground.
‘O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound…Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street? Did ot the first snowdrops that struggled up to the light from under that iron sod sigh out indescribable promise in their faint suggestive breath? Even the enveloping veils of mist, the grey distance, the low hills that stood beyond the village seemed a fitting background for the lively scene of human life that was enacted there.’
As a side note, I noticed with interest the dedication of the book to Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.
Kate Douglas Wiggin, is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. If you were born anytime between 1910 and oh, say… the 1960’s… and you were named Rebecca, you might remember this book with impatience, or perhaps affection. Either way, I have no doubt this book was often invoked in your life and conversations. All of my growing up years I could never be introduced to an older person without ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ coming immediately into the dialogue, along with a cheeky, albeit kindly, smile. (I have since forgiven, and even own a copy plus the sequel now.)
I would like to read more Findlater stories, in due time. What I am particularly interested in are the collaboration stories they did with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (aka Charlotte Stewart). The Affair At the Inn, one of these, is available as a free e-book. Apparently each author would take turns writing a chapter and advancing the story line. Sounds like a fun exercise–perhaps not good for the novel as an art form, but as a time capsule of the past? Intriguing.
Notes: Crossriggs was reprinted by Virago in paperback; I believe all the rest of the Findlater output is out of print, but that is changing as of this year. The copyright protection on Jane’s works (not Mary’s) is ending this year. So any works written solely by Jane Findlater are now in the public domain. The exciting news is that the National Library of Scotland will be making digitalized versions available online. Read here for more.
Here is a list of their other works:
1895. Sons & Sonnets – Mary Findlater
1896. The Green Graves of Balgowrie – Jane Findlater
1897. Over the Hills – Mary Findlater
1897. A Daughter of Strife -Jane Findlater
1899. Betty Musgrave – Mary Findlater
1899. Rachel – Jane Findlater
1901. A Narrow Way – Mary Findlater
1901. Tales that are Told – Mary and Jane Findlater
1902. The Story of a Mother – Jane Findlater
1903. The Rose of Joy – Mary Findlater
1904. Stones from a Glass House – Jane Findlater
1904. The Affair at the Inn – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart) [note: available as a free e-book]
1905. All that Happened in a Week – Jane Findlater
1906. The Ladder to the Stars – Jane Findlater
1907. A Blind Bird’s Nest – Mary Findlater
1908. Crossriggs – Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Penny Moneypenny- Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Robinetta – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)
1916. Seen and Heard Before and After
1914 -Mary and Jane Findlater
1916. Content With Flies – Mary and Jane Findlater
1912. Seven Scots Stories – Jane Findlater
1914. Tents of a Night – Mary Findlater
1921. A Green Grass Widow and other Stories – Jane Findlater
1923. Beneath the Visiting Moon – Mary and Jane Findlater