Wednesday 3 May 2023

Review: The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

 My journey into novels featuring Jacobites continued with The Bull Calves, a book which also continues my look into the novels of Naomi Mitchison.

It takes place over two days in 1747, when the Haldane family meet in the family home of Gleneagles, a place on the border between the highlands and lowlands. The family themselves are a whiggish one but two of the people who’ve married into it joined in the ’15 Jacobite rebellion. Things are complicated by a man on the run after the ’45 (who joined because he was offered the chance to design the new currency), a Highlander called Lachlan who means the family ill-will and the unexpected arrival of Forbes, Scotland’s first minister. 

The book is essentially about reconciliation, how the family come together, air their grievances and look to a new future for Scotland. Of course, that new future looks different from all the many perspectives of the characters, and that’s where the book shines. There are family members who are highly tied to the British Empire, working in the navy, the army and the East India Company. There’s the improving landlord, adopting new scientific (and English) techniques such as planting trees and using turnips to put nutrients back into the soil. It’s funny how trees and turnips have been key indicators of whiggish tendency in these Jacobite books and adds a lot to Johnson’s discussion of trees in his own travelogue. There’s the Jacobite Highlander, who simply wants to settle down and try the new farming methods for himself. There’s also a sharp divide between the older characters, the weight of history that lies on them and an wisdom born of pain and experience with the younger generation who look to the future in hope. Each character in the book has a strong point of view which informs their actions and a history which explains that point of view - they feel really real.

This old/new, traditional/enlightened, highland/lowland dynamic also includes modes of worship and spirituality. The highlanders having a more formalised, Catholic(ish) Episcopalian belief and the lowlanders with their stricter, free-form prayers, long sermon form of Presbyterianism. There’s also the lingering superstitions of faeries, witches, boggarts and The Sight. 

The Bull Calves spends most time exploring the past of Kirstie and William, a couple deep in love who found each other after painful lives. Kirstie grew up with a deep spiritual sense which led her to marrying a Presbyterian minister who abused her as he preached damnation and hellfire from the pulpit. His job also forced her to move to different communities, a mining one, where the miners were serfs and a weaving one. Her position as preacher’s wife meant that she could never join those communities completely and she grew so bitter with her husband that she joined a coven of witches and believes she murdered him through witchcraft. Her lowest point is when she gives herself up to the devil, who she (amusingly to me) calls The Horny. Instead of The Father of Lies, the man coming into her house is William, who has long held a torch for her. William fled after the ’15 to America, where he failed in running a town for former clan members and instead married a native. This was a charmed life in a society that seemed not so different from the Highland way of life until he saw the torture and consumption of captives. How the two put those painful pasts behind them and create a new future together (as highlander and lowlander) is a microcosm of the ideal Scottish future. 

The book feels utterly authentic, portraying the rapid change of life and the kind of discussions and debates a well-to-do family of that time and place would have. What’s more, everyone seems authentic in the way they think, the conceptions, prejudices and assumptions they would have. There are no twentieth century characters ahead of their time in this book. Each character feels like a genuine result of their upbringing and culture. The range of characters also means that the past presented in the book doesn’t feel narrow or prescriptive. There are strong women and those against slavery, but they are in context - not modern airdrops. It’s probably the realest-feeling historical novel I’ve ever read, where the past has the variety and depth of the present.

The book also contains notes by the author, which are another treat. They aren’t academic notes but thoughts of Naomi Mitchison as related to the writing and conception of The Bull Calves. A descendent of the Haldanes, Mitchison spent WWII in Scotland where she wrote this, as well as working with the community as the wife of a Labour MP. There’s a lot of discussion of Scotland and the Scottish national character, as she sees it. There’s a lot about socialism, her frustration in the lack of a proper class consciousness and her hopes for the future. There’s also a lot about Jung, who she read during this time, which informed her characterisations. It’s like having a book group with the author and having her explain her intentions and processes, which I found really interesting.

Before this, I’ve read four other Naomi Mitchison books and they were all good but this is the first one that’s really great. There may be more fun historical novels out there, but I haven’t yet one that felt this authentic or as deeply and layered in its characterisation and the questions it poses. The Haldanes in the book wondered how they and their country would reconcile and move into the future after Bonny Prince Charlie’s landing, Naomi Mitchison was wondering how people would reconcile and find a new future after WWII. That question of reconciling difference and moving on is still as relevant today as it was then. 

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