Jessie M.E. Saxby’s Rock Bound was published in 1877, and is only the second novel by a Shetland author. In it we hear Inga Henderson, a young upper-class woman from the fictional island of Vaalafiel, tell the story of her rather traumatic life. The story includes smuggling, murder, a mysterious underground passage, shipwrecks, and a parent secretly imprisoned in a European lunatic asylum. An online edition of Rock Bound can be found at http://archive.org/stream/rockboundastory00saxbgoog#page/n6/mode/2up
Here are a few ideas that might kick off our discussion. Firstly, what do you think about the way Saxby uses gender in the novel?
Do you think JMES felt she was depicting Shetland accurately?
What do you think about JMES use of dialect in the book? She comments on this in the preface to the second edition.
Rock Bound was written at a time when economic conditions for working people in Shetland were not very good. Things don’t seem at all bad for most of the working folk in the novel. Do you think Saxby lets herself down by failing to deal with this subject?
Do you think Inga’s marriage is a happy one?
There wasn’t much of a local literature when JMES was writing the novel (she seems to have known nothing about earlier writers like Margaret Chalmers or D.P. Campbell). How hard would it have been to write a Shetland novel with no local precedent?
At the outset, Inga is a child of nature. Her withdrawn and austere mother, ‘The Lady’, pays her little heed, other than to ensure she conforms to what is expected of a girl of her class when in the Ha-hoose. Inga’s nurse, Mam Osla, the only developed character who is fully local, represents the devoted, nurturing aspect of femininity, yet she is so full of superstition that, as Inga grows, she is ever less able to credit her beliefs.
Between mother and nurse, the young Inga must navigate a way to adulthood. The proper instruction comes from her appointed tutor, the minister’s son, Aytoun Weir, a rational and sensible fellow who, despite his religiosity, is a man of action. The reader realises early that Inga and he are well-suited temperamentally, much more so than she and her sickly, rather effete cousin, Laurence Traquair. Yet Laurence is ever the gentleman, rich and leisured, indulgent of Inga’s capricious nature, and it is her fate to marry him. She learns late on in the story that everyone but her had known this all along.
Overall, one senses that class and gender roles, though questioned, are nonetheless confirmed by the conclusion. Inga’s adoption of the ‘wild girl’, Ondine, perhaps represents the externalisation of her own rebelliousness. Inga is now ‘The Lady’ and, we might surmise, is in the process of civilizing this wild, foreign spirit, even as she indulges her. In doing so, Inga has perhaps become both her mother and her nurse.
If we consider that the period of the novel’s genesis is contemporary with the work of Ibsen and Amalie Skram across in Norway, it seems much less than radical, in terms of gender and class.
Depiction of Shetland
Although there is some memorable descriptive writing, showing the landscape, the changing light and the ever-present ocean, I don’t think this was a primary concern – the aim of the novel is surely more to entertain than to educate, and the focus is firmly on the deeds of the rich landowners and their clergy, though there are passages and incidents that do depict something of island life, however brief.
Yet I do believe that Saxby was telling it as she saw it, and the preface to the 2nd edition seems to indicate this, as she takes direct issue with some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the book.
I found the dialect, which really only emanates from one source, Mam Osla, to be on the whole convincing. The obvious omission, which Saxby herself refers to, is the use of ‘th’ where the distinctive local pronunciation would be ‘d’. But in terms of the overall vocabulary, grammar and suggested cadence, and knowing that this was written by someone whose primary knowledge of dialect came from Unst, I thought it well-judged.
There is an attendant issue, however, which is that in those scenes where Inga and Mam Osla converse, Inga speaks as a lady should, whilst the nurse speaks broad dialect. Now this may be as Saxby experienced it, but I feel that had we witnessed Inga speaking the local tongue this would have helped to create a sense of her as the wild child of Shetland’s nature. However, this begs the question who the author imagined the reader to be, and it may have seemed too alienating, had Inga spoken the tongue of her forebears.
Though they feature hardly at all, the peasantry seem docile and contented, and happily accepting of their lot, when they do. Yet this novel is set around a time when the population of the isles had risen to an unsustainable level, (31,000 in 1861) resulting in mass emigration. The fictional Vaalafiel seems quite isolated from these concerns, as perhaps certain islands or parishes may have been. We glean very little about their lives from ‘Rock-Bound’ as the focus is almost always on the well-to-do.
One instance of this is the key scene in the denouement, when the yacht carrying Inga’s mother, her husband and the man she loves is caught in a storm. We are told that the fishermen are all away at the most distant fishing grounds, and therefore cannot help in the rescue attempts, leaving the stage clear for her father to act heroically and so redeem his earlier crimes. But no mention is made of whether the fishermen survived the storm. As soon as they are dismissed as players in the central drama, they disappear from the reader’s sight.
I think Saxby, and the Inga of the novel’s conclusion, would probably ask what is meant by ‘happy’. It would seem clear that Inga loves the dashing Aytoun Weir, but accommodates the expectations of her family and her tenantry by marrying the rich Laird, who is her first cousin, the son of her aunt. Even Aytoun seems to accept this arrangement. Her wilfulness is curbed ultimately and she does what is expected of her, by learning to accept, even love, the gentleman that her class dictates she should.
Writing a Shetland novel
Saxby was well aware of Scott’s ‘The Pirate’, and this novel must have felt to her like some kind of precedent, even if it wasn’t written by a Shetlander. She certainly refers at one point to Scott, correcting him re the presence of the skylark in Shetland. I think she might have felt, to some extent, that she was offering the inside story, in contrast to Scott, though the readership she had in mind would not have been entirely local, I have no doubt, by publishing in Edinburgh and so forth.
Generally, I think where a particular territory has been ‘claimed’ by a prolific author – for instance, more recently, George Mackay Brown and Orkney – it can be difficult for later writers to escape the ‘anxiety of influence’, or find a means of making that territory their own. Yet the depth of any culture lies in multiplicity and the more versions there are, the truer the whole.
Structurally, is the device of the direct address to Ondine successful in your mind? Personally I found I’d forgotten the beginning, intriguing though it is, by the time I reached the closing, explanatory chapters. I think one of my unsatisfied curiosities as a reader is Ondine herself. Would the book have benefited from further development of her character? Or further interaction between narrator and addressee in the middle sections?
–The plot seems to rely too much on chance. Is this an unconcious fault, or evidence of some belief that all is intended, governed and guided by forces we cannot understand? That Aytoun should have rescued ‘The Lady’ and Laurence in Italy, found the ‘hellyer’ whilst sailing by on a yachting trip before his family moved to Shetland and made his way into Inga’s bed-chamber, AND be the son of one of Inga’s father’s university friends (presumably before the father took up his living in Jewbadaal) all seems a bit of a stretch.
What are we to make of this fated aspect of the plot? Inga’s coming of age seems to involve her putting aside the superstitious philosophy of her nurse, yet so much of what happens in the latter stages seems based on a fated quality – e.g. the Jacob’s Ladder just prior to the baby’s death validates Mam Osla’s beliefs, Inga’s instant recognition of the place where her father was incarcerated proves her visionary nature. Is Saxby (deliberately?) giving credence to an older form of knowledge/second sight, even as she advocates reason and self-control, suggesting that deep nature must be contained within organised social structures? And does that conflict, if it exists, undermine the novel as a whole?
The relationship between Shetlander and Scot is touched upon here and there. We’re led to believe that the Hendersons are an ancient Shetland family, descending from udal times – who presumably have taken on the Scotch habit of laird/tenant. Is this distinction sufficiently clear for the reader from outside the isles? It would seem important, given the scene at the old castle, where the visitors play out a verbal war between Shetlanders and Scots. What do you make of that, and this issue as a whole?
Yes, the way Inga addresses Ondine at the start is striking. One wonders, though, how integral this device was to the story as Saxby was putting it together. There’s no way of knowing, of course, but you do wonder if making her main character speak to another character in this way was something she worked in during the latter stages of writing. I.e. did she get her plot sorted out then see this as a good way of having an, as you say, intriguing start to the book. That said, I don’t mind that Ondine remains silent. The act of telling her story seems to me a cathartic thing for Inga to do. As she grows up, the people around her constantly try to influence and control how she behaves and acts. By having a silent interlocutor (I know that phrase is contradictory, but hopefully you’ll know what I mean), there is no judgement or interpretation of what Inga says. It is simply a situation where somebody listens to what has happened to her. Maybe Inga was lying on a couch, with Ondine sitting behind her as she talked, a la Freud? As you say, though, it might have been more effective if the reader was reminded of Ondine halfway through the book. Saxby, to be fair, was a relatively inexperienced author when she wrote the book. As you know she went on to write mostly rollicking stories for boys, but one wonders how she’d have developed had she carried on writing for adults. I think there are some interesting techniques at work in this book – the narrative structure being one of them – and she might have refined her craft if she’d written any similar works.
I agree, especially on re-reading the book, that the plot is a bit shaky and contrived. I don’t think there’s anything in the idea that fate directs all the events here and, again, I wonder if it’s just a case of an inexperienced author finding her way. That said, the supernatural is never quite discounted in the novel. Inga has to, rather awkwardly, fit herself into a certain kind of gender role – upper class lady, wife of the laird – which goes against her natural proclivities. So, in that sense, I suppose you could say there’s a conflict between a wild, unrestrained nature and a rigid social order, in which the latter wins out. Inga has to learn her place and the prevailing social order is maintained. One thinks of Scott here, perhaps. In The Pirate, for instance, Minna Troil hankers after the old Romantic Shetland ways, adventure, etc, but ends up a rather sad figure because she can’t fit into the way things are done in reality, nowadays. And, also in that novel, the witchy character, Norna of the Fitful Head, is shown not to have supernatural powers so, by the end, we are in a rational, orderly world where people are under pressure to accept the way things are. The implication is that leaving the old ways behind is a shame, but that’s what has to be done in the modern day. To go back to Rock Bound, however, the supernatural is still viable at the end. Inga does become what she was raised to be but, by leaving the possibility of the supernatural open, maybe Saxby is saying that older ways of being still have something to contribute to modern life. It’s worth noting, maybe, that she continued to think about Shetland folklore for the rest of her life, publishing a fine book on the subject in the 1930s.
The relationship between Shetlander and Scot is a pertinent issue, with the referendum coming up later this year. I wonder how Saxby would’ve voted? Have you seen any of her writing about the British Empire? She gave a speech to one of the Shetland societies in Edinburgh (I forget the date but probably around the turn of the century – it was later published as Heim Laund and Heim Folk) where she spoke about how great the empire was and how the Britons were the natural sons of the Vikings, etc etc. Pretty bombastic stuff. In the same speech, though, she speaks about Orkney and Shetland being a nation by themselves which, because of what she perceived as their ancient Norse culture, shared the same lineage as the British colonists she was so enthusiastic about. So, for her, Shetlanders and Orcadians, sons of the Norsemen, could stand on their own, and be part of the imperial project. What she saw as an adventurous, valorous Norse identity, however, stands in contrast with her view of Scotland. As you know this is an idea with a complicated genealogy but, even nowadays, it’s possible to speak to people in Shetland who think the isles haven’t derived any positive cultural, ethnic, linguistic or political influence from Scotland; i.e., that a supposed indigenous Norse culture has suffered a centuries-long oppression from rapacious interloping Scots. Not an opinion I share at all, but it’s out there today, just as it was in Saxby’s time. I reckon she might’ve been in favour of some kind of autonomy for the isles, but that she also saw them as fundamentally British. I think that’s probably a prevailing idea in the No camp up here at the moment, but I’m not sure how they square being in favour of island autonomy with being dead-set against Scottish autonomy. I’m getting away from the novel here, but it’s interesting to see how similar debates about Shetland’s place in the larger scheme of things keeps coming up.
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Mark Smith works at the Shetland Archives and has recently finished a PhD about Shetland’s literature. He has published fiction, poetry and criticism in various magazines and websites, including PN Review, the Herald, Gutter Magazine and Bella Caledonia, and in anthologies from Two Ravens Press and Polygon. He is a member of the New Shetlander editorial committee.
Robert Alan Jamieson
Robert Alan Jamieson is a novelist and poet who grew up in Shetland, in the village of Sandness. He has tutored Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh since 1993, and was also a Creative Writing Fellow at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. His most recent books are a collection of dialect poetry with English translations, 'Nort Atlantik Drift' (2008) and the novel 'Da Happie Laand' (2010), which was shortlisted for the Saltire Prize and the SMIT Scottish Book of the Year award, and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin award.