Book review: Unspeakable

Dilys Rose‘s Unspeakable was published back in 2017 by Freight Books, whose subsequent (and apparently controversial) liquidation may mean that this is now a little hard to find in print. Sold alongside Graeme Macrae Burnett’s work as, in the words of the Scottish Review of Books reviewer, ‘her bloody project‘, this might well fall into a genre that we might well call ‘Scottish murder ballads’, for the book is a fictional novel conveying the story of the Kirk-sanctioned murder of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man to be hanged in Britain for blasphemy (in 1697).

The novel is set in the late seventeenth century, amidst a tumultuous time in Scottish religious and political history. Covenanters, whose convictions about the Reformation had been sustained throughout a long period of repression under the Stuarts by the zeal with which they maintained them, engaged first in a period of bloody battles with opponents which became known as the ‘killing time’. Then, following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 in which – in Scotland – James VII (the last Stuart monarch; James II of England) was held to have forfeited the crown by his actions, there was a period of internal blood-letting as Kirk ministers and those in other positions of authority, including in education, who were deemed to have remaining sympathies for ‘the King abroad’ were purged as the Covenanters, in full political cry, consolidated their stranglehold on the Kirk and, consequently, on Scottish society. (I’ve used four Wikipedia entries in this para, starting from the general one on the history of Scotland.)

Thomas is a rather precocious and acutely sensitive child prone from the outset to a persistent questioning of the world around him. The family is better off than many, but he experiences increasing poverty and destitution and he and his sisters – one much older, one younger – are eventually taken to live with a rich guardian who grudgingly maintains them, in young Thomas’s case apparently up until the point of maturity, and no farther. Thomas’s appetite for learning and for questioning the world around him – in those pre-enlightenment years – as well as his naive appetite for surrounding himself with unsuitable friends and for ignoring institutional power, see his downfall and murder following the inevitable betrayal.

Given that we know the end before we start the novel, there is not too much in the way of plot spoilers to cover up. The novel tells well of the poverty and the filth of the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town as well as the contrasting riches enjoyed by those who are well-to-do. For the poor, life is cheap and death is everywhere, debts owed to rapacious landlords are a fact of life, and cruelty and abuse are rife; for the others, there is plenty, and harvest failures mean little interruption in the dedication of the rich to consumption. This also comes across in how Rose uses language – dialect for when Thomas is conversing with his peers; high society language in the letters he exchanges with his sisters while studying, as well as in those from his mother to her brother, a representative of the Kirk, desperately seeking alms. The effect is to drive home the clear breach in society between the haves and the have nots, with the Aikenheads straddling both but falling inevitably among the latter in what might be a reflection of what we have come these days to call the ‘hollowed-out middle’. Other than that, the Kirk’s prying prudishness plays an ever-present, and evermore costly, role in the lives of ordinary people and is indeed a character of the novel in its own right, albeit one that rather ghosts around the pages in a series of vignettes than one that actively inhabits them.

There are perhaps two functions of a historical novel: one being to re-interpret and tell a story around actual historical events in the context of their own times; the other being to use that to hold up the mirror of reflection to history, the better to understand our own times. It’s possible to see elements of both in Rose’s work here: in the latter case, a society riven in two by a major, and fractious, public debate between two sides one of which was marked by a zealous (and ultimately successful) pursuit of its aims, accompanied by subsequent purges of the other from public life, and taking place amidst poverty and worsening inequality, bears more than a passing resemblance to the post-Brexit United Kingdom. As, indeed, do events only this weekend in which police forces warned of capacity being overrun by people dialling 999 to inform on their neighbours – a nation of inveterate curtain-twitchers, us – to say nothing of essential public health contracts in these times being given to Tory donors and Brexiteer mates.

An understanding of Scottish history of the time is somewhat critical since Rose takes much for granted. In some ways, she is right to do so as Aikenhead, twenty at the time of his murder, was a child for much of them and, since the novel is told from his own perspective, they take place at a level way over his head. Partly, this helps to cast ordinary people as in the grip of substantial and despotic institutions whose workings they could never hope to influence. Nevertheless, broader references to some of the key events of the time would have helped the reader grasp a little more of the struggle going on. The lack of contextual detail makes it a little hard, from a modern perspective, to comprehend the intensity of the struggle being waged or the grip on society of a Kirk itself beset by the internal furies which it had unleashed.

While this was certainly the last execution for blasphemy in Britain, it remained a capital offence in Scotland until 1825. Aikenhead’s murder may well not have been the last Kirk-sanctioned killing in the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, but it would have been beneficial for Rose to have engaged in some form of reflection of why this turned out to be the last such case. It seems, from these pages, unlikely that this reflects public horror at the killing, despite the comments of some at the time; and nor therefore does it seem particularly likely that the Kirk had hereby achieved its aim of a ‘vigorous execution [to curb] the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land,’ not least since the extent of this had been only recently thought sufficient to prompt a tightening of the offence on the statute book. Perhaps it was the arrival of the Enlightenment, although this would have to wait another twenty years, or perhaps it was the – perhaps unintended – work of the pamphleteers of the time.

Furthermore, the tone of many of the exchanges between Aikenhead and his peers frequently take on what to a modern ear would be ‘banter’ – jokiness and joshing between people with little wider import (and frequently influenced by alcohol). Some leavening by the author of the seriousness of these exchanges would have been helpful, as well as in helping us understand the reasons for the betrayal; these are hinted at, and briefly, but, in both cases, they are absolutely hindered by Rose’s focus on Aikenhead to the almost total exclusion of the character development of his peers.

Consequently, the motives behind Thomas’s betrayal are undeveloped and what we are left with is the story of a naive young man, perhaps with some autistic traits, unable to learn the lessons of what he sees around him and, it would seem, rather missing forms of developmental guidance. Without a clear understanding of the motives of those involved, or a perspective on the context of the events they find themselves in, the other purpose of the historical novel – to review historical events in the context of their own times – is rather lost. Rose’s historical novel thus falls rather between two stools and, despite the wealth of research undertaken for the novel, it is what of this that ended up in her drafts folder that marks this out to be, rather sadly, an opportunity missed.

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