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15 - James Robertson: In the Margins of History

from Part IV - Realism, Postmodernism and Beyond: Historical Fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2017

Cairns Craig
Affiliation:
Glucksman Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
James Acheson
Affiliation:
University of Canterbury
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Summary

The action of James Robertson's The Fanatic (2000) is split between 1997, in the weeks before the Labour Party's election victory that led to the establishment of a Scottish parliament, and the seventeenth century when, in the 1670s, James Mitchel is tried and executed for the attempted assassination of Archbishop Sharp, betrayer of the principles of the Scottish Covenant. The two periods are linked by Andrew Carlin, a former history student so ghostlike in appearance that he is asked to perform in a ‘ghost tour’ of Edinburgh's Old Town, playing Major Weir, an associate of Mitchel's who was executed for incest and diabolism in 1670. Carlin becomes obsessed with understanding Mitchel, one who had the opportunity to make history – ‘Now is Mitchel's time, now he is in history’ (TF, 138) – but failed. ‘History betrays him’ (TF, 138). Carlin's obsession is mirrored in the seventeenth-century scenes by John Lauder, who is desperate to understand the ‘fanaticism’ that drives someone like Mitchel to the gallows for his faith. Doing research on the period, Carlin uncovers ‘a secret book’ supposedly written by Lauder, which brings him so close to the events of the past he feels ‘It's like the past isna past. It's right there happenin in front o me’ (TF, 52). Before Carlin can finish Lauder's book, however, both the book and the librarian who provided it disappear, leaving no record of their existence. The history which Robertson's novel recounts may seem very real, but it is based either on absent textual evidence (even though the novel shows Lauder beginning to write his ‘secret book’ (TF, 287)) or, as in the case of Weir, on a surfeit of textual evidence known to have been invented for propaganda purposes: the narrative veers between characters like Mitchel, who fail to make their mark on history, and other characters like Weir, who go down in history so wreathed in interminglings of the speculative and the supernatural – many of them gathered in Robertson's own collection of Scottish Ghost Stories (1996) – that ‘historical truth’ is impossible to establish.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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