Last year I started a little project of my own – which I don’t think I ever actually blogged about – to work through the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since it began in 2010. So far I’ve discovered some great books including An Officer and a Spy, Harvest and The Garden of Evening Mists. This book, Fair Helen, is another one that I’ve enjoyed and might never have thought about reading otherwise.
Fair Helen, by Scottish author Andrew Greig, is a beautifully written novel based on the Border ballad, Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which begins:
“O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel Lea.”
The ballad goes on to tell of two rivals for Helen’s love, a shot being fired and Helen falling dead into her lover’s arms. In Fair Helen, Andrew Greig offers one possible interpretation of this ballad, retelling some of its events and expanding on it to include other aspects of Scottish history and Border folklore.
In the late 16th century, when the novel is set, ‘Jamie Saxt’ (King James VI) is on the throne of Scotland, while England’s Queen Elizabeth is approaching old age with no heir of her own. Soon the two thrones will be united under James, bringing some sort of peace and order to the Border region. In the meantime, though, the Borders remain a wild and dangerous place where clans of reivers on both sides of the English-Scottish border fight and feud, steal cattle and conduct raids.
Adam Fleming, whose stepfather is ‘heidsman’ (leader) of the Flemings, has fallen in love with the beautiful Helen Irvine of Annandale. Unfortunately, Helen has already been betrothed to another man, Robert Bell, because the Irvines are keen to form an alliance with the Bell family. Adam has no intention of ending his romance with Helen and summons an old friend from his student days, Harry Langton, to help arrange their secret trysts.
Harry is the narrator of Fair Helen, looking back on the events of the past from several decades into the future, and he is the ideal person to tell the story, being Adam’s best friend and Helen’s cousin. But Harry is also working for another, more powerful patron – someone who has plans of his own for the Borders and will have no sympathy for two young lovers who get in the way of his plans.
I was surprised by how much Andrew Greig managed to pack into the story. I was expecting a tragic romance (according to the cover, the ballad is sometimes described as the Scottish Romeo and Juliet) but it was so much more than that. In fact, the story of Adam and Helen is only one part of the story, no more or less important than the Border politics, the complex feuds and alliances between the clans, and the plotting and scheming going on behind the scenes. There’s a lot happening in this book, yet the pace never feels too rushed.
I always enjoy reading about the Border Reivers, as I live quite close to the Borders (on the English side), but so far I’ve found very few novels that deal with the subject. As I read Fair Helen I kept thinking of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Disorderly Knights – some of the same Borders families appear in both books, such as the Scotts of Buccleuch, and in both there is a dramatic Hot Trod (a lawful pursuit of a raiding party). I wish more authors would choose to write historical fiction based on this fascinating time and place in history – or maybe there are lots of books already and I just haven’t discovered them yet. I do have some non-fiction books on my list for future reading!
I’ve already mentioned how beautiful Andrew Greig’s writing is but I think it deserves to be mentioned again as it really is lovely and poetic, filled with feeling and emotion. The language used is suitable for the 16th century, with no inappropriately modern phrases finding their way into the dialogue to spoil things (one of my pet hates with historical fiction). Harry’s narration is written in the Scots dialect, which also adds to the authenticity. Definitions of unfamiliar words are not given directly in the text – you can usually work them out from the context of the sentence or if not, you can look them up in the glossary at the end of the book. Unless, of course, you’re Scottish in which case it shouldn’t be a problem at all!
Andrew Greig has written six other novels as well as some non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve read any of his other books, please let me know which you would recommend.