by Pat Griffin, MA student, May 2006
How do Eliza Logan’s novels render their historical and literary sources?
At the beginning of the eighteenth century two novels were published attributed to Eliza Logan (1779-1861), wife of Robert Logan (1771-1853),1 in which were highlighted the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600 and the related Sprott Letters.
The literary sources for Eliza’s books will also be considered and her style of writing evaluated, by comparing her novels with works by other Scottish authors of the early nineteenth century, and within the contemporary literary scene. This will allow assessment to be made as to the importance and extent of literary influence.
Eliza Logan’s novels were shaped by the experience of her living at the beginning of the nineteenth century, attempting to understand events from Scottish history of two hundred years earlier. Her first novel St. Johnstoun; or John, Earl of Gowrie (1823) was written about a period when religious and political intrigue were widespread, when an alleged conspiracy in 1600 to murder king James resulted in the deaths of the apparent colluders, John, Earl of Gowrie, and his brother, Alexander, Master of Ruthven. Eliza Logan’s second novel Restalrig; or The Forfeiture (1829) was written about an event that occurred eight years after the Conspiracy, when letters were produced alleging that Robert Logan, then deceased Laird of Restalrig, was implicated in the Conspiracy. Eliza Logan’s version of the Conspiracy and the controversy surrounding the Sprott Letters will be considered in this essay, but in order to appreciate the background against which she wrote, and assess to what extent this was the historical source for her books, a brief explanation of the incidents may be considered helpful. Literary references to the Conspiracy will also be examined and assessed.
According to historian Gordon Donaldson,2 the account of the Gowrie Conspiracy on the 5th August 1600 is that the Gowrie brothers (John, the third Earl, barely in his twenties and his younger brother, Alexander Ruthven) inherited a long-standing feud with the king, James VI. Their grandfather had been one of the murderers of Rizzio in 1566 (favourite of the king’s late mother, Queen Mary), and their father had led the Ruthven Raid in 1582 in which James, when only sixteen, was kidnapped and imprisoned for some months. In addition, the king owed the Earl of Gowrie eighty thousand pounds, and his hatred of the Ruthven family was fuelled by jealousy of Alexander’s relationship with the queen. Eliza Logan makes reference to this hostility, but her version of what happens differs from that of James.
The historical account of “one of the darkest in the whole of our history”3 is that the king was decoyed to Gowrie House by the tale of a stranger with a large pot of foreign gold coin. After a meal, he went with Ruthven to take possession of the treasure. His retainers appear to have been told that James had left but he was still in the turret room where, instead of finding the mysterious prisoner with the gold, there was an armed man who was, in fact, the Earl of Gowrie’s servant. In the ensuing confusion, Alexander Ruthven and Gowrie were killed and, as a result, it could be said that the wrong suffered by the king’s mother was avenged and, in addition, James’s debt was cancelled. Donaldson writes that he believes it was quite possible that the Gowrie brothers may have intended to kidnap the king, in the manner of the Ruthven Raid.
Eliza Logan takes the Conspiracy as her central theme and intertwines fictional characters and historical people around the facts, as she believes them, to develop a story of intrigue and romance, woven around the history of Scotland and James VI in 1600. In St. Johnstoun, Eliza invites the reader to witness a fated Romeo and Juliet relationship between the factual Earl of Gowrie, a Protestant, and the fictional Lady Agnes, destined for a nunnery. A fictional Jesuit manipulates Agnes and Gowrie with the aim of removing the fervently Protestant Earl, hoping then to be in a position to influence the king to restore the country to Catholicism. The reader is reminded in Eliza’s novel of the historical story that Gowrie’s young brother, Alexander, Master of Ruthven, is involved in a liaison with the queen and given a treasured trinket by her. The long and historical association that Queen Anne had with the Gowrie family, against the wishes of the king, is illustrated in St. Johnstoun through her continued friendship with Gowrie’s sister, Beatrix. The novel is, so far, almost completely fictitious but appears authentic by including real-life characters and a sprinkling of historical facts, such as Queen Anne’s masque, that contribute to give it an air of realism.
The climax of Eliza’s novel is the Conspiracy, a factual event, interpreted by the author so as to give credence to the story that the king’s party deliberately murdered the Gowrie brothers. In St. Johnstoun, the characters and personalities of the Gowrie brothers are developed through Eliza’s imagination. We know that, historically, they existed and were involved in the Conspiracy but, through Eliza’s writing, we are enticed to believe that we know them as people. It is almost inevitable that the reader feels persuaded by Eliza that the Earl of Gowrie and his brother are the innocent parties in the alleged conspiracy. Her story presents the event as truth; she believes her version and expects the reader to, too. In addition, and most importantly, if the reader is convinced that the Gowrie brothers are innocent of the allegation against them, Robert Logan must also be found not guilty.
In developing her argument, Eliza writes that the king appears to have little appetite for the meal he has requested at Gowrie House and seems distracted. When the king is speaking to Ruthven the reader is persuaded that James may be having devious thoughts, as “the workings of triumphant cunning, and the misgivings of timidity, gave a singular expression to his aspect, of which he seemed himself aware; insomuch that he avoided looking at the Master”.4 Eliza encourages the reader to continue to be suspicious of the king’s behaviour as James insists on only Alexander Ruthven going upstairs with him to look at Italian statues, and ‘prepare a surprise for the Earl’, although Ruthven thinks that the king “proceeded, as quickly and unregarding of its many attractions as though it had been the green and damp stained passage from some dungeon vault, which was to lead him to the blessed air of Heaven.”5 Historically, and according to the novel, James is aware of the relationship between his wife and Ruthven, and perhaps Eliza is suggesting that the king wants the opportunity to be alone with him, for revenge. She hints that, at the very least, he appears to have something underhand in mind when he insists on Ruthen alone accompanying him upstairs.
The reader shares the unease of the Earl of Gowrie, waiting downstairs with the other guests, when he is ‘forcibly seized’ by the ‘treachery and danger’ that he feels surrounds his brother, and even when he has ‘schooled’ himself into a calmer mood, he feels “overpowered, as if by some impending evil, that seems even now to wrestle with my spirit”.6 When Gowrie and the other men hear a voice shouting for help and rush upstairs, the Earl finds that “the floor was stained with blood, - but he nowhere beheld his brother”.7 When his retainer, Rathsay, tells the king that he would “deal with this traitor Earl” and tries to push James into a nearby room, the king struggled violently for fright and indignation, at the authority exercising over him, lent him a strength not his own. “Dinna kill him here - ~Dinna kill him here,” vociferated James, - “unhand your lawful Prince and maister – I will hae nae mair bluid, I say.” And as Rathsay still continued to persist in his purpose, he vociferated, - “Help! – Help! – Ye are a’ traitors! – I shall be murthered – God hae mercy! – I shall be murthered at last!” 8
Eliza appears to suggest that the king has lost control and is accusing even his own men as murderers. She describes the scene in the tower in great detail, and so is persuasive that her version of events is the correct one. She explains that after the murders, the king is greeted with ‘abusive vociferations’ by the angry crowd who believe that “He hath slain a better man no himself … and we will hae bluid for bluid”.9 The author makes it clear in her book that the townspeople gathered outside blame the king, believing that he is not so innocent as his followers claim.
The final lines of St. Johnstoun neatly reveal what happens to all the main characters and, again, Eliza blends fact with fiction. For example, she explains that the fictional Jesuit goes to London with the king in 1603, but he incites Catesby to blow up Parliament and, for his involvement in this plot, is subsequently shot with Catesby and Percy.
There has been continued interest in the Gowrie Conspiracy for historians and Scottish people, and the Logan family would have been aware of any publications regarding their forefather. It is significant that all these suggest that the version of events is as described by the king, and that the Letters are genuine.
In 1713, the Earl of Cromerty, George Mackenzie, published an ‘historical account’ of The Conspiracies by the Earls of Gowry and Robert Logan of Restalrig, against King James VI of Glorious Memory. Containing the Facts, Proofs and Judgments in these Causes, in which he tells that the two sons of the late Earl of Gowrie,
The account of the Conspiracy in Mackenzie’s book appears to be unambiguous. He refers to Alexander “having a loose Girdle in his Hand [and saying to the king] By God! There is no Remedy, you must die”11 but when Gowrie rushes into the room and is accused of having killed the king, Mackenzie reports him “as [being] astonish’d [and] did put the Points of his Two Swords to the Ground” (whereupon he was immediately killed), which suggests that perhaps Mackenzie was not, at that time, sure of the Earl of Gowrie’s guilty involvement. His book also refers to the ‘forged’ Sprott letters (the subject of Eliza’s second novel) and ‘Gowrie’s treasonable Conspiracy’. By the end of the account, however, the reader is in no doubt that Mackenzie’s opinion is that the Gowrie brothers were guilty of attempted murder.
In 1804, the second edition of Malcolm Laing’s History was published, containing ‘a full account’ of the Gowrie Conspiracy. It is very likely that members of the Logan family were familiar with this, and also with Mackenzie’s ‘Account’, and the renewed defamation of the character of their ancestor may well have prompted Eliza to write their own preferred version of events. Whatever the truth behind the story, in 1600 the general public did not doubt James’s version that he was attacked, although most of the influential Presbyterian ministers believed that it was a fabrication, devised to cover the king’s plan to destroy the Ruthven family. Eliza Logan does not consider any other explanation for the event than that shared today with the people of Perth (formerly St. Johnstoun), who believe that James was responsible for the murder of the young Earl in order to clear his debt, and that six weeks later he had the bodies of both brothers convicted of treason.
Eliza Logan creates a fictitious scene towards the end of St. Johnstoun where she introduces Walter, a son of Robert Logan, Laird of Restalrig, although there is no evidence that Robert Logan did have a son called Walter. In the Concluding Letter, the author promises that having found “what I conceived might prove the only authentic documents now existing of an affair which had puzzled all the wisest heads in Christendom for upwards of two centuries”,12 another book will be produced to do justice to the Gowrie brothers and also to reveal the adventures of the young Restalrig
The second book of Eliza Logan concerns an historical event that happened eight years after the Conspiracy. Letters were produced by a lawyer, George Sprott, who claimed that they were original documents he had found, written by Robert Logan to the Earl of Gowrie, with details of a plan to abduct James from Gowrie House and take him to Logan’s castle. It was Eliza Logan’s belief that Sprott had been well paid to forge the letters in order to implicate Robert Logan. Although the letters were regarded as genuine, Sprott was hanged, accused of having prior knowledge of the Conspiracy, and Robert Logan’s body was exhumed two years after his death and found guilty of treason. Eliza does not ever consider that the letters were genuine, always maintaining that they were forgeries.
Restalrig is an Historical Romance that presents a great range of characters from the lowliest of peasants to monarchs. Eliza Logan writes in vigorous and imaginative style, creating a novel around the adventures of Walter Logan, with just a thread of historical evidence, the Sprott Letters. She develops her characters, again mingling actual and fictional personages convincingly together. The ‘truth’ is revealed about the Letters when Old Sprott shamefully reveals that his son forged them, and the novel is able to end with his father’s forfeited lands returned to Walter, as Laird of Restalrig.
Between 1828-30, around the time that Eliza published her second novel, Sir Walter Scott published Tales of a Grandfather, a history of Scotland for children. In the
many persons of that period, and even some historians of our own day, have thought that it was not a conspiracy of the brothers against the King, but of the King against the brothers; and that James, having taken a dislike to them, had contrived the bloody scene, and then thrown the blame on the Ruthvens, who suffered in it.16
This is the view of Eliza, of course, as portrayed in her novels, but Scott then discounts this version, considering that the ‘naturally timorous’ king is not capable of devising such a scheme. He continues his account of the Conspiracy by referring to the Sprott letters, in which the Earl of Gowrie expresses a wish for revenge and also describes a plan to take an important prisoner to Robert Logan’s castle, probably with the knowledge of Queen Elizabeth. Scott’s version of the Gowrie Conspiracy and the Sprott letters is that he believes that the letters were genuine and that the brothers and Logan, “a dissolute and extravagant man”,17 plotted to make the king a prisoner and perhaps deliver him to Queen Elizabeth, but not to murder him. It is quite likely that Eliza Logan had access to Scott’s history before she published her second novel, Restalrig in 1829, and this would have reinforced her need to defend the Gowrie brothers and Robert Logan.
In her novels of the 1820s, Eliza Logan uses historical background to give a feeling of authenticity surrounding the events of 5th August, 1600. Previously, all the great novels had been studies of contemporary life, the novel of manners being firmly established, with its aim of imitating and interpreting reality, but a new genre was being developed and, in order to ascertain the sources from which Eliza may have taken literary ideas, examples and form, I shall focus on the style of her writing by comparing it with the works of other authors.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the national tale became fashionable and melodrama and pageantry of the past were introduced: in Ireland, Maria Edgeworth published her powerful Castle Rackrent (1800), ‘taken from the manners of the Irish squires, before the year 1782’ and in Scotland, where Eliza Logan would have felt the greatest influence, she would have seen and enjoyed publications including Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810), a best-selling book about William Wallace; James Hogg’s The Queen’s Wake (1813) about Mary, Queen of Scots; and Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, beginning with Waverley (1814), an historical romance of chivalry and tragedy, woven around the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It is scarcely credible that these books, published so close to hers, did not influence Eliza, a lady with the time to enjoy the fashionable pastime of reading.
There is evidence that Eliza was known of and influenced by Scott: she was certainly eager for him to read her work, as is indicated in the two letters in his Collected Letters referring to her first novel, St. Johnstoun. The first, dated 1824, (the year after her book was published), is addressed to a Mrs Logan of Willdown, Coldingham. This letter is interesting because, although Scott refers to Eliza’s “well-esteemed novel”,18 he admits that he has never read her book, but he appears to speak of the Gowrie Conspiracy and the Sprott Letters with some authority, being of the opinion that the letters were genuine. It would suggest, from the contents of the letter, that Eliza and ‘Mrs Logan’ are different people. Scott continues
These are the only particulars which occur to my recollection as belonging to the story you propose to treat of – A friend of mine long since made some progress in a fiction on the same subject but I dare say would never interfere with you or at least allow you full time to try your lot with that capricious animal call’d the public.19
Unfortunately, the letter to Scott from ‘Mrs Logan’ has not been found and so it may be never known why he wrote, “the trust you have reposed in me shall be sacred”.20 It is also disappointing that the ‘fiction’ of Scott’s friend has apparently never been published and, in addition, we are left with his intriguing suggestion that ‘Mrs Logan’ herself may be ‘proposing’ a story. Unless, of course, ‘Mrs Logan’ is Eliza; but there are no records to show that Eliza ever lived in a house called ‘Willdown’ in the village of Coldingham.
Scott’s second letter dated 1828 (the year before Restalrig) also indicates his interest with Eliza’s family. He is writing to ‘R. Logan, late of the [12th] Royal Lancers’, presumably another family member, but untraceable in army records and, while not admitting that he has read Eliza’s book Scott is, nevertheless, of the opinion that “she was only guided by her own fancy … she applied to me in pretty much the same manner which you have done me the honour to do”21 implying, perhaps, that Eliza was the ‘Mrs Logan’ who had written to him for approbation.
The descriptions of clothing and places in St. Johnstoun and Restalrig appear to emulate Scott, and her exaggerated language is criticised by Alex Adamin a letter to George Boyd, after he has read a manuscript of Restalrig
In St. Johnstoun, for example, we picture Agnes
The innumerable ringlets of her bright and luxuriant hair, fell like a veil over the polished neck and shoulders .. while it was prevented from encroaching on her features by a band set with diamonds, that sparkled in her dark hair like stars in a deepening firmament23
Eliza uses exaggerated description in Restalrig, too, when Walter Logan first sees
the dark ringlets of the wearer’s abundant tresses flowed in free and unconstrained luxuriance over her back, and fell round her face like the tendrils of her own vines, waving with every movement of her light figure, or every breath of the soft air that played over her uncovered head24
In the same historical period, we learn from Scott that Margaret’s
long black hair fell down over her shoulders and down her back, combed smoothly and regularly, but without the least appearance of decoration or ornament, which looked very singular at a period when head-gear, as it was called, of one sort or other, was generally used by all ranks25
Eliza’s embellished imagery may also be seen to imitate Scott. In Restalrig, for example, ‘the waiting damsel’, Annie Sprott, begs her mistress not to leave her behind “while her desolate heart alternately throbbed with hope and sunk with fear”,26 whereas Scott’s Halbert Glendenning gazes on the White Lady and sees that “the delicate, yet clear hues of feminine beauty, now resembled the flitting and pale ghost of some maiden who had died for love, as it is seen, indistinctly and by moonlight, by her perjured lover”.27
There are many similarities between the novels of Eliza and those of Scott. For example, Laurence (St. Johnstoun) and Mike Lambourne (Kenilworth) are very similar, not only because they are both the sons of ‘tapsters’ and return home after years of absence, at first unrecognised, ‘wrapped in a riding cloak’ on horseback, but also in their tendency to behave irresponsibly, like Jack-the-Lad.
We see direct examples of Scott in Eliza’s writing. Although there are no references to the verses in St. Johnstoun, the heading to Volume I, Chapter XII, “Her cheek was pale, her form was spare”28 is from Marmion,29 and that to Volume II, Chapter II,
The speech of Eliza Logan’s characters varies according to the nature of the action and of the speaker. In general, the low characters speak Scots and the noble family members speak sixteenth century, as in Scott, and appropriate for their class. A surprising exception is that King James’s anger (and language) become ‘perfectly ungovernable’; “let this d – d blasted witch be strictly confined,”36 he shouts at old Euphan when she reminds him of his cruel deeds. James also frequently speaks in broad Scots, whether he is talking to high-born or servant. After the hunt, for example, when talking with Earls and Dukes, he tells them that “for whilk the day’s chace has gi’en us sae braw an appetite, that ye had need be lustily provided … I am this day sae hungered, that sae as ye set not afore me a poll o’ ling and mustard, or a pig … I ken o’ nae other vivers that will come amiss”.37 Scott’s characters use appropriate language and, if it is to be considered that Eliza emulates him closely, perhaps it is surprising and unexpected that James uses strong dialect.
The illusion that Eliza Logan’s books are a true account of events is supported by the story-within-a-story pattern. An example of this is seen in the Prefatory Note in St. Johnstoun, where ‘Peregrine Rover’ writes to the Reader and again, in the Concluding Letter from ‘Peregrine Rover’ to ‘Tacitus Torpedo’. In Restalrig, an opening letter is seen to James, Baron Ruthven from the Author, and the rather abrupt ending to the novel is perhaps due to there being no Concluding Letter. This pattern appears to be a similar method used in folk tradition, where a story-teller claims that the story is true, saying that it came from somebody else who saw it happen. Scott uses this device in his novels, as does James Hogg. They were both members of the Edinburgh literary circle that had grown up in the 1810s and it is unlikely that Eliza was not fully aware of this group of influential writers, especially as Scott writes about James VI and I in his The Fortunes of Nigel, and Hogg has Arabella Logan, a woman of good family fallen on hard times in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). In Confessions, Hogg writes as if the author has found the story among ancient manuscripts and in The Three Perils of Man (1822), an anonymous Editor has a document dating from more than a century earlier and writes a reconstructed account of some of the circumstances. It would appear that Eliza also uses this device as, in a similar manner, ‘Peregrine Rover’ in St. Johnstoun, says that he found “an authentic copy of a MS’, which fell into [his] hands in a most extraordinary manner”38 and he was therefore able to reveal all the happenings surrounding the Conspiracy of 1600.
The literary sources that may have shaped Eliza Logan have been discussed by comparing her writing with that of Scottish authors of a similar period, in particular with the novels of Sir Walter Scott whose influence, it is felt, is instrumental in her style and content. It is argued that Eliza wrote in the genre of the day and was inspired and influenced by the literary examples and styles of her contemporaries
Eliza Logan’s two related novels, written as imaginative tales of fiction, are historical romances about famous people and well-documented events that took place in the past. Eliza ensures that the climax in the three volumes of St. Johnstoun is a detailed account of what she believes occurred at Gowrie House, where the alleged conspiracy took place. Restalrig appears to have been written to allow Eliza the opportunity to create a story behind the factual Sprott Letters, in order for her to ‘prove’ that they were forged. It can be concluded that the novels were written with the clear aim of convincing her readers that Robert Logan and the Gowrie brothers were unjustly convicted of a conspiracy against the king in 1600, and not the instigators. Eliza uses historical facts for a serious purpose and it is considered that the historical source significantly contributed to both novels.