Book review: Unspeakable, by Dilys Rose

Arthur Herman began his history of the Scottish Enlightenment, sub-titled 'The Scots' Invention of the Modern World', with the wretched story of Thomas Aikenhead, the 19-year-old Divinity student hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh in 1697. Now Dilys Rose has made a richly compelling novel of the case, re-creating for us a harsh, intolerant Scotland we may count ourselves fortunate to have escaped. Her research has been diligent and so well-absorbed that it is not intrusive.

Dilys Rose PIC: University of Edinburgh
Dilys Rose PIC: University of Edinburgh

She has created, or re-imagined, a childhood and youth for Thomas to make him a credible, rounded character. He is from the start intellectually enquiring, an intelligent boy with a lively, speculative mind and a mocking spirit, given to flights of fancy. His so-called blasphemies were perhaps no more than attempts to amuse his fellow-students. As Herman suggests he was a clever young man delighting to “play fast and loose with issues that others treated with reverential care”. Rose makes him an attractive character. Born 20 years later he might have had a successful career. But the Scotland of the 1690s was a grim place. It was miserably poor, and a succession of bad harvests brought the country close to famine. The Revolution of 1688 had brought the hard-line Presbyterians – the extreme Covenanters persecuted by the governments of Charles II and James VII – back to power. They were determined to establish Righteousness, to restore a Godly Commonwealth and stamp out irreligion. The Lord Advocate, James Stewart, who prosecuted Aikenhead and Lord Polwarth, the judge who cast the decisive vote against him, had both suffered under the old regime. We may assume they were genuinely horrified by the reports of what the young man had said; the evidence was supplied by his fellow-students, young men he had thought his friends. He really had no chance.

Rose has given us a sympathetic Aikenhead. She has set him in a well-imagined Edinburgh, a city of stinking closes, taverns full of talk, brawls and beggars. She invents – I assume this is invention – a good reason for his dislike of the harsh and narrow intolerance of the Presbyterian regime. By giving him from childhood an inquiring mind, she presents his scepticism as natural, while at the same time showing its limits.

Language is always a problem for the historical novelist. How do you render the speech of the past in a manner that is both convincing and acceptable to the reader today? Alfred Duggan, the finest historical novelist of his generation, said he confined himself to the Ancient World and the Middle Ages because he then had characters who didn’t speak English, so that he could employ a neutral style of dialogue. This was not an option open to Rose, so she has compromised. If, for example, she had chosen to use the Scots of Robert Fergusson, a couple of generations later than Aikenhead, her novel would have required a glossary for few even among Scottish readers would have understood what her characters were saying without one. So she has employed a modified version of today’s demotic Scots – writing, for instance “wis” for “was” and spelling “breath “ as “braith” – to give an air of authenticity to her characters’ speech, while at the

same time sometimes using old words that have fallen into disuse. I am not sure that she has been completely successful, but then I doubt whether complete success in this respect is possible for a novelist today. It was easier for Scott and Stevenson to create acceptable versions of late 17th and early 18th century Scots than it is for a novelist now, simply because they were closer to it. On the whole, if you sound Rose’s dialogue in your head it sounds right much of the time, only occasionally striking a wrong and jarring note; and it has the considerable merit of rapidity.

It’s a horrible story made tolerable by the intelligence and sympathy with which it is written. Rose shows the truth of Arthur Herman’s observation that “one of the crucial ways we measure progress is by how far we have come from what we were before”. There was much to admire in the Covenanting spirit, but much also to deplore, much to disgust us, the judicial murder of Thomas Aikenhead being an example of the harsh, intolerant Scotland we are well rid of. ■

*Unspeakable by Dilys Rose, Freight Books, 257pp, £9.99