I finished reading Lady Magdalen by Robin Jenkins, which is about Magdalen Carnegie, who at a young age married James Graham, Earl of Montrose and later Marquis of Montrose. Montrose became a supporter of Charles I and eventually was hanged, drawn, and quartered. (The novel, however, ends sometime before his ultimate downfall and death.) I confess I had not heard of Montrose before I read this novel, as my knowledge of 17th-century Scottish history is next to nonexistent, but he seems to have led a fascinating life. There’s even a society devoted to him.
Lady Magadalen, however, focuses mainly on Magdalen, who–according to Jenkins, anyway–bore Montrose four sons and lived quietly at home while Montrose traveled about and involved himself in politics and war. Gentle, peace-loving Magdalen is rather neglected by Montrose, who comes home from time to time, makes a snide remark to her, feels bad about it and apologizes, fathers another son, and leaves home again. Though obedient to Montrose, Magdalen is not a dishrag; she has decided opinions about honor and the folly of war, which she expresses to Montrose. She’s universally beloved by all of her servants and most of those beneath her social station, and she displays a great deal of quiet courage when men come to destroy Montrose’s castle, Montrose’s loyalty to the king having made himself many enemies. She could quite easily be insufferable, but she’s not, perhaps because she possesses a sense of humor and a strong moral code without being priggish. The people Magdalen interacts with in her daily life–ministers, doctors, teachers, servants–are vividly and interestingly portrayed, and Jenkins has a nice ear for dialogue. The quality of the writing is excellent: an unfussy prose that is spare without feeling barren.
Nonetheless, I found this novel somewhat unsatisfying. A Scottish writer, Jenkins assumes that his readers are familiar with Montrose’s history, and most of them may well be, but this novel does little to enlighten those who aren’t. For instance, Montrose brings a Bible home to Magdalen, who suspects that it has been given to Montrose by a lover, but as she never asks him about it and neither Montrose nor Jenkins ever clears up the matter, the reader is left hanging.
The Big Messages of this novel also got in the way of my enjoying it completely. One overarching theme is that females are inherently more noble and honorable than males, which should come as a large surprise to anyone who has spent time in a junior-high-school or high-school girls’ locker room. (As Jenkins is a man, he was presumably denied this enlightening opportunity.) One chapter ends: “Was there a way other than James’s participation in controversies and wars and Francis’s white-handed aloofness among his paintings? Yes, there was. A way where the horrors and miseries of war had to be endured though no blow was struck, and where, though debating chamber and battlefield were far away, their consequences had to be bravely tholed and patiently remedied. The way of women.”
Which brings us to Jenkins’s other Big Message: War is hell. Agreed, but Jenkins doesn’t content himself with showing us that, as he does most effectively in scenes where Magdalen cares for wounded, maimed soldiers and when the news is broken of the deaths of various young teenagers, including Magdalen’s eldest son. Too often, Jenkins resorts to lectures of the sort above, and they frequently take the form of gender stereotypes, albeit politically correct ones: Man as lover of war, Woman as lover of peace. This wouldn’t be so bad in itself, but Jenkins’s characterizations suffer as a result. We’re told at one point, “Under [Magdalen’s] influence, [Montrose] could have written poetry that would have earned him more lasting fame than military victories,” but we have seen very little of Montrose as poet. (For that matter, Magdalen, though appreciative of sculpture and painting, shows no particular interest in poetry, even Montrose’s.) It’s difficult to believe, however, that Montrose’s military career was motivated merely by an overabundance of testosterone: the possibility that Montrose might have been acting out of convictions that were as genuine as those of Magdalen seems to have been discounted entirely by Jenkins.
All in all, this is a novel worth reading for its portrait of a young woman exhibiting grace under pressure, but one that left me with a sense that the men in Magdalen’s life had been short-changed here.