Lord MacDonald & Sir Tamburlaine MacGregor: is one the reflection of the other?

sir-tamburlaine-bryce-macgregorThe parallels between the fictional life MacGregor created for Lord MacDonald and recent tragic events in his own life cannot be overlooked. Certainly, MacGregor was very aware of them and writing in the autumn 1865 edition of the Edenborough Review he was at pains to report that while he and Lord MacDonald had much in common the fictional character was “the better man”.

To sum up the key similarities:

  • Both men are newly married to second wives after a period of widowhood.
  • Clara MacDonald is expecting a child, as, at the time of writing, was Lady MacGregor.
  • The duties of both men take them away from their wives: Lord MacDonald to Winchester to attend a funeral, MacGregor to his writing desk to earn a living.
  • There is one other parallel which MacGregor confessed to in his journals but to include it here would be premature. I shall refer to it in due course.

helena-northwoodAgainst this there are numerous dissimilarities:

  • MacDonald already has one son from his first wife. MacGregor’s son died in the same tragedy as his wife.
  • MacDonald’s new wife is young and inexperienced. Lady MacGregor was a widow in her middle-thirties when she married MacGregor.
  • MacDonald’s separation from his wife is total, but of short duration. MacGregor’s separation from Lady MacGregor was partial (both shared the same household) but arguably permanent since he continued working until his death.

Dr Claude Crabtree, painted by Vaughan Davies, 1935For my part I must agree with Dr Claude Crabtree’s argument that while there are parallels between MacGregor and MacDonald they fall well short of demonstrating that MacGregor made MacDonald his simulacrum and, like Dr Crabtree, I draw attention to their widely different circumstances and obligations outside the marital and domestic arena. I must, however, disagree with the general tone of Dr Crabtree’s argument. His opinion that,

for the female of the species a good marriage is the main event of life, while for a man it is always an accessory (quoted in the Gentleman’s Gentleman Magazine, October 1935)

is dreadfully old-fashioned and, as proved by his reaction to the death of Lady Madeleine, it does not accord with MacGregor’s views on marriage. I rather fear it reflects more on Dr Crabtree’s own unconventional marriage to the socialite Liberty Pearl, as revealed in her autobiography A Queer Old Thing, (Partridge Press, 1961), but, as my ex-wife would tell you, I am no expert on marital relations.Liberty Pearl, photographed by Ernst Bellender for Primus Studios, 1927What I believe demonstrable is MacGregor drew on his experience of grief and its aftermath to describe MacDonald’s lingering grief for his first wife and cautious embrace of Lady Clara. It is as though MacDonald is reluctant to accept the possibility of happiness and thus holds Clara at a distance, both emotionally and literally as he leaves her to attend Prince William’s funeral. The same caution is revealed in MacGregor’s journals where, even as his relations with Helena Northwood blossomed, he became increasingly protective of his grief for Madeleine and even ordered the construction of a shrine for her in the grounds of Arbinger Abbey.Madeleine Shrine, Arbinger. Author's collection, photographed 2008This curious construction of granite and wrought iron survived the loss of so much of the Arbinger Estate to the Edenborough orbital relief road and subsequent industrial development but it has lately fallen into disrepair and its future is uncertain. The Abbey gardens remain open to the public but while there are plans to turn part of the abbey into a museum dedicated to Tamburlaine MacGregor (yours truly is a trustee of the fundraising committee) it is presently occupied by the Dorothy Parkin Foundation for the Criminally Insane and admittance to the public is by appointment only.

Bard of Tweeddale


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