Though delighted by news Lady Helena was with child, we can understand, given the circumstances of his first wife’s death, if MacGregor harboured fears of tragedy striking twice. As previously stated, complications surrounding childbirth were a common cause of female mortality at that date and there is evidence from MacGregor’s journal that on this occasion he sought reassurance all would be well. Presumably, this came from one of the many spaewives operating from illicit booths in the Edenborough Closes, though MacGregor leaves us no name or clear location for the woman in his journal. At that date, it was illegal under Scottish law for unlicensed spaewives to practise and, in this specific case the answers MacGregor sought could only have come by methods contrary to the spaewives’ code. MacGregor’s omission of the spaewife’s name or whereabouts may have been as much to protect her as to protect his own reputation, though it would find an echo in the exchanges between Lord MacDonald and Eolhwynne in Chapter four of Acts of the Servant.
Presumably content with whatever reassurances the spaewife offered, that very evening, 27th December 1861, or so his journal tells us, MacGregor took up his pen in earnest, though whether creative inspiration seized him, or he was driven by the realisation he must now support his wife and family, he neglects to say. Most probably, one was the father of the other.
On one matter, the evidence is clear, for he expresses it many times both in his journal and in private correspondence. Having experienced extremes of tragedy and joy, MacGregor recognised that his earlier works and those of his contemporaries were too concerned with propriety and decorum when describing the physical expression of human emotion. A journal entry for February 7th 1862, shortly after he began work on the novel, reveals his thoughts:
…it is permissible for a writer to depict the basest emotions such as fear, hatred and lust, provided they be expressed with noble words. That whereof he may not speak, are those physical effects manifest in any man or woman in the throes of such emotions, for they are considered too shocking in print and too coarse on the tongue. We may write plainly that a man loves with his heart, but not that he desires with his body. We may state that a man is killed but not describe the physicality of his agonies and suffering. Instead we must obfuscate and conceal that which it is in the very nature of all emotions to seek the physical expression of: the business of being fully alive in the moment.
In coming to this opinion, MacGregor refers in his journal to a number of religious, scientific, magickal and philosophical works that formed his reading matter in the months following his wife’s death. Initially these included the Greek Classics and medieval religious works, but increasingly he favoured works of natural philosophy, particularly drawn from the collections of the Edenborough Speculative Society and Lunden’s Royal Society. These challenged the accepted, Biblical, account of the earth’s origin and history and man’s elevated place in the natural order, and, though MacGregor did not entertain the atheist teachings of Jeremiah Pole and the École Français, he began to reappraise orthodox religious teaching on the division between body and soul.
Religious philosophy regarded man as divided between the soul and the flesh: The one seeking spiritual love, the other driven by base desires. The desires of the soul were fit to be sung and rhymed and depicted in art but those of the flesh attracted shame and could not be publicly shown or spoken of. Using his experiences of the previous two years to guide him, MacGregor came to believe that sorrow and happiness were equally rooted in the soul and in the flesh and expressed themselves equally in both.