Disturbed by this insight, MacGregor sought answers in the works of natural philosophers, two of whom especially influenced him: The Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, who he knew personally through the Speculative Society, and the Danish naturalist, Carl Davinius. The former challenged Biblical notions concerning the age and origin of the earth and the other, in On the Mutability of Species by means of Natural Variation implied that man was not distinct from the animal kingdom, as a literal reading of the Book of Genesis would suggest, but shared common ancestor with the Great Apes, and by extension with all the natural world.
From this, MacGregor deduced that the physical form of man and woman was as much part of God’s creation as their soul and therefore there could be no moral reason why a writer should not depict them as physical beings on the page.
It would appear,
he wrote on March 21st 1858,
I must depict men and women, in totus: corpus et animus, et anima, body, spirit and soul as one, if I am to be true to their nature, whether that nature be God-given or not.
Again, the underlining is in the original.
Beginning with Acts of the Servant, MacGregor sought to close the gap between the real thoughts and actions of men and women, and their expression in fiction. Today we call this ‘naturalism,’ but too often it has been labelled pornography and filth by opponents who believed fiction should only depict the seemly side of human nature. Unfortunately, MacGregor was writing many decades before Modernist writers such as L. H. Durrants, Victoria Wolfe, and Asher Hughes championed such honesty of expression and when MacGregor handed Beresford & Lucas the draft copy for Acts of the Servant, both men were appalled. Sir Sidney Beresford, perhaps mindful of his public position, even threatened to burn the manuscript if MacGregor did not immediately remove it from their offices. Fortunately, John Lucas, the more pragmatic of the partners, reminded MacGregor of his duty to provide for his new family and suggested the work might be acceptable with certain changes. At first, MacGregor resisted, believing he was pioneering a new form of literature; however, Lady Helena persuaded him of a better course: complying with his publisher’s demands, while retaining the original text against such time when publication in unexpurgated form would be possible.
Perhaps mindful that Lady Helena was then expecting their second child and royalties from his earlier works were unlikely to grow, MacGregor agreed.MacGregor’s desire to challenge literary convention in matters of taste and decency was not the only difficulty Acts of the Servant gave its would-be publishers: the novel’s subject matter and setting were also contentious.
Historically, writers, MacGregor included, had sought to portray the subject of kingship and politics either through the prism of the ancient past or through some other medium, such as the church or provincial society. In such settings, a writer might portray the use and abuse of power and the tyrannous effect of such actions upon the less fortunate without obviously drawing attention to the real seat of power, the king, government, and the church politic. MacGregor eschewed this device and depicted the King of Angaland and his court in a clearly contemporary world. MacGregor assured his publisher that King Edmund bore no relation to King Charles VII, or Prince Malcolm and Lord Egan to any other living men, but Sir Sidney and Lucas were unconvinced and MacGregor was obliged to make considerable changes; effectively turning the Earl of Northumberland into an outright villain seeking power for himself rather than acting to safeguard the throne. Even then, only a few weeks before its publication a nervous Sir Sidney insisted MacGregor take out an advertisement in the Edenborough Review assuring his readership that Acts of the Servant was entirely a work of fiction and no criticism of King Charles VII or the institution of monarchy or any other living gentlemen or body politic should be construed. Curiously, neither partner expressed any concern regarding MacGregor’s depiction of either the Russian and Spanish Royal Houses or the Hanseatic Company!
The other aspect of Acts of the Servant that caused difficulties between MacGregor and his publisher was its depiction of spaewifery and the magick arts. This criticism came chiefly from Lucas and cut not only to MacGregor’s theme but also to the core of the narrative. Spaewifery and the magick arts in general, were then deeply unpopular in Scotland and Angaland and denounced by the established church of both countries. Unfortunately for MacGregor, John Lucas was a leading benefactor of the Church of Scotland and in his view, Acts of the Servant contained far too much magick and magick of a most pernicious kind: magick employed for good.
Here MacGregor was obliged to make what were perhaps the least satisfactory changes to his text, distorting the balance between good and evil for while the abuse of magick by Graciana A’Guirre largely survived the gentler portrayal of spaewifery in the hands of Eolhwynne, and to a lesser extent Màire Mulcahy, was drastically reduced.
Altogether, MacGregor had more difficulties with his publisher concerning Acts of the Servant that on his eighteen previous works combined, and yet modern reader will find it difficult to imagine what the fuss was about, for by our standards Acts of the Servant is innocuous. To understand how it would have fared in 1861 we have only the reaction of Sir Sidney Beresford and John Lucas, so it may be useful to examine the two gentlemen in more detail.