Reading between MacGregor’s lines : the restoration of Acts of the Servant

MacGregor in 1852 at the height of his fame. (Archibald Lawrence deWinter, courtesy of the Scottish Portrait Gallery)Following Beresford and Lucas’s rejection of his manuscript for Acts of the Servant, MacGregor embarked on a lengthy process of revision to produce a new versions that would be both acceptable to his publisher and retain his core intentions. Primarily, MacGregor’s revisions involved the wholesale removal of certain passages and scenes and significant and minor alteration to many others. While the great majority of these alterations are detrimental to MacGregor’s original intentions, there are a number that improve the original and it seems that as he revised the work to satisfy his publisher he also made changes of his own. The production of this revised edition could not therefore be wholly a return to MacGregor’s original manuscript, but a process of discrimination between changes forced upon the author and those made of his own volition. Unfortunately, MacGregor did not distinguish between the two purposes when amending his manuscript and in attempting to create the text that MacGregor would have written had his publisher not interfered, the editor has relied on his own judgement far more than he would wish!

The changes forced on MacGregor were in three main areas. In particular, the freer expression MacGregor sought for emotions, and especially female emotion and sensuality, was almost entirely lost. As history proved, MacGregor was many decades ahead of his time and what he wanted to write would not become permissible in print until the early 1900s. So far have we come since that time, that what impresses now is not MacGregor’s explicitness but his modesty. The curtailment of MacGregor’s depiction of magick, particularly as practised by Eolhwynne I have previously described. Clearly, his publisher’s interventions here were an attempt to align MacGregor’s work with the Church of Scotland’s hostility toward spaewifery, as expressed in the novel by the Bishop of Stirling when he upbraids Lord MacDonald and Sir David Mackenzie for maintaining spaewives. Curiously this scene survived Master Lucas and Sir Sidney’s interventions but several of those chapters where Eolhwynne takes centre stage, particularly that where Eolhwynne lays a charm to protect her master and the scene where she provides a love charm for Mrs Pinsker caused a blizzard of exchanges between MacGregor and his publishers. (Though it would be nothing to that concerning a scene in Works of the Master when the Tsar’s starets, Lazarus, takes Eolhwynne’s virginity!) The magick arts are such an integral part of the narrative that it is understandable MacGregor struggled to accommodate his publisher’s changes and critics often noted the apparent imbalance in his depictions of Eolhwynne and Graciana A’Guirre and MacGregor’s excessive reliance on coincidence to move the plot when he felt unable to depict magickal practices. Readers familiar with the standard text should be especially prepared for surprises when revisiting scenes concerning the magick arts, for the differences, both major and subtle, between MacGregor’s original text and the version published in the 1861 first edition are no where more obvious or more numerous. Today the magick arts are enjoying a long awaited revival – if not yet tolerance by the church – and MacGregor’s balanced argument concerning its use and abuse seems entirely proper.

Also lost from the 1861 edition were MacGregor’s footnotes. Not only did these add to the matters described in the text, but provided the work with an ‘authorial voice’. Their loss was not a result of disagreement between MacGregor and his publishers, but the need to reduce printing costs. This edition reinstates all MacGregor’s original footnotes, together with additions by the editor where thought necessary. The decline in the teaching of languages and the Classics, and the distance of nineteenth century politics and events, means much of the knowledge MacGregor took for granted among his readership no longer holds sway and it is necessary to aid the modern reader. For this modern edition, I have relegated MacGregor’s introduction to the 1861 edition to an appendix. While it contains much that is valuable and is of interest as an historical record, its length intrudes too heavily at the start of the text. In its place stands the Author’s Advertisement from the end papers of the 1858 edition of ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ and subsequently the Edenborough Review. The exact chronology of events is uncertain, but it is likely that by the time he completed proof-reading ‘Lays of Brigadoon’ he had already begun work on Acts of the Servant and the scheme for the novel was far more developed than the ‘conversation’ with his publisher suggests. Certainly, by the date the advertisement appeared in the Edenborough Review, MacGregor had submitted the manuscript to Beresford & Lucas, for we have their letter confirming its receipt, but he was yet to learn of their reservations and therefore could not have suspected a further two years were to pass before its publication. The advertisement is also of interest because all other prefatory texts and articles written by MacGregor refer to the novel as altered to satisfy his publisher. This brief account, therefore, is all we have regarding Acts of the Servant, as MacGregor originally conceived it, so it is fitting it should stand at the head of the revised 150th Anniversary Edition.

Finally, the editor wishes to thank the MacGregor estate, the leading MacGregor authority, Humphrey Mortimer, historian James Leadenhall and the Royal College of Edenborough for their kind assistance, and my agent and publisher for untiring support and encouragement.

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