Following the death in childbirth of his first wife, Lady Madeleine, in October 1858, MacGregor abandoned a part-completed novel, The Young Man of Lochnagar, and retired from Edenborough society. For two years he wrote only his personal journal and a series of ‘Black Books’, all of which he subsequently destroyed and whose content can only be guessed at from the vague, cryptic notes in his journals. Friends and public believed the Bard of Tweeddale permanently silenced.
Today, with the evidence of his journal, we can diagnose MacGregor with clinical depression. Unfortunately, the condition was then unknown and while close friends were supportive, many, including his own father, thought his grief excessive to the point of impropriety. Death in childbirth was not uncommon, a fact MacGregor was of course aware of, however he argued that the fact it was common did not render it any less tragic and he deeply resented others seeking to interfere in his grief, an anger that would find expression when he finally returned to prose.
Throughout this period MacGregor wrote nothing for publication but he was far from inactive. He read philosophy and the classics, approaching both in a mood of fresh enquiry. We might assume he was attempting to fathom some meaning or purpose to Madeleine’s death, but MacGregor refutes this, revealing in his journal a man keenly aware of his condition and seeking purpose not to his wife’s death but to his own life. Nevertheless, an entry for June 18th 1860 shows there were times he came close to despair:
Each day I rise and in the usual round of necessities and pleasantries, think myself perfectly occupied until, upon retiring, fatigued from my day, I find in sum I have achieved entirely nothing. Is this my life now?
The underlining is in the original.
This life of “entirely nothing” changed at New Year 1861, when against his “better judgement”, as he later wrote, MacGregor was persuaded by his friend Sir Charles Palliser to attend the Hogmanay Ball at Edenborough Castle and there was introduced to the recently widowed Lady Helena Northwood. She had lost her husband to typhoid fever a year before and in her company MacGregor found an understanding of loss and an appreciation, hitherto missing, of what might still be attainable. Mutual friends had long suspected the two were suited, and were proven right as 1861 became, as MacGregor would write in his memoirs, an “annus mirabilis”, when his companionship with Lady Helena quickly turned from mutual affection to love. After a brief engagement, the pair married in the August at Tron Church, Edenborough and shortly before Christmas of that same year Lady Helena informed him she was with child.