Review of Tang by J J Haldane Burgess, pub. Northus Shetland Classics 2021

"Mr Mann half turned and saw a rather tall, sharp-featured young man with a pair of very keen blue eyes, the left one of which looked as if it would have liked to know what the right one was about, for it was trying, though in a somewhat furtive way, to get a glimpse of it across his nose."

This novel set in a country district of Shetland was first published in 1898. Its scholarly author was then in his thirties and had gone blind about a decade earlier, a thing no reader would guess from the acuteness of his observation (or memory) of people and places in Tang.

In some ways its chief character is a rural community, rather than the individuals within it, but among those individuals it focuses on a young woman called Inga and three men who are in different ways fascinated by her: a fisherman, a minister (Mr Mann) and Hakki, the local teacher who is Inga’s cousin.

Tang was only Burgess’s third novel, and his first with a contemporary setting. It would be odd if some literary influences did not show in it, and certainly the delicacy with which he sketches Inga’s dawning attraction to the minister, “she felt as if real life were just beginning for her”, is reminiscent of young Kirstie in Stevenson’s unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which had been published two years before. But Inga is also, especially in her confidence in her own attractiveness, not unlike Hetty Sorrel in Eliot’s Adam Bede, though far more intelligent than poor Hetty, and the way the novel is structured around conflicts among laird-minister-teacher on the one hand and the working community on the other is also reminiscent of Eliot. 

The way Burgess handles the different dialects of his characters is masterly. I mean this in a literary sense; I’m not qualified to say how accurate he was philologically, but here he is using dialect as a social marker, and very effectively.  Among themselves, the working community speak their own Shetlandic dialect, which is a fair way removed from the standard Scots English of the gentry and those who aspire to that condition. Some, like Hakki the schoolteacher, are at home with both and adapt their speech to their company.  The foolish Erti, who has worked abroad, affects an unconvincing North American accent to stress his cosmopolitan credentials. When the working folk are speaking across the social divide to the gentry, most try to come closer to their way of speaking. The fact that Magnus Sharp, an old shoemaker of unconventional views and sardonic wit, does not bother to alter his mode of speech at all when talking to the minister tells us at once that he is far more of a radical thinker than Hakki, who merely imagines himself to be one:

“Well, Magnus, said Mr Mann, holding out his hand, “I must be going now but we must have a talk on church matters again.” Magnus took his hand and shook it heartily, with a smile of mingled cynicism and good humour on his dried old visage.
“Yea, yea, dat we sall,” he said, “d’ill be nae want o talk. Feth, I tink it’s little else bit talk aatagedder.”

Burgess’s intimate and unsentimental knowledge of the dialect and habits of his characters anchors the novel convincingly in reality and incidentally gives it a lot of lively humour. There is no doubt, though, that the ending feels rushed. There is nothing incongruous or necessarily unconvincing about it as an ending, but it feels as if we got there several chapters too soon. I think this is because the character of the minister, in particular, clearly has more potential than has yet been explored. We know already that he had a hard childhood due to a violent alcoholic father; that he inherited some of his temper and that, though he is an idealistic, dedicated man, there is a certain weakness of character in him; he is easily persuaded or discouraged. There are two points in the book which look as if they should be crucial to future developments. One is when he takes a social glass of wine with a neighbour, and his mother is alarmed lest it should prove as addictive to him as to his father. The other is when he is looking out of the window of his study, which he has moved upstairs to a room from where he can see Inga’s house:

"There was lying on his windowsill a big, old telescope […] It had been wont to lie in the window of the drawing-room, but for a week or two it had been lying on his bedroom windowsill. His hand touched it now. He took it up. He pulled down the sash and adjusted the glass upon the lighted window. [...]

Mr Mann saw a small lamp standing on the little table between the window and the chest of drawers. Then he saw suddenly, full in its light, Inga’s white leg, from the rounded knee down to the pretty foot."

At this point Mann is really no better than a Peeping Tom, and it clearly isn’t the first time, as we see from the subtle hints about the telescope’s relocation. As with the wine incident, it feels like the start of something, perhaps a downward slide. In fact, neither incident develops as we perhaps expected they might, but I would hazard a guess that it may once have been in Burgess’s mind that they should. He is more honest than many a writer of his day; few late Victorians would have allowed the minister’s mother to say frankly that she was glad of her insufferable husband’s death. But a novel in which an idealistic young minister descends into lechery and alcoholism might have been a step too far in 1898. I do, though, suspect that it is the one he wanted to write, and I wish he had, because there’s no doubt it would have been more powerful.

For all that, this novel is subtly crafted, thought-provoking and never less than entertaining. It is something when one can say that its worst fault is not being a few hundred pages longer, given how many novels one would wish considerably shorter. 

This is the first in a planned series of classic reprints from Northus Shetland Classics.



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