This biography of Simon Fraser is currently running at close to 5 stars, thanks to a raft of friendly, fulsome reviews that do nothing to reflect its weaknesses.
While Mrs. Fraser doubtless knows a lot about obscene Gaelic poetry, there are some alarming gaps in her knowledge of history. I would expect someone writing on Scottish history to know that the Union of the Crowns was in 1603, not in 1601. Someone writing on Highland history in the 1690s ought to know that the perpetrators of the Glencoe Massacre had been billeted on their victims for the best part of a fortnight, and didn't just turn up on 'the night of 13 February'; (strictly speaking, that would be after the massacre took place!). Clearly, the author misses the whole point about the issue of hospitality, and the mutual responsibilities of host and guest. It was the breach of hospitality - 'murder under trust' - that contributed most to the revulsion that was so widely felt after the massacre.
When it comes to European history, Mrs. Fraser is all at sea when trying to outline the diplomatic background to the War of Spanish Succession. 'The future of the thrones of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire,' she states, 'was at stake. At present the ailing King of Spain, Carlos II, sat on both thrones.' Not so. At a stroke, this is to airbrush from history the Austrian House of Hapsburg, who had been Holy Roman Emperors throughout the 17th century, who were major figures on the European diplomatic scene, and who were determined claimants to the Spanish inheritance.
There are early and alarming signs when it comes to the reliability and credibility of her presentation of incidents in the life of Simon Fraser. In the Prologue, she has him murmuring and meditating on lines from Virgil and Ovid as he awaits the executioner's axe. To confuse your Virgil with your Horace is careless but forgiveable. If you want to be taken seriously as a biographer as opposed to a novelist, what is not a good idea is to claim knowledge of your subject's last thoughts, which he will imminently take with him to the grave. While Mrs Fraser claims to have produced 'intellectually rigorous work' in the past, one can't help but feel that here, in the matter of sources, she's allowed her standards to slip.
The use of language is odd. It ranges from the near colloquial, as in 'Middletonian stooge' and 'high jinx' (I think she meant 'high jinks') to the turgid: 'The Earl of Middleton drifted through the corridors like a cloud, growing blacker and heavier.' Or again: 'Early winter winds swept handfuls of rain across the land, scratching and stinging, belching foul air and water.' At times, it's just wacky: 'Lovat chivvied himself down miles of corridors.'
Just as words are used to impress rather than to inform, so too with Mrs. Fraser's peculiar literary style. She favours the simple sentence, as in this description of Simon Fraser's time as a student at Aberdeen. 'Tallow candles wavered against the gloom of lecture rooms. The gesture of fire hissed. Eyes, struggling in the half-light to take down etiolated Latin quotations, were further harassed by the smoke. Simon roomed in cramped chambers in a building abutting the chapel.' In their place, short sentences can be useful, as in achieving narrative pace. Mrs Fraser uses them nearly all the time, even when describing the banal, without focus or coherence. The effect is jerky, disjointed and wearisome, and eventually irritating. I think I could get through a tabloid article in this style without too much trouble; but 350 pages with scarcely a subordinate clause was too much for me. After 50 pages I was losing interest. After little more than 100, I'd had enough.
'Lady MacLean could barely stand, having given birth to a baby eleven days earlier. Goodness knows what Mrs. Fox wanted back in England. MacLean's children and servants fretted and sniffed. Sir John straightened himself on the crumbly Kent shingle. Could he make terms and live in peace at home, he asked ?
The short answer was, no. The indemnity had expired. The soldiers arrested the lot of them. A lachrymose Lady MacLean wailed to her husband to get them out of this dreadful situation.'
I do believe that it was at this point that I gave up.