Friday, 3 May 2013

Rab and His Friends by John Brown

The other Dr.John Browns were a lineage of Scotch Presbyterian secessionist ministers. The great-grandfather was a simple shepherd boy who taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew such was his desire for learning. How a Greek N.T. came into the possession of his family as a valued heirloom is a story that seems odd enough to be true. David Hume said of him that he preached as though Christ were at his elbow.
But of course I’m not here going to delineate, were it possible, the lurid dooms of Calvinism, Secessionism and the fraught abyss of atonement; my Dr. Brown (1810 - 1882)John Brown is the medical man of Edinburgh, the essayist and writer of the famous Rab and his Friends. In the book Horas Subsecivae also known as Spare Hours to be found on the Gutenberg Project site under that title, he goes into the family history in My Father’s Memoir: A Letter to Dr.Cairns. That is a very moving account of the life and times of his father who could combine stern resolution with an emotionalism that was deliquescent. The man was a great preacher. His congregation were almost afraid of his uncanny power that inclined to shrillness.

As to quantity, as to quality, as to manner and expression, he flung away his life without stint every Sabbath-day, his sermons being laboriously prepared, loudly mandated, and at great expense of body and mind, and then delivered with the utmost vehemence and rapidity. He was quite unconscious of the state he worked himself into, and of the loud piercing voice in which he often spoke. This I frequently warned him about, as being, I knew, injurious to himself, and often painful to his hearers, and his answer always was, that he was utterly unaware of it; and thus it continued to the close, and very sad it was to me who knew the peril, and saw the coming end, to listen to his noble, rich, persuasive, imperative appeals, and to know that the surplus of power, if retained, would, by God’s blessing, retain him, while the effect on his people would, I am sure, not have lost, but in some respects have gained, for much of the discourse which was shouted and sometimes screamed at the full pitch of his keen voice, was of a kind to be better rendered in his deep, quiet, settled tones. This, and the great length of his public services, I knew he himself felt, when too late, had injured him, and many a smile he had at my proposal to have a secret sub-congregational string from him to me in the back seat, to be authoritatively twitched when I knew he had done enough; but this string was never pulled, even in his mind.

‘Ay, the minister took a quare lang tyme the day’.

Do you like dogs and their varied personalities and quirks that go by breed and individual? Dr.John related the history of his dogs and they are many; Toby, Wylie, Rab, Wasp, Jock, Duchie and Dick.

Toby’s method of effecting entrance to the house was by use of a coup de queue

When he wished to get into the house, he first whined gently, then growled, then gave a sharp bark, and then came a resounding, mighty stroke which shook the house; this, after much study and watching, we found was done by his bringing the entire length of his solid tail flat upon the door, with a sudden and vigorous stroke; it was quite a tour de force or a coup de queue, and he was perfect in it at once, his first bang authoritative, having been as masterly and telling as his last.

The most famous dog story is Rab and His Friends, more mastiff than shaggy. It is beautifully written. How was surgery in the early 19th.century before chloroform?

The operating theatre is crowded; much talk and fun, and all the cordiality and stir of youth. The surgeon with his staff of assistants is there. In comes Ailie: one look at her quiets and abates the eager students. That beautiful old woman is too much for them; they sit down, and are dumb, and gaze at her. These rough boys feel the power of her presence. She walks in quickly, but without haste; dressed in her mutch, her neckerchief, her white dimity short-gown, her black bombazine petticoat, showing her white worsted stockings and her carpet-shoes. Behind her was James with Rab. James sat down in the distance, and took that huge and noble head between his knees. Rab looked perplexed and dangerous; forever cocking his ear and dropping it as fast.
Ailie stepped up on a seat, and laid herself on the table, as her friend the surgeon told her; arranged herself, gave a rapid look at James, shut her eyes, rested herself on me, and took my hand. The operation was at once begun; it was necessarily slow; and chloroform—one of God’s best gifts to his suffering children—was then unknown. The surgeon did his work. The pale face showed its pain, but was still and silent. 

For those who like to read in a physical book I first came across this writer in an Everyman edition which also includes the memoir of Marjorie Fleming the child diarist and prodigy. As the Dublinman said: “you’ll fill up”.

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