This is the first novel for adults by Michelle Sloan, who has previously written for children. As a former arts journalist she brings considerable knowledge and understanding of both the history and society of Edinburgh during the Enlightenment, but this is by no means a dull academic tome – rather, it is a sprightly romp through the 18th century streets of the capital, spliced with an artistic mystery being investigated in present-day Edinburgh.
The contemporary story tells of art historian Claire Sharpe, tasked by a dubious contact to disprove the attribution of Sir Henry Raeburn’s iconic painting The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, or as it is better known, The Skating Minister. Meanwhile, skipping back in time to 1795, the protagonist is Alison Cockburn, a real-life literary figure who was friends with the literary, artistic and philosophical luminaries of the Enlightenment.
The historic chapters are peppered with star turns from real people – David Hume, with his appetite for literary dinners, is a delight, as is Robert Burns, always eager to engage the ladies at any occasion. Cockburn herself comes across as an enjoyably adventurous middle-aged society hostess, every bit as knowledgeable and witty as her male counterparts, but thwarted by the era’s disregard of female talent.
As the men live a life of socialising, forming intellectual friendships and attending clubs for everything from poker, oysters and the new sport, imported from Holland, of skating on frozen lochs, Alison and Hume’s sister Catherine bemoan their gender as it bars them from entry. That is until a dare sets Alison off on a mission to pass as a man and seek admission to at least one of the clubs.
Under the tutelage of the comic actor Samuel Foote, another real character from the age, Alison is transformed into Francis Pringle, and given the backstory of a would-be poet visiting from the Borders. But to win the bet as Francis, Alison must gain acceptance into the Edinburgh Skating Club – which involves learning how to skate.
The process involves some very droll moments. On seeing her alter ego in the mirror for the first time, the unpretentious Alison notes drily that: “The few stray whiskers she had acquired in her fifties now seemed rather distinguished.” On her first social outing as a man, she matches her male friends in drinking port after dinner rather than withdrawing with the ladies, but cannot relieve her full bladder in the pot that is passed round the table for that purpose, as the others do.
The descriptions of the clothing, food, conversation and even the sights and smells of old Edinburgh are vivid, as is the heady feeling of freedom engendered by exchanging the constrictions of a woman’s attire and expectations for those of a man.
Back in the 21st century, meanwhile, Claire and her friend Jen are investigating the controversy surrounding Raeburn’s painting of the elegant figure gliding across Duddingston Loch. The work is seen as a national symbol, not just for Scottish art but for Scotland itself, and doubting its attribution brings discussion and even anger from all sides. In the internet age, such debates can quickly become heated online, and when Claire comments publicly about her theories the virtual world turns nasty. Such discussions seemed much more civilised 220 years before.
In Alison Cockburn, who is nowadays chiefly remembered as the writer of the ballad, The Flowers of the Forest, Sloan has given a believable voice to a woman who deserves to be more widely celebrated. The Edinburgh Skating Club is an engaging read, in which discussions about art, politics, love and gender are woven deftly into the plot. More than anything, however, the book leaves you with the overwhelming desire to visit the Scottish National Gallery, and have a closer look at some of our most famous paintings.
The Edinburgh Skating Club, by Michelle Sloan, Polygon, 308pp, £9.99