The Little Minister

by J. M. Barrie
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2003

First published: 1891

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Sentimental romance

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: The village of Thrums in Scotland

Principal Characters:

Gavin Dishart, the little minister of Thrums

Margaret Dishart, his mother

Mr. Ogilvy, the schoolmaster, Margaret’s second husband, and the narrator

Rob Dow, a drunkard converted by Gavin

Babbie, a gypsy who loves Gavin

Nanny Webster, an old woman saved from the poorhouse by Babbie

Lord Rintoul, Babbie’s guardian and her betrothed

The Story:

Mr. Ogilvy, the schoolmaster of Glen Quharity, had not seen Margaret Dishart for eighteen years until the day when he stood in the crowd that had gathered to welcome Gavin Dishart, the new minister of Auld Licht parish in Thrums. When the dominie saw Margaret again, he knew that all of her happiness lay in her son Gavin. The schoolmaster did not allow Margaret to see him, as he never would even in the disturbed days to come. He knew that he was best out of her life and that he could bring her only unhappiness. When he heard Gavin deliver his first sermon at Auld Licht, the dominie knew that the little minister, who was just twenty-one years old, was a servant of the Lord.

Lord Rintoul’s castle stood in the Spittal on the hill above Glen Quharity. It was rumored that he had a young girl in his household whom he expected to marry soon, but no one had seen the girl except the sheriff of Thrums, who stopped at the castle to tell Lord Rintoul that a detachment of militia was coming to Thrums to arrest some insurgent weavers. Dressed as a gypsy, the young bride-to-be ran to the village to warn the people that soldiers were on their way.

Gavin Dishart met her that night as he was walking through Windyghoul toward Caddam. She ran dancing and singing and laughed at him as she darted past him toward Thrums. When Gavin caught up with her, they became rivals as Gavin attempted to calm the workers whom the gypsy had aroused against the soldiers. Her activities on the night the militia came were a topic of discussion in Thrums for days afterward—this mysterious gypsy whose origin no one could guess. Even Gavin spent more hours than was proper pondering over the girl who had brazenly claimed, when the soldiers had tried to arrest her, that she was his wife.

Gavin’s next meeting with the gypsy was in the cottage of old Nanny Webster, a parish charge. The schoolmaster heard a story through village gossip that reached the dominie only in rumor: Gavin had gone with Dr. McQueen to take old Nanny to the poorhouse; the gypsy girl, Babbie, interrupted the proceedings by offering to provide Nanny with an income for the old woman’s support. Most of the villagers believed that the little minister had done the good work, and few knew about the gypsy’s part in the story.

Gavin had to meet the gypsy to collect the money for Nanny’s support. He met her in the woods so that no one would know from where the money actually came. Babbie was unlike the people of Thrums. She horrified old Nanny with her impertinence to the little minister of Auld Licht. She embarrassed Gavin by teasing him about his height, a fact that had caused him great distress all of his life. Rob Dow was always on the lookout for the pair; he skulked among the pines of Windyghoul, spying on his beloved minister and the witch who had cast a spell on Gavin. Rob, a drunkard whom Gavin had converted, feared for his minister after he had seen the gypsy nearly succeed in her attempt to make the minister kiss her. Rob jealously guarded his secret, for he was no gossip. To his death, Rob protected the little minister who had saved him from drink.

While the dominie feared that Margaret might be hurt by this woodland courtship, Gavin was troubled by his love for the brazen gypsy. As she gradually became aware of his devotion, the gypsy girl began to love him in turn. No one had ever loved her before. Lord Rintoul only played at watching her beauty. When Gavin hinted that he would marry her, Babbie protested that he would be banished from Thrums and so would break his mother’s heart.

One night, the lovers walked together through Windyghoul. Unknown to anyone, the dominie, Mr. Ogilvy, often strolled through the same wood so he could gaze at the manse where Margaret lived. That night, he met Gavin and Babbie. Immediately sensing their relationship and thinking only of Margaret, Ogilvy stepped into the affair and there he remained until it ended, not for Gavin’s sake but for Margaret’s protection. There were no words exchanged that night, but each knew that the dominie was aware of the love between Gavin and Babbie.

The next day in Windyghoul, Babbie met Micah, Rob Dow’s small son. The sobbing child told her that his father had taken to drink again because the little minister had been bewitched by the gypsy. If only she would go away, Rob could regain his faith in the minister and stop his drinking once more. Babbie realized then that Gavin’s duty called him from her. She never laid eyes again on her lover until the terrible day of the great rain.

On the day of the great rain, plans were being made at the Spittal for Lord Rintoul’s marriage to his young bride. On this same day, there was a fight in Thrums, and false news spread that Gavin had been killed by a drunken Highland piper. When the news traveled as far as the Spittal, Babbie, alarmed for Gavin’s safety, hurried to Mr. Ogilvy to ask his aid. The schoolmaster went with her to Windyghoul, where they encountered Gavin. When the two lovers were reunited, Babbie told Gavin that this was the day of her wedding to Lord Rintoul. Again, Gavin asserted that he would marry her.

They hurried away to a gypsy camp, and there the gypsy king married them over the tongs. Meanwhile, Lord Rintoul was searching for his bride and had followed her in time to witness the ceremony. In the confusion of the gypsy camp, Babbie cried out to Gavin that she heard Lord Rintoul’s voice. As Gavin rushed to encounter his rival, Babbie was suddenly snatched away. Assuming that Lord Rintoul would bring her back to the Spittal, Gavin headed toward Glen Quharity. The increasing rain drove him to Mr. Ogilvy’s house for shelter.

The dominie ordered Gavin to end his fruitless pursuit, but the little minister insisted that he would take Babbie back to the manse as his bride. Then Mr. Ogilvy had to tell Gavin about Margaret. The schoolmaster—his name was Gavin also—had married Margaret after her first husband, Adam Dishart, had disappeared at sea. Three years after little Gavin’s birth, Adam Dishart had returned to claim his wife and little Gavin as his own. Perceiving the sorrow in Margaret’s eyes as she faced the two men who claimed her, Mr. Ogilvy had disappeared and had sworn never to allow Margaret to know of his existence again. It was too late for the little minister and his real father to find any filial love after the schoolmaster’s painful revelation. Gavin acknowledged his father, but he claimed that it was more God’s will that he find Babbie again. As Gavin set out toward the Spittal, Mr. Ogilvy started toward Thrums to protect Margaret from village gossip that might reach her.

Babbie had not been captured by Lord Rintoul. Rob Dow, resolved to destroy the cause of his minister’s downfall, had seized her. The gypsy eluded him during the severe storm, however, and ran to the manse to find Gavin.

Gavin, meanwhile, had lost all trace of Lord Rintoul in the rain-swept darkness. While he was making his way across the storm-flooded countryside, he came upon a ravine where a shepherd shouted to him that Lord Rintoul was stranded on a small islet that was being washed away by the swiftly flowing water. He could be saved if a man would jump down onto the island with a rope. Although he had no rope, Gavin jumped in the hope that he could help Lord Rintoul to maintain his foothold on the tiny piece of dwindling turf. As the villagers gathered at the brink of the ravine, their minister revealed to them that he had married Babbie the gypsy and that Mr. Ogilvy was to carry the news of his death to his mother and his wife. Then a man leaped into the ravine with a rope. It was Rob Dow, who performed his last living act to save the little minister whom he loved.

Gavin returned to the manse, where he found his mother and Babbie. Babbie left the room crying, and Gavin revealed to his mother who the girl was, not the wild gypsy of Windyghoul, but the lady Lord Rintoul had planned to marry and the girl he truly loved. Gavin and Babbie were married again under the prayers of a real minister, but Gavin always felt that he had really married her under the stars in the gypsy camp.

Mr. Ogilvy told the story of Gavin and Babbie to the eager little girl who was the daughter of the little minister and his wife. At the schoolmaster’s request, Margaret Dishart had never learned of his part in Gavin’s love affair; but after her death, Gavin Ogilvy heard Babbie’s and Gavin’s daughter call him grandfather.

Critical Evaluation:

James M. Barrie’s sensitivity and deep appreciation of human values explain the popularity of this novel. The quiet, reserved humor appeals to the intellect and the heart rather than to a ludicrous sense of buffoonery, and the frequent note of sentiment is delicate and restrained. The LITTLE MINISTER displays Barrie’s gift for character portrayal and his lack of self-consciousness in his whimsical, ironic style.

A master of situation and dialogue, Barrie produced his first best-selling success with THE LITTLE MINISTER, but the mixture of clowning and sentimentality in the overrich prose is perhaps not as much to modern taste as it was to that of his contemporaries. The Scottish dialect also might be difficult for some readers. The characterizations, however, are vivid and original, transcending the other dated aspects of the book.

Babbie is a character of contradictions, fascinating, willful, headstrong, and beautiful, and the mystery lurking behind her presence makes her all the more interesting to both Gavin and the reader. Gavin’s sincerity makes his priggishness bearable, and the intensity of his feelings eventually transforms him into a genuine hero. The minor characters, from Gavin’s mother to old Nanny Webster to Rob Dow and the doctor, are all sharply etched and convey an aura of authenticity. The reader feels that if nineteenth century life in a Scottish village was not as portrayed in this novel, it should have been. A rich vein of humor arises at its best from the characterizations rather than the situations and gives the novel a lightness of tone that makes the sentimentality of the tale more palatable.

The device of having Gavin’s unknown father tell the story is awkward and unconvincing. The little clues placed occasionally into the narration are distracting from the main story line and confuse the reader without preparing him sufficiently for later revelations.

It is the impulsive, generous, and loving character of Babbie that dominates this novel and lifts it above the ordinary. She is one of the great heroines of British fiction; whether she is dropping barefooted from a tree, thrusting a diamond ring at poor old Nanny, or teasing and later loving the rigid young minister, she breathes life and excitement onto every page on which she appears.

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