Folk Music I: The Love-Test Ballad Subverted in Solvay (The Female Highwayman) and Donald of Glencoe

Note: Quotations are taken from Baring-Gould, 1890, for The Female Highwayman and Cara Dillon’s 2001 recording of Donald of Glencoe (from Cara Dillon)


The “love-test” ballad, in which the worthiness of a suitor is judged by means of some trial or challenge, forms one of the main stock ballad plots. However, the two examples featured here take this format and change it; usually the test is of wit and mental skill (as in Captain Wedderburn) or a means for a woman to escape the attentions of an overbearing suitor (as in Scarborough Fair and its variations), but these examples have a woman take on a different persona and appearance to test the fidelity of their suitor.

Notable in both cases is the figurative use of the female figure outside of the castle or bounded space; in the medieval tradition, place was afforded a strong mythic significance, with the woman’s “place” being the bounded and interior space while the exterior space was a traditionally male one. This arguably derives from the Greek tradition of the polis being a place for reason, civility and order, and the outside space being wilder and bacchanalian (see The Bacchae‘s use of wild rites outside the city, or the fear of exile prevalent in Greek tragedy). In both of these ballads, the character of the female lover enters this wild space to apprehend their suitor in his own symbolic territory; the difference in method, however, is important.

In Solvay, the woman does not simply enter the male space, she enters the male role, “dressed… in man’s array”; while a man taking on the guise of a woman is often used for comic effect in fiction, a woman posing as a man is frequently more serious – a way of infiltrating the masculine space as an equal, not as a transgressor. The “wild woman” – a woman in the male space – is seen not only as inferior to men and a trespasser in their territory, but also an imperfect or subhuman woman, someone who has rejected the strictures of society and in doing so rejected civilisation. Therefore, the protagonist of Solvay must imitate a man; simply disguising her identity is not enough, her entire being must be fabricated.

The love test at the heart of the narrative then is not one between a woman and man, but instead between a man and what he perceives to be another man; it is militaristic, with the woman asking him to “stand and deliver,” with “sword and pistol”. When she asks for his diamond ring, a love-token, the audience is made aware of the purpose of the scene as a love-test; the woman is testing, in physical terms, whether her true love would die for her. This leads back to the more traditional denouement of the plot; the man has “passed” the test and is able to marry. The deception, while a matter of life and death at the time, is revealed to have been a trick (this life-and-death loyalty test can arguably be traced back to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in some form, or even further back to tests of conviction as seen in Antigone). Baring-Gould’s version of the ballad ends, however, on a thought-provoking line; “whether you were a man or no”; not only is the man’s fidelity in love tested, but his courage and masculinity, turning the love-test around once again from a simple measure of love to one of suitability as a suitor.

By contrast, Donald of Glencoe takes a different approach to rationalising and civilising the transgressive woman; the setting of the action at “the fair crystal fountain that falls at Glencoe” is a liminal one, an acceptable compromise between the bounded feminine space and the open male one. Bodies of water and rivers are traditionally feminine spaces and so to encounter a woman at one is not the same sort of transgression of social norms as to encounter a woman on the road or on the forest. The fact, however, that a woman is being encountered in a non-feminine space, even a transitional and liminal one, immediately establishes that there is some test or foul play ahead. The love-test is apparently a man trying to seduce a woman away from her absent lover, but instead becomes a back-and-forth in which both parties are trying to establish without being explicit the other’s identity; the man wishes to test the woman’s constancy by attempting to seduce her, while the woman is trying to do the same for the man. While this latter reading is less explicit (for the verse contains the line “then seeing her constance he drew out a glove…”), it is evident; she claims “a maid I’ll remain ’till he return to Glencoe”, and through using the language of mourning and fidelity after death (a common ballad trope to show true love) attempts to have him reveal his own identity.

Much as certain variations of Scarborough Fair have the woman subvert the man’s love-test to her own end and use it to test his fidelity as much as her wit, the woman’s responses to the man’s questions, and her fidelity raise the reading that she, like he, is aware of the other party’s identity and is using this assumed first meeting to her own ends (much like the protagonist of Solvay) – indeed, both ballads end in the true love-test tradition of the trickery revealed and the test passed. While it is not so obviously subversive of traditional gender roles and gendered spaces as Solvay, Donald of Glencoe is still a strong example of the more challenging interpretations of the love-test tradition.


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