A film adaptation of the celebrated Scottish novel Sunset Song is arriving at a time of recurrent European financial crises and a war in the Middle East that is sucking in many of the world’s major powers for the second time in a generation. In 1932, when Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work was first published, Britain was in a decade-long depression, Europe had endured the World War I, and the seeds of the Spanish Civil War and World War II were already sown.
Gibbon would have been saddened but not surprised by these historic echoes.
James Leslie Mitchell – Gibbon was a pseudonym – was born in 1901 into an Aberdeenshire crofting family. By the time he died in 1935, still not yet 34, he had published around 20 books. Overwork may have contributed to his early death from a perforated ulcer, just as he was on the brink of major success.
Sunset Song is about a young girl growing to maturity on a farm in northeast Scotland in the second decade of the 20th century. A set text in many Scottish secondary schools, it was voted Scotland’s favourite book in a 2005 poll. The novel is also highly regarded further afield. The writer Tariq Ali described A Scots Quair – the trilogy of which Sunset Song is the first novel – as “a masterpiece of world literature”.
Change is the leitmotif of Sunset Song. It charts the demise of the fictional farming community of Kinraddie as a generation of men are killed in World War I. The local minister calls them “the last of the peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk”. With their going, a whole way of life, customs, songs and expressions disappears. The “sunset song” of the title is a lament for the passing of the crofting life, alluding to the song The Flowers of the Forest, popularly played to remember Scottish deaths in World War I.
The story focuses on Chris Guthrie (played in the film by Agyness Deyn) and her struggle to decide whether to stay on the land she loves or pursue her education. But more broadly it is about how capitalism fragments local communities. The surrounding woods are cut down for timber profit at one point, for instance, thus exposing the farmland and making it impossible to farm.
Sunset Song has much in common with that favourite novel of English regional life, Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, which was itself recently adapted by the BBC. Lee’s novel, set in a Cotswold village in central England, also captures a way of life in which “the horse was king” that was to be brutally ended by the First World War. But while the autobiographical narrator of Cider With Rosie remembers his childhood as an almost Edenic age before the post-war fall into modernity, the roots of evil already trouble Chris Guthrie’s girlhood, especially in the form of the Calvinist religion practised by her abusive father (played in the film by Peter Mullan).
This different view of the past is no accident. For Gibbon, religion and war are among the various corrupt manifestations of civilisation. Many writers of the 1930s would turn to communism to solve what they perceived as the crisis in liberal capitalism, and to express their opposition to fascism – Laurie Lee, for instance, would fight against Franco in Spain. Gibbon was attracted to communism too, but his writing is also heavily influenced by the theory of diffusionism, which was popular in his lifetime.
Diffusionism held that civilisation emerged from ancient Egypt, a place that particularly interested Gibbon, who had been stationed there with the British army in the 1920s. Before accidentally discovering agriculture through the flooding of the Nile basin, goes the theory, humans had been free hunter-gatherers. Agriculture gave us a rootedness that created codes of gender, class, morality and religion that suppress human liberty. For Gibbon, who propagandised for diffusionism in many of his books, humans needed to break with militarist/capitalist civilisation to achieve a new peaceful way of life.
Kinraddie represents the original age of agriculture in Gibbon’s imagination, and this needs to be seen in the context of the whole Scots Quair trilogy. The second instalment, Cloud Howe, takes us into the era of the General Strike in the 1920s, while the concluding volume, Grey Granite, follows Chris and her communist son Ewan as they negotiate urban life in the 1930s. Gibbon is tracing humanity’s shift to the age of total politics and economic depression, which for him was a sign that the old order was breaking up. Diffusionism might not be common currency in the 2010s, but many people today still look at the sweep of recent history and hope for a major change to rejuvenate humankind.
Sunset Song has endured for other reasons too: the way we identify with the main character Chris; the nostalgia for community in a more individualistic age; Gibbon’s portrayal of the land, and his moving and witty prose, which is both accessible and distinctly Scots. The novel may also tap into a Scottish sense – mythic perhaps – of egalitarianism, at a time when Britain’s political and cultural power remains heavily centralised.
But fundamentally this is a book whose concern for sheer human decency in the face of adversity and injustice has resonated around the world. In a period of austerity, and continuing global conflict, this all makes the Terence Davies adaptation particularly timely.
Sunset Song ends with a eulogy by the local minister in which he asks for a new civilisation that will make the deaths of those he commemorates somewhat worthwhile. If Gibbon were looking at the modern world, I doubt he would think it had occurred.
Sunset Song is in selected Scottish cinemas from November 30 and across the UK from December 4
Home > Articles & Essays > Modernism and Marxism in A Scots Quair
Ideology in Action: Modernism and Marxism in A Scots Quair
Margery Palmer McCulloch
A revised and updated version of this paper, along with eleven other essays on Gibbon’s works, is available in A Flame in the Mearns, published June 2003 by ASLS.
Abbreviations are defined at the end of the document.
Despite its dialectical title, my paper is as much concerned with narrative form as it is with ideology. What interests me about A Scots Quair is the way in which this text of the later Modernist period dramatises and interrogates the politics and social history of its time through characterisation, setting and voice; and especially through the responses of its fictional characters to the events which overtake them and which some of them at least try actively to shape.
It seems to me important to keep in mind also the relative youth of Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon during the composition of the trilogy – 31 years old at the publication of Sunset Song in 1932, 33 when Grey Granite appeared. This author was a young man who was himself in the process of formation intellectually: absorbing and making responses to influences, rejecting what did not work for him , moving on to new investigations. It may be that critics have been too ready to pigeon-hole his philosphical position as Diffusionist or Marxist – to name the two most popular ascriptions – as if the trilogywere the product of historical hindsight and reflection as, say, George Eliot’s Middlemarch was the product of the distance in time between the events portrayed in her novel and the date of that portrayal. Mitchell’s interest in ancient history deriving from boyhood and his more recent involvement with Marxist theories of history are certainly present in the Quair, but I would suggest they are there in an explorative and interrogative way, rather than as settled philosophies. And in Cloud Howe and Grey Granite in particular, he is living through the events and ideological responses to them which are being portrayed. It is inevitable, therefore, that, like the formal ending of the trilogy itself, ideological certainties should be deferred, unresolved.
What is pertinent also in relation to Mitchell’s relationship with the Scottish Renaissance movement is the age difference between him and other principal writers such as MacDiarmid, Muir and Gunn. Like their contemporaries Eliot, Lawrence and Joyce, MacDiarmid, Muir and Gunn were born in the late 1880s or early 1890s and the influence of late Romanticism and the several cultural and philosophical crises of the Victorian age can be found in their work alongside the innovations and philosophical uncertainties of Modernism. Gibbon, on the other hand, was born in 1901, and while ten or twelve years may not seem sufficient to call a generational difference, these ten years came at a critical point in regard to the experiences which shaped him as adolescent and young adult. MacDiarmid, for example, served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika during the war, and for him, as for others of his generation, the war was an event which broke the continuity of past and present. As Edwin Muir described it in his Autobiography: ‘The generation to which I belong has survived an age, and the part of our life which is still immobilized there is like a sentence broken off before it could be completed; the future in which it would have written its last word was snatched away and a raw new present abruptly substituted’ (A 194). Leslie Mitchell, on the other hand, could be seen as closer to the Auden generation. He was a boy aged 13 at the outbreak of hostilities and tried on three occasions to enlist, although under age. Hypocrisy, jingoism, profiteering and injustice are the indictments against the war found in his later fiction and essays, not the philosophical awareness of a cataclysmic break with the past given expression in much art of the Modernist period. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was of formative significance for Mitchell. In 1917, as a young reporter, he was attending the foundation meeting of an Aberdeen Soviet; and in 1919 he was becoming involved with Communist groups in Glasgow. In contrast, while Marxism was to become a major theme for MacDiarmid in his poems to Lenin in the fashionably political thirties, in the years immediately preceding and following the end of World War One, it was the regeneration of Scotland and a revolution in Scottish literary culture that preoccupied him, not Marxist politics. Such differences are important in any consideration of Gibbon’s place in the interwar Scottish literary revival movement, to which he was a late entrant.
In relation to Modernism, it is frustrating that there would appear to be so little written specifically about literary matters in the essays and letters of Mitchell/Grassic Gibbon – and I think I should call him Grassic Gibbon from now onwards. The principal literary essay is, of course, ‘Literary Lights’ from Scottish Scene (LGGA 123-37), in which he demonstrates how few of the writers of the so-called Scottish Literary Renaissance can in his view actually be considered Scottish writers, as opposed to English writers from the county of Scotshire. His criterion for judgement here is language, whether Scots or Gaelic, and it is interesting that, like MacDiarmid and Muir in their unnecessary quarrel over Muir’s Scott and Scotland, Gibbon in this essay ignores the fact that Scottish English, even in the 1930s, is the medium of communication for a large number of Scots for everyday discourse as well as creative writing – Scottish English was then as it is now one of the three principal languages of Scotland, and had been so for a considerable time. The more significant section of the ‘Literary Lights’ essay, however, is where Gibbon discusses his own attempts to develop a specifically Scottish medium for his narrative in the books of the Scots Quair trilogy. Scots-language experimentation in Scottish Renaissance circles had been principally in the area of poetry with Neil Gunn, at that point the most promising novelist associated with the revival movement, writing in English (and being ironically characterised in the ‘Literary Lights’ essay as ‘a brilliant novelist from Scotshire’). Now, however, an experiment of a different order was under way:
So far as the Modernist dimension of the Quair is concerned, it’s significant that in his speculation as to whether this new medium can be used successfully when transferred from the rural to the city scene, Gibbon goes on to make comparison with James Joyce. For the free indirect style of the Sunset Song narrative, the blurring of the distinction between narrator and characters, has much in common with Joyce’s experiments with narrative voice, as it has also with Virginia Woolf’s approach in Mrs Dalloway. It’s interesting too that the negative noises Gibbon makes about Joyce’s later work must apply in this instance to Ulysses, for Finnegan’s Wake, usually cited as Joyce’s descent into incomprehensibility, was not published until 1939, four years after Gibbon’s death. And in Ulysses, Joyce, like Gibbon, transfers his earlier narrative experimentation to the city context of Dublin.
There are two other references to Joyce in ‘Literary Lights’: one at the beginning of the essay linked also to Proust, where the writer speculates that among the many unread published books, there may well have been overlooked ‘a Scots Joyce, a Scots Proust’; and later where he again mentions a possible future Scots James Joyce who will ‘electrify’ the Scottish scene, this time in company with a future Scots Virginia Woolf who will ‘astound’ it (LGGA 124, 127). In addition, in the essay ‘The Land’, Gibbon talks of the pleasure he himself finds in the ‘manipulation of words on a blank page’ (LGGA 84 my italics), not, one notices, the manipulation of ideas. These few comments, when brought together with the innovative narrative methodology in all three books of the Quair, provide reasonable evidence, in my view, for Gibbon’s interest in literary form and for his awareness of and interest in the experimental fiction of the modernist period. And what is so interesting about A Scots Quair itself is the way in which Gibbon marries a Modernistic fictional form with a Marxist exploration of contemporary and historical forces, an exploration more often conducted in fiction through socialist-realist methodology.
The opening of the ‘Ploughing’ section of Sunset Song offers a fine example of his approach, which includes also a bringing together of the oral and the literary. Beginning, apparently, with the voice of a traditional third person narrator, the narrative quickly modulates into the generic ‘you’ and then into the voice of Chris herself: ‘Folk said there hadn’t been such a drought since eighty-three and Long Rob of the Mill said you couldn’t blame this one on Gladstone, anyway, and everybody laughed except father, God knows why’ (SS 25). One senses immediately that this will be a story of lives told from the inside, where the reader will also be encouraged to ‘belong’ as opposed to observing from a distance. The passage is compelling not only for its innovative communication of the rhythms of the north-east speaking voice, but also for its linguistic vibrancy and colour – we have a Scottish Fauve landscape personified here:
Each word chosen communicates in its different way a countryside throbbing with life: the wind ‘shook and played in the moors and went dandering up the sleeping Grampians, the rushes pecked and quivered about the loch when its hand was upon them’; the everyday and the erotic mingle in the imagery of the parks which lie like a mythical earth-goddess ‘fair parched, sucked dry, the red clay soil of Blawearie gaping open for the rain that seemed never-coming’. And then, at the end of this introductory descriptive passage there is the alien technological image of the motor-car ‘shooming through [the roads] like kettles under steam’ – a motor-car which intrudes into the life of the community and almost knocks down Chae Strachan’s son, a narrative detail which, with hindsight, points imagistically towards the technology which is even then beginning to undermine traditional ways of farming and points also to the ending of the book where technology in the form of the armaments of war brings the final disintegration of the community. With this small, almost unnoticed imagistic detail, followed by the economic characterisation of Chae Strachan and Long Rob in their responses to the motorist and Chae’s court fine, Gibbon unobtrusively introduces the ideological context of the novel alongside its modernistic descriptive prose and focalisation. This is very clever writing which has to be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. (SS 25-6)
The section which follows, and which switches anachronistically to the story of Chris’s parents, is even more important for an understanding at this early stage of the narrative of the way in which the ideological discourse is communicated through voice and characterisation. The narrative begins with the voice of Chris remembering her mother and then modulates into the voice of the mother herself, into her own memories as she had perhaps retold them to the younger Chris:
This is followed by the meeting between her and Chris’s father, John Guthrie, at a ploughing match in which it is clear that the ‘brave young childe with a red head and the swackest legs you ever saw’ would carry off the prize. And he carries off more than the ploughing prize: ‘For as he rode from the park on one horse he patted the back of the other and cried to Jean Murdoch with a glint from his dour, sharp eye Jump up if you like. And she cried back I like fine! and caught the horse by its mane and swung herself there till Guthrie’s hand caught her and set her steady on the back of the beast.’ (SS 28)
What is captured here is the immediate attraction between two young people, their impetuosity and their willingness to risk putting their lives together. From an ideological perspective, the ensuing narrative shows, economically but forcibly, how this early joy in each other becomes warped and destroyed by external forces they are unable to control – the struggle to farm unrewarding land, repeated pregnancies, physically difficult for the mother, the continuing extra mouths to feed. In addition, it demonstrates the way in which our lives can be determined not only by factors outwith our control, but also by our own unwillingness to open our minds to change, by our refusal to question dominant ideologies. In his poem ‘London’ William Blake speaks of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ – ‘In every voice, in every ban,/The mind-forg’d manacles I hear’ (WBSP 36) – and Gibbon’s narrative shows that we can put these manacles on our own minds, as well as have them imposed from outside. John Guthrie, for example, refuses to question his Old Testament religion. His cruelty to his wife – ‘We’ll have what God in His mercy may send to us, woman. See you to that’ – is patterned in his cruelty to his son when the boy calls to the new horse ‘Come over, Jehovah’, a name whose wonderful sound seems to the child to match the wonder the animal holds for him, but a use which Guthrie can interpret only as blasphemous (SS 28, 30). John Guthrie is to a large extent portrayed negatively and might easily be dismissed as a cruel, authoritarian husband and father. Yet that brief capturing of the early love between the two young people remains in the mind as a touchstone of what might have been and it conditions us to think about why he has become the man he has. This portrayal of the Guthrie marriage is paralleled in a passage from Gibbon’s essay ‘The Land’ in which he talks of the cyclical struggle of marriage and breeding and endless work, and he adds:
Marx’s view of the historical process was two-fold: on the one hand, it was deterministic, sweeping human beings along with it; on the other he believed that human beings should be active in helping to shape that historical process. Gibbon, too, in his essay ‘Religion’ stresses that ‘men are not merely the victims, the hapless leaves storm-blown, of historic forces, but may guide if they cannot generate that storm’ (LGGA 166); and it is this conflict between those who attempt to guide or shape events and those who refuse to question, who obstinately or apathetically hold to old ways of thinking and behaviour which is played out in the three books of A Scots Quair. In Sunset Song, for example, Chris is notable for the way she makes choices with regard to her own life. In the end she chooses to stay on the land, to put aside the ‘English Chris’; she asks Ewan to share her life and the farm with her; she learns how to control her fertility, so that she will not follow on her mother’s road; and she never loses her sense of self-possession, even in the darkest days of the ironically named ‘harvest’ section of the book. As has often been noted, Sunset Song is both the song of a young woman growing to adulthood and simultaneously the end of an old song for a rural way of life that is dying; but Gibbon’s Marxist insight in this book is that although the historical process was working against that way of life, it did not need to work to its end in the way it did. People could have responded to events in a way that would have shaped them less harshly.
The harshest event in the narrative is, of course, the intrusion of the Great War into the life of community. In this depiction we find the hypocrisy and self-seeking, the readiness to adhere unthinkingly to religious and political propaganda that are characteristic of many contemporaneous accounts of the home front in that war, and which are found also in Gibbon’s comments about the war in his essays. Chris and Long Rob are branded as pro-German because they dare question gossip and newspaper stories; Chae Strachan emotionally thrusts aside his Socialism and rushes off to fight – behaviour which patterns Gibbon’s Scottish Scene comment about H.G. Wells: ‘That unique internationalist, Mr HG Wells, erupted like an urgent geyser – "every sword drawn against Germany is a sword drawn for peace!"’ (LGGA 145). Ewan, who is not a thinker like his wife, also submits to the hysteria, enlists and is eventually shot as a deserter in France. All the horror of the war is brought alive by its enactment through these characters we have come to know, and by our realisation that, although the war itself was beyond their control, in the areas of life where they did have choice and the opportunity to use their minds to question and evaluate, the inhabitants of Kinraddie mostly did not use that choice, or, as in the case of the home-front profiteers, they used choice to their own advantage, and to the ultimate hastening of the end of the farming way of life, as in the cutting down for short-term profit of the trees which sheltered the farming lands.
Sunset Songis heartbreaking in the tragedy of its ending, but that ending also leaves open the possibility of something positive coming out of the disaster with the forthcoming marriage of Chris to the new Christian Socialist minister Robert Colquhoun, who has been gassed in the war and has come home with a mission to make Christ’s gospel relevant to the everyday lives of people here on earth, a mission interrogated in the second book.
Cloud Howeis probably the least talked about book in Gibbon’s trilogy. Edwin Muir called it ‘an unusually bad novel’ in the Listener of 9 August 1933. I think this is unfair. Certainly, from a formal perspective, it is not so immediately stiking as either the first or final book, and with Chris no longer at the centre of events, her perspective cannot be so immediate or meaningful as it was in Sunset Song. Other ways have to be found to bring this more fragmented community to us while attempting to hold on to the innovative narrative voice developed previously. Nevertheless, while the formal, modernistic attributes of this second book may be less coherent, what is of much interest is its presentation of religion and politics.
Gibbon’s presentation of religion in Sunset Song and his Scottish Scene essay is a negative one. In Sunset Song, religion and its Kinraddie minister come to us like ‘flat’ characters and very often also in the guise of stereotypical music-hall Scotch comics. There is no rounded characterisation, no positive side seen. Kinraddie’s minister is always presented as pompous, ludicrous, lecherous, gluttinous and self-serving while the religion he preaches is the harsh creed that has warped unthinking adherents such as John Guthrie. In Cloud Howe, on the other hand, it is as if Gibbon is giving religion a second chance to prove itself as an ideology which can help shape a new society. Religion is brought to the foreground of the narrative, at least in its earlier sections, and the portrayal of Robert’s attempt to make it meaningful to the lives of the inhabitants of Segget is sympathetic, his own characterisation rounded. Yet while Robert may seem to have taken over from Chris as the dominant perspective in many parts of the novel, Chris’s point of view is still important, even if communciated obliquely. At the end of the ‘Cirrus’ chapter, for example, Chris in on the hill at the Kaimes ruins, thinking of Robert and his dream of a new age: Was his
Then, breaking into her thoughts:
This harsh interruption to Chris’s uncertain questioning – reminding the reader, perhaps, of Dickens’s ‘melancholy, mad elephants’ in the Coketown factories of Hard Times – appears to suggest through its imagery of ‘screeching’ and ‘hungered beast in pain’ that Robert’s dream may well be illusory, as indeed it proves to be. For the Segget people are divided among themselves, between the gentry and the incomers, the spinners. Robert is trusted by neither group and attacked by the more conservative because he identifies with the workers and tries to improve their conditions. But these coarsely depicted, uneducated workers don’t trust him either, because, ironically, this is not the traditional role they expect of a churchman. Their contempt, as portrayed in the narrative, may well derive from Gibbon’s own contempt for institutionalised religion and his view that ‘religion is no more fundamental to the human character than cancer is fundamental to the human brain’ (LGGA 152). One could say, therefore, that the failure of Robert’s dream is as much pre-determined by his author’s views on religion as it is by the fictional conflicts of Segget, for even at its most sympathetic with regard to Robert, the narrative, through Gibbon’s characterisation of Chris’s response, is negatively directed:
And as Robert talks out his dream:
The ‘Stratus’ chapter is the political heart of Cloud Howe where the presentation of the failure of the General Strike reminds one of the similar scenario in the symbolic ‘Ballad of the Crucified Rose’ or ‘Ballad of the General Strike’ in MacDiarmid’s long poem of 1926, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. In Gibbon’s novel, the failure marks the end of Robert’s dream, the betrayal of the workers, partly through their own in-fighting but also betrayal by their own leaders and politicians. As in MacDiarmid’s ballad:
Politics and political factions are the stereotypical ‘flat charaters’ in Cloud Howe, as religion was in Sunset Song, and their aggressive, unthinking, prejudice-ridden characterisation brings one again to realise the necessity of interrogating existing ideologies and attitudes, of being prepared to cast the manacles from our own minds as well as fighting against external forces. There are no ideological positives in this novel – all conventional political parties are scorned, religion is seen ultimately as providing no answers, nationalism is rejected. We are left with the continuing personal self-possession of Chris: ‘She had found in the moors and the sun and the sea her surety unshaken, lost maybe herself, but she followed no cloud, be it named or unnamed’ (CH 173). We are also left with the impersonal rationality of her son Ewan and his is the philosophy which takes us into Grey Granite and into the interrogation of yet another possible way forward, this time the hard, impersonal ideology of Marxism, which patterns the flint and granite images associated with the characterisation of Ewan who takes up work in a city metal foundry. In contrast to the epilogue and prologue which separated the first two books in the trilogy, the second and third books flow into each other without obstruction, a structural device which emphasises the connectedness of their ideological discourse.
While the retrospective narrative pattern and the structuring through symbolic section titles are less significant in this book, Gibbon seems to me to be remarkably successful in his creation of an urban setting and in his translation of the modernistic free-flowing narrative voice from the rural to the urban scene. As in the earlier books, it is Chris’s perspective which opens the Grey Granite scene as she pauses for breath, not this time on the hillside at the Kinraddie Standing Stones, or the Kaimes ruins in the countryside above Segget, but at a turn in the steep steps which lead up to Windmill Place in the city of Duncairn. Immediately we feel we are in a new environment with the quicker pulse of the city, its damp, dirty fog and swish of traffic, its more expansive, yet fragmented setting where there is no possibility of a cohesive community, not even of the limited community there was in Segget. In Duncairn there is the impersonality of city streets, the perception of a variety of occupations and classes with separate interests, of townspeople who are unlikely ever to meet up with one another, of areas of the city outwith their experience. Despite the continuing modernistic elements in Gibbon’s narrative form, this is not the modernist city of alienated but fascinated intellectuals and artists found at the beginning of the century, not the ‘unreal city’ of Eliot’s The Waste Land. This is a proletarian city, a city of slums, of class warfare, of economic injustice and protest: the kind of city which provided a setting for the Socialist and Marxist debates and action of the interwar period. Ewan and Chris are considered ‘toffs’ (GG 21,23) in this new world, despite the fact that Chris has to work long hours in her boarding-house to make any kind of living and Ewan himself has chosen to enter a factory. This classification would appear to derive from their conscious sense of self, from an independence of mind alien to the urban worker at the bottom of the heap and which marks them out as different. Chris doesn’t understand the word ‘keelie’(GG 26) which Ewan uses of his fellow workers, although she understands his derisive intonation – something she thinks should not be used towards working people, of whom she considers herself one. In the exchanges between Ewan and the apprentices at Gowans and Gloag we are shown the narrow perspectives of the workers, their petty enmities and rivalries, their unwillingness to unite in the attempt to better their situation. The employers seem firmly in control here and we get an insight into how generations of industrial working, poor living conditions and lack of education can sap initiative, so that there remains little belief in the possibility of escape from what seems a predestined place in life.
Grey Graniteis of interest not only for its continuing ideological exploration, but also in relation to that question raised by Gibbon in his ‘Literary Lights’ essay: would he be able to transfer from a rural to urban context the narrative methodology he had developed for Sunset Song – that modernistic free indirect narrative voice with its mixture of Scots and English vocabulary and rhythms of the north-east speaking voice. As we have seen, Duncairn’s population is fragmented and there is no possibility of an overarching community voice such as was found in Kinraddie and to a lesser extent in Segget. Chris, who in theory still tells the story, has been removed from the centre of the action of Grey Granite, but even had she been more involved in the central happenings, the social fragmentation of the setting and characters would not have allowed her to act as principal focaliser.
Despite these obstacles, Gibbon is remarkably successful in adapting his methodology to the new context. After its Chris-centred opening, focalisation in this last book moves from character to character and from one particular group to another. Thus we have perspectives from the foundry workers, often with an anonymous yet insider industrial worker’s voice; sometimes there is a kind of ‘group’ voice, reminding one of the Kinraddie community voice, yet representative only of a section of the townspeople here; sometimes the maid Meg is the focaliser, sometimes Ewan’s girlfriend and co-socialist worker Ellen; perspectives come also from Chris and Ewan and from a whole range of one-dimensional characters such as the boarding-house inmates, the provost and labour leader, the chief of police, the minister and his housekeeper. Undeveloped as they are, these characters still appear to speak to us for and by themselves, as opposed to being spoken about by a conventional omniscient narrative voice. This is an unusual and important step forward in portraying a fragmented urban environment, anticipating in many ways the later urban narratives of James Kelman. The language used also anticipates Kelman’s practice. It is still the remodelling of English into the rhythms and cadences of spoken Scots speech as Gibbon described it in ‘Literary Lights’, but these are now urban rhythms and the lexis includes words such as ‘keelie’ which Chris did not understand.
Gibbon’s methodology can be seen to good effect in passages such as the Paldy Parish narrative in the early stages of the novel and the later Socialist march to the town hall (LGGA 19, 53). In the evocation of a hot June night in the Paldy Parish slum, focalisation moves from the man to his wife to his daughter, each of them focussing on their hopes and realising the privations of their present situation with the smells and the heat and the lack of privacy. The parents’ despairing memories and the determination of their daughter to escape their fate are brought alive by the synaesthetic imagery and the speech rhythms of the language. The terrible irony of the human situation is brought out later in the plot when the girl Meg becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, and so the cycle of entrapment starts up all over again. The presentation of the Socialist march is equally powerful. The main focaliser here is an anonymous man on the march, but his perspective is also a group perspective for the class of workers to which he belongs. In addition, included within his voice is the perspective of his wife – and of all the wives – as he remembers what she thinks of protest activity; he remembers also his comrades, the ones who emigrated and the ones who were killed in the war, he remembers the war; and all the time we are overhearing his thoughts and memories, the narrative is simultaneously bringing to us the crowds lining the streets, the noise of the drum and the singing and the traffic. And then, the slowing of the march, the disbelief when it begins to be diverted away from the Town Hall, the angry breaking of the line and the charge of the police horses. This is a wonderful passage of narrative which demands to be read aloud, savoured. I know of nothing like its effect in Scottish writing, except, perhaps, the effect achieved by Walter Scott’s narrative of the townspeople and the Porteous riots in The Heart of Midlothian.
Like Cloud Howe, Grey Granite is most often compared unfavourably with Sunset Song, perhaps because of its overt ideological plot and focus on the characterisation of Ewan with the inevitable marginalisation of Chris; and perhaps because of a perceived need by readers and critics to find out exactly what message Gibbon meant to convey in the book and how we should interpret its ending with regard to his ideological beliefs. My own view is that it is more profitable to focus on his narrative methodology and what he achieves by it, and that interpretative questions will then look after themselves. For this trilogy is an ideological investigation in process, not one resolved, and in all three books it is the work’s imaginative narrative method which encourages us to explore both the many beauties of the text and the philosophical and ideological questions it raises.
The Socialist march to the Town Hall transfers the struggle to find a new order of society from Cloud Howe’s religious search to the political context, but the interrogation of political systems in this final book is hardly more optimistic than the blind antagonisms which destroyed Robert in its predecessor. A recurring theme in all three books of the trilogy is that we imprison ourselves by our unwillingness to examine dominant ideologies and conventional responses. In Duncairn, the workers reject parties and policies which are attempting to bring about change – as we see also in the Paldy Parish view of the danger of the ‘Communionists’ (GG 20). There is hatred of the upper classes and the better off, yet, paradoxically, the workers give their votes to the very people to whose advantage it is to maintain the status quo. Ewan is at the heart of the struggle with his adherence to Communism, but his characterisation is such that it does not encourage us to believe that the resolution of social ills will lie with his impersonal ideology and its rejection of human needs and commitments. While he is characterised successfully as the flint-like personality needed for the ruthless pursuit of political necessities, the question as to whether the system to which he is committed is really what a world in economic and social crisis needs is left open by his author.
And what of Chris? Are we to believe, as Angus Calder has suggested, that ‘her peasant values drag her into regression, stasis and death’(UF 112); or is her return to Cairndhu and the croft where she was born to be interpreted as a rejection of Ewan’s Marxist solution and a validation of some kind of watered-down Golden Age Diffusionist theory? I think Chris’s situation at the end of Grey Granite should be freed from both such inflexible interpretations and considered in relation to Gibbon’s characterisation of women throughout the trilogy. For, on the whole, the women in the trilogy hold true to a sense of human values. The outstanding example of this is Chris. She appears to go along with the flow of history, yet she acts to shape her life where she can, choosing what is life-giving as opposed to what is imprisoning. Ellen, too, opts for the human as opposed to the impersonal ideology of Ewan and Gibbon himself said: ‘I’m a jingo patriot of planet earth: Humanity right or wrong!’ (LGGA 95) If one has to find ‘meaning’ in the trilogy, then, for me it is this focus on humanity which is the principal message of the text, not the endorsement of any particular ideology, a humanity communicated so variously and vitally by Gibbon’s innovative and modernistic narrative method, something quite new in Scottish fiction.
Abbreviations used in the paper
A – Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (London: Hogarth Press, 1956)
CH – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Cloud Howe in A Scots Quair, ed. and introd. by Tom Crawford (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995)
CP – Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. Michael Grieve and W.R. Aitken (London: Martin, Brian & O’Keeffe, 1978)
GG – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Grey Granite in A Scots Quair (1995)
LGGA – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology, ed. Valentina Bold (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001)
SS – Sunset Song in A Scots Quair (1995)
UF – Angus Calder, ‘A Mania for Self-Reliance: Grassic Gibbon’s Scots Quair’ in The Uses of Fiction ed. Douglas Jefferson and Graham Martin (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1982)
WBSP – William Blake: Selected Poems, ed. P.H. Butter (London: Dent, 1982)
Copyright © Margery Palmer McCulloch 2001
Last updated 18 August 2010.