restricted access 6. Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Women
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76 CHAPTER SIX Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Women Glenda Norquay A Scots Quair (1932–34), Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s most famous work, is striking in its engagement with that ‘difference of value’ identified by Virginia Woolf in 1928 as a key issue for women writers.1 The interest in strong female characters, the focus on female friendships as well as malefemale relationships, an attention to the rhythms of women’s lives, the articulation of dangerous questions around sexuality and contraception and, above all, in the character of Chris Guthrie, the centring voice of a female consciousness, combine to present a significant challenge to the literary politics of gender. When Gibbon’s contemporary Helen B. Cruickshank first read the trilogy’s first novel Sunset Song (1932) she believed it to be written by a woman, perceived feminine traits in the writing and described her mother’s own enthusiasm for the novel.2 More recently, feminist critic Deirdre Burton notes that when reading the trilogy she had to remind herself it was not written by a ‘modern female writer, who wrote from women’s cultural experience’.3 Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s fiction appears then to speak for and to its women readers; in his other writing, as James Leslie Mitchell, the author’s interest in sexual politics is just as evident. Yet, while the radicalism of Mitchell’s novels receives little attention in accounts of Scottish feminist writing, both feminist and nationalist critiques of his fiction as Gibbon have asked difficult questions about the representation of women, his deployment of female characters and the gendered implications of his literary forms. This chapter explores the complicated dynamics of the relationship between J. Leslie Mitchell, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and women, assessing his engagement with feminism, debates around his representation of female experience and the wider politics of his writing, and concludes by comparing his writing to female writers from northeast Scotland. Whether because of a personal fascination, the centrality to his life of an intellectually dynamic marriage, or a recognition that women in 77 this period serve to embody the modern moment and therefore presented the richest subject for fiction, both the novels of James Leslie Mitchell and the fiction of Lewis Grassic Gibbon operate through a particularly powerful attention to women and women’s issues.His fiction displays a keen engagement with the preoccupations of feminist thinking at the time and in particular with links between sexual oppression, birth control and marriage as emotional and economic exploitation. In The Thirteenth Disciple, a 1931 James Leslie Mitchell novel which flirts with the semiautobiographical , the central character, Malcom Maudslay, initiates the founding of a radical ‘politico-social society’.4 Although its members can barely agree about the society’s intentions they produce an eleven-point plan with the first three aims directed to addressing the position of women: ‘Abolition of the Legal Status of Marriage; State Propaganda and Enforcement of Birth Control; [and] a General Tax to be levied for the Endowment of Each Woman’s First Two Children’.5 Rather than adopting the language of equal rights and constitutional representation which had informed the women’s suffrage campaigns, in their challenge to the deeper economic underpinnings of oppression Mitchell’s imagined radicals hearken back to early twentieth-century feminist thinkers such as Cicely Hamilton in Marriage as a Trade (1909) and Olive Schreiner in Women and Labour (1911), both of whom give historical context to the conditions in which women are forced into ‘parasitism’.6 Like his character Maudslay, Mitchell was particularly exercised by the oppression of women through the burden of child-bearing, a consistent theme in his fiction. As the suicide in Sunset Song of Chris Guthrie’s mother on finding that she is again pregnant suggests, he recognised the psychological and economic damage created by an absence of birth control. The majority of his novels in one way or another present the case for its liberating effect, a point most explicit in Cloud Howe (1933) in which Else the housekeeper ‘listened with red-tinted ears, and stammered and blushed’ at the advice given by Chris to avoid further pregnancies.7 The complaint of Cicely Hamilton, that women are regarded ‘not as a human being with certain physical and mental qualities which enable her to bring children into the world and cook a dinner, but as a breeding-machine and the necessary adjunct to a frying pan’, echoes throughout his writing.8 Gibbon also makes the more radical case for women to...