The twenties saw an outpouring of women’s writing, and other contenders for the bookshelf list included the lyrical Nan Shepherd’s novel The Quarry Wood (1928), about a feisty girl from a poor Deeside family, kailyard novelist Annie Shepherd Swan’s Closed Doors (1926), and most interesting of all, writer and critic Catherine Carswell’s semi-autobiographical novel of Edwardian Glasgow, Open the Door! (1920), which is a clear-eyed account of an intelligent young woman’s bid for autonomy.
Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor / Columnist The Herald
One 20th-century Scottish book towers above readers, and writers, like a giant. It was not only a work of literary genius, but it dragged Scottish letters and, arguably, Scotland itself, into the modern era. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by C M Grieve, writing under his lifelong pseudonym of Hugh MacDiarmid, is a magnificently profound and ambitious poem, whose presence hovers over every writer whose language is Scots, and every citizen who cares about Scotland’s cultural and spiritual identity.
Surely the thistliest, prickliest literary figure Scotland has ever produced, MacDiarmid wrote his epic first-person poem in the persona of a drunk lying on a hillside, beneath the moonlight, and contemplating not just his own navel, but that of the nation too. It has been considered by some critics to be the equal of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, and certainly it was the first true blast of modernism from Scotland, overtaking many English and Irish authors to lead the vanguard of modernist expression. What distinguishes MacDiarmid’s Drunk Man from much of the work of his peers – the likes of Yeats, and Eliot and Ezra Pound – is his confidence, humour and sense of optimism, a cast of mind that few would have associated with Scotland from its literature up to that point.
Dark Star by contrast still clings to old-fashioned, traditional Scotland. This is in some ways odd, given that its author, Lorna Moon, a beautiful, acerbic freespirit from Strichen in Aberdeenshire, had kicked over the traces of small-town life and absconded, first for Canada with a travelling salesman, and then to Hollywood. There she became a writer and had a son by Cecil B deMille’s brother, before dying young from tuberculosis. Dark Star is a melodramatic, sometimes unconvincing romance in which an illegitimate girl, called Nancy, living in the north east as had Moon, goes in search of her parents, and in so doing finds love. Moon was a tart critic of her homeland, and here, as in her short story collection, Doorways in Drumorty, she pokes fun at the hypocrisies of the narrow-minded land she had left behind. This novel stands out as a rare blast for its times on behalf of female independence and sexual honesty. As Moon wrote, it was a “sincere effort to show what the men in a woman’s life bring to her, and take from her ... It is the inside of a woman written from the inside.”
Read an extract from Dark Star