When the novel was first published in 1932, many readers reacted with disgust at its frank portrayal of sex and childbearing and its scorn for the rich and powerful. Here we look at the novel through a modern feminist lens and encourage a new generation of readers and students to consider the underrepresented female voice in both Scottish fiction and society at large.
'... Not that she herself cared for the Rich and Poor, she was neither one nor the other herself.'
Chris Guthrie's character encompasses several identities: daughter, sister, friend and later wife, mother and crofter. As the only daughter, she is expected to support her mother, look after her younger siblings as well as help her father in the running of the farm. After her mother's death, she takes on her role of running the household and this extra responsibility causes Chris to abandon her dream of going to university and becoming a school teacher. Like many women of her era, she suppresses her own desires and accepts the role society has thrust upon her. At many points in the book Chris kicks out at this.
At the beginning of the novel there is a tension between two sides of Chris. There is the 'Scottish' Chris and the 'English' Chris. On the one hand, Chris is devoted to her culture and the 'Scots words to tell to your heart'. On the other, she longs for something more than the life she has and looks to education and the English language for that. Yet even at this point, there is something instinctive that shows Chris' depth of feeling towards the land and nature, something not learned in books but more essential to herself.
'So that was Chris and her schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth and your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the sky and Scottish land and skies.'
Role of women
There is a weary acceptance by the female characters in the novel that it is the men who dictate much of their lives, an understanding that they must subordinate their own aspirations and wishes to that of the men in their family. After a confrontation with her father one evening, Chris' turns to her mother Jean the next morning. Jean tries to advise Chris who, seeing her mother 'suddenly old' and turning pale, worries she has 'vexed' her:
'Not you Chris quean, just life. I cannot tell you a thing or advise you a thing, my quean. You'll have to face men for yourself when the time comes, there’s none can stand and help you.'
She goes on to tell her:
'Mind that for me sometimes if I cannot thole it longer ...'
Not long after, Jean, already the mother of four children, finds she is pregnant again after recently giving birth to twins. 'Afraid with a fear dreadful, and calm and clear eyed', Jean takes her own life as well as that of her newborn twins. A bleak reminder of the expectations placed by society on women at this time often to the detriment of their physical and mental wellbeing.
The passage describing her difficult labour with the twins is particularly poignant in capturing the lack of control over her own body, reduced to bearing child after child:
'... Will said the old man was a fair beast and mother shouldn't be having a baby, she was far too old for that. And Chris stared at him ... What has father to do with it? And will stared back at her, shame-faced, Don't you know? What's a bull to do with a calf, you fool?
'But then they heard an awful scream that made them leap to their feet, it was as though mother were being torn and torn in the teeth of beasts and couldn’t thole it longer.'
Following the death of her mother Chris is given no choice but to take on the burden of her mother's duties in the household. One of the townsfolk, Mistress Munro, spells out exactly what is now expected of Chris:
'You'll be leaving the College now, I’ll warrant, education's dirt and you’re better clear of it. You’ll find little time for dreaming and dirt when you’re keeping the house at Blawearie.'
Here Mistress Munro reflects societal expectations for women of Chris' class at this time. Regardless of her keen intelligence and thirst for knowledge, these are not seen as desirable or necessary qualities for the likes of her. Her aspirations for a better life died once she took on the maternal role in the household:
'That died, and the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quite corpse that was your childhood.'
For Chris, the onset of womanhood wasn't a time for looking forward, making plans and following her dreams but instead a rude awakening and a weary acceptance she must but all that behind her:
'... and she knew for one wild passing moment herself both frightened and sorry she should be a woman, she’d never dream things again, she’d live them, the days of dreaming were by'.
Rural communities in the early 20th century
As the war continues in the novel, Chris observes the different effects it has on the people around her.
'... the folk seemed different, into their bones the War had eaten, they were money-mad or mad with grief for somebody killed or somebody wounded.'
She sees how war has inextricably changed the fabric of her community and by summarising them as either 'money mad' or 'mad with grief', we understand how utterly changed and devastating it has been in one way or another.
For an agricultural community like Blawearie, this speaks of the alienating effect that both war and modernisation had on the crofting class, who were left in the past. Asserting her own position and marking herself as standing apart, Chris does not identify with this new world of loss or gain and does not hold with the idea that money in itself can solve problems.
'not that she herself cared for the Rich and Poor, she was neither one nor the other herself.'
Towards the end of the novel, it is clear by her reaction to the loss of Ewan – that she believes dying for 'King and Country' was akin to dying for nothing.
'Country and King? You're havering, havering! What have they to do with my Ewan, what was the King to him, what their damned country? Blawearie's his land, it's not his wight that others fight wars!'
While the First World War fostered a patriotic fervour across Britain, Chris instead sees herself and Ewan as belonging to the land, to the community rather than to a large and remote, imperialistic mindset.
Land and nature
As the novel progresses Chris' understanding of herself in relation to the land is evoked on the eve of her wedding:
'Strange and eerie it was, sitting there, she couldn't move from the frozen flow of thoughts that came to her then, daft things she’d no need to think on her marriage eve ... that this marriage of hers was nothing, that it would pass on and forward into days that had long forgotten it, her life and Ewan's, and they pass also, and the face of the land change and change again in the coming of the seasons and centuries ...'
There is an understanding and acceptance of the transience of human life at one of its most significant points. Her emotions are also often framed through the affect nature and weather have on land and sea. When war begins abroad, and before Ewan signs up to fight, it appears distant and far off to her, much like the North Sea's turbulent moods:
'Maybe there was war and bloodshed and that was awful, but far off also, you'd hear it like the North Sea cry in a morning, a crying and a thunder that became unending as the weeks went by, part of life’s plan, fringing on the horizon of your days with pelt and uproar ...'
Likewise in the final chapter, 'Harvest', as Ewan is conscripted into the army in Spring, rather than the sense of the hopeful beginning of that season, there is a chilling sense of foreboding for Chris:
'A hare scuttled over the road, the ditches were running and trilling, hidden, filled with the waters of Spring, she smelt the turned grass of the ploughlands and shivered in the blow of the wind, Ewan was long on the road.'
This juxtaposition reveals a disruptive and literally chilling sense of what the season holds for Chris. Attuned to the nuances of nature on the land and its people, here Chris’ innate connection to nature and land serves to anchor her to both. It is what gives her strength to withstand the hardship of having an absent husband:
'... hurt and dazed, she turned to the land, close to it, and the smell of it, kind and kind it was, it didn't rise up and torment your heart, you could keep peace with the land.'