Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

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Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

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The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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31 thoughts on “Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

  1. Great review. I have to wonder if this book sold well back in the day. I’m unfamiliar with this author. When I searched for a bio on her, it referenced her translation work. Was her husband given a lot of the credit for that work? Based on the article I read, she wrote in a journal that he “only helped.” I wonder how much of her life influenced this novel.

    • Thank you! 😀 I wasn’t aware of her either till I looked for Scottish classics. I get the impression it sold reasonably well but not enough to stay consistently in print. I also wondered about how much it reflected her own life, but the little biography I could find for her suggested there’s no direct link, though how much of an indirect one we can only speculate. I think she did most of the translation but with his being the better known name, he got more of the credit than he deserved. Ain’t that always the way??

  2. This sounds a very interesting book and I especially like that several characters have had to leave the place in disgrace! It’s the only way to leave a place, in my opinion. Also the use of ‘doubles’ is fascinating, it’s not a literary device of which I was consciously aware before and now I’m going to have a little Google of it. In the meantime, perhaps doubles of another Scottish nature are required… where did I put that Scotch? 😉

  3. You know, FictionFan, I hadn’t thought of ‘doubles’ before, but I see what you mean. I’ve not read as much Scottish literature as you have, but your examples clearly show this. I may have to see if I find it in crime fiction, too. Fascinating! And I know what you mean about a story that doesn’t scratch far enough beneath the surface. I’ve read that sort of story, too. Still, this one does sound like an interesting look at the times (even if it isn’t complimentary to men…).

  4. Lovely review, FF! It’s interesting about feminist literature during this time period. It’s almost like they had to make it black and white because they were living in a time with so little rights (speaking more of US history here, since I’m not familiar with women’s rights in Scotland). They erred on overdoing it to get the point across, and maybe they could not sense the middle ground? You’ve given me much to think about this morning! 😊

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, it’s the main reason I’m never comfortable reading feminist literature – so much of it seems to want to raise women up by putting men down, and I’m much more of a believer in us all being pretty much the same. But it does irritate me more in modern stuff than older, because over here I truly believe we’re nearly there in terms of equality, though of course there are still some fights to be fought. In fact, so many of our cultural and political leaders are women, people of colour and/or LGBTQ now, I’m beginning to feel kinda sorry for straight white men… 😉

  5. I read this at university – I don’t know if you remember, but there was a whole collection of both Muirs’ work in the English department library, so I worked my way through a couple of them. Not really a fan, but the dualism is interesting.

    • Ha! Sadly there weren’t so many in the QM Bar! 😉 Yes, I’m never too keen on that kind of “modernist” writing of that era and don’t feel inspired to seek out her other work, but I’m glad to have read this one.

    • Thank you! 😀 That’s an interesting question and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I wonder why, indeed! Thinking about it, I can’t see that it would have made a great deal of difference to the points she was making. The only suggestion I have is that she lived in Montrose as a girl but left it when she grew up, so maybe she thought she should set it during the period she lived there…

  6. I haven’t read this one and now, thanks to your excellent review, I won’t have to! I’m not a big fan of the idea of doubles (gee, even naming a boy child ‘Junior’ seems excessive, in my opinion). And it’s a huge burden expecting any one gender to do ALL the work to make things right. Oh, well, my TBR is pudgy enough already!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I’d noticed it in several of these Scottish classics without really realising it was a specific trope, if you know what I mean. That’s why I like scholarly introductions…! 😉

    • Oh, yes, do! Since I became aware of it in some introduction somewhere, I’ve really noticed it a lot – definitely in Scottish fiction, but in plenty of other stuff too. If memory serves me right, you’re a Virginia Woolf fan, aren’t you? If so, I do think you might like this – I could see some similarities in both style and subject matter…

  7. Scottish writing indeed! I can’t say I’ve read many Scots lately, so this duality isn’t entirely evident to me, but you bring up a good point for sure. I never knew Jekyll and Hyde was a Scottish story…

    • I wasn’t aware of the duality thing till I read about in some introduction somewhere, but since then I’ve been noticing it in nearly every Scottish book I’ve read. Well, Jekyll and Hyde is by a Scottish author though it’s set in London, as so many books by Scottish authors were, following the Union…

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