Archive for the ‘Agnes Owens’ Category

Six Scottish Novellas

November 12, 2021

The Marionette (1927)

Edwin Muir is best known as a poet, and as the translator (alongside his wife Willa) of Franz Kafka, but his repertoire extended to autobiography, travel (Scottish Journey), literary criticism, and fiction. His first venture into the latter was a novella, The Marionette, inspired by time spent living in Salzburg and published in 1927. It is, it has to be said, a rather strange book. It tells the story of a boy, Hans, whose mother dies giving birth to him, whose father, Martin, largely ignores him, and who is regarded as “feeble-minded”. Only when he turns fourteen does his father show any interest in him, taking him into the city for the first time. (That the journey unsettles him may be related to Muir’s own journey from Orkney to Glasgow as a child). Seeing his son’s love of a doll he possesses, Martin takes him to a puppet theatre, and their visits soon become regular, with Hans transfixed by what he sees on stage until an accident leads to one of the marionettes (Gretchen from Faust) being damaged in front of him. Martin asks for the puppet to be repaired and given to Hans as the theatre closes for the summer. Though symbolism is clearly in use, the novella is not schematic, and both Martin and Hans (and perhaps Muir) seem to feeling their way to some resolution which will allow them to bond, and Hans to live his life more fully. The work itself feels east European rather than Scottish and the border between Hans’ dreams and reality is not always visible.

(The Marionette was last published by Hogarth Press in 1987)

Travel Light (1952)

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer who refused to be confined to any genre, writing a series of autobiographies alongside essays, journalism, three biographies, a history of Africa, and numerous novels. Her fiction, too, was restless – her most famous books ranging from historical novels to science fiction. Travel Light is perhaps best described as fantasy (Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien) – the Virago edition from 1985 has a unicorn on the cover and the main character, Halla, is brought up by bears before being adopted by dragons. For Halla, ‘heroes’ are the enemy, and she repeatedly turns down an invitation to join the Valkyries. In the novel’s second part we enter a more recognisable historical setting and a more political plotline as Halla joins a group of men who have travelled from their home to plead with the Emperor to remove the cruel governor of their province. When, in need of money, they take to betting, it helps that Hallla can talk to the horses. As with much of Mitchison’s work, she showcases strong female characters, and Halla is able to ‘travel light’ because she has no need of men: this is not a romance, and better for it. Mitchison is also able to tap into older stories to give her tale a mythic resonance (as she does in much greater depth in what is often regarded as her bets novel, The Corn King and the Spring Queen) creating an entertaining and illuminating fable.

(Travel Light was published in Kennedy & Boyd’s Naomi Mitchison Library in 2009)

The Hermit (1977)

Iain Crichton Smith’s novella The Hermit can be found in his collection The Hermit and Other Stories but was originally published in Gaelic the year before. Written from the point of view of a retired Headteacher (like Smith) on a Scottish island (presumably Lewis where Smith lived much of his life), it tells of the arrival of a hermit who settles in an abandoned RAF hut. The hermit unsettles the villagers, refusing to talk to anyone even when he is buying groceries. The narrator feels a kind of kinship for him, having lived alone since his wife died. (He confesses to having taken up fishing in the past simply as a way to enjoy some isolation). At the same time, he becomes infatuated by an eighteen-year-old girl, Janet, who passes his house every morning and arranges for her to bring fresh milk to him from her family’s farm, forcing him to face the fact he is becoming old. He is not alone in being affected by the hermit’s arrival: an elderly neighbour leaves his wife intending to return to the life at sea he knew as a young man; even the Minister finds himself unable to speak his sermon. What begins as a light-hearted tale of small-minded, suspicious villagers, takes a darker tone, though without ever losing the dry humour typical of Smith’s work. The narrator decides he must “save the village” by making the hermit leave. Beyond the story of the hermit, however, Smith populates the village with a rich cast of characters and brings depth to the narrator through his relationships (with his wife and his parents) and regrets, his dreams and desires. A master of the short story and author of classic novel Consider the Lilies, The Hermit demonstrates Smith’s skills in both genres combined.

(The Hermit can be found in The Black Halo: The Complete English Stories 1977-98 published by Birlinn in 2001)

Gentlemen of the West (1984)

As well as numerous short stories, Agnes Owens wrote six novellas (they are definitely novellas as they can all be found in her Collected Novellas) beginning with Gentlemen of the West in1984. Originally written as a series of short stories it is rather episodic for a novella, but is united by its narrator, a young bricklayer called Mac who lives with his mother (the “auld wife”) and a recurring cast of drunken ne-er-do-wells who gather in the local pub. Paddy MacDonald, who lives in a rundown bothy with rabbits in the oven and pigeons in a cage in the bedroom, makes frequent appearances. A typical story involves Paddy being found stone cold on the ground and presumed dead and Mac attempting to pay his respects at the local Catholic church (“For the next half hour we were up and down like yo-yos”) only to bump into Paddy immediately afterwards (annoyed at being “carted off tae hospital.”). For all the humour, Owens gives us an unapologetic insight into the lives of the ‘gentlemen of the west’, not only the drunkenness and violence but life on the building site, a chapter where we return to Mac’s childhood, and another where he escapes to the countryside and (grudgingly) befriends a German tourist. And in the final story Owens provides the progression we might expected from the longer form in a genuinely moving manner. Rightly described by Alasdair Gray as “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”.

(Gentlemen of the West can be found in The Complete Novellas reissued by Birlinn in 2020)

The Golden Bird (1987)

George Mackay Brown famously lived in Stromness on Orkney for most of his life – only leaving for a ten-year spell in the 1950s and early 60s – and from there he wrote his poetry, novels, short stories and, of course, novellas. The Golden Bird is one of two novellas in the book of the same name (the other is The Life and Death of John Voe), a book which won the James Tait Memorial Prize for fiction. The Golden Bird begins with a quarrel between two women whose husbands fish together. The quarrel is about very little but escalates quickly and irreparably, creating a rift between the families which will last many years. It is those years which are Mackay Brown’s real subject – time itself: “The years gathered and fell, like waves, like cut corn.” The story carries us through three generations, as three schoolteachers, the third being a contemporary of the feuding families’ sons rumoured to have been carried off by an eagle as a baby, and, just as surprisingly, having left the island to go to Aberdeen University. Despite its relative brevity, we meet numerous characters among the inhabitants of the valley, but Mackay Brown needs only a few words to sketch their personalities and relationships. His wide lens has the contradictory effect of making humanity’s concerns (such as the quarrel) seem trivial but humanity itself feel important and profound.

(The Golden Bird was reissued by Polygon in 2019)

Mavis Belfrage (1996)

Alasdair Gray’s most famous novel may be almost six hundred pages long, but the novella has been a form he has returned to again and again (though largely as a result of adapting his radio plays into prose) with The Fall of Kelvin Walker in 1985 and McGrotty and Ludmilla in 1990. The book jacket of Mavis Belfrage (likely written by the author) describes the titular novella as Gray’s “only straight novel about love” (it is accompanied by five other stories, each shorter than the one before, until we reach the accurately named ‘The Shortest Tale’). Like Gray’s preceding novellas, Mavis Belfrage might be described as a comedy of manners. Colin Kerr, like Kelvin Walker the son of a shopkeeper, returns to Glasgow with a degree from Cambridge to train teachers; he is, as his student Mavis tells him, an “uninspiring individ- … -lecturer” as he has neither an opinion nor an original idea, which is why he fails Mavis for not memorising the chapters he has assigned but rather thinking about her answers. A dinner date, however, soon leads to her (and her eight-year-old son, Bill) moving in with Colin and his father despite the fact she warns Colin she is “a bad bitch”. What follows is a love story between a weak man and strong woman, told with Gray’s usual wit and pinpoint phrasing, culminating in a disastrous dinner party. An enormous fortress Colin has been building out of Lego is also put to symbolic use. Like all his novellas, Mavis Belfrage is minor Gray, but minor Gray can be the most fun.

(Mavis Belfrage can be found in Every Short Story published by Canongate in paperback in 2014)

People Like That

June 2, 2021

People Like That was published in 1996 when Agnes Owens’ writing was briefly recognised, thanks in part to the support of other Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, all three contributing to Lean Tales in 1985. Sadly, the neglect which her work has generally suffered seems once again to be predominant, which will be all the more astonishing to the reader of the short stories which make up this collection, as vivid and vital as they are.

Owens’ career as a published writer, which began in the mid-eighties, was interrupted by the death of her youngest son in 1987 and, unsurprisingly, missing or dead children feature in a number of stories, including the title story, where a mother waits on the arrival of her son at a railway station. When the train empties, her son is nowhere to be seen until she notices “one young man coming towards her who might possibly be him.” He isn’t, of course:

“It was terrible the way she got everything wrong these days.”

In ‘The Hut’, in which a husband and wife sit in a shed on an allotment discussing a boy who hasn’t turned up – the husband jealous of the wife’s apparent keenness for the boy’s return – she suddenly tells him “the boy reminded me of my son.”

“The son I would have had but for the miscarriage.”

All types of loss matter. A drowned son features in ‘Leonie’, a story which stands out for being set in France during the Occupation (a clear indication that Owens’ sketches of small-town Scotland are a choice not a limitation). As with ‘The Hut’, it is the mother’s love which survives the longest. Leonie still senses her son in his room:

“The presence was nothing she could see or touch.”

Her husband, in contrast, cruelly doubts that he is the father.

Loss, however, does not always mean certain death. In ‘Intruders’ sixteen-year-old Greta is missing. Perhaps she is at her auntie’s, but that doesn’t stop her mother going in search of her. Her husband is quick to remind her he is not Greta’s father, another reminder that men opt out of parenthood more easily:

“She’s no ma daughter…I didnae clap eyes on her until she wis ten.”

The story is suffused with a sense of dread, which its ambiguous ending does not relieve. The same dread is felt throughout Owens’ most anthologised story, ‘To the Lighthouse’, which features a girl and her little brother on a beach. A stranger (“she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to”) arouses fear in both the children and the reader, which Owens sustains until the final lines. The title, a prosaic adoption of Woolf’s rather longer story of a character who wishes to visit a lighthouse, seems far from accidental. Similarly, there are echoes of Waiting for Godot in ‘When Shankland Comes’ as cleaner Ivy reassures herself:

“Of course when Shankland came it was a different story.”

When the owner of the bar where she works fails to appear, however, and after Ivy learns she has lost her job, she goes to seek him out – no more waiting for her! She is, as one character says, “an awfy determined woman.” If Ivy is one example of the difficulties faced by a woman alone, we see another facet of this in ‘The Warehouse’. As with a number of the characters in the collection, Albert and Mavis are alcoholics. When Albert seems to have left her for another woman, Mavis begins to wonder if “life without Albert might not be so bad after all” but she soon realises that as a homeless woman, she is little more than a victim:

“…on her own she could scarcely walk two steps without somebody picking on her.”

‘Leonie’ presents the opposite case. When she goes to a memorial service for the Mayor, who has been killed by the Germans, her husband tells her, “You had no right to leave the house at such a late hour without my permission.” At the same time, he reveals his plan to leave her. As the story ends, she writes to an aunt having decided on her own escape plan. No longer controlled by her husband:

“She was so excited by her plan that she forgot to wait for the presence of her son.”

Her independence allows her to begin to overcome the grief she feels at her son’s death.

What stands out throughout these stories is Owen’s understanding of her characters, men, women and children. She writes about the lives of ordinary working-class people without either the humour or horror which is sometimes used by writers as an apology for bringing the poor into fiction. She was a key part of the incredible flourishing of Scottish writing throughout the eighties and nineties and deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated.