Edwin Muir is best known as a poet and, perhaps, as the translator, along with his wife Willa, of Kafka into English. He also wrote, however, in a number of other genres: an autobiography; a travel book, Scottish Journey, which remains in print to this day; and three novels. The last of these was Poor Tom, published in 1932. It contains a strong autobiographical element, though nothing to compare with what Muir himself suffered when he, like the brothers Tom and Mansie, came to Glasgow when his father lost his farm on Orkney: Muir’s father, two brothers, and mother died within the space of a few years.
Though death is, unsurprisingly, a central theme of Poor Tom, it begins with that other great staple of literature, sex. Rarely, in fact, have I read a novel so concerned with sex (certainly in the first half) that is, at the same time, entirely without the act itself. Both Tom and Mansie retain a rather Puritan attitude towards sex –indeed Scotland is more than once referred to as a Puritan country – and this attitude is at the root of the issue which divides them when the novel opens and Tom spies Mansie with a woman, Helen, he recently courted, only to be rejected for over-stepping the boundaries of propriety:
“…he hadn’t dared to touch her or to kiss her for weeks and weeks…Better if the thing had always stayed at that stage. For her kisses drove a fellow frantic and she didn’t seem to know it…No wonder he had got violent that night that night in Maxwell Park; he was beyond himself, couldn’t help it.”
A foggy vagueness descends whenever any sexual activity beyond kissing is discussed, but it is unlikely that the violence amounted to much more than groping, a clumsiness that perhaps originates in Tom’s inability to understand how to connect his desire with action:
“Tom, in other words, simply could not imagine himself lying in bed with the stylishly dressed girls whom he walked out – at least while he was walking them out; or rather he could not imagine the process which would lead to that consummation.”
It is important to remember that such attitudes towards sex were held sincerely – though television adaptations and contemporary novelists often like to suggest otherwise. Tom’s desire for Helen makes him feel that he has “desecrated their love”. Mansie also uses religious language to describe his experience of sex: unexpectedly finding a girl willing to sleep with him (we assume – the act itself happens within an ellipsis) he observes:
“Yet, sitting now in the lighted tram, she looked so proud and unapproachable that what had happened that evening seemed a blasphemous impossibility.”
This ends the relationship; the next time they meet she looks right through him. This attitude towards sex exacerbates Tom’s anger towards Mansie and Helen: he sees Mansie as having betrayed him, and Helen as having revealed herself not to be the respectable young woman she pretended to.
The themes of sex and death are united by that most Scottish of emotions, guilt. After seeing Mansie and Helen together, Tom falls out not only with his brother, but with life, something which manifests itself in excessive drinking, and a tumble from a tram car. Though he initially seems to recover from the resultant blow to the head, his condition slowly begins to deteriorate. His failing health brings the brothers together again, but Mansie blames himself for Tom’s condition:
“If it hadn’t been for my going with that girl this might never have happened! I wish to God I’d never set eyes on her.”
Poor Tom has moments of wonderful writing, for example the description of Helen’s ineffectual attempts to conceal her desire: “she cannot keep the waves of passion from flowing over [her face], from rippling under that smooth mask like the muscles under the hide of some lovely animal.” Muir’s extended personification of Death towards the end, originating from Christ’s sight of the Roman soldiers approaching Gethsemane, and ending with Death as a nightly companion who “lies down quietly beside him and takes him in his arms” is worth reading on its own.
However, Muir’s narrative voice overpowers the characters, with his thoughts dominating whether ascribed to Tom or Mansie. Perhaps for this reason, the female characters – the mother, Helen, and a sister, Jean – rarely come to life. It remains interesting as a social document – not only for its examination of sexual attitudes, but also the political scene, with socialism competing with religion for Mansie’s heart – and for anyone interested in Muir’s poetry (there is a powerful scene with a horse, an animal which appears throughout Muir’s poetry). Only those with a very hard heart, though, will not be moved by its conclusion.