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Jessie Kesson: Writing Her Self

Isobel Murray

Jessie Kesson sharply dismissed suggestions that she was a feminist writer. Understandably, she wanted to be a writer, not a woman writer, and to compete with men on their own terms. She was inevitably unaware of the nuances of modern feminism, both feminist writers and feminist critics, despite a long and fervent admiration of Virginia Woolf, and she instinctively resisted identification with a world she had learned to think of as secondary, from the early days writing cosy paragraphs for the woman’s page of a Scottish weekly magazine.

But the evidence of her books very clearly shows an abiding determination to reveal the situations of women in more or less oppressed situations. She repeatedly featured girls or women faced with experiences quite contrary to their ambitions and desires. With considerable understanding she also portrayed their effective 'enemies’, women conditioned into acquiescence to patriarchal law and customs, and themselves sustaining the patriarchal authority and trying to curb the growth of individualism in others as thoroughly undesirable. Take the situation of Another Time, Another Place. The newly married young woman in that short novel is in conflict. She has married, largely to escape an oppressive situation, but is learning that marriage is to be a prison, with however kindly a jailer, and the end, not the beginning, of formative and individual experience. The reported advent of Italian prisoners-of-war is already exciting:

The young woman felt a small surge of anticipation rising up within her at the prospect of the widening of her narrow insular world as a farm worker’s wife, almost untouched by the world war that raged around her. She always felt she was missing out on some tremendous event, never more so than when she caught a glimpse of girls of her own age, resplendent in uniform, setting out for places she would never set eyes on. Or when she caught their laughter-filled whispers of a whirling social life, the like of which she had never known. (p.8)

Awareness of the possibilities of other lives, even those caused by the ‘tremendous event’ of war, increases her frustrations as she learns the circumscribed limits of her prison cell. Her friend Elspeth, independent, engaged, bound for a new life in Canada, hardly comprehends her despair:

Nonsense,’ Elspeth had reproved her. ‘Stuff and nonsense. You’re but young yet, lassie. You’ve got the whole world in front of you yet ...’
      She had thought that too. Before she was married. She had thought she could go anywhere. Go everywhere, do anything. Do everything ...
      'Not now though Elspeth,’ she had confided. ‘It’s all different now. Being married, I mean ...’ (p.11)

The young woman lives in one of a row of three relatively isolated cottar houses, and Kirsty and Meg, older married women with children, try to guide her into the roles this tiny society expects of her. They believe in the rightness of these roles, and they need solidarity. In Kirsty’s insistence that the young woman come with them to the flower show the young woman wonders if she only imagines ‘a tone of desperation in Kirsty’s voice. A plea for reinforcement.’ But the cottar wives experience the flower show as a real ordeal.

It hadn’t been imagination. The young woman realised that the moment she stepped inside the marquee. For, although the village lay little more than a mile away from them, the cottar wives had no real part in its integral life. They could have ‘dropped in’ from another planet, to find themselves invisible, in a marquee. Huddling closely together, they began to wander round the different ‘sections’, their voices rising loud in praise of each and every exhibit on show. As if the sound of themselves could merge within that of the folk who surrounded them. (p.28)

Similarly at the harvest home, the year’s only other social gathering, Kirsty and Meg strive to teach the young woman their own habitual inconspicuousness and self-consciousness, the danger of making a fool of herself with ‘everybody looking’.

Nobody was ‘looking’. They should have gone through life invisible, Kirsty and Meg, their fear of attracting attention to themselves was so deeply rooted.
      Even on social occasions like this, neither frill nor ribbon put forth a frivolous claim, no innocent coquetries, no small vanities. It was as if the whole chapter of their youth had been torn from their book, and they had turned the page from childhood to middle age. (p.35)

Throughout the book the young woman continues to resist, however hopelessly, the tearing out of that chapter, the turning of that same page in her own life.(p.35)

So I would want to argue that in regard to the understanding and expression of women’s experience Jessie Kesson is supremely accomplished. She found expression for lives, and not only her own, that had never approached expression before. She told the story of reading Sunset Song, published when she was almost sixteen, in the outside ‘lavvy’ at the orphanage, and crying out in a mixture of delight and frustration: ‘This man has written my book!’ She was of course right to be impressed by Grassic Gibbon, and to recognise in Chris Guthrie the nearest thing in all her literary ranging to her own self, her own situation, her own story, but perhaps she was too intimidated. If she had not read Sunset Song, she might not have had to write at least fifteen versions of The White Bird Passes before she could be satisfied. I do not think it is a diminution of Gibbon’s achievement to suggest that Kesson went on to outdo him by a long way in her depiction of female consciousness. But she never saw gender issues as isolated, separated from the complex of social and economic issues that imprisoned farm workers in tiny worlds, and in tied houses from which they could be evicted at the farmer’s whim every six months. So feminist issues or gender issues certainly concern her, but perhaps never exclusively so. And she always tended to judge her work on how fictional it was, how ‘created’ or ‘imagined’. She deprecated the popularity of The White Bird Passes because it was ‘only’ her own story (and so by implication very easy to write), and she was proud of Glitter of Mica because it had a male protagonist (portrayed with great but not uncritical sympathy), and covered three generations and a wide range of characters, and of Where the Apple Ripens, because of its ‘normal’ home background, such as she had never known.

The sensationalised headlines of Kesson’s life are well known: she was born illegitimate in the workhouse in Inverness in 1916, and raised in an Elgin slum by a single mother who was, if not the stereotype of a city prostitute, at least an ‘enthusiastic amateur’. She was removed by courts from her mother’s care when Liza contracted syphilis, and sent to a distant orphanage to finish her schooling. The sensational nature of all this tends to obscure simple facts. Kesson never had a father, or any siblings, her grandfather refused to recognise her existence, and she lived in an unconventional and largely female environment. She had to create herself and tell herself her own story, defining herself as best she could: this is what made The White Bird Passes in particular such an urgent and demanding task. She was completely orphaned at an early age, losing the beloved if undemonstrative mother who had initiated her into the beauty and poetry of life as well as its fears , insecurities and squalor. Liza visited her just once at the orphanage, physically and emotionally destroyed by her terminal illness. Then she was completely alone, and had to survive the regimes of orphanage and school. At school she excelled, and began to love writing, encouraged by the beloved dominie to whom she always paid warm tribute, the first supportive male figure in her life. She did well and passed her exams, and the dominie bought her books from which to coach her for the University Prelims. But – and this never, ever, ceased to anger and to grieve her – the Trustees declared that such an education would be wasted on a girl, and that a career in domestic or farm service would be more appropriate. She was decisively punished for her gender, and this determined much of the rest of her life, and of her writing. Apart from anything else, it taught her that she had to trust to herself in the last resort to establish and maintain her individual identity.

She ended The White Bird Passes there, with Janie leaving school. The ‘end’ is more ambiguous in the novel than it was in life. In the book, ‘the Mannie’, Mrs Thain’s husband, suggests to the Trustees that farm work would suit her better than inside work. Janie declares: ‘I don‘t want to work on a farm. I want to write poetry. Great poetry. As great as Shakespeare.’ (151)

Jessie thought it was clear in the novel that Janie would be a farm-worker, and inevitably soon the object of sexual interest by male farm-workers (and by implication bound for the prison inhabited by the young woman in Another Time, Another Place). But some hope remains, some ambiguity, when ‘the Mannie’ declares that she will only be threshing this one summer: ‘Janie’s going to Kingorm [Aberdeen University]. They’ve decided to mak’ a scholar oot o’ her. They have that!’ (p.154) But the poem from which Kesson took her final title, ‘The Valley of White Poppies’ by Fiona Macleod, does not bode well: it speaks of ‘the grave of dreams’:

A white bird floats there like a drifting leaf:
It feeds upon faint sweet hopes and perishing dreams
And the still breath of unremembering grief.

And as a silent leaf the white bird passes,
Winnowing the dusk by dim forgetful streams.

Kesson’s disappointment over her education and her future potentialities brings us to a place where modern feminist criticism can effectively help us to understand her and to place her in a context, although to some extent her social circumstances would continue to separate her from any nourishing contact with her ‘sisters’ and her ‘mothers’, with the accidental but happy exception of Nan Shepherd. Her experience in service led to a nervous breakdown (about which, interestingly, she wrote remarkably little, ever). The diagnosis was neurasthenia, and she spent a whole year in a mental hospital before the release described in the short story ‘Good Friday’. This illness was not unique, and had indeed visited many women writers especially from the 1890s on. Elaine Showalter gives a fascinating account in The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830–1980 of the debilitating effect of trying to be a woman in a world made for and by men, which shows one important link Kesson has with her ‘sisters’.

The appearance of the New Woman, with her demands for education, work, and personal freedom, presented Darwinian psychiatry with a direct challenge to its social gospel. At the same time that new opportunities for self-cultivation and self-fulfilment in education and work offered to women, doctors warned them that pursuit of such opportunities would lead to sickness, sterility, and race suicide. They explicitly linked the epidemic of nervous disorders – anorexia nervosa, hysteria, and neurasthenia – which marked the fin de siecle to women’s ambitions.

Showalter quotes a description of the neurasthenic given in 1907 by a simplifying and condescending male doctor:

A woman, generally single, or in some way not in a condition for performing her reproductive function, having suffered from some real or imagined trouble, or having passed through a phase of hypochondriasis of sexual character, and often being of a highly nervous stock, becomes the interesting invalid.

An American woman doctor (the ‘epidemic’ started in America), a woman who suffered herself from neurasthenia, attributed female neurasthenia ‘not simply to overwork but to women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success’, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society.

Showalter documents the passage of neurasthenia from America to England, where it was mainly associated with intelligent young women:

For many late Victorian female intellectuals, especially those in the first generation to attend college, nervous illness marked the transition from domestic to professional roles. Similar to the fears and depressions described by Nightingale, Bronte, and Craik in the 1850s, these protracted and vaguely understood illnesses were now subsumed under the label of ‘neurasthenia’. From the pioneering doctor Sophia Jex-Blake to the social worker Beatrice Webb, New Women and nervous illness seemed to go together.

Ironically, the illness was most frequent among intellectuals and the well-to-do, with no suggestion that it could visit ‘the labours of domestic servants, the harshness of rural existence’: here as elsewhere, Kesson was a striking and solitary exception. Ness MacDonald, moving from orphanage to service to mental hospital, was unawares part of a much wider problem of women trying to adapt to new possibilities which suddenly seemed to become available to women, virtually inside a generation.

I think contemporary feminist criticism also helps us to understand why so much of Kesson’s published fiction is autobiographical, to different extents. It is not of course at all surprising that she uses the life circumstances she knows best to ground her fiction – that in Glitter of Mica for example she exposes the inequalities, tyrannies and insecurities of the farm-worker’s life she knew only too well, and uses her later familiarity with social workers in her depiction of Helen Riddel’s work experience, or that the conflict of the adolescent sexual excitement she had experienced acutely with the grim possibility she had observed of disgrace in unwanted pregnancy should be a frequent subject (in Where the Apple Ripens, Glitter of Mica and ‘The Gowk’). But Kesson’s fiction does seem to be exceptionally autobiographical in The White Bird Passes, and to a lesser extent in Another Time, Another Place, which was based on the real billeting of Italian prisoners-of-war in the circumscribed community of a Black Isle farm.

The first very simple and obvious point I want to make is that it is never safe to identify an author and her protagonist.

Janie in The White Bird Passes does not ‘equal’ Kesson. She is the last of at least fifteen constructed versions of Kesson’s childhood, all notably different, and she is the one which most satisfied her author. But traditional literary criticism and contemporary theory and feminist criticism would all suggest the considerable dangers of identifying the two. David Copperfield was not Dickens, although they shared very painful childhood experiences. Ruskin wrote a vividly remembered autobiography, Praeterita, in which he did not include incidents that it gave him no pleasure to remember – including such details as his disastrous and much publicised marriage. He described its protagonist as ‘the “natural” me’ – only peeled carefully.

To the commentator on women’s writing of the last hundred years, there special features in women writers’ attempts at autobiography. These are often women who have grown up seeking to measure themselves, or to recognise themselves in a largely male-engendered tradition, which, particularly in the nineteenth century, tended to polarise women into the sainted, sexually pure wife and mother, the ‘angel in the house’, passive and incapable of sexual feelings, and the fallen dangerous woman, sexually experienced and seductive, threatening or even monstrous. Finding these reflections of herself woefully inadequate, the woman writer has had to create a more adequate framework in which to construct her own identity. Linda Anderson has tackled this phenomenon in an article called ‘At the Threshold of the Self: Women and Autobiography’:

Inevitably autobiography as the way to write the self, or give the self a narrative, is deeply bound up with these questions or questionings of identity ... It is necessary to take into account the fact that the woman who attempts to write herself is engaged by the nature of the activity itself in re-writing the stories that already exist about her since by seeking to publicise herself she is violating an important cultural construction of her femininity as passive or hidden. She is resisting or changing what is known about her. Her place within culture, the place from which she writes, is produced by difference and produces difference. The myth of self which recent theorists have questioned may not be present for her in the same way; it is more difficult for her to believe in a self that can exist before writing, a self that is unified and continuous. Autobiography may selfconsciously exist for her as an alternative place of identification.

This approach does seem to me to help us to understand why Kesson returned again and again to the attempt to recreate her Lane childhood and her orphanage experience. It may also help us to see why she later remained silent about the early versions, which I found to my surprise when looking for her early journalistic contributions. (See Kesson chapter in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing.)

I began this topic by suggesting that fiction is not the same as autobiography, that it is dangerous to identify author and character. To complete the paradox, let me ask whether all autobiography is not in fact fiction. By the time any writer has consulted her inevitably unreliable memory, selected and eliminated among the things she does remember, selected among literary forms and stances and points of view and chosen between first and third person narrative, the eventual construction will be something else, and something that exists on the page and not in the past, written by someone who is no longer identical with the irretrievable person who experienced something like this in what we amusingly call real life.

Kesson of course knew the pitfalls of autobiography as well as or better than anyone. Her own projected autobiography, splendidly entitled Mistress of None, was advertised as forthcoming in 1981, but never written. In a recent interview with Hugh Macpherson she said The White Bird Passes had effectively ‘done’ her childhood, the most important part of her life, but I think she showed more insight into herself when she wrote to me in 1985:

You see, Isobel, the things that have affected me most in my personal and creative life ... are the things I cannot ... myself ... find ... words ... for ... or ... rather ... cannot ... myself ... utter.

Autobiographical as some of it is, her work is also notable for reticence. Like Ruskin, she presents ‘the “natural” me – only peeled carefully’. The more we look at all her characters, the more we notice reticence, selectivity, irony, obliqueness. She uses the first person very rarely, even in early versions, and even Grassic Gibbon’s ‘you’ only occasionally. Her protagonists are effectively but unobtrusively protected in part by third person narrators. And of course she wrote many plays, where again the individual may retain some privacy. Almost as notably as Muriel Spark she selects how much we are to know about them, especially their emotional turmoils. In Elgin slum or institution, whether orphanage or hospital, in confined areas where others never hesitate to invade their private space, her main characters strive to retain some privacy, some distance around them, some element of control over circumstances, however constraining. This can include even the area of sexual activity, where the body itself can betray the created, would-be private self.

Again and again her characters are isolated, as she herself pointed out. They are ‘ootlins’, as she asserts in The White Bird Passes. ‘Queer folk who were “oot” and who, perversely enough, never had any desire to be “in”’ (118). When Bob Tait and I interviewed her in 1985 she quoted this, and continued:

Every work I‘ve ever written contains ae ‘ootlin’. Lovely Aberdeenshire word. Somebody that never really fitted into the thing ... It’s always aboot people who don‘t fit in! Now I know mysel at last and it’s just in one line in that book where fowk were oot who never had any desire to be in.

What such characters prize most is privacy, and what they fear most and respond to most is humiliation, loss of dignity. We see Janie become a very private young woman, and if she loses her dignity we are not told of it. But in Glitter of Mica, Helen Riddel is desperately humiliated by the simultaneous discovery of her sexual need and its disclosure to Charlie Anson: later she is mortally humiliated by her father’s discovering her with Anson, but attending to his old enemy, not herself. The young woman in Another Time, Another Place envies above all the dignity of her friend Elspeth, who is economically more independent. She is humiliated like Helen in the discovery of her sexual need with Luigi, and then doubly humiliated by feeling she must confess this intimacy in her futile attempt to rescue him.

Isabel Emslie in Where the Apple Ripens seems impervious to every kind of warning about sexual activity and pregnancy, even the death after childbirth of her former schoolmate Helen Mavor, except the one she finally gets, being discovered in the nick of time and shamed and humiliated by the male solidarity and knowing, smutty comments of Alex Ewan and the Postie:

For never. Never again would she stand not knowing what to do. Crumpled and sticky and dirty, with her knickers dangling around her knees. And herself being told to ‘tidy up’. (p.68)

This is the lesson Isabel does learn.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Flora Alexander, Contemporary Women Novelists, 1989, Chapter 1, pp. 1–14
  • Carol Anderson, ‘Listening to the Women Talk’, in Gavin Wallace and Randall Stevenson (eds.),The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies,1993,pp.170–186.
  • Linda Anderson, ‘At the Threshold of the Self: Women and Autobiography’ in Moira Monteith (ed.) Women’s Writing: A Challenge to Theory, 1986,pp.54–71.
  • Joy Hendry, ‘Jessie Kesson Country’ in The Scots Magazine, October 1989,pp.11–22.
  • Joy Hendry, ‘The Double Knot in the Peeny’ in Gail Chester and Sigrid Nielsen (eds.) In Other Words: Writing as a Feminist,1987.
  • Hugh Macpherson, ‘Scottish Writers: Jessie Kesson’ in Scottish Book Collector 2, Issue 8 1990/1991, pp.22–25
  • Pam Morris, Literature and Feminism: An Introduction 1993.
  • Isobel Murray, Jessie Kesson: Writing Her Life, second edition.
  • Isobel Murray, ‘Jessie Kesson’, a chapter in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing.
  • Isobel Murray, ‘Two Singular North-East Voices: David Toulman and Jessie Kesson’ in Northern Visions, forthcoming, pp.199–212.
  • Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830–1980. 1987, especially chapter 5, ‘Nervous Women: Sex Roles and Sick Roles’.


Copyright © Isobel Murray 1997


Last updated 24 July 2014.