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The Far Side of Lorna Moon
ScotLit 27, Autumn 2002
The life story of ‘Lorna Moon’ – flight from the confines of a Buchan village, a series of romantic adventures which take her across America, a career as a script writer in the early days of Hollywood – presents the wildest challenge to our expectations for a woman from rural Scotland in the early twentieth century. Her writing, in equally dramatic fashion, takes the conventional subject of Scottish small-town life, and refashions it through a combination of satirical analysis and melodramatic romance that no other writer from the north-east has achieved. As one reviewer recently suggested, the publication of her Collected Works in 2002 indicates that there are still exciting new writers to be uncovered, new configurations to be traced within Scottish literature.
On first encountering Lorna Moon’s writing, in David Toulmin’s editions of her fiction published in the early 1980s I could hardly believe that such a writer existed, indeed, half-suspected a hoax. Invited to review the two volumes for a prominent Scottish cultural magazine, I found the writing itself a fresh shock to the senses. Why did no-one know about this woman? The question was partly answered when the magazine decided they couldn’t include the review as they had more ‘significant’ material to cover. So began a small sense of injustice at Moon’s neglect and an awareness that in her own kind of ‘popular’ fiction she challenges some of the dominant paradigms of Scottish literature. I was delighted therefore when invited by Isobel Murray, another Moon explorer, to contribute an entry of the life and work for the New Dictionary of National Biography. This in turn led to contact with her son, Richard de Mille, and the project to republish her writings. The more I found out about this woman, the more I read her work, the more remarkable she seemed.
Born Nora Helen Wilson Low in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, in 1886 Lorna Moon began life with a family history that set her apart from the people of her local community. Not only was her father Charles Low a notorious socialist and an avowed atheist, whose garden hut was known as 10 Downing Street, a gesture towards the debating that went on within, but he had travelled far beyond Scotland – to Canada, America and South Africa – in his work as a plasterer. This intelligent and well-read man had been registered at birth as the illegitimate son of Mary-Ann Low and Charles May, the butler of a family for whom Mary-Ann had worked in Deeside; there was, however, some family speculation that his father may have been a more aristocratic member of the household. His daughter Nora, with her dark-red hair, intense beauty, and passion for reading, also saw herself as different from those around her. The people of Strichen, she believed, were farming stock, land-locked, whereas in her veins ran the Celtic blood of the fisher folk who inhabited the villages of Gardenstown, Rosehearty and Pennan where she often visited relatives. It wasn’t until her twenties however that Nora found the means to escape Strichen, in the form of William Hebditch, a commercial traveller who had stayed at the hotel run by her parents.
Her flight into marriage with Hebditch was only the first of several dramatic manoeuvres into a new life through the passions of a new man. Hebditch took her as far as Alberta, Canada, but when the hard life there began to bear down on her she found Walter Moon, to accompany her to Winnipeg, introduce her to the world of journalism and, most importantly, to furnish her the excuse for a new name closer both to her romantic aspirations and her literary inspiration, Lorna Doone. According to anecdote, it was a spirited exchange with another man, Cecil B. deMille, that brought her to Hollywood and a successful career as a script girl during the most exciting period of the film industry’s development. In Hollywood deMille’s brother, William, became the father of her third child. This child, Richard, grew up unaware of the identity of his mother, only in later years tracking down his parentage and producing the moving and fascinating memoir, My Secret Mother, Lorna Moon. Lorna herself died from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Albuquerque, aged 44, in 1930. Another devoted man, Everett Marcy, assisted her final flight, bringing her ashes back to be scattered on Mormond Hill beyond Strichen.
The life, then, is beguilingly romantic: a story of escape, of a woman in search of a fulfilment apparently not offered by either motherhood or the three different men with whom she bore children, and a narrative with a tragic end – early death at the peak of her writing powers in a place, Hollywood, in which she finally appears to have felt at home. The publicity photographs of Lorna in her Hollywood days show a woman in full enjoyment of her image; the letters, even those written when she was dying, reveal a delight in her creativity, a certainty of direction and again an impressive degree of control over the ways in which she was represented. Yet the short stories, published as Doorways in Drumorty (1925), and the novel Dark Star (1929), although produced in America, draw her back to Strichen. These texts speak of constraint and explore inhibition in Scottish small town life, as their character seeks to attain some degree of mastery within a world of petty codes and conventions and an obsessive concern with appearance and respectability. And the language of all her writing resonates with the rhythms of the north-east. If you don’t go, they say, you can’t come back: Lorna, I imagine, had no intention of ‘coming back’ but exile allows her imagination to revisit the scenes of her early years and distance provides the opportunity for a satirical analysis perhaps impossible from within that world.
It would be a mistake then to see only the romance of the life; the sharp intelligence, humour and anger evident in her writing in itself makes an important contribution to our understanding of Scottish women’s writing, particularly in a context of the north-east of Scotland, while the forms of her fiction present a distinctive challenge to the conventions of the literary Kailyard.
The stories in Doorways in Drumorty reveal a writer fascinated by the workings of a closed community: the patterns of surveillance; the oppressions of a public morality; the evidence of private despair. Lorna Moon’s work is particularly striking in its awareness of the position of women in the community: her stories deal with minutiae, with networks of power that operate in apparently insignificant areas of social and domestic life. They also engage with the margins of this world, presenting itinerants, outcasts and misfits with a distinct lack of sentimentality. That particular fascination with transgressive and borderland worlds, represented by tramps, beggars, idiots, by carnivals and fairs, is perhaps characteristic of writing from Scotland’s north-east but also appears a territory to which woman writers were particularly attracted. In the work of Violet Jacob and Jessie Kesson and, to a lesser extent, Nan Shepherd we can see writers exploring developing female sexuality through such encounters with liminality.
It was not, however, a tradition of women’s writing in which Moon appeared to place herself. The demons she wrestled with were predominantly those of the Kailyard, and in particular, the shadow of J. M. Barrie. Her collection of short stories clearly signals its relationship to what was, after all, a highly successful publishing phenomenon in America. ‘Drumorty’ inevitably carries echoes of ‘Drumtochty’, the village central to Ian MacLaren’s recreations of rural life, while Lorna herself seemed happy that the ‘Doorways’ of the title (suggested by her publishers) presented useful resonances of ‘A Window in Thrums’. Yet in a 1926 letter from her American editor, D. L. Chambers comments that his author feels ‘she might as well be buried as Barried’. While she may have wished to profit by generic association, Moon certainly didn’t want to be seen as producing exactly the same kind of fiction as Kailyard authors: ‘I always said that I’d wanted to write "as WELL as Barrie", and of course "well" became like. I don’t write at all like Barrie, do I?’ The differences are indeed significant: as critics have noted, Kailyard authors wrote with an increasing sense of the ‘otherness’ of their subjects, writing for an audience outside Scotland, as if those inside the country were foreign. In the case of Barrie in particular it has been suggested that his voice became increasingly reductive and ridiculing. Lorna shares some of Barrie’s bleak irony, but her stories more often challenge both community and the reader, thus avoiding the detached perspective and static knowingness of Barrie’s narratives. Ironically, given her very real ‘distance’ Lorna participates in the exigencies of the community, sees the full scale significance of their small dramas, as only a woman who has had to work within and decode that world could.
This is evident in Lorna Moon’s version of the courting ritual, as explored in ‘Silk Both Sides’, a tale also concerned with apparent female powerlessness. The story opens with Jessie MacLean, aged thirty-six, making the significant gesture of buying a ribbon with silk on both sides – in other words, a bonnet ribbon: to wear a bonnet is a sign both to herself and the community that she has resigned herself to spinsterhood. She has accepted, it would seem, that Jock Sclessor, who has been courting her for 15 years, will never make that equally significant gesture, of wearing a white gowan in his buttonhole (the emblem to indicate he intention to propose), when he comes to call for their Sunday morning walk to church. The irony of Jock appearing with the flower in his jacket the very day that Jessie emerges wearing her bonnet, is bleak enough for Barrie, but the force with which the narrator attacks the communal pressure decreeing that neither gesture can be undone displays a fierce anger at the emotional denial demanded:
Look your fill from behind the curtain, Mistress MacKenty. You can not see heartache when it is hidden by a black alpaca gown and when the heart belongs to Jessie MacLean!
Jock Sclessor, your one chance of happiness is now! Lead her back into the house and take the bonnet from her head! No, laggard and fool that you are, you are wondering if she has noticed the gowan! Has she not! She has watched for it for fifteen years! Speak, you fool! Don’t keep staring at her bonnet!
Much of Nora Low’s own sense of frustration at the regulations enforced by a community of watchers is articulated here. Yet the story does not only voice a counter-discourse: in its conclusion it offers a more complex recognition that fifteen years delay may, after all, represent unspoken desires in each individual for their own space:
At home, she brewed her tea, looking round at her rag rugs and white tidies with pleasure. ... There was a certain contentment in knowing that it would never be; a certain exhilaration in knowing that next Sunday she could not be disappointed because next Sunday she would not hope. She sipped her tea peacefully and smiled at the bonnet sitting so restful-like on the big chair so spotless and smooth, and thought, ‘Jock Sclessor would have been a mussy man to have about a house.’
Apparently petty systems of signification are dissected with acuity but complexities of the characters emotional lives – circumscribed as they may be – are still respected and remain the centre of narrative attention. Rather than Barrie’s tales in which those emotions that matter most are trivialised because of the mute obduracy or emotional autism of the characters, and the reader remains amused and detached from such shallowness, Moon’s stories demand our involvement and understanding.
Equally demanding is Moon’s willingness to tackle subjects on the edges of respectability. Writing later than Barrie and other Kailyard authors may have allowed less restrictions, and her own experiences in Hollywood in the 1920s would have exposed her to moral codes very different from those of Strichen, but in a story such as ‘Wantin’ a Hand’ she anticipates, even goes beyond, the use of grotesque realism to be found at times in the writings of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. ‘Wantin’ a Hand’ shocks with the intensity of its opening, as the rambling of drunken Jean, abandoned by her lover because an accident deprived her of the physical prowess necessary to his success, is narrated through the eyes of the defiant woman. Alongside such realism Moon is also capable of romance, as ‘Feckless Maggie Ann’, with its tale of a faithful and regretful husband, who inadvertently crushed the very qualities he loved in his wife, demonstrates. The emotion involved, however, is not a sentimentality that comforts, but one that pushes us towards distinctions of value. The tale is also significant, as Moon herself noted, for occupying a different location. Doorways in Drumorty is, as Moon saw it, a book about ‘land folk’; in other words it operates within the confines of Strichen. ‘Feckless Maggie Ann’, and , by implication, Dark Star, are coastal works: and for Moon the coast is a world peopled by Celts – romantic and irrational: ‘you see, the fishing people and the land people in Scotland don’t mix, they are widely separated in their sympathies, even their blood isn’t the same.’
In a letter of April 1925 Lorna Moon wrote that ‘Wantin’ a Hand’ signalled a change of direction: ‘The truth is I am through with Drumorty in that vein.’ Moon is prescient is seeing the story as a sign to move on. If there is a ‘problem’ with the tale it lies in the melodramatic intensity of the plot with its Hardyesque ironies, too powerful to be contained by the frame of a short story within a collection of ‘anecdotes’; the novel as a form clearly called to her. And yet the novel she produced, Dark Star, while fascinating in itself, is a ‘hybrid’ piece of writing, not wholly at one in terms of style, genre or direction, giving some sense of the power she was moving towards achieving as a writer but also presenting both technical and critical problems.
Dark Star again gives an uncompromising picture of rural life, drawing on Strichen, but also nearby fishing villages such as Broadsea, Pennan, Rosehearty and Gardenstown. The novel dissects, with an odd mixture of realism and melodrama, the plight of Nancy, illegitimate and an outsider in her narrow world. Delineating her attempts to escape through romance, it explores the precarious social structures, the sexual instabilities and the surface hypocrisies that shape its confines.
Overall the novel is a curious piece of writing: it begins with a brave and uncompromising first sentence – ‘Nancy was glad when her grandmother died.’ – and in its first chapters paints an even harsher picture of the surface respectability and mean-minded codes by which small town life is governed than Doorways in Drumorty. Tracing the adolescence of Nancy, it also offers a powerful analysis of developing female sexuality, as she deals with unwelcome and clumsy sexual overtures but also tries to understand the nature of her own aspirations and desires. Within this line of plot, Nancy’s search for the identity of her parents and resultant encounters with those on the edges of society serves as a convincing narrative quest for self. Her friendship with the ‘Whistling Boy’, visitor from another class, another world, and her subsequent adult relationship with him, is less convincing, drawing as it does upon conventional romance motifs, in which the small-town, lower-class girl realises fulfilment through an alien, upper-class and cultured masculinity; the conclusion of the novel moves into yet another dimension, ending in the style of tragic melodrama.
The resultant hybridity, that uneasy mixing of forms, may be one of the reasons for both the commercial success of Dark Star and its subsequent critical neglect. For those expecting anecdotes in Kailyard style, it is strong meat: but for those seeking the psychological depths of the bildungsroman, it often seems to closely aligned to the parochial. Its proximity to romantic fiction, especially in the excesses of the later scenes, also sets it apart from more ‘serious’ twentieth century women’s writing, although it addresses questions of identity and issues of desire. Far from Scotland, forging a career on her own terms, Lorna Moon had a much less agonised sense of her own sexuality and a more developed awareness of the possibilities for its exploitation and control than most women of her time: ‘It is revolting to me’, she wrote in a letter, ‘that in a civilised world a woman’s virtue rests entirely upon her hymen. Excuse me, I always get worked up about this.’ In her correspondence Moon describes Dark Star as a ‘sincere effort to show what the men in a woman’s life bring to her, and take from her ... It is the inside of a woman written from the inside.’ Within Scottish fiction, however, there is little precedent for having such issues addressed through romantic involvement with exotic musicians, illegitimate children who believe they possess aristocratic blood, and dark suicides off high cliffs. It therefore has an uneasy relationship not only to Kailyard fiction, but also to the realist novel and what might be termed the ‘feminist novel of self-development’.
From Moon’s letters it emerges that the author originally wanted to bring Nancy to Hollywood, but ‘She wouldn’t budge’; nor could she be sent to Paris or Vienna – ‘Once more she turned into a wooden doll’. This offers perhaps the most convincing explanation for the unevenness of the book: the scenes in which the hypocrisies of Strichen are portrayed are uncomfortably convincing, but the writer struggles to find an alternative to them which can be sustained throughout the novel. While the world of outsiders, represented by the travellers and social outcast such as Divot Meg who runs the local doss-house, creates a powerful imaginative domain for the reader, theirs is not viable escape for Nancy; rather for the people of the community such a route would represent a predictable fall. In attacking Strichen values, Moon can also see and judge with Strichen eyes: she therefore has to find a means of escape for Nancy which contains an element of grandeur, which allows her to transcend the petty and mundane. Her hesitation in creating a plot through which Nancy could follow Nora Low’s own path of escape suggests that Moon is still trapped in a double vision: one which has forced her out of Strichen but has also carried Strichen within her.
If Lorna Moon never fully escaped Nora Low and Scotland, it is to the good fortune of her readers. Challenging conventions, both literary and social, her writing plays out the dynamic between individual desire and social conformity and does so with energy, understanding and an acerbic wit. It is time for Scotland to welcome her back.
The Collected Works of Lorna Moon, edited by Glenda Norquay and with a Foreword by Richard de Mille is published by Black and White Publishing (£9.99).
The Sinning of Jessie MacLean by Lorna Moon is published by Kettilonia (£2.50)
My Secret Mother: Lorna Moon by Richard de Mille is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. ($25.00, ISBN 0374217572)
Dr Glenda Norquay is Reader in Literary Studies in the Research Centre for Literature and Cultural History at John Moores University, Liverpool.
Copyright © Glenda Norquay 2002
Last updated 18 August 2010.