Violet Jacob wrote much of her work in Scots and spent most of her adult life abroad. She is most well-known now for her novels – the greatest of which is considered to be Flemington – but she wrote poetry too, five volumes of it published in her lifetime. For long enough her work was out of print, but a resurgence of interest in women’s literature in the late 20th century, coupled with an urge to give Scottish women writers the recognition they have long lacked, has led to the re-publication of some of her fiction and a rehabilitation of her critical standing.
As a female writer, an aristocrat, and an exile Jacob was familiar with marginal situations and this comes across as a major theme in her work. Much of her fiction deals with marginal characters – people who are outcasts, or who are excluded from power, who exist on the fringes of their society. Similarly, much of her work is located in marginal territory – land not specifically one place or another, but somewhere in between.
The one area of literary activity in which women have had the most influence, though that fact has perhaps not been given proper recognition, is ballad. Historically, women were the keepers of the ballad tradition: mothers passing on songs to their daughters. Burns, Hogg and Scott made their reputations collecting ballads, but the tradition remains a female one and its hallmarks can be seen on Jacob’s poetry.
Writing in Scots wasn’t unheard of in Jacob’s time (around the end of the 19th century), but for a woman of the aristocracy it would have been considered vulgar or common, and simply dreadful English. This drew a young Christopher Murray Grieve – who would later metamorphose into Hugh MacDiarmid – to her work and that of fellow poet Marion Angus. He published some of their work in his literary magazine, Northern Numbers, but he didn’t associate himself too closely with their work, perhaps because his own literary ambitions were much more political, and he wanted to be seen as a pioneer of the revival of Scots.
Jacob and Angus and others showed that it was possible to write clear, sophisticated poetry of lasting literary worth in the Scots language without resorting to kailyard cliché. Jacob is certainly interesting to us today for the influence she had on MacDiarmid, but she must be viewed as an artist on her own terms. Her several novels and collections of short stories, 5 volumes of poetry, her diaries and travel writings give us a picture of an artist of wide and varied talent.