Nan Shepherd is one of Scotland’s foremost novelists of the Modernist period in literature. She is contemporary with James Joyce, DH Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published the same year as Shepherd’s first novel), and Virginia Woolf (Orlando was also published that same year). But it is with Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a novelist from the same part of Scotland whose Sunset Song appeared in print four years after The Quarry Wood, that Shepherd is most often compared.
Shepherd had already begun writing and had in fact published her first novel and was well on the way to completing her second when Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, an essay on the difficulties of a woman writing in a man’s world in which Woolf famously asserts that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Certainly Shepherd had both, thanks to a good education and a teaching position at the Aberdeen College of Education.
This may explain how she managed to write – she had a room and income of her own – but she remained a woman writing in a man’s world and it is partly due to the sexual politics at work in the 20th century that her work has been largely eclipsed by Gibbon’s. Sunset Song has been a Higher set-text favourite across the country for decades while Shepherd is still relatively unknown, although Canongate reprinted all four volumes of her prose writing in a single anthology (Grampian Quartet) in 1996.
The Quarry Wood and Sunset Song
Shepherd’s first novel is a ‘rites of passage’ tale of a young girl who goes to stay with her aunt. Set in the north-east it is distinguished by a linguistic vigour and heightened descriptions of place and character that we can recognise in Gibbon’s A Scots Quair. But The Quarry Wood presents in Martha a more accurate, realistic and ultimately more optimistic picture of the potential of young womanhood. The difference between Martha and Gibbon’s Chris is that one is a female written by a woman, and the other is a female written by a man. It seems hard to believe now, but the reaction to the publication of Sunset Song in the Mearns area of Aberdeenshire where it is set, and in Scotland generally, was one of shame and disgust. The problem – too much sex. And not just sex, but rape, incest, adultery, and plenty of it throughout. The novelist Jessie Kesson, also from that area, even admitted to sneaking it into the lavatory to read where no-one would catch her.
Certainly, Chris Guthrie is a powerful (and, for some readers, an empowering) character but there is always the sense that we are witnessing her growing maturity in a voyeuristic way, rather than experiencing this maturity with her. Is this the result of the distance a male writer must inevitably have for a female character? Yet, in its day, many critics praised Gibbon for his ability to occupy so authentically a female perspective.
The Quarry Wood doesn’t shirk issues of sex, there’s just less of it, and with less (melo)dramatic conflict. In fact Martha embraces the pleasures of sex wholeheartedly –though she does so with the husband of a friend – and we see it as part of the journey she makes within the novel.
But perhaps this is missing the point. A Room of One’s Own did more than highlight the social and economic conditions that made writing difficult for women. It led to people asking questions about the lack of representation of women in fiction: if women weren’t writing – then who was writing about women? Shepherd and Gibbon (and Willa Muir and Naomi Mitchison among a few others) were giving voice to women – strong women, and we’re glad that they did, since few others at that time were.
Ultimately, the main difference between Shepherd’s character and Gibbon’s is in their future. Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song is yoked to a life on the farm, of domestic drudgery – even though it is she who chooses that path. In contrast, Martha in The Quarry Wood manages to free herself of the parish and goes off into a brighter, more optimistic future at university and a life of personal freedom.
Shepherd’s second novel is widely regarded as her finest. It is a rich and subtle evocation of rural life, set in the fictitious community of Fetter Rothnie, and on one level deals with the impact of change and modernisation. This theme of transformation is taken to a deeper level, beyond everyday manners and customs and appearances, and begins to address the transforming properties of fiction – and story-telling – itself.
The landscape is transformed too, taken away from its usual role in rural fiction as a scenic backdrop or as a guide to the inner life of particular characters, and becomes something altogether more spiritual. Earth, rock, wind and weather are more than mere ‘elements’ – of nature, as well as elements of the novel; we come to realise that there is a deep organic – and fluid – connection between this world and the people who inhabit it. In fact they no more inhabit this territory than a mountain does: Shepherd’s characters are fundamentally and essentially a part of it.
Shepherd asks the important questions: who are we? what are we here for? and seeks to answer them in her own way, through her characters, in a fiction which reaches beyond local circumstances and geography and strives towards a fundamental truth.
A Pass in the Grampians
Shepherd’s third and final novel – she would write one more prose work, The Living Mountain, a celebration of walking and living in the Cairngorms – returns to the rites of passage genre of The Quarry Wood, and revisits some of the themes explored in The Weatherhouse. It is a novel which explores the classic and eternal dramatic conflicts: transformation and change, youth and age, spirit and substance are reconciled and balanced in the story of Jenny Kilgour.
As Jenny grows up on a remote hill farm, she is led to question the harsh but homely qualities of life with her grandfather, in light of the vulgar and glorious energy of Bella Cassie, a local girl who left the community to make a success as a singer, and has now returned to scandalise them all. On one hand you’ve got the steady, dependable, hard-working virtuousness of the traditional life – symbolised in the cruel but constant landscape of Grampian – and on the other you have a young girl reaching womanhood in a modern age – symbolised by the reckless Bella, who represents the gaudy, heady delights that womanhood and the modern world can offer Jenny.