A Gowk If Ever There Was One - Susan Mansfield
Nancy Brysson Morrison is best known for her 1933 novel The Gowk Storm, though, in fact, she is little known these days even for that. Despite an active writing career spanning over 40 years in which she kept up an industrious output of novels, non-fiction books, stories and journalism, and despite being well respected and well reviewed, she has almost completely vanished from the history of Scottish letters. Mary Seenan’s detailed survey makes the case for her rescue from obscurity.
However, anyone undertaking a literary biography of Morrison faces significant challenges. She may have been something of a hoarder of documentation relating to her literary work, but she has left behind very little personal material. Despite coming from a family of scribblers – four out of her five siblings were published writers – there seem to be very few letters. She never married, had no children and guarded her privacy fiercely. Even when she gave interviews, she seems to have given little away.
So beyond the hard facts which can be established, the dates, places and publications, there is only supposition: ‘She would have found…’, ‘She may have read…’. And, of course, there is the work. It is a dangerous business making guesses about a writer’s life based on their imaginative work, and Seenan is rightly cautious. However, it seems logical to conclude that the prevalence of preoccupied, irritable fathers in her novels may suggest an element of personal experience.
Nancy Brysson Morrison (christened Agnes, but always published as N. Brysson Morrison) was born on Christmas Eve 1903, to a middle-class family in Glasgow, the fifth of six children. Three of her siblings, John, Tom and Peggy (who wrote as ‘March Cost’) published novels. They were known as ‘the writing Morrisons’ and reviewers compared them to the Brontës, but no explanation of such literary genetics survives, save an offhand remark by Peggy who once said: ‘Perhaps it was because our father could sharpen pencils so beautifully.’
Morrison’s first novel, Breakers, was published by John Murray in 1930 when she was 26, and tells the story of the illegitimate grandson of a minister whose life unfolds against the backdrop of the Highland Clearances. The Gowk Storm, her third novel, is also historical, set in the mid 19th century, and tells the story of three daughters of the manse and their (mostly tragic) attempts to find happiness in love. Her writing was frequently acclaimed for its poetic qualities, and in the course of her career she garnered praise from L. P. Hartley, Stevie Smith and Kingsley Amis.
Signature themes emerge throughout her work: history, family, religion, marriage and the position of women in society, attitudes towards marginalised groups. The Strangers is about an Italian Roman Catholic brother and sister who become innkeepers on a remote Scottish island. The Winnowing Years tells 300 years of history through one Scottish parish. The Hidden Fairing revisits the life of the Catholic dominie in The Gowk Storm, and was praised as a remarkable portrait of childhood. As well as some ten literary novels, she wrote religious books and biographies – of the Brontës, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Tudor monarchs.
Thirty years after her death, her literary executor discovered that in the period between 1939 and 1959, she lived a double life as a writer, publishing 27 light romantic novels with Collins under the pseudonym Christine Strathern, and a quantity of short stories in the People’s Friend magazine. It seems to have been a way of earning a crust as a writer in a difficult publishing climate, and an aspect of her writing she preferred to keep secret.
Seenan contends that after the publication of The Hidden Fairing in 1951, Morrison’s literary work declined, her vision narrowed and her sense of moral complexity retrenched into a more overtly religious sensibility. Her biographies, however, gained some popularity, particularly in America, where her book on Mary, Queen of Scots won a prestigious (and financially significant) Literary Guild Award. Correspondence which survives from her later years shows a woman trying to argue better terms with publishers on the basis of her reputation, while feeling upstaged and undervalued. When Antonia Fraser’s 1969 book on Mary, Queen of Scots was described as the first major book on Mary for 50 years, she took umbrage and a spate of letters ensued.
With so little biographical information to draw on, much of Seenan’s text is a detailed book-by-book study of her oeuvre. It’s valuable because the majority of her books are no longer available, but one wonders if its very length will deter all but the most committed. Her argument, sensibly, is not that Morrison’s books are universally good, but that the best of her work is worthy of being in print and of being discussed along with other literature of that era. Dr James Michie wrote in her obituary in The Times: ‘The Gowk Storm and The Hidden Fairing are built to survive.’
She makes a good case for The Gowk Storm as an important novel, and one which, despite its historical setting, is modern in its outlook. It certainly had a measure of both popular and critical acclaim, was adapted for the stage at Dundee Rep, and was one of a clutch of British novels optioned for film by the Associated British Picture Corporation, to whom, at that time, Audrey Hepburn was attached (though the film was never made). A later stage adaptation at the Royal Lyceum in 1997 was described by the critic Joyce McMillan as ‘a film script in waiting’.
The book tells the story of the three sisters through the eyes of the youngest, Lisbet, and Seenan argues that Morrison uses the safety of the historical setting to examine the contradictory situation of women in the 1930s. Though they now had the vote, and lip service was paid to the notion of equality, in practice most women still had to find happiness within the constraints of a patriarchal society. Good Housekeeping spoke of the ‘chaos of illogical notions, contradictory longings and confused images’ which were part of womanhood at that time.
Seenan argues that The Gowk Storm is ‘proto-feminist’ in the way it negotiates these issues, that the novel is a subversive critique of the status quo. It is possible to see traces of the influence of modernism in the subtleties of these negotiations, and in the way the undercurrent of the book concerns Lisbet’s search for her own identity. Shades of the modern are also present in Morrison’s subtle questioning of moral certainties, her interest in psychology, her poetic, episodic narratives and occasional use of shifting perspectives.
However, she was not hailed as a radical writer, either at the time or with hindsight. While she did not shy away from tackling controversial themes such as adultery and illegitimacy, there remains a shy prudishness in the way she writes about sex. A perspective on history through the eyes of the illegitimate grandson of a minister was radical in 1930, but doesn’t seem so today, unlike Nan Shepherd’s writing about women shaping their own destinies, or the hints in Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners about two women finding fulfilment in a lesbian relationship.
Morrison, perhaps, falls between stools. Not of the kailyard school (though at times her books looked like it), but not sufficiently radical to appeal to the true aficionados of modernism. It is revealing that when she is reviewed badly it is sometimes in patronisingly domestic terms, like the reviewer who described The Winnowing Years as “bread pudding fiction… basically wholesome, close in texture, full of fruit, and digestible if munched in small quantities, slowly”. In her later years, as the pace of change in society accelerated, Morrison retrenched into more traditional views, both religious and political.
There is a telling little piece of doggerel by Willa Muir which hints at another reason why she has slipped so easily into obscurity: ‘N Brysson Morrison/ is a gowk if there was ever one,/ for instead of being a/ ranter and roarer/ she writes good novels/ and so the Scots ignore her.’ There is a suggestion that her quiet demeanour, old-fashioned reserve and refusal to be in the limelight has also impacted her reputation.
It is frustrating how little sense of the woman herself emerges from the pages of Seenan’s book, but there are two brief snatches of light in which she is almost illuminated. Once, after a PEN conference in Stockholm in 1948, she writes an article for the Glasgow Herald in which she is amusingly scathing about Swedish women’s dress sense. Here, briefly, is a feisty, sarcastic woman, quite capable of using her pen as a weapon.
And there is the story, told by her literary executor Dr Elizabeth Michie, of an occasion when she and her husband James hosted Morrison to tea. The writer, by then on the cusp of her sixties, was appalled when a piece of green crayon, put into the teapot by one of the Michies’ small children, dropped into her cup. To the discomfort of all, she was not able to see the funny side. Here, we glimpse a restrained, straight-laced spinster, beginning to be set in her ways, not given to frivolity. How far she is from the 29-year-old author of The Gowk Storm is lost to us, though that, no doubt, is the way Morrison would have wanted it.
Nancy Brysson Morrison: A Literary Life
KENNEDY & BOYD, PP706, £24.95, ISBN 1849211221