The broad theme of this edition of the Scottish Review of Books is neglected writers and books. It is, of course, a common complaint of authors that their work is not given its due recognition and reward. For every bestseller and prize winner there are countless examples of next-to-no-sellers and also-rans. Often, it is worth acknowledging, there are good reasons for this, one of which concerns quality. But as everyone involved in the business knows bad books are as likely to sell as good ones. The same, however, cannot be said of survival rates. Invariably, bad books have their moment but it is fleeting. In the long term, quality will out.
Or so we like to believe. Interviewed recently, the Man Booker-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst spoke of his efforts to revive the posthumous fortunes of Ronald Firbank. Born in 1886, Firbank, who died aged 40, wrote several novels which are said to have influenced a number of writers whose names are now much more recognisable than his. A gay dandy with a penchant for the exotic, he was championed while alive by the Sitwells, who admired what Margaret Drabble in her Oxford Companion to English Literature describes as ‘his intense concentration of style and image’.
Comparisons with Proust may be invidious as they are irresistible. But as after his death Firbank, whose appeal was never broad, fell off the radar and his books went out of print. To his credit Hollinghurst used his influence to persuade Penguin to reprint several of his novels but sales were few. Now they’re no longer available. Firbank, Penguin informed Hollinghurst bluntly, had ‘failed to thrive’.
It is a phrase that could be used in connection with a number of writers identified in the pages that follow. One such is Lorna Moon (1886-1930), whom Janice Galloway is eager to champion. Moon’s is not a name you will routinely find in surveys of Scottish literature. There is no mention of her, for instance, in Roderick Watson’s otherwise excellent The Literature of Scotland. She does, however, feature in Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford, who has also taken part in our survey and who suggests that she can be seen as ‘an effective contributor to Scottish literature in the era of the Scottish renaissance’.
Moon’s own life is worthy of a novel and contains clues as to why she is not as well-known as she deserves. She was born Helen Nora Wilson Low in Strichen, which is where the First Minister lives when not in Edinburgh. Her family ran the Temperance Hotel and while she was still a teenager she ran off to America with a commercial traveller whom she married but soon offloaded. Like a character in The Last Tycoon or Miss Lonelyhearts, she changed her name and began to write for the movies, at which she proved adept.
In Hollywood in its lubricious infancy she also caught the eye of the legendary director Cecil B. de Mille with whom she had a son. But he was married and Moon, a single mother trying to keep a roof over her head, was no in position to look after him. Thus Richard de Mille, whose book, My Secret Mother: Lorna Moon was published in 1998, was brought up by his father’s brother’s family. Moon’s career did not run entirely smoothly but de Mille looked after her to an extent and at the time of her death, aged 44, she was regarded not only as a femme fatale but also as one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. Moreover, she was the author of two books, Dark Star, a novel, and Doorways in Drumorty, a collection of short stories, both of which, like Firbank’s oeuvre, were well regarded but ultimately ‘failed to thrive’.
It is futile to speculate how good a writer she might have become had she lived longer. What seems certain, though, is that she would have gone on writing fiction. Even as her health declined, she had been working on a novel and there were five more at the gestation stage. In the Californian sanatorium where she spent much of her last years, she wrote and wrote. ‘More gore!’ she told her diary. ‘They say I’m getting better but I know I’m getting worse. I’m always worse when I lie flat like this. Why can’t they see that they break my hold on life when they keep me from writing?’