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A Soft-Centred Woman – Scottish Review of Books
by Maggie Fergusson

A Soft-Centred Woman

October 20, 2009 | by Maggie Fergusson

THE SPRING OF 1947, as her husband’s sixtieth birthday approached, Willa Muir settled down to reflect on growing old. The fruit of her reflection was a poem: a small masterpiece, and a good starting point for anybody wanting to understand what this passionate, formidable, vulnerable woman was really about. All her essential qualities are here, jumbled together, as she wrote in another context, like the varied ingredients of a Scotch Bun: “not classified into layers like a respectable English cake”. Her courage, her huge capacity for love, and her nagging insecurity; her ear for “the eternal note of sadness”, together with her ebullient delight in life’s absurdities and in words, all shine through the eighteen lines of ‘Address to Edwin’.

The first half of the poem is a high-speed, high-spirited romp through the unwelcome gifts that old age is likely to lay at her door: false teeth, bursting bosom, vast hips, creaking knees, greying hair disguised beneath some foolish hat or bonnet – “or even – God be good to us – a toque!” The second half is quieter, and more revealing:

I was not born to be a comic figure,  but life has changed me into one at last. I hope, my love, you will not find me tedious although my double chins are doubling fast, I hope you’ll go on laughing at my foibles,

and till I die find merriment in me;

but when I’m dead among the elementals

I hope you will forget the accidentals remembering rather what I meant

to be.

The tension between what she “meant to be” – what she essentially was – and how she was perceived by many who encountered her, ran through the whole of Willa Muir’s life. Writing her journal in the winter of 1951, she fretted about how she and Edwin might be considered after their deaths. Edwin’s poems would live on, she felt sure, “but of himself only a legend”. But she expresses no hope that her own work might endure, and suspects that it will be “only a very distorted legend” that survives of her, if she survives at all.

She had reason to be pessimistic. Among those in a position to influence the perceptions of future generations, Willa Muir had powerful detractors. As Aileen Christianson shows, in her wonderfully lucid, rich and thorough Moving in Circles:Willa Muir’s Writings, Muir had felt herself, from early childhood, an outsider. There was a sense that, having moved from Shetland to Montrose, her parents were ‘Displaced Persons’: Willa (or ‘Minnie’, as she was known as a girl) grew up speaking Shetland at home, English at her private school, and Montrose in the streets. It boosted her natural facility for languages, but it also imparted a feeling of rootlessness, of not belonging.

Then there was her irrepressible impatience with the stifling, pious, small-town, Scottish respectability amidst which she grew up, and her shrewd analysis of how women had come, with the rise of the middle classes, to be considered no more than “environments for their families”. “The men were very busy and important on the scaffolding of new constructions, but their souls were shivering”, she writes in Mrs Grundy In Scot-land, commissioned by Lewis Grassic Gibbon in 1935, as part of the Routledge series ‘Meanings in Scotland’. “From the cold logic of finance, they returned to their homes in need of warm slippers, large comforting meals…, the general assurance of solid domesticity…. The more ambiguous business morality became, the more anxiously they looked for a stage setting of inflexible virtue at home”.

As a child Willa was, in her own words, “critical, resentful, unsure”. As an adult, these qualities led her to appear to many insufferably overbearing, outspoken and insensitive. Long before his rift with her husband, Hugh MacDiarmid took against Willa for her “overpowering presence, which has always been a nuisance to friends of Edwin’s”. Wyndham Lewis, in The Apes of God (1930), produced a blisteringly cruel satire of her marriage: “that massive, elderly Scottish lady next to him – that is his wife. She opened her jaws and swallowed him comfortably. There he was once more inside a woman, as it were – tucked up in her old tummy”.

Not one to sit down under criticism, Willa Muir had her revenge in her only published short story, ‘Clock-a-doodle-doo’, a sharp satire on the individual male egos driving the Scottish literary renaissance, in which, Christianson suggests, both MacDiarmid and Lewis are represented in the insufferably egotistical “Clever Clock”, who falls to bits at the end of the story.

Yet, beneath it all, Willa was, in her own view, “a soft-centred creature”. Her aggressiveness, consciously cultivated, was her way of masking this, and of enabling her to protect Edwin – he “was a soft-shell crab”, she wrote, shortly before his death, “and I was his carapace”. But she was also utterly reliant on him. Flora Jack, Edwin’s secretary while he was Warden of New-battle Abbey College in the early Fifties, remembers Willa sitting by the front door at Newbattle waiting for Edwin to return from a trip to London. “You know”, she confessed, “I’m just no use without him”. George Mackay Brown, as a student at Newbattle, often watched the couple take their morning stroll through the grounds – Edwin nattily dressed, appearing to glide, Willa hirpling with arthritis – and he was moved by their marriage. Willa, he once wrote, was the most generous person he ever encountered. But for her, Edwin might never have written a line of poetry. “Where would you be now…without her?” Edwin asks himself in The Labyrinth, a one-man play Mackay Brown wrote about him, after his death. “Lost for ever … She saved your life and your reason, that dear one. She waited for you at the gate – Ariadne – in the sun. She took your hand. Then you were free”.

In The Story And The Fable, with the bracing concision he reserves for the most momentous events, Edwin Muir describes his marriage to Willa, quite simply, as “the most fortunate event in my life”. When they met, in the winter of 1918, he was a clerk in a shipbuilding firm in Renfrew. Before this, he had worked in a factory in Fairport, a place of Kafkaesque horror, to which decaying bones were transported from all over Scotland, flung into furnaces and reduced to charcoal. At night, he would wake from nightmares to the chilling realization that his life had gone wrong. Walking by the Clyde one evening, he wondered idly whether to throw himself in. What would have happened if Willa Anderson had not appeared in his life, it is hard to know.

A graduate of St Andrews University, where she had played an energetic role in the women’s suffrage society, Willa had taken a First in Classics. She was, when she met Edwin Muir, vice-principal and lecturer in English, psychology and education at Gipsy Hill Teacher Training College. It was an unlikely match, and when they married in 1919, friends doubted it would last. Yet last it did, and developed into a union so solid that, when Edwin died in 1959, Willa became aware that she had been assuming that they “should die together, when it came to dying, hand in hand. I could not believe it possible for me to be alive and for him to be dead. It did not make sense. We belonged together”.

In London, where they began their married life, Edwin underwent psychoanalysis. They then lived abroad for much of the twenties, in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Austria and France. Willa encouraged Edwin with his early struggles with verse, and his First Poems was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press: “We printed his poems in 1925 with our own hands”, recalled Leonard Woolf, “and he was the kind of author and they were the kind of poems for whom and which we wanted the Press to exist”. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Edwin Muir had published four more books of poetry, and established himself as one of the foremost poets of his generation.

Yet there was a price to be paid for this success, and it was, arguably, Willa who paid the greater part of it – and paid it with quiet heroism.

The Muirs’ finances were constantly strained, and to keep themselves afloat they were forced to set aside their own work and to devote themselves to the more lucrative business of reviewing and translating. “How do we live?” Willa asks herself in a letter written in 1933. “Translating from the German, reading German books for publishers, doing anything that turns up. How do we want to live? On the proceeds of our own creative work. Apparently quite impossible”. But there is no doubt that Edwin’s “own creative work” was given precedence. In Belonging, Willa describes how, when they were living in Hampstead in the early Thirties, Edwin was able to retreat, after breakfast, to a quiet attic study with a fine view across roof- and treetops, while she attempted to work from a ground-floor room, cluttered with her son, Gavin’s, toys, and “intruded upon at all hours by household staff, the weekly washerwoman, any casual caller ready for a gossip, Gavin whenever he came home from school…”. As a result, she was forced to revert “to a student habit of mine, working at furious speed late at night into the small hours, after the vibrations of the day had died down”. In 1941, Willa suffered a breakdown, brought on by overwork.

And although it seems clear that it was she who did the lion’s share of the translating, it was Edwin who took most of the credit, and this was a source of anguish. “And the fact remains”, she writes in her diary one evening in the summer of 1953, “I am a better translator than he is. The whole current of patriarchal society is set against this fact, however, and sweeps it into oblivion, simply because I did not insist on shouting aloud: ‘Most of this translation … has been done by ME. Edwin only helped’. … I am left without a shred of literary reputation. And I am ashamed of the fact that I feel it as a grievance…And yet, and yet, I want to be acknowledged”.

No one who reads Moving In Circles will doubt that Willa Muir deserves acknowledgement – and not simply as the wife who made Edwin’s poetry possible. It is poignant to reach the bibliography at the end of the book, and to see how little space the list of Willa’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry takes up, compared with the pages devoted to her work as a translator. Poignant, too, to read Marion Lochhead’s 1933 assessment of Willa as “one of the best Scots novelists of our time…. One of the most fascinating of the women writers of today”, and to realise that, as this was written, Willa was completing Mrs Ritchie, her second, and what was to be her final, published novel. It is tantalising to think what more she might have achieved.

And yet to pity Willa Muir would be to ‘distort’ her memory in a way that would have outraged her far more than the jibes of Hugh MacDiarmid or Wyndham Lewis. If there was much sacrifice in her life, there was also rare fulfilment. In his poem ‘The Annunciation’, Edwin Muir writes of a union

Where each asks from each What each most wants to give And each awakes in each What else would never be This was the nature of the union between Edwin and Willa Muir, and, as Willa makes clear in Belonging – a work that will surely endure – it was more precious to her than literary reputation or success could ever have been. “Any story about human beings is bound to have an end”, she concludes, “like this story about us, a pair of ingenuous people who fell in love and went journeying together through life, blundering by good luck in the right directions so that we came to a lasting wholeness and joy in each other. It has happened before; it will happen again; it happened to us. We belonged together”.

Aileen Christianson
Word Power Books, £13.00
pp250, ISBN 095491855X

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A Soft-Centred Woman

by Maggie Fergusson

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