Asked to describe her upbringing, in an interview in later life, Jessie Kesson spoke of her ‘accidental’ birth in Inverness Workhouse. Her mother was not married, which was disgrace enough in 1916, and no doubt to escape the local gossips she had hightailed it to the city. As a result, her child, officially known as Jessie Grant McDonald, was privately called Ness. ‘We’ll nae bother aboot the Jessie,’ her mother used to say. The name and whereabouts of her father remained tantalisingly untold.
Much has been said about Kesson’s mother, who was a sometime prostitute and drinker. The ignominy of that, in Edwardian times, was so profound that the life of such a woman’s children was blighted from the start. Kesson uttered not a word of criticism or complaint about her mother – quite the opposite. That she rose above a childhood which, from the age of nine, was spent largely in an Aberdeenshire orphanage, without any prospect of further education, and that she would become one of the country’s notable writers, casts shame not on her origins but on a society eager to write-off the ‘fallen’ and unfortunate, and hustle them from sight. In our own times, her mother’s desperate straits brings a touch of salacious glamour to the novelist’s CV, a frisson of fascination that in its own way is almost as distasteful. Fortunately Kesson, who took her cottar husband Johnny’s name when they married, was blithe about all such crassness, remaining very much her own person, a woman of considerable talent who could not be patronised, or adulated.
Kesson’s first and closely autobiographical novel, The White Bird Passes, was published in 1958. It was immediately recognised as a rare and original piece of work. Norman MacCaig, who is quoted on the jacket of B&W’s new reprint, urged readers to ‘beg, borrow or steal this book’. How right he was. Deeply felt, beautifully written, and irrepressibly droll, it was a mark of Kesson’s fine mind and vivid artistic vision. It was also a voice from the north-east, bred in a dour Scottish town, but set alight by the countryside where, in her youth, Kesson roamed the woods and lanes, and in adulthood worked the land. Later, she was to take her husband and two young children to London, where she wrote over a hundred plays for radio and television, as well as short stories and novels while working full-time variously as a cleaner and care-worker, and in schools and hospitals, until she was sixty. Not until the film of her first novel came out in 1980, however, did she begin to receive the recognition she deserved.
B&W have produced attractive fresh paperback editions of this, Kesson’s signature book, and the novels Glitter of Mica (1963), and Another Time, Another Place (1983). With new introductions by Linda Cracknell, Jenni Fagan, and Candia McWilliam, they are intended no doubt to introduce this remarkable writer’s work to a new generation, and act as a reminder and a prompt to those familiar with her to seek her out again. Novelist Jenni Fagan, whose own troubled upbringing has inevitably led to comparisons with Kesson, ends her introduction with a plea: ‘The works of Jessie Kesson vastly enrich the European literary canon; she must not be forgotten or ignored.’
If only one could bridle at that. But while The White Bird Passes has attained classic status, and is in no danger of slipping off the radar, the same cannot be said of the other novels, or Kesson’s plays. Rereading this trio, and keeping The White Bird Passes till last, there is no denying its stature. It soars above the other two, in intensity and colour, in the indefinable lacing of a child’s-eye-view with a subtler apprehension of what everything means, and why it matters. It tells of young Janie McVean, brought up in a slum by her careless but clever mother. She loves the Lane, and its prostitutes, and their chatter, although the suicide of neighbour Mysie Walsh, whom she greatly loved, casts a terrifying shadow over the dark, long stairway where one of her mother’s clients importunes her, and she hurls his coins after him.
Showing the dreary and dismal conditions in which Janie lives, finding pleasure in everything she can and unaware that others would see her life as lacking, the tale is haunted by dread of her mother’s early death. ‘“Mam”, she shouted up the stairs, “Will you die soon?” And lest the dreaded answer should be in the affirmative, added, “Just say this one time that you won’t die soon.” The answer, when it came, was hurried and irritable. “I don’t know when I’ll die. For goodness’ sake run and play.”’ In the event, it is the Cruelty Man who deals a deadly blow by despatching Janie to an orphanage. Skipping across her eight years in care in the turn of a page – the only time that this book leaves you wishing for more – Kesson creates an indelible, nuanced, raw and plangent portrait of the underclass, of a mother and daughter, of the unkindness and opportunity the world deals out, as lightly as though they were cards in a casino.
Across all three books, the land speaks as loudly as its people. In this, it seems Kesson inherited her appreciation of nature from her mother, who on their forays out of the town taught her about wildlife, and the mountains and rivers. She and her mum are closest at these moments, as her fictional counterpart reflects. ‘And the times in the Lane never really mattered, because of the good times away from it. And I would myself be blind now, if she had never lent me her eyes.’
Decades later, when asked about the conciseness of her novels, Kesson spoke of her life’s ambition to create ‘the sma’ perfect’. In this, she called on her mother’s example. ‘Great credit to her, she was the one that had the poet in her – she really had – it wis her gave me my great love for all o’it, my mother.’ She also paid tribute to a dominie who loathed padding – ‘this is Angela Brazil stuff!’ – and to whom she dedicated The White Bird Passes.
Of the two later novels, Another Time, Another Place comes closest to it in effect and tone. Tightly composed, each word judiciously weighed, it was written as a novel to be simultaneously filmed. It is set on an Aberdeenshire farm in the 1940s, which takes in three Italian prisoners of war. A young cottar’s wife, who lives next door to the men, finds herself drawn to one of them, although it is another with whom she eventually consummates months of simmering desire. As with all Kesson’s work, the account is pervaded by the sense of otherness – that of the Italians, but equally of the wife who is possibly even more of a strangeling on the farm than the soldiers.
As Janie revealed with merriment rather than chagrin in The White Bird Passes, ‘Nor had she outgrown her affinity with what Grandmother would have called “Ne’er do weels”. The Lane “Riff Raff”, and Skeyne “Ootlins”. Skeyne’s word was the best word. The most accurately descriptive. Ootlins. Queer folk who were “oot” and who, perversely enough, never had any desire to be “in”.’ Not surprisingly, Kesson’s stories are filled with those on the edges: tinkers, beggars, prostitutes, petty criminals and the homeless. The cottar’s wife, however, is the odd one out only because of the way she thinks, or perhaps the very fact that she thinks at all.
The mood Kesson evokes in Another Time, Another Place, is burned onto the mind, and the delicacy of its telling, the restraint which could almost be accused of being tight-lipped were it were not so lyrically expressive, is utterly memorable. Candia McWilliam writes that it ‘works like a ballad and, like a ballad, it stays in the blood as well as in the mind, as the poems and songs of the mother of this rare writer abided in her own blood and mind to become her vivid coloured art.’
Less vivid or convincing or satisfying is Glitter of Mica. This was Kesson’s favourite of her works, which leaves one a little perplexed. There is a whiff of A J Cronin’s Hatter’s Castle about the remorselessness of its misery, and the coarse unfeelingness of the father Hugh Riddel towards his unloving wife and restless daughter. As in all her works, Kesson is never coy or sentimental about sex, knowing the difference between love and lust, and acknowledging a place for each. She passes no judgemental sentence on any of her characters, but in Glitter of Mica all of them emerge diminished, either by their response to circumstances or because of their imperfect nature. There is the feckless grandfather, his lonely, ruthless son, Riddel, head dairyman, and a calculating, sly local politician, Charlie Anson, with whom Riddel’s daughter is having a secret affair. Anson comes out with phrases such as: ‘We can go the whole hog the night, seeing as you’re filled,’ when he learns that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter she tries to commit suicide, though the reasons for this are not as simple as they sound.
‘Glitter of Mica’ would stand as a description of Kesson herself, who was a flash of brilliance from the stony north-east. It is ironic, though, that of her books, this is the least shiny, and the most leaden. It is not a bad book, but it suffers from a stiltedness and hardness by comparison with her others. This, despite it being written, as Kesson later revealed, at ‘white-hot’ speed. What it does, however, and more explicitly than elsewhere, is delineate some of the less tender fundamentals of the relationship between men and women. In this, it is as much about Hugh Riddel as about his tragic daughter. Sex and affection, protection and abuse, frustration and fury are the compass points between which is steers. With the possible exception of the vengeful Charlie Anson, nobody here is entirely bad, nor are they wholly sweet. Perhaps what this novel lacks has less to do with the drama that unfolds, and more with the absence of Kesson’s customary humour and wit. It is this which rings through the other two novels, sometimes subterranean, but rarely absent. From the outset of her published writing career, laughter, or drollery, is pervasive. A few pages into The White Bird Passes, a beggar with one leg is introduced. He knows he’s fortunate, because in the post-war years people are generous to wounded veterans. He, however, does not admit he lost his leg in a pub brawl years before the guns fired. He’d never have survived the trenches, he says, but now he’s coining it in. ‘That’s what I mean by “luck”,’ he tells Janie. And in that cameo appearance, Kesson’s canvas is spread out before us.