Alan Freeman. Imagined Worlds: Fiction by Scottish Women 1900–1935

Gavin Miller
Alan Freeman. Imagined Worlds: Fiction by Scottish Women 1900–1935. Frankfurt/M: Lang, 2005. Pp. 247 US $50.95

1 Imagined Worlds is a study of the female Scottish novelists whose work in the early part of the twentieth century was drowned out by what Freeman aptly terms "the louder voices of the Scottish renaissance" (7). Those who declaimed so loudly tended to be male, and to be poets. At their heart was Hugh MacDiarmid, whose manifestos for Scottish cultural authenticity are now regarded with some skepticism. Scottish women's writing, with its concentration on an often middle-class domestic sphere, seemingly conventional narrative form, and lesser engagement in national or class consciousness, became marginalized, and was neglected by later critics, despite the often striking success of some of these authors. Freeman's book considers seven Scottish women writers from the period: the Findlater sisters (Mary and Jane Helen), Violet Jacob, Catherine Carswell, Lorna Moon, Willa Muir, and Nan Shepherd. The first five authors are considered in the first part of Freeman's book; the last two are considered at greater length in the second part.

2 Freeman sees in all these a writers a questioning of traditional values, an interrogation which "draws their novels out of the mainstream of domestic and sentimental fiction towards artful forms and a modern sensibility" (7). Women, according to Freeman, were already so distanced from state, society, liberal individualism, economics, and party politics that they were at an advantage: they already knew how "shaped by forces outside himself, subject to irrational impulses within, autonomous man was a fiction" (20). Women, who long knew themselves as shaped by "heteronomous" forces and impulses, were in a strong position to communicate this fictionality.

3 Part One—"New Worlds, Old Ways"—discusses the work of the Findlaters, Jacob, Carswell, and Moon in the context of declining Victorian optimism. The first chapter, for instance, provides a discussion of Violet Jacob's novel Flemington (1911). Although also set around the 1745 Jacobite uprising, Jacob's novel differs significantly from Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814). Scott's characters (as Georg Lukács noted) were ideal types, representative of the conflicting social classes of the conflict. Jacob's characters, on the other hand, are individuals who wrestle with psychological and historical forces. They struggle to construct authentic identities, to know who they are, in a world of shifting allegiances, espionage, and ambivalent emotions. This portrayal of subjectivity, Freeman convincingly argues, presages the modernist critique of the "closed, autonomous, self-directing individuality central to the mythology of Western culture" (65).

4 This theme continues throughout the first part of the book. Freeman continues his critique of "individualist" emancipation by providing a lengthy and innovative consideration of the discourse of sexology in relation to Scottish literature. He questions the liberatory credentials of this medicalizing movement, and argues that Scottish women writers were canny enough to be skeptical of a sexual liberation that merely perpetuated their subservience to men. This is why in the work of Mary Findlater, Moon, and Carswell "many heroines reject their heroes" (119): the assertion of sexual desire is not in itself liberatory, no matter how much it may appear to resist the tiresome Victorian discourse of the "good woman."

5 Part Two of Imagined Worlds, "Old Days, New Worlds," focuses on Willa Muir and Nan Shepherd. Freeman introduces his analysis with a lengthy and worthwhile chapter on the intellectual context of these authors. He includes here not just well-known modernist thinkers such as Henri Bergson, but also the neglected line of Scottish thought that runs from J. B. Baillie to John Macmurray (and, later, to R. D. Laing). In such thinkers, Freeman finds an emphasis on the formation of the self in relations of community. This idea proves useful in his subsequent analysis of Muir's novel Imagined Corners (1931), where the inhabitants of a small Scottish town live out the roles allocated to them by family, church, magazines, books, and so forth. Such "scripts," as Freeman calls them, anticipate the later analysis of role-playing in transactional psychoanalysis. However, the theory of community really proves its worth in the analysis of Shepherd's three novels The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass in the Grampians (1933), works that emphatically "validate communal life rather than repudiate it" (222).

6 Imagined Worlds is full of perceptive close-reading of authors who have been unfairly neglected because of both their national (or regional) position and their gender. Of particular value is Freeman's recovery of local intellectual traditions. Although references to John Macmurray, R. D. Laing, and others are now de rigueur in Scottish literary criticism, Freeman was a leader in this area—his monograph develops and elaborates research first set down in his 1992 doctoral thesis. The sheer difficulty in publishing books on Scottish literature accounts for the unfortunate delay by which a pioneer like Freeman may be misunderstood as a follower.

7 The only reservations that I have about Imagined Worlds concern its poor editing and unacceptable typographic presentation. There are a great many errors of many different types, including missing or misplaced full stops, variations in leading, unindented paragraphs, typos, uneven font sizes, and homophones ("there's a twist in the tail," 103). I direct this criticism not at the author, but at the editorial processes behind the production of this book. The series of which it is a part, Scottish Studies International, is well established, but is in danger of losing its credibility because of simple problems such as the ones noted above. The editors of Scottish Studies International would be well advised to consider the competition that their series faces.