Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Canongate Classics, 1987, 285 p plus iv p Introduction by J B Pick.

 Imagined Corners cover

Through its own Calvinistic lens the Scottish novel treats as much of the three novelistic perennials love, sex and death as any other. In this, Imagined Corners, the first book Canongate published in its Classics series, is no exception. It contains, however, not much of a preoccupation with death but a more unusual emphasis on love – and (I would have thought for 1931) a quite startling discussion of sex in its philosophical aspects; though Muir somewhat euphemistically refers to “embraces” when alluding to such relations between her characters.

The book is set in the seaside town of Calderwick, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen railway line north of Dundee, and starts off in the household of William Murray, the local United Free Church Minister, where his sister Sarah is worried about their brother Ned’s mental wellbeing. Even though they are returned to at several points affairs at the Murrays are something of a red herring as the bulk of the book is concerned with the doings of the Shand family. Black sheep Hector, who had had to sojourn in Canada for a few years after an unfortunate incident involving a local girl, Bell Duncan, has returned to the town with his bride Elizabeth, a University graduate. His elder half-brother John owns a mill in the town in which he has placed Hector in a job. John’s wife Mabel, very mindful of the proprieties of life in a small town, has managed to “hook” him, marrying him for his money. Aunt Janet Shand is a prime example of the upright old school. In the first two parts of the novel the claustrophobia of small town life is well-established as are the accommodations (or lack of them) newly married couples have to make to one another. The third part brings into the equations the return of the Shand brothers’ sister Lizzie, who many years ago ran off with a married man, and a foreigner to boot. She quickly dumped him but is now a respectable widow. However, such scandalous behaviour runs in the Shand family. Their father Charles in his day was a notorious womaniser and drunkard, Hector a chip off the old block.

The strands of the novel are not particularly woven together. The dilemmas of characters from the different families do not really illuminate each other. They relate only in so much as they come into contact because they live in the same town. William Murray’s crisis of conscience in relation to the degree of his responsibility for his brother Ned’s mental instability is not germane to the marital difficulties of the younger Shands nor Mabel’s lack of excitement in her own marriage.

It could never have been described as such in its day but Imagined Corners is in fact a feminist novel avant la lettre. Such thoughts as, “All men were queer and unaccountable,” and, “‘It’s damnable the way a girl’s self-confidence is slugged on the head from the beginning,’” illustrate the point, while, “all men… accepted unthinkingly the suggestion that women were the guardians of decorum – good women, that is to say, women who could not be referred to as ‘skirts’. Good women existed to keep in check men’s sexual passions,” depicts the curious – and still prevalent – notion that women are the necessary gatekeepers to men’s sexuality.

Muir applies this curious bind to Elizabeth who, “had been subjected to the subtle pressure of the suggestion that a husband is the sole justification of a woman’s existence, that a woman who cannot attract and keep a husband is a failure,” and then explores its ramifications in the conclusion, “That some such theory should emerge in a society which regarded the sexual act as sinful was inevitable; one cannot train women in chastity and then expect them to people the world unless the sinfulness of sex is counterbalanced by the desirability of marriage.”

At a time when, “In Scotland man’s chief end was to glorify God and woman’s to see that he did it,” women’s responsibilities were strict. “The perfect wife was not only selfless and loving – she was sympathetic, understanding, tactful, and above all, charming…. she must always look ‘nice’,” and demanding, “The perfect wife is bound to assume that without her” her husband “would be ‘lost’. This …. fits loosely over the real problem, of one individual’s relationship to another.”

The manifestations of this include, “The sexual instinct has such complicated emotional effects on men and women that its masquerade as a simple appetite ought not to be condoned. Mankind has an inkling of this fact, and much ingenuity is applied to shielding the young and inexperienced from the bewildering effects of sex,” which is an approach that still holds true.

When such thoughts pervade society, innuendo and gossip are never far away, and the slightest deviations pounced upon. But there is a counterbalance, “an undercurrent of kindly sentiment that runs strong and full beneath many Scots characters, a sort of family feeling for mankind. … It is a vaguely egalitarian sentiment, and it enables the Scot to handle all sorts as if they were his blood relations.” Yet that too has its darker side, “Consequently in Scotland there is a social order of rigid severity, for if people did not hold each other off who knows what might happen? The so-called individualism of the Scots is merely an attempt on the part of every Scot to keep every other Scot from exercising the privileges of a brother.” Heaven forfend!

Elizabeth’s confusion over her role, Mabel’s susceptibility to flattering attention, Aunt Janet’s rigidity, John’s stolidity, all bear the stamp of authority. In this small world Lizzie is almost an alien, a pointer to another way of living. Hector as a roué is close to being a type, though. William Murray’s crisis over being his brother’s keeper can only be resolved one way, Sarah’s frustration an expression of constrained life but Ned edges towards being a device to highlight his siblings’ natures.

Among the grace notes Muir deploys that wonderful Scottish phrase black affronted, ‘Oh, no, John, no John, no!’ reminded me of a song while there is a wonderful aside in the thought, “Surely? People who defend an indefensible position always begin with ‘surely’.”

Imagined Corners is a vivid slice of early Twentieth Century Scottish life, a life still lived in the shadow of the Reformation.

Pedant’s corner:- someting (something,) “laid a paw on on Ned’s knee” (only one “on” needed,) againt (against,) a closing quote mark with no preceding opening one, recoverd (recovered,) powered (powdered,) gong (going,) grandiose (grandiose,) “‘so far I know’” (so far as I know,) extentions (is this a 1930s spelling of extensions?) “in another world that this” (than this,) “‘I’d throw up the sponge’” (nowadays it’s “throw in the sponge”,) discovered (discovered,) tranquillity (tranquillity,) Mains’ (Mains’s,) “we’re all John Tamson’s bairns” (more usually rendered as “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns”.)

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script