Catherine Carswell, Nan Shepherd, and Naomi Mitchison: Women of the Scottish Renaissance

As PGRNS has recently welcomed new committee members, each of them will provide an insight into their current research and interests. In this blog post, Domenico showcases some of the main aspects of his ongoing MLitt thesis on twentieth-century Scottish women’s fiction. 

When one looks at the canonised authors of the modern Scottish Literary Renaissance, they will be highly likely to hear about Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and George Mackay Brown. Inclined to resolve questions around Scottish national identity, these writers’ works largely re-imagine Scotland’s place both at a local and global level, underlining the role of ‘minority’ languages, myth-building symbolism, and narratives around oppressed cultures. My MLitt dissertation looks back at the writing of Scottish women writers who were initially brushed aside often for the lack of openly nationalist sentiments and more frequently due to their gender. Their work started to be unearthed following waves of feminist research from the 1970s onwards to consider their contribution to women’s writing. Although my research focuses on representations of female sexuality including views on sex, marriage and motherhood, my aim is also to investigate the way these writers relate to international modernisms and the Scottish Renaissance while proposing narrative strategies that effectively subvert patriarchal ideologies and genre conventions. 

Catherine Carswell (1879-1946) was born in Glasgow from a Free Presbyterian family, and although she spent most of her life in England, she still occasionally went back to Scotland or kept in contact with many Scottish writers such as the Muirs, MacDiarmid, ‘Flo’ Marian McNeill, and Mitchison. Despite her first novel Open the Door! (1920) having received more critical acclaim, my first chapter focuses on her second novel, The Camomile (1922), written in epistolary form and collected in the form of a journal. The protagonist, Ellen Carstairs (note the similarity with Catherine’s surname) sends letters to her friend Ruby who lives in London, giving an account of her music and writing practice alongside her rebellious sexual thoughts. Carswell proposes a reworking of the traditional male Künstlerroman, communicating women’s struggle to choose between heteronormative conventions or personal ambitions, and further setting forth the idea of a female artistic tradition that recognises a plurality of women’s voices. 

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was born and educated in Aberdeen, where she worked as a lecturer at the Teacher Training College. My second chapter delves into her first novel, The Quarry Wood (1928), a Bildungsroman that follows the maturing of Martha Ironside from her humble rural background in North-East Scotland to her education at Aberdeen University and the first romantic experiences. My argument follows Shepherd’s revision of tropes found in male novels of development such as the protagonist’s autonomous maturing of a unified self by arguing instead that Martha’s identity depends fundamentally on the relations she has with the rural community and her family. Meanwhile, my second chapter considers the ways in which Shepherd relates to the Scottish Renaissance by looking at the transcendence of material and metaphysical boundaries (from Scotland’s physical borders to made-up fantasies around gender roles), and the connection between Martha’s body and the natural world.  

Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999) was born in Edinburgh, initially pursuing a scientific career like her father and elder brother, later dedicating herself to activism and a prolific literary career. Although published much later than Carswell and Shepherd’s novels, my third chapter will consider Mitchison’s Solution Three (1975), a science fiction novel based on a future world where heterosexuality is forbidden, homosexuality is endorsed, and reproduction happens predominantly by cloning. My interest in this novel revolves around the consideration of reproductive technology (artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation, cloning), medical interventions by a state that advocates for eugenics, and the systematic commodification of women’s bodies, the so-called ‘Clone Mums’. At the same time, I will be able to study the novel’s self-explanatory divergence from heteronormative plots and Mitchison’s feminist vision of utopia/dystopia within SF. 

Domenico Di Rosa is an MLitt student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture. His thesis looks back at the writing of early twentieth century Scottish women, focusing on their representations of women’s sexuality as well as their rejection and reworking of heteronormative literary conventions. (Twitter handle: @_domenico98)


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