A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I picked up Nan Shepherd’s The Weatherhouse as I walked through Waterstones in Glasgow, attracted by its striking cover and intrigued by the opening sentence of its blurb – “The women of the tiny town of Fetter-Rothnie have grown used to a life without men, and none more so than the tangle of mothers and daughters, spinsters and widows living at the Weatherhouse.” That it was published in 1930 by a Scottish author who died in 1981, only added to its attraction. It also came with an offer of buy one and get a second book half price. I saw Lillian Beckwith’s The Hills is Lonely. Thinking of writing a comparison of two visions of rural Scotland, I took both books to the cash register. There I was told that that Beckwith’s book was not part of the offer, but I bought it nonetheless. However, having read both I wonder if either of them has anything to tell us of Scotland, rural or otherwise.
The Weatherhouse is a gem of novel. It is wound tight as a knot and yet still vibrates with all the passion and energy that the changeable weather of the Scottish north-east, the setting for the novel, brings with it. The story itself is straightforward: Garry Forbes has come back from the trenches of France with shell shock. He lodges with his maiden aunt Miss Barbara Paterson in her farm, Knapperley, to recover. She is akin to a primeval force, being formidably strong in both body and mind, indifferent to what people think of her. Despite having been brought before the courts for not respecting the blackout regulations, she continues to place lamps in every window of her farmhouse at night. Garry discovers that Louisa Morgan, daughter of the previous minister at Fetter-Rothnie, claims to have been engaged to his best friend, David Grey. David is dead from T.B. and there is only Louisa’s word to say that the engagement was real. Convinced that she is lying, Garry decides to expose Louise as a woman using the memory of a good man to her own ends.
Yet, as I found out, this is not what the novel is about. His goal achieved; finally and permanently returned from France at war’s end; married to Lindsay Lorimer, who seems to revel in his changeable moods; ready to take on the world, Garry vanishes from the novel. Lindsay, who supplies a youthful and, in the best sense of the word, innocent perspective, fades too from the plot. They were not, so it seems to me, ever intended to be the central characters. Nor were Louisa Morgan, Aunt Craigmyle who, in her nineties, sits in the corner of her kitchen in the Weatherhouse, crooning ballads; nor her daughters Annie and Theresa; nor Francie Ferguson, whose father adapted the three cottages that became the Weatherhouse. Not even the redoubtable Miss Barbara Paterson was ever intended by her creator to embody a theme which we, as readers, could take with us from the novel. Instead, and much to my surprise, it is Aunt Craigmyle’s middle daughter, Ellen Falconer, who assumes the mantle of a central character. A troubled woman, lost in a fantasy world in which, despite her sixty years, she asks herself if she is falling in love with Garry, her awakening is one in which she sees that there is no place for her in this world. This novel is not about Scotland, it is about belonging. This may be to a place or a person, and Ellen sees that she belongs to neither.
This is not to say that setting is not important. Nan Shepherd writes with insight and depth of feeling into the role of weather and landscape as doors into which we can enter the souls of the characters. Garry arrives at night after a walk across the empty countryside, its silence oppressive after the noise of the trenches. He experiences a moment of epiphany – “The sky, still dark, brooded upon a darker earth, but with no sense of oppression. Rather both sky and earth rolled away, and he too, was a creature only half set free from the primordial dark.” She repeats this approach with many of the characters. However, as expressions of inner turmoil or the bliss of young love, the physical world serves more to illuminate the psychological nature of the novel, rather than root it in 1920s rural north-east Scotland. Even Aunt Craigmyle’s ballads throw light on her difficult relationship with Ellen, her daughter. None of this makes it an easy novel to read. Nan Shepherd plays with time and layers events one on top of another. I would have been lost without the list of characters and their biographies given at the beginning to the novel. Yet, it was a joy to read, not least for its compassionate eye on the bad decisions people make for what they think are all the right reasons.
The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith, on the other hand, is an easy read. Each chapter is a short story in which the inhabitants of the Highland island of Bruach, based on the isle of Skye where Lillian Beckwith lived from 1942, ceilidh over whisky, go to church, bury their dead, fight on market day and dance away a wedding night. The beginning, middle and end of each story is clearly marked. Invariably, there is a punch line at the end too. This is life with the corners neatly smoothed and rounded. Unlike The Weatherhouse, life on Bruach is not messy. Characters are types, rather than individuals: thus we meet the Landlady, the Bachelor, the Bride, the Jack of all Trades and the Fool. They all have names: Morag, Euan, Elspeth, Ruaridh – but they are interchangeable and if they were to be swapped the novel would not suffer. Nor is it a novel about Scotland. Instead, it treads the well-worn literary path of the outsider in unfamiliar surroundings and the humour that can be drawn from their points of contact. Instead of Bruach, it could as easily have been a hill village near Granada or a villa in Provence. But it would be unfair to dismiss it and the other novels she wrote based on her time on Skye. The Hills is Lonely is well-written, undemanding and perfect for a long journey by train or plane.
Nan Shepherd, The Weatherhouse, (Canongate Books, 2017) £8.99 pb, 978-1782118862
Lillian Beckwith, The Hills is Lonely, (Pan Books, 2016) £8.99 pb, 978-1509815395