Gibbon’s Chris: A Celebration With Some Reservations
A revised and updated version of this paper, along with eleven other essays on Gibbon’s works, is available in A Flame in the Mearns, published June 2003 by ASLS.
References are given at the end of the document.
I am a great admirer of A Scots Quair. It is a wonderful trilogy. But I have frequently stabbed my toe on its imperfections, wishing I could call its author back from the shades for half an hour, to score out lines or phrases that gar me grue. “‘Oh Chris Caledonia, I’ve married a nation!’ ... He said suddenly and queerly, ‘The Last Supper, Chris’” ... the last sentence of Grey Granite ...I think it is perhaps the most imperfect great work of literature I know. Maybe this is not surprising, given the pressured haste with which Gibbon composed it. And today I find myself getting at the creation most generally agreed to be its triumph, Chris Guthrie. I want to say her creation is very imperfect too. I start with a remark from Tom Crawford’s Introduction to Sunset Song in his fine edition of A Scots Quair:
In this novel Gibbon has created the most convincing female character in Scottish fiction, and so sympathetically, so inwardly, that many of the original readers wondered whether ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ might be the nom-de-plume of a woman author.1
It’s true that women at first thought it might have been written by a woman, but I don’t think it’s possible to think that now, now that the dust has had time to settle. At best, I’d argue, Chris may be the most convincing female character in Scottish fiction created by a male author. To outline my case, I place the trilogy – or, because of shortage of time today, Sunset Song – beside two other novels of the time, Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood (1928) and Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners (1931).
Gibbon is unparalleled in creating the passionate lyricism of Chris’s Song. And he is not above learning from his contemporaries, which is praiseworthy. I have pointed out elsewhere how many suggestions he took from Willa Muir, including the portrayal of Chris as composed at different times of warring selves.2 It was Muir who pioneered this technique in Imagined Corners, with both Elizabeth Shand and Elise Mutze. Elizabeth Shand, trying to be a perfect wife, has a waking nightmare experience, ‘feeling that she was lost and no longer knew who she was’.3 When she remembers the name ‘Elizabeth Ramsay’, her maiden name, the nightmare vanishes. She faces the diminution of her personal identity, but rallies: ‘Elizabeth Ramsay she was, but also Elizabeth Shand, and she herself, that essential self which awoke from sleep, had felt lost because she had forgotten that fact’ (IC 65).
Elise Mutze also recognises co-existing selves, as she tries to find a ‘central self’, looking back in some self-mockery at ‘Elizabeth the first’ and ‘Elizabeth the second’: ‘When she was a little girl Elizabeth the second had been, if anything, a few moments the quicker of the two, and Elizabeth the first was restricted to making sarcastic comments’ (IC 147). These references are carefully selected, and few.
As we all know, Gibbon memorably adapted the technique, in Sunset Song, with the English Chris and the Scottish Chris: ‘two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies’. (SS 32). This is a brilliant utterance of the self-reflexive you, but we might argue that Gibbon uses the technique of divided selves too often, and fragments his heroine too many times. We remember Chris’s emotional response to her realisation of her pregnancy –‘And Chris Guthrie crept out from the place below the beech trees where Chris Tavendale lay and went wandering off into the waiting quiet of the afternoon, Chris Tavendale heard her go, and she came back to Blawearie never again’. (SS 176). Each usage is effective, but they don’t stack up: it is not necessarily a failing of literal-minded undergraduates that they become puzzled by the Epilude when Chris says to Robert, ‘Oh my dear, maybe the second Chris, maybe the third, but Ewan has the first forever!’ (SS 253). And it is perhaps a self too far when she dreams in Cloud Howe of going her own way, ‘Chris-alone, Chris-herself, with Chris Guthrie, Chris Tavendale, Chris Colquohoun dead!’ (CH 166).
I suggest also that the intimacy and conviction of Chris’s thought-and-feeling, combined with the marvellously contrived structure of Sunset Song, blinds us to the drama – or even the melodrama – to which Gibbon subjects the readers of Sunset Song. These qualities obscure the speed and drama with which events pile up for Chris.
The Quarry Wood is a deal less eventful. Rory Watson says it shows ‘what might have happened to Chris Guthrie, had she decided to go to university after all’,4 and says Martha ‘makes the same difficult journey towards intellectual and emotional maturity at a time when such space was seldom freely given to women’. The action here is much more mundane. Martha’s mother Emmeline has a lot in common with Jean Guthrie on the face of it. We are told in a dry, dispassionate way of her circumstances on page 2:
With base effrontery she married the man she loved, and after twelve pinched and muddled years, with her trim beauty slack, two dead bairns and a living one mostly nerves and temper, she stood in her disordered kitchen and fretted that she could not offer her aunt a decent cup of tea.
Emmeline does not commit suicide, nor murder: she hashes her way along, picking up extra bairns to nurture at every turn. Martha goes to university, nurses mother and aunt repeatedly, becomes a teacher, falls hopelessly in love with her best friend’s husband, and in a moment of un-Shepherdlike passion exchanges one kiss with him. It’s a fine novel.
It is possible to make the action of Imagined Corners sound sensational, if you say it starts with a newly married couple arriving in Calderwick, and ends with the bride running off with another woman. But it is not sensational. The most that happens is that people rebel against the repressive society of Calderwick, and leave, and the main action is internal, a matter of self-discovery for the two main female characters.
Contrast Sunset Song, where Chris is fifteen during the horror of the difficult birth of the twins. There follow in quick succession the move to the Mearns; the ‘daftie’ going on a sexual rampage which involves Chris; Mother killing herself when she discovers she is pregnant yet again; Mother killing the year-old twins as well; the loss of brothers Dod and Alec, the departure of Will, leaving Chris alone with her father; father’s strokes, his attempted incest; his death; Chris’s decision to stay on the land; her marriage to Ewan, pregnancy and childbirth, and after all that she is still a teenager! We might call this ‘heightened realism’, perhaps?
The same kind of ‘heightened realism’ can be seen in the cast of characters. The Quarry Wood has a wide range of both sexes, and Martha as main female character is surrounded by strong portraits of women of different ages – the ever-memorable Great Aunt Josephine, Martha’s feckless mother Emmeline, her friend Dussie, the intimidating intellectual Lucy Warrender and more. Similarly, in Imagined Corners we meet a wide range of characters of both sexes, the women most notable including, as well as the two Elizabeths, Sarah Murray, Mabel Shand, Aunt Janet and the Watson sisters. But in Sunset Song female characters other than Chris are stripped away or kept in very minor positions. In the whole trilogy, Chris has only one equal female friend, Marget Strachan. We recall that vivid short scene when Marget shows Chris how her future lad will kiss her – ‘quick and shameful, fine for all that, tingling and strange and shameful by turns’ (SS 46). But she is almost immediately removed from the scene, never to return, not even as a guest at Chris’s wedding, and she fades from the reader’s memory.
Jean Guthrie of course is taken away from Chris as well, by her own act. And I’ve always found her suicide affecting and horribly understandable: the birth of the twins was described so graphically that her fear at another prospective delivery makes sense. (But I’ve never understood killing the twins – only one even named, and given a gender, though they have been part of the family for a whole year. Jean has apparently no compunction about killing them, although she has cared for them for a year; and Chris makes little of their deaths: both she and her father wonder later why Jean left them, but seem to have forgotten the babies, surely distinct personalities to the whole family by this time). The rest of the family is stripped away, leaving Chris and her father alone. Now Chris is the only sexual focal point on the landscape, in an otherwise all-male environment, with sexual tensions in all directions, from Chae, Long Rob, Ewan, and of course Father.
The local people who were affronted on the publication of Sunset Song perhaps had a point: it is drenched in sex, to a unique degree. I am unfashionable here: it is not my favourite volume of the trilogy, because the drenching with sex tends to overwhelm the other aspects of Gibbon’s vision, and it is after all rather superficial. I find the treatment of the troubled love between Chris and Robert Colquohoun, as we see it in Cloud Howe, and in retrospect in Grey Granite, has greater depth than the treatment of sexuality in Sunset Song. We remember the day when Andy the daftie goes on the sexual spree, and follows Mistress Ellison, Maggie Jean and Chris herself, who is able to take refuge in Pooty’s. But we are struck by John Guthrie’s reaction: ‘Father raged when he heard the story from Chris, queer raging it was, he took her out to the barn and heard the story and his eyes slipped up and down her dress as she spoke, she felt sickened and queer. He shamed you then? he whispered.’ (SS 52-3). This is like his fury when he finds Chris treading the blankets bare-legged, when it was ‘as though she saw a caged beast peep from her father’s eyes’ (SS 60). Or the fearful night during the harvest madness when she hears him lurking outside her bedroom door. We are well prepared for his attempted incest when it comes. There is the rest of the harvest madness sequence, which attacks father first: ‘every harvest there came something queer and terrible on father’ (SS 67). Then the casual working tink offers to relieve Chris of her virginity, and she does consider it, however briefly. Ewan Tavendale is seen with Sarah Sinclair; Cuddiestoun surprises the manse maid and the minister; people talk about Will and his Molly, and the minister reveals the depth of his hypocrisy in this regard.
Now I must tell you a wee story that dates back to the first time I offered a Scottish special subject to Honours students, and I encountered the Donald Paterson syndrome. Donald was a bright and lively student: I learned later that he and his mate Callum used to rehearse some of their best lines together before the seminar, to get maximum impact – and it worked! But it was unrehearsed, and in a spirit of pure pity that he said to me at the Sunset Song seminar –‘Isobel, you’re never going to understand the Gibbon thing until you realise that every male reader is in love with Chris.’ I saw what he meant, and was grateful for the tip. But since then I have seen it ever more clearly, and no longer feel simple gratitude. I now see that for all her unique intimacy with the reader, the self-reflexive you, Chris is regularly seized on by her (male) creator and displayed to the male gaze.
I’ve often asked female students since Donald Paterson’s year whether they have a recurrent need to retreat upstairs to a cold, wintry bedroom, there to undress and inspect themselves slowly in front of the mirror. I’ve never yet met one who owns up to this tendency, although women’s bedrooms are surely warmer now than in Chris’s young day. This adds a new meaning to the Mirror Phase. Chris does it five times in Sunset Song, six times in Cloud Howe and eight times in Grey Granite. Maybe using a word such as voyeurism is unkind and unnecessary, but there is an element of titillation here that seems unusual.
In Quarry Wood Martha Ironside is not a mirror sort of girl, and I think she is only recorded as looking in a glass twice. This extract shows us a great deal about her with Shepherd’s customary economy:
But what did they all see in her eyes, she queried, staring in the dull and spotty mirror. She could not even tell their colour exactly: they had something in them of Nature’s greens that have gone brown, of grass-fields before the freshening of spring. What did they all see in them? She looked in the mirror longer than she had ever looked before, searching for her own beauty. It was not to be found there. (QW 79)
The mirror is dull and spotty – and the colour of her eyes is suggested very specifically; and what other people see in her eyes is nothing she will ever find by looking in a mirror. Soon after she looks again, transformed by wearing the very special frock handed down through the family. This time she does almost glimpse an elusive, real Martha:
Wearing it, Martha had an uncanny sense of being someone other than herself; as though she had stepped carelessly to a mirror to dress her hair and had seen features not her own looking out from the glass. The mere wearing of the frock could not have changed her: but like the mirror it served to make her aware of alteration; and she seemed to herself farther from her folk and her home. Wearing the lustre frock, she had no Ironside instincts. She did not belong to the Leggatts. Across the mirror of lustre there flitted an unfamiliar Martha with alien desires. (QW 93)
In Imagined Corners Elizabeth Shand is not a mirror person either. She is gawky and awkward, a girl with a passionate soul and no interest in make-up, but here she is resolving to be a good wife to the appalling Hector, and take care of him as he requires:
She now presented the comforting appearance that Hector expected of her. She must have known this instinctively, for she first bathed and powdered her face, and then put on her prettiest frock. In Calderwick at that time it was considered slightly improper to powder one’s face by day, but Elizabeth excused her daring by reflecting that darkness had already set in, although it was not yet five o’clock. She inspected herself in the glass and added a string of coloured beads, signs of dawning femininity which might have pleased her sister-in-law. (IC 126)
Like Shepherd, Muir preserves a dry detachment, even amusement toward her characters, who are more complex, and more insecure than Gibbon’s Chris. Elise Mutze, the continental sophisticate who used to be Lizzie Shand, is no doubt much more used to utilising the mirror than Elizabeth Shand. But her author does not take us there routinely. On this occasion a Calderwick tea-party has irritated Elise beyond bearing, and she has escaped, only to glimpse something very interesting in her bedroom mirror:
In that moment of consciousness she caught sight of herself in the long mirror. One cannot look at oneself and remain angry; contrariwise, if one insists on remaining angry one cannot go on looking at oneself. Elise stared; the mirror was like a fog enclosing a ghostly image; gradually the image grew clearer, took shape, and Elise, breaking into a smile, said: ‘Hello, Lizzie Shand! Where have you been all these years?’ The impetuous, resentful small girl who had hovered in the church and stepped with Elise over the paving stones of Calderwick had come back. (IC 233)
In all these examples the authors are using the simple act of looking in the mirror to convey complex nuances of character and theme.
It feels mean, now that I’ve reached them, to point out my examples of Gibbon’s Chris, or a selection of them. Oh well. The first is a moving picture of a beautiful, sensual woman looking frankly out at the reader, who is encouraged to dwell on her attractions, and follow the path, even the touch, of the moonlight.
Closed the window, shutting out the smells of the night, and slowly took off her clothes, looking at herself in the long glass. ... She was growing up limber and sweet, not bonny, perhaps, her cheek-bones were over high and her nose over short for that, but her eyes clear and deep and brown, brown deep and clear as the Denburn flow, and her hair was red and was brown by turns, spun fine as a spider’s web, wild, wonderful hair. ... And below face and neck now her clothes were off was the glimmer of shoulders and breast and there her skin was like satin, it tickled her touching herself. Below the tilt of her left breast was a dimple, she saw it and bent to look at it and the moonlight ran down her back, so queer the moonlight she felt the running of that beam along her back. And she straightened as the moonlight grew and looked at the rest of herself, and thought herself sweet and cool and fit for that lover who would some day come and kiss her and hold her, so. (SS 70-1)
The same kind of description is found again, the emphasis this time less on wonderful hair and more on satin skin and long lines, with a touch of pity for those less well equipped. I have to quote again to underline the similarities, the effects:
And she saw the light white on the satin of her smooth skin then, and the long, smooth lines that lay from waist to thigh, thigh to knee, and was glad her legs were long from the knee to the ankle, that made legs seem stumbling and stumpy, shortness there. And ... she bent to see if that dimple still hid there under her left breast, it did, it was deep as ever. Then she straightened and took down her hair and brushed it, standing so, silly to stand without her nightgown, but that was the mood she was in. (SS 147)
Next is a snatch of the pregnant Chris, again admiring her reflection, and pitying by contrast women whom pregnancy does not become.
She was glad, peeking at herself in the long mirror when she was alone, seeing gradually that smooth rounding of belly and hips below her frock – lucky, she had never that ugliness that some poor folk have to bear, awful for them. (SS 183)
I think I have to call it voyeurism. Certainly the author seems as entranced with his own creation as Emma Tennant suggests Hardy is with his, in Tess.
There may even be a deliberate, self-conscious acknowledgement of Gibbon’s subtle voyeurism. Remember when his horrible namesake, the Rev Gibbon, came to try for the pulpit at Kinraddie? He preached a very ‘rare’ sermon on the Song of Solomon:
Christ’s description of the beauty and comeliness of the Auld Kirk of Scotland, and ...a picture of womanly beauty that moulded itself in the lithe and grace of the Kirk ... and in a minute or so all Kinraddie kirk was listening to him as though he were promising to pay their taxes at the end of Martinmas.
For it was fair tickling to hear about things like that read out from a pulpit, a woman’s breasts and thighs and all the rest of the things, in that voice like the mooing of a holy bull; and to know it was decent Scripture with a higher meaning as well. (SS 55)
Chris may not be the most convincing female character in Scottish fiction, but Gibbon seems aware that he has taken pains to make her the most attractive!
But remind us how completely he triumphed at the end of the day, let me quote again what Jessie Kesson wrote to Douglas Young some years ago:
To read it, I ‘snecked’ myself inside our dry lavatory next to the pig’s sty. And although I had ‘written’ bits and pieces ever since I could spell!!! – it was then I had my first conviction that I’d be a writer, in my reaction to Sunset Song – in the dry lavatory. ‘That’s MY book’, I protested to myself. ‘He’s written MY book!’ I so identified with Chris Guthrie.5
Copyright © Isobel Murray 2001
Last updated 18 August 2010.