No Wealth To Leave Us: Towards a matrilineal heritage in Scottish literature

This is a copy of the talk I gave at Edinburgh Central Library on June 9th, 2014, as part of the 'Harpies, Fechters and Quines' festival organised by Glasgow Women's Library.

The full quote for the title of my talk comes from A Room of One’s Own where an exasperated Virginia Woolf asks, ‘What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?’ Where is our heritage, she wants to know. Where is the canon of writing by women?

This talk looks at the past, the present and the future of Scottish women’s writing, to ask what’s happened to our heritage? What have our ‘mothers’ been doing?

In the Introduction to A History of Scottish Women’s Literature, edited by Dorothy Macmillan and Douglas Gifford, published in 1997, the editors write: “The relative absence from the official histories of Scottish writing is one thing. Perhaps more alarming and more in need of protest is the regular exclusion of Scottish women from general histories and anthologies of women’s writing...Women writers may often not have looked to ‘mothers or sisters’ but rather to ‘fathers’ and brothers’ as their literary forebears and present supporters...We can claim with some confidence that what has in the past been perceived as the ‘Scottish Tradition in Literature’ has been both male generated and male fixated, particularly on Burns, Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid...’
Is this tradition, this ‘Scottish Tradition in Literature’, still the same now as it was?

In an interview in The List magazine two years ago, Irvine Welsh was photographed with two younger male authors, Ewan Morrison and Alan Bissett, whom he considered were carrying on the mantle of his work. It was a generous and supportive gesture of a globally successful Scottish writer towards two much lesser-known writers, of course. But what it also was, was a father-son image, one that surely recalls the litany that Gifford and Macmillan mention: Burns, Scott, Stevenson, MacDiarmid....
Is this tradition, ‘this Scottish Tradition in Literature, still the same now as it was?

At an Event at Wigtown Book Festival in October 2103, I took part in a panel about the future of Scottish literature: the panel chair, Stuart Kelly, cited the example of a female student who wanted one day to be like Louise Welsh. Why Welsh he asked, and not Franz Kafka or James Joyce? He saw her choice as a paucity of ambition . (I saw it instead as the effect of women writers on a new generation of women writers.)
Is this tradition, this ‘Scottish Tradition of Literature’, still the same now as it was?

It looks on the one hand as though, yes, it very much is. Yet the volume, range and quality of writing produced by Scottish women today suggests a massive change has taken place, a much bigger break with the past than ever before. This question inspired me to write a feature about it for the Herald; it was a feature that got a huge number of online hits, and some of its content is reproduced here.

At the time of my article, Kerry Hudson, the Aberdeen-born author of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, had just won the Scottish Mortgage and Investment Trust First Book award. Perhaps not so remarkable in itself until you realise she’s the fifth woman to win this prize in the last six years, joining a mix of fiction and non-fiction writers like Sue Peebles, Sarah Gabriel, Andrea McNicoll and Jane McKie. Fellow nominee Jenni Fagan was hailed as one of Granta’s Best Young British Writers last year (and earned a selection for Oprah’s Book club and a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani). Denise Mina topped it off by winning the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award for the second year in a row.

It all made me ask: why do so many Scottish women writers seem to be dominating the awards scenes and review pages right now? Is this the beginning of a new ‘matrilineal’ heritage, poised to take over fiction, poetry and non-fiction where a ‘patrilineal’ tradition has left off? Should we even be looking for one? Does it matter?

I began to count up the ‘new’ Scottish woman writers I knew of (‘Scottish’ being those who have made Scotland their home as well as those who were born here). They emerge in all genres, of all types, and most have had a place in awards shortlists. I’m thinking of writers as various as Linda Cracknell, Lisa O’Donnell, Helen Fitzgerald, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrea Gillies, Elizabeth Reeder, Kirsty Logan, winner of last year’s of inaugural Gavin Wallace Fellowship and Eleanor Thom, winner of a Saltire First Book award. But established writers have entered new territory, like Alice Thompson, Karen Campbell, Louise Welsh and Sara Sheridan, or are consolidating their successes, like Kathleen Jamie, Ali Smith, Anne Donovan and Jackie Kay. The great names many of us grew up with, like Liz Lochhead, Janice Galloway and A L Kennedy, who we consider members of the Scottish literary canon now, can surely feel satisfied at the talent coming up behind them.

But would they be tempted to do what Irvine Welsh did? Would women writers even think of doing such a thing, and if not, why not? Welsh’s gesture of ‘anointment’ was a father-son gesture which embraced and emphasised the long-standing patrilineal nature of the Scottish literary tradition that Macmillan and Gifford talk about at the beginning of their book. The Scottish Literature departments at universities are still dominated by studies of Fergusson, Burns, Hogg, Scott and Stevenson. And so it’s a tradition that asks, regarding novels anyway, who will be the successor to Alasdair Gray and write the next Lanark, who will write the next great bench-mark in Scottish fiction? The assumption behind the question is usually that it will be a man, of course.

THE PAST: Mothers and daughters and a lack of solidarity?

But to answer that question more fully, you have to look at the past as well as the present. If you look at women novelists from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries for instance, you find women writers focusing almost exclusively on female protagonists. From Elizabeth Hamilton to Jane Porter, as the essays in Gifford and Macmillan show, to Mary Brunton who liked to focus on heroines who had to resist threats to their virtue (much in the vein of Richardson’s Clarissa), but who also liked to emphasise women’s need for a proper education (after Mary Wollstonecraft), to Susan Ferrier’s social satires, women wrote for a number of reasons: to get across a moral message, to entertain and where they actually published, to make money. Henrietta Keddie was one who made her living by her writing under the pseudonym Sarah Tytler, and who began by publishing short stories in Fraser’s Magazine. Her 1884 novel, St Mungo’s City, looks at the lives of three impoverished Glaswegian great-grand-daughters of a tobacco lord, important for the vision she presents of Victorian Glasgow.

By the time we reach Margaret Oliphant, who wrote roughly two books a year over a period of fifty years, usually for money to support her family as a single mother, we see a mix of heroines and heroes. As one essay on her shows, though, within ten years of her death in 1897 at the age of almost seventy, she had been “all but wiped off the record...her name survived for the wrong reasons and in the footnotes to literature.” Virginia Woolf said of her prolificness that she “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children.” Yet in an age of female novelists, Oliphant cited the influence of Susan Ferrier and Jane Austen on her work, said she was inspired by the example of George Eliot of whom she felt “a little envious...How I have been handicapped in life! Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of...?” 
When we arrive at Violet Jacob, we see a woman writer participating fully in the Scottish literary ‘scene’, and whose work was full of ‘subversive’ women. Rebels and outsiders dominate, like the gypsy girl of ‘Annie Cargill’, and it’s been suggested she influenced the likes of Willa Muir and Marion Angus.

But for too long, we have been too used to hearing about Catherine Carswell’s love of D H Lawrence, about Willa Muir’s support of her husband, Edwin’s career, at the expense of her own. What we need is to hear much more about are the links between the women writers themselves, find a sense that they influenced or inspired one another.
Where to find that, in any large cohesive body?

The scholar Marjery Palmer McCulloch writes in one essay of the new turn-of-the twentieth-century women writers like Nan Shepherd, that “a consistent element has been the friction or lack of solidarity between mothers and daughters. Older women in these narratives are marginalised in a public sense, despite the domestic power they wield...So far as their daughters are concerned, there are no progressive role models, no recognised route to independent adult status as there is for their brothers, who move into the male world of work and power in the footsteps of their fathers. The overwhelming evidence from these novels of the 1920s and that as society organised on patriarchal principles has no means whereby young women can enter into adult hood alongside their brothers as human beings..."

McCulloch notes the lack of support these women have for their daughters, and this is not just a Scottish theme but a theme that dominated literature by women between the world wars from Scotland, England, Ireland and the US. More and more novelists were showing daughters rebelling against their mothers in their fiction. From May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier and The Life and Death of Harriet Freane to Radclyffe Hall’s The Unlit Lamp, to Antonia White’s Frost in May, to Molly Keane’s The Rising Tide and Full House, to Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager and Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid can be added work by Nan Shepherd, by Muir and Carswell. All of them, some popular, some considered ‘high art’, some banned, some hidden away, are nevertheless exposing the same theme: the unspoken battle between dominating, controlling and even malicious mothers who wanted their daughters to stay at home, and the daughters who wanted to break out and live for and by themselves in the world. These novels show what it means to be a daughter, socially and privately; they expose the status of the daughter at this time, the lack of power she has.

It’s a disturbing but perhaps not surprising thing to realise that such a dominant theme in writing by women can be virtually ignored by authorised histories of writing from the period between the wars. This theme, if it’s recognised at all, is regarded as a woman’s problem, as a domestic one, and therefore unimportant compared to the aftermath of the First World War, the glitter of the Jazz Age or the problems of the Depression. Its dominance would have ensured its place in the history books had male writers taken up the subject. Instead, it was a legion of ‘minor’ or ‘popular’ writers who made this subject their own and it lasted a long time - perhaps we don’t see the writer daughter escape her mother’s house fully until the 1950s and 60s, when Muriel Spark came to represent the epitome of the single working woman, writing and being published and holding her own. And of course, in her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in Sandy’s ‘betrayal’ of Jean, we see what is effectively the killing of the mother by the daughter, the moment the battle reaches its pitch. After all, when Virginia Woolf wrote of killing the ‘Angel in the House’, we can be sure that Angel was a mother, and the one who killed her was her daughter.  


By the time we reach the 1980s, of course, things have changed considerably in terms of women’s freedom, but not necessarily in terms of their literary worth. One book dominated the Scottish literary scene in that decade and you might say it’s been dominating it ever since. In 1981, the year of the publication of Lanark, Alasdair Gray himself was ‘anointed’ one might say, by Anthony Burgess, who called him ‘the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott.’ Scott -of course. Lanark was described as ‘changing the landscape of Scottish fiction’, it was ‘one of the landmarks of 20th Century fiction’. Its experimentation and its surrealism had critics likening Gray to James Joyce and Saul Bellow.

Lanark won the Saltire Book of the Year twelve months later. And yet only a further year on, in 1983, Jessie Kesson, who had been writing and publishing since her debut, The White Bird Passes, in 1958, published her novel, Another Time, Another Place. It’s described by Gifford in the history as “a turning-point in Scottish women’s writing, both thematically and formally”. It’s an ‘impressionistic mosaic’, suggesting a ‘new kind of stream of women’s consciousness-in-community’. Most crucially for the mother-daughter battles of the 20s and 30s through to the 60s, it also implies a reconciliation between women of the past and the present.

I would suggest that had those mother-daughter battles been taken seriously by the literary canon as they should have been, Kesson’s novel would surely have been the ‘breakthrough’ of the decade, because she was the one who reconciled one generation of women to another, and more than that, she did it through literary experimentation and daring. A crucial text in the landscape of 20th Century Scottish Literature, it is indeed a ‘benchmark’, a ‘turning point’ as Giifford says. Yet where are the big names exalting Kesson’s achievement? Where are the likenesses to great Scottish women novelists of days past?

There aren’t any, because there weren’t any great Scottish women novelists of the past, we are told. There are no great female traditions to call on. And yet, if we focus on the mother-daughter trials of the 20s and 30s, we see that there was at least one major tradition, a truly universal one, an international one. The likes of Susan Ferrier, Sarah Tytler and Margaret Oliphant, represent individual success stories, which can be more easily dismissed. They are often regarded as lesser when compared to their English counterparts, for example (Gifford and Macmillan write that “Even where women writers have been admitted to the canon of the academies, in the work of Susan Ferrier or Margaret Oliphant or Marion Angus, these writers have always been seen as ‘minor’, seen not merely as unequal to their male Scottish counterparts but as the junior literary sisters of English women writers such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes.”)

It should be a great deal harder to dismiss women writers as ‘minor’ if we have a tradition we can identify and to which we can attach them. A particularly female tradition, one that is biologically linking women as mothers and daughters do, as well as socially and culturally. And so it should be possible to turn this into a kind of matrilineal tradition. Kesson’s 1983 novel ended the mother-daughter battle tradition and began something new. But what was that? It could be argued that for the next generation of women, exemplified by the likes of Liz Lochhead and Janice Galloway, for example, with the latter crediting Philip Hobsbaum’s creative writing courses, and her fellow writers Gray and Kelman for influencing her work, instead of looking to past women writers, that Kesson’s achievement was simply to push woman back into the darkness, back into where they had little impact.

I don’t think that’s true. I would argue that many of us writing today, if prompted, could cite a ‘matrinileal’ heritage quite easily. A few days ago I asked on facebook a number of Scottish women writers who their Scottish female ‘literary’ influences were. Alison Miller cited Galloway, Lochhead, Willa Muir and nan Shepherd. Linda Cracknell also cited Galloway. Katy McNair cited A L Kennedy, Julie Bartagna Muriel Spark and Naomi Mitchison. Caro Ramsay cited Val McDermid, Janet Paisley cited Kathleen Jamie and Violet Jacob. Laura Marney cited Spark, Kathleen Jamie and Agnes Owens. Debut novelist Zoe Venditozzi cited Galloway, Ruth Thomas and Agnes Owens. Shirley Whiteside cited Dorothy Dunnett. Leela Soma cited Muriel Spark. Catherine Czerkawska cited Jane Harris and Margaret Oliphant. Sue Reid Sexton also cited Muriel Spark. Sally Evans cited Jane Duncan and Annie Swan. Recently, too, authors Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan have both been writing and performing about Muriel Spark together.

Just consider for a minute this list. Thirteen  writers – a tiny sample – cite a huge range. Yes, some of the names are the same – Galloway, Spark and Agnes Owns proving particularly popular. But there’s a mix of both new writers and those from the past, and from crime, to historical, to contemporary, to satire to short story specialists to poets. Just think also for a moment of your own favourite Scottish women writers. Perhaps you might cite the number of what is called ‘Anglo-Scots’, like Alison Fell, Shena Mackay, Candia McWilliam, Sara Maitland, or my own personal favourite Emma Tennant.

My own literary ‘foremothers’ would certainly be Janice Galloway for her historical novel, Clara, and Tennant. I want to take a moment say a little bit about them both, and their ‘influence’ on me. In 1998, I started researching and writing a historical novel about Claire Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Shelley. I was being ambitious for a first attempt – I really didn’t know what I was doing, or how to handle to huge amount of diaries and letters she left behind, all evidence of her own writing. Then, in 2002, Emma Tennant published her brilliant novel, Felony, about an elderly Claire Clairmont and her young niece Georgina, who narrates most of the story. It did things I wasn’t used to in historical fiction, despite being familiar with the more postmodern attitudes taken up towards it by the likes of John Fowles and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It chopped up narratives, veered between viewpoints and time frames, included wills and diary entries and all sorts of non-fiction texts. It was also – interestingly – very short, at only 189 pages. Historical fiction, then and now, likes a door-stopper.

To me it felt groundbreaking, and it still does. Tennant had been breaking all sorts of rules for years, of course. In 1978 she published The Bad Sister, a feminist take on Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; eleven years later, in Two Women of London, she ‘rewrote’ or as I prefer to think of it, ‘answered’ Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde with Two Women of London.  What Tennant did was to taken on the canon, directly challenge not just the ‘masters’ of Scottish literature, but also the way they were written, and what was considered, by the canon, to be the ‘right’ way of writing.

All of this had a huge impact on me, as I began to see what could be done, what liberties could be taken. It didn’t mean I then wrote my novel ‘like’ Tennant’s – on the contrary, I gave it up, and wrote something else instead. But her ‘influence’ (or is it ‘inspiration’, as Janet paisley suggested to me she preferred? I think ‘influence’ is stronger, more suggestion of power and power is what we’re talking about here – the power to direct and choose a canon, the power to ‘anoint’ a subsequent generation) stayed with me, in the sense that it pushed me to be bolder than I might have done, take more risks than I wanted to.

Similarly, Galloway’s historical novel about the German composer Clara Schumann, also came out in 2002. It is also bold and experimental, full of switches in tense (Mantel was not the first to write a historical novel in the present tense after all!) and perspective, daring you to turn away from this musical extravaganza where form and content were beautifully matched. Again, I saw what a historical novel could do, and more than that, how it could be done differently (read out page 11). There was no precedent for this kind of writing. I was being taught by two Scottish women writers. No Kelman or Gray for me.

In her book, Women Writers and the Edinburgh Enlightenment, Pam Perkins writes that in the eighteenth-century, “Scottishness came to be a type of shorthand signifying conventionally domestic femininity.” Henry Mackenzie, the author of the hugely popular 1769 novel, The Man of Feeling, which was partly responsible for that ‘conventional domestic femininity’ wrote that “Scots in general, not just women, seemed ‘remarkably deficient’ in a ‘Genius’ for fiction.” Soon, Scott’s success would challenge that view, but before that there was of course Jane Porter, whose 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw is considered one of the earliest examples of the historical fiction genre, earlier than Scott. Her 1810 novel, The Scottish Chiefs, is still popular. But there are no monuments built to her in the centre of Edinburgh, just as there were no accolades of Tennant’s Felony. And no shortlisting of Galloway’s Clara for the 2002 Booker prize, an oversight I still can’t quite believe.


So what does this mean for the future of Scottish women’s writing? If we ‘daughters’ are more reconciled to our ‘mothers’, thanks to Jessie Kesson’s ground-breaking work changing how we saw our heritage, what do we ‘daughters’ of the twenty-first century have to look forward to? How do we take our places in a future canon, if it’s like that past one which has so long and so often been closed to us? We don’t need to ‘kill’ our mothers who are no longer against us. We don’t need to kill our male counterparts, who, as Kennedy and Galloway and Lochhead show, have helped us. Is it simply a case of writing the best books we can and hoping they will be recognised? What is the reality for women writing today?

One of those realities, especially when it comes to taking up a place in the canon, is prizes. It’s a feature of today’s writing and publishing world: all publishers will tell you that prizes make a difference (just think what might have happened had Kesson won the Booker in 1983 instead of J M Coetzee. And interesting to note that Lanark didn’t get anywhere near it either). And that is why, every October, the Scottish literary establishment will ask fretfully: who will be the successor to James Kelman? Who will be the next Scot to win the Booker prize for fiction? The assumption is that it will be a man, of course, because when the question is asked, it’s usually male names that crop up in reply.

The Booker is a hugely important prize – it’s international, it’s now opened up to Americans, and it confers real weight, not to mention real sales and real money, on a writer. The last couple of years have seen women writers of historical fiction win it – Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton – suggesting a possible trend. Both women’s books, however, have male characters as their leads. When was the last time a woman won the Booker with a leading woman character?

I would argue that novels about women are still seen as less important, women’s experiences as less crucial, less universal, less broad in scope. Scottish women writers have a double ‘anxiety’ then, you might say, about their viability as prize-winners, especially if they write about women and if they write about Scotland (heaven help them if they do both together). Kelman could put a Scotsman at the centre of his book and be described as ‘authentic’. Galloway, a Scotswoman, put a historical real-life female German composer at the centre of hers, and was ignored. If it’s sexist that women’s experiences aren’t regarded as important as men’s, then it is also sexist to insist that women don’t write ground-breaking novels. And that they don’t, or can’t, ‘anoint’ the next generation.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this year sees the 25th-anniversary of what Gifford and Macmillan call Scottish women writing’s ‘annus mirabilis’, 1989, which was also the year that Galloway published The Trick is To Keep Breathing. Twenty-five years on, we have a real, huge, wide-ranging, first-class, prize-winning and international-looking body of Scottish women writers to gaze upon, to be cited as future influences or inspirations, to be emulated and passed on in their turn to the next generation. Will they be ignored as the daughters of the 1920s and 30s were?

I don’t think so. I think we will recognise the heritage on offer here. Because doing so recognises women writers’ rightful place at the centre of a culture, and not on its margins. When the next generation of Scottish women writers can cite Lisa O’Donnell or Kirsten McKenzie or Jenni Fagan as the ones who inspired them; when the next generation can look at a magazine cover and see mothers and daughters, not fathers and sons; when a female student can cite a Scottish woman writer as one to emulate, and not be accused of lack of ambition. That’s when we’ll know we’re at that centre; that we own it; that it’s ours as much as anyone else’s.


  1. Really enjoyed the talk - so many names I'd never even heard of and so much I had to rush home and tell my 16 yr old daughter, who I'm glad to say shares the feminist views that my friends and I grew up with in the 70s. (I'm so fed up with the No campaign saying 16 yr olds shouldn't have the vote - they know more about politics (and feminism) than I do, and it's their future far more than mine.)

    Thanks for an inspiring evening.

  2. That's lovely to hear, and thank you so much for coming along, Rosemary. The audience was great, I felt very at home!

  3. very interesting. lots to think about. I feel that prizes are connected to perceived status. looking at why Kelman had such a rough ride in Scotland when he won the Booker, wasnt it because he was perceived to have lower status because it was "working class" writing? I've noticed that, in poetry, women are not perceived as having the same status as men, even when they write just as well.

  4. What a fantastic article! I read this through a Facebook share from Gillian Beattie-Smith after Linda Cracknell had mentioned it to me. Can I suggest this would be of huge interest to Scottish PEN? They're about to relaunch their blogspot and this would be a fabulous addition.

  5. Thank you Drew! I didn't know PEN were relaunching, I'll suggest it to them, thanks!


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