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Imagined Corners (Canongate Classics) by…

Imagined Corners (Canongate Classics)

by Willa Muir

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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. ( )
  jackdeighton | Aug 18, 2017 |
I found this book in a second hand bookshop at Mallaig, and bought it because of an intriguing set of mostly irrelevant coincidences - the title is the same Donne quote as my username, the surname of the heroines is the same as Brian's surname, etc.

If one believes in the great divide between Literature and Genre, this is definitely more Literature, in that while things do happen, it's mostly an observation of people being people, in a Northern Scottish small town.

The central hub of the web of relationships are Hector Shand and his new wife Elizabeth. They met at university, and have just married and returned to the town where they grew up. One central theme of the book is the demise of their marriage. It is in many ways not a wise match - Hector is charming and impulsive and a womaniser, Elizabeth naïve and intense - but it is really destroyed by the town they have returned to and the judgements the town passes on them. It is a very carefully drawn portrait of the tiny slippings downwards . Elizabeth is clever, and seeks witty and clever company, but Hector feels judged and inferior to the friends Elizabeth choses, and also superior, as they laugh and talk freely without decorum or propriety. His office job is dull, he starts to stay out drinking, he flirts with other women. Elizabeth is madly in love with him, but is rendered strangely powerless by it, at so many points she chooses not to fight or nag, but try to support him in what he wants. How she wishes and strives to be a good wife. Ah, Hector's an idiot who doesn't realise what he has! A clever loving wife, a steady job... but none of it fits him. 'Hard work, hard physical labour, and then a spree; that was a life he could enjoy. In Calderwick there was room for neither one thing nor the other.' And he doesn't understand things, he flails around in his emotions, his plans get more ridiculous, until at the end of the book he leaves for Singapore, and despite all Elizabeth has tried to do in supporting him running away, he twists the knife of his idiocy one last time by picking up a woman he'd had a fling with before his marriage, and taking her with him. Not in some carefully thought out grand passion of 'I've always wanted to be with you, and couldn't be because our families disapproved', but in an opportunist 'she's pretty, she's going to Singapore on a boat, I want to leave, this will be neat and fun' way. Oh Hector!

The book makes the interesting decision to have two characters called Elizabeth Shand. Although this means some authorial care is needed (they end up mainly as Elizabeth and Elise) it works well for drawing parallels and contrasts. The older Elizabeth Shand is Hector's older half-sister, who ran off with a man when she was younger and has been away from Calderwick in disgrace, but returns when her husband (not the man she ran off with) dies, not to stay, but to catch up with people, and mostly to see the brother who she loves again. She is from outside the Calderwick bubble, and has learnt much of herself and the world. A lot of the book is exploring the tension between the views of life the two Elizabeths have - the younger having a passionate sense of the oneness of everything, the interconnectedness of all people, God and love and Nature, and the older cynical and analytical. They feel in some ways like the author working out different aspects of her own personality. But there are strong parallels between Hector and the older Elizabeth Shand too - Elizabeth the younger is drawn to her older namesake in many ways because of these - and when the two Elizabeths leave Calderwick together at the end of the book, it can be viewed as Elizabeth the younger having set Hector free to find himself, while at the same time being given the chance to live with an older wiser version of Hector, who has finally learnt that she has always been running away from things and found peace at last, and is now able to be a fit companion for Elizabeth.

There are other characters and their own stories. The minister (who has a very natural and reciprocated fondess for the younger Elizabeth Shand) lives with his sister and brother, but his brother is suffering from mental illness, as later transpires because of bullying at university, in which Hector was a major ring leader. I kept expecting this to be a story of how tender loving care, the interconnectedness of God, and Elizabeth Shand being awesome would save them, but Willa Muir prefers to just observe the way things are, not lean too hard to tell a story of the way things ought to be, and Ned ends up lost in the asylum, and the minister drowns in an accident in a blizzard. The elder half-brother of Hector is generally Lovely, he's worked hard at his business, secretly supported his runaway sister, and just tried hard to do what is required of him, but his wife, Mabel, is an airhead who cares for clothes and married John because Hector wouldn't have her.

It has a lovely sense of place, reminding me so much of Nairn and Tain and Dornich, the sea and the links and the grey... And something that I don't have a name for, but that seems to be avoided in modern books - a discussion of God and the sudden fear of mortality, and the deep feelings of the purpose of life.

It is not a book for simple happy endings or trite stories of self discovery. People Feel a lot of Stuff, and it's Complicated: 'When she rediscovered [her childhood self] she had thought it a final revelation, but then she had found her central dispassionate impregnable self. But flouting the impartial self she had declared that in the end one acted on caprice... and presto, within half an hour she had burst into surprising eloquence about stones that had to be cleared away from the toes of future generations.' ( )
  atreic | May 24, 2016 |
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