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Monday, 27 May 2013

Woman of Glenshiels - Lennox Kerr, 1935

This novel is about the tribulations and aspirations of a working class woman, Mary Bassett, within a system that constantly denies aspiration. The story follows her from adolescence to maturity, ending with the depression years of 1933-4, contemporary with the writing of the novel. The Scots town is no doubt similar to the Paisley were the writer was brought up and lived at the time of writing. It is not a 'socialist' book, but a story of working class struggle that includes scenes which comment on socialism. The heroine, Mary is not  ideological but pragmatic. She has her own views, which she will argue dogmatically: these are not given as the author's views, and although we readers may understand how she has reached them, we also may not agree with them. They show rather a working class woman trying to work things out. Although this struggle is general, the background is Scottish in two main ways, the place of religion in the social fabric, and the use of the Glasgow dialect throughout the dialogue. The readerly ear tunes into this, and it is not a drawback.
Young Mary walks out with Donald, a socialist whose dreams is to line up the bosses and shoot them. His mother was a socialist, his father a pacifist. He believed that the 1914-18 war was no concern of the working man. He didn't believe that private property was morally owned. Mary constantly nibbled away at his socialism and he constantly compromised, without changing deep down. He refused to sign up as soldier and was given a white feather. The story shows the pressure that Mary came under through her peer group, "the Table" [i.e. the women working at the same table].and hence the pressure she brought to bear on Donald. Such women's groups are called "the real parliament" where decisions are made whilst men focus on football, drink and work. Donald signed up and was killed within five days of arriving at the front. Ironically, as he became one of the boys, Mary didn't like what he had become. We see her  gradually justifying her opinions to herself, and telling herself that their relationship would not have worked. The issue did not fully resolve itself to the end of the book.
Mary worked in a cooked meat factory making veal, much as the author had done in his youth. She had a work ethic and a respect for her employer, whom she saw as a fellow worker (his lack of employer's drive led to bankruptcy, as Donald said it would). She was no shirker. Gradually she built up for herself a well-furnished sitting room in her father's house out of her earnings, ensuring its tidiness with dragon-like control even of her father. When she married Dan, this furniture was taken lock stock and barrel to her own house. She remembered times her parents had no furniture, having to tiptoe so neighbours did not realise they had no carpets, and was determined to ensure she could keep up appearances.
By the time she married Dan she was emotionally hard and brittle. They had a girl and a boy. Dan was Labour, not, he said, a communist. She was impressed by his emphasis on the need for collective bargaining and declared a support for Labour politics. However, she believed that the unemployed were at fault for not seeking work, much because Dan had a relatively safe and protected job. However, when his shipyard closed down and he could not find a replacement job, she attempted a doorstep sales business. When he couldn't sell her stock, she took to the road herself and realised both the impossibility of her self-help plan, and that closures were not the worker's fault. She returned to her meat factory, which was already failing as the veal remained unsold. She noticed that processes were inefficient and forced the younger workers to work more efficiently, which resulted in finishing early rather than as before spreading the same work over the day. The factory folded. The owner was too soft hearted and should have raised efficiency and cut staff.
The book reaches a crisis when her daughter failed to thrive and the doctor blamed under-nutrition because she was feeding her inappropriate foods. In this extract, the young doctor had given a passionate speech about social inequity and malnutrition:
Her cold determination shocked the man from his passion. He watched her curiously and saw the firm mouth, the burning eyes and that wide impressive forehead. From her he felt force and strength like an armour, a weapon thrusting. 'You've taught me a lesson, Doctor,' she said vibrantly. 'I was content to be like the others. I took what I got and made the best of it. I forgot for a while....But you've woke me up again. I drapped the fight but I can start again. Ther's money tae be had and I'll get it....If I have to work my flesh away....My bairns'll get what they need.'  He was slightly shocked. He wished he had not let himself go. In this woman was a quality that made him apprehensive. She would stop at nothing, he thought; she is fierce as an animal. God help those who stand in her way. [p.261]
 To provide the children with a more varied diet, Mary took a domestic job whilst Dan was 'on the Parish': this led to a court-case for fraud as this income was not declared. An official had spoken to the small son at the door and been told that his mother was at work. The court-case underlined how the system made it impossible to people to help themselves, and how current policies were leading to major child malnutrition in working class families. If you can't look after your family, Dan was told, they will be taken into care. They were fined £10; to pay Mary had to sell her furniture: she knew she was being swindled, but had no choice. Full circle. There the book ends.

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