We’re celebrating the life and work of Jessie Kesson on Twitter as part of #ScotLitFest this Saturday (22nd) in honour of Black & White Publishing repackaging and republishing three of Jessie’s books. Today, we’ve got a look at the wonderful introduction to Glitter of Mica, written by Jenni Fagan, which perfectly captures the wonder of Kesson and her work. Have a read:
It is a privilege to write an introduction to this new edition of Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson. I have a great respect for Kesson – artistically, politically and personally. We share considerable similarities and I wish she were still here. I feel like I know her so well, but that is, of course, the true test of a great writer – they become integral to our own narrative, their works become a part of who we are.
In Glitter of Mica, the mythopoeic parish of Caldwell is introduced unadorned by poetry, unvisited by tourists. It is practical, working farmland used for rearing cattle, producing milk and barley. It is described as the bleakest landscape in Scotland. On a distant hill you can see a horse carved out in Pictish times and a Free Kirk now used as a granary since the people of Caldwell are ‘less kirk conscious than their forebears’. This nod toward inherited social structures between rural workers and the bourgeoisie underpins a particular muse for Kesson. She dissects the social dynamics of Caldwell without ceremony. When Lady Grizelda Beaton opens a fete claiming ‘these are her ain folk’, we are embarrassed for her, so delusional is the vast gulf between her misguided sense of affinity and the truer reality – ‘Caldwell is first and foremost the land of the farm-worker.’
Kesson highlights how the social structures of class need to deny individualism to maintain control. The many levels of prejudice that exist in every area of life are shown up. Meanwhile, characters see through these confines and refuse to be defined by social expectation. In Glitter of Mica, the land belongs to those who belong to it, by birth, in their bones, their souls – a generational and unquestionable certainty that is never diminished by landowners’ titles, deeds or assumptions.
The relationship to landscape in Glitter of Mica is poetic yet clear-sighted. She gazes upon the horizon unflinchingly and draws the lines of her landscapes accordingly. You feel the soil, the weather, skies, turbulence or that fleeting shaft of sunlight. Kesson’s connection to landscape grounds her work both artistically and politically.
The use of verse and poetry in the book reflects Kesson’s experience hearing the oral tradition from her mother and local community. Even in the poorest areas where she grew up in Scotland, there was a daily connection to storytelling and the spoken word.
Kesson never takes the narratively weaker route of over-romanticising any one social group. Those who work the land are part of patriarchal, hierarchical structures that make individuals suspicious of nearly everyone they encounter. Nobody is spared her fearless gaze. In Glitter of Mica, we find farm-workers who vote for their farmer’s political party, with the ‘fierce privilege of sons passing judgement on this issue’, not only because of a traditional system passed down by their fathers as a way to keep aristocracy in check. More pertinently, she shows how the farmer was synonymous with the land he represented. A vote for the farmer was a vote for the land itself. It was a vote for the values of the land and the worth of it.
Kesson cleverly highlights so many things in the most understated ways. In Caldwell we see that hereditary aristocrats required two names such as Hay of Seaton or Gordon of Huntly, while a farmer needed only one: Auchronie; Clova; Drumdelgie; Darklands. The farmer was a representative of an unquestionable land that would be here long after they were gone. They did not have to marry into the position or create alliance with another landowner. They were of the land and would return to it without question.
Darklands farm is at the centre of Caldwell’s residents’ lives. The only other landmark (after the horse and kirk) is Ambroggan House, on Soutar Hill, an asylum for the ‘wealthy mentally ill of the land.’ A farm-worker called Plunger says that, ‘if you’re poor you are mad but if you are rich they have an easier name for you. A nervous breakdown.’ Plunger goes onto muse on the fact that the wealthy mentally ill are somehow softened by their wealth – they do not create the same fear or genuine distress among locals, as those who are mentally ill and poor. Even madness is shown to be cosseted by a sense of financial security and cultural entitlement that ordinary farm workers will never know.
For Caldwell’s farm workers, uncertainty is a permanent way of life. They are ‘fee’d’ for a year by the farmer and if he wants to keep them on, he lets them know and if he does not, he just stays silent. Whole generations of families are brought up transient at the mercy of such conditions.
The novel starts on a Friday night, when Hugh Riddel, head dairyman at Darklands is recalling events from the previous Friday. It is astonishing the way Kesson uses time in Glitter of Mica. We have an entire novel inhabit a week in real-time but it actually encompasses the entire lifetime of three generations. We go through Hugh’s early childhood and find how shocked his father would have been to see the cotters’ cottages with electricity, one day off a week, two days off a month and a pension are all huge social changes. Despite this we feel the hardship of modern cotters’ lives, something Kesson knew and experienced directly. It is her ability to create great art from experience while subjecting her work to a critical, perhaps even scathing, eye and maintaining the highest expectations for what her abilities should achieve that make her such an extraordinary writer.
Hugh lives with his wife Isa and his daughter Helen. He has a mistress called Sue and an avowed enemy in local politician Charlie Anson. His daughter doubly betrays him by having an affair with Anson that results in her pregnancy. After Hugh attacks Anson, Helen commits suicide.
When Hugh makes a speech on Burns Night, he not only ‘deprives them of the comfort of myth’, but he also throws ‘all the little statues of Highland Mary off their mantlepiece and left them lying in broken pieces’. This is part of what Kesson does as a novelist. She does not take part in any twee or genteel idea of Scottishness. She refuses to romanticise the working classes. No character is afforded a life without flaws or plurality. Kesson is modernist in this sense and stylistically, her use of third-person with free-indirect discourse, coupled with changing viewpoint through varying social groups, is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf yet she executes this completely in her own particular style.
Kesson always denied any interest in feminism partly because she wanted to be judged as a ‘writer’ outwith the confines of gender. She writes the inner lives of women in a way that shows up pettiness but also exposes their steel and nerve and ability to cut straight through social niceties. When the dairy workers are discussing the assault Hugh carried out last Friday, it is a woman called Lil who states that the only good thing to come out of it was that the politician Charlie Anson took a good, long-overdue beating and was left without any teeth at all. On the subject of the languishing Helen, who has attempted suicide, Lil says ‘she’ll survive, yon wish washy molloching kind of creature always does.’
To continue in the observation of gender it is Hugh who observes that men never mention the word ‘love’. He says while he will talk to men of anything else he cannot tell them about his true heart or the disappointment and loneliness of his marriage. He cannot ask other men if it is the same for them.
It is also the idea of Robert Burns’s longing for a woman who has a ‘foot on the front step of the castle, and the other trailing behind on the dunghill, and never both together, was just about the loneliest thing that could ever befall a man, and the woman wasn’t born who could bridge this gap with Burns.’ Kesson’s insights into relationships and social roles are blistering. She casually shows up that there is no woman yet born who is allowed to have come from the dung heap but who has one foot in the castle and is neither one or the other but both things socially. She casually shows up Burns a man who ached for something that did not yet exist.
When Hugh is asked to voice his opinions publicly on Burns, one character comments that, ‘It just went to show. You never could trust the uneducated.’ To her, class structures are fixed, biased and uncompromising.
Hugh’s observations about sex are brilliantly written. Men size up women like they were livestock. They don’t want to sleep with prostitutes because they’re too tight to part with more than a gift of hens’ eggs and, besides, what man wants something given so freely? He remembers how his mother could always cut his father down. As a boy, he listened with glee to all the sexual songs farmers sang after a drink. He recalls all the talk about women, or cows being mounted or a stallion keeper who was eyed suspiciously by even the most unbeddable woman (to his mind). This is countered by the very real disappointment he feels in a sexless marriage, where affection is so limited that he endures a deep and profound dislocation. This takes him to the point where even seeing his wife’s wrinkled stockings makes him feel like murdering her. The anger and permeating reach of his loneliness is breathtakingly astute.
Kesson is aware of every single word. She is meticulous and unforgiving settling for no less than a world which breathes off the page. Kesson depicts the inner lives of individuals and communities against the very real struggles of systemic structures. Her work is as relevant today as it was when Glitter of Mica was first published in 1963. The works of Jessie Kesson vastly enrich the European literary canon; she must not be forgotten or ignored.
Join us on Saturday on Twitter to chat about this and more wonderful books from Jessie Kesson.