The Unknown and the Unknowns: Naturalism in Scottish Domestic Fiction

Nineteenth-century Scottish literature is full of the unknown: some of its best known figures — James Hogg, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, and J. M. Barrie — explore aspects of the magical, supernatural, irrational, or simply mysterious in their fiction. Drawing on Scotland’s heroic past and native traditions, these writers helped to embalm Scotland in faerie dust, much to the disgust of later nationalists like Tom Nairn. They effaced the material realities of life in nineteenth-century Scotland and filled the void, Ossian-like, with tales of days gone by. In nineteenth-century Scotland, romance — the mode proper to explorations of the unknown — was primarily the province of male writers, who incorporated it into the historical novel, the adventure story, and the fairy tale.

What was left, then, for the comparatively few nineteenth– and early twentieth-century Scotswomen who took to writing novels? To begin to answer this question, I’m going to turn today to two such women whose current obscurity may be due in part to their rejection of this romance tradition in favor of the banalities of everyday life. Between them, Jane and Mary Findlater wrote fourteen novels, three of which they co-authored, and several of which examine the circumscribed lives of women in rural Scotland at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Their novels interest me because of what I’m calling their domestic naturalism — an unrelenting, entirely matter-of-fact focus on the events of everyday life that reveals the intellectual and material deprivation experienced by a certain class of Scotswomen. The Findlater sisters themselves were born into this class of the shabby genteel — too refined to work outside the home, and too poor to live a life of leisure. The predicament of such women is summed up by the eponymous protagonist of their 1911 novel Penny Monypenny. At school, Pen, as she is nicknamed, learns ‘the pleasure of working in earnest, and wanted very much to have a life worth living filled with useful energy. But at Yarnoch what was she to do?’1

This is a question that the Findlater sisters undoubtedly asked themselves. Daughters of a Presbyterian minister in the Highland parish of Lochearnhead, they managed to write their way out of poverty and out of the Highlands after their father’s death, moving first to Edinburgh and later south to Sussex and Cornwall. Penny Monypenny‘s narrator has no satisfactory answer to Pen’s question, acknowledging that: ‘To bring a girl up with just enough of education to make her an intelligent companion, yet with no single subject to occupy her mind, is virtually to admit that marriage is to be her occupation. (An ample one it is if children are included.) But then to train her to look upon marriage with distrust unless it is united with romantic passion, is probably to deprive her of the only thing that will make her life satisfactory; for romantic passions are not so common in this everyday world.’2 Perhaps due to their very pragmatic view of marriage, neither Jane nor Mary attempted it. Their protagonists strive unceasingly but often unsuccessfully to reconcile themselves to the ‘everyday world’ in which comfortable contentment, let alone romantic passion, seems difficult to attain. As Douglas Gifford has observed, ‘Endurance is […] what the Findlaters and their women protagonists do best.’3

Taking Crossriggs (1908), one of Mary and Jane’s co-written novels, as my example in this paper, I’ll suggest that the Findlaters’ fiction is now largely unknown in part because it resists the romance tradition that dominated nineteenth– and early twentieth-century Scottish literature, confining itself to the rather grim material realities of everyday life. In this respect, they resemble better known late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scottish women writers including Margaret Oliphant and Catherine Carswell, whose novels also countered the romance tradition developed by male writers from Scott and Hogg to Stevenson and Barrie. Like Oliphant’s and Carswell’s heroines, the Findlaters’ protagonists are strong-minded women whose struggles for self-realization are hampered by their lack of money, the bleakness of their surroundings, and their obligations towards their less competent family members and dependents. The Findlaters certainly don’t glorify or sentimentalize the small sacrifices their heroines make, yet they invest their daily struggles with dignity and significance merely by suggesting that these struggles are worthy of representation.

The distinctions between realism and naturalism are complicated, of course, but scholars generally agree that realism entails a polite and progressive liberalism that naturalism eschews. The realist novel depicts a world of moral free agents, who, with the help of others can overcome problems and set whatever goes wrong right without leaving too many casualties by the wayside. The naturalist novel, by contrast, portrays a world ‘in which individual effort guarantee[s] neither eternal salvation nor momentary happiness.’4 Its characters’ fates are to a great extent determined by heredity, environment, and chance. While naturalist fiction usually finds these forces at work in the inhospitable settings of the city or the wilderness, Crossriggs takes rural Scotland as its setting — not the sublime isolation of the Highlands, but the claustrophobic Lowland village. The tiny community of Crossriggs is situated in what the narrator describes as an ‘unromantic bit of agricultural country’ an hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, where the village ‘hugged itself in proud isolation.’5

The ‘tight little’ world of Crossriggs is enlarged ever so slightly when the recently widowed Matilda returns from Canada with her five children to live with her younger sister, Alex, and their father, Mr. Hope, or Old Hopeful as he’s known around Crossriggs (8). ‘[I]n spite of widowhood and all the cares of a family’, Matilda is ‘the younger looking, and much more placid of the two’ sisters (43). Old Hopeful, as his nickname suggests, is no more worldly-wise than Matilda. Alex observes, ‘his life has been one long series of mistakes and failures, from a practical point of view, and yet his soul is alive all the time. He goes on believing and hoping and enthusing, whatever happens to himself’, or, she adds bitterly, ‘to others‘ (82). The burden of caring for Matilda’s five children falls on Alex, who struggles alone to clothe, feed, and educate them. She initially finds work reading to an elderly neighbor and teaching elocution in Edinburgh — forms of work compatible with her social station. Eventually, though, she must resort to giving public readings in order to make ends meet.

Alex is plucky and strong-minded — a dour and cheerless version of Little Women‘s Jo March, through whose perspective we see Crossriggs. She is gradually worn down by the self-sacrifices required to sustain Matilda’s large brood, and to compensate for her father’s misguided investments. In addition, she is deeply in love with her married neighbor, an eminent historian called Robert Maitland. The Findlaters’ characters are not given to impassioned speeches; Alex and Maitland never directly address their feelings for each other, nor is there any indication that either believes anything will ever come of those feelings. But it’s clear that each is suffering from the necessity of constantly hiding their love while living in such close proximity. No wonder, given all these factors, that two-thirds of the way through the novel, Alex declares to her sister:

Our life has been all wrong from the very beginning, indeed, before that, for it began wrong before we were born, with our parents’ dispositions, but we won’t go into that just now — anyway, we’re all wrong. I’ve wasted life, and youth is nearly over, and my health isn’t what it used to be, and we are too poor to be dignified even in the simplest way, and our house, which ought to be the expression of the soul, is hideous, and our life is limited, and our ideas are provincial, and our neighbours are dull, and the world is full of bores, and your children are just so many responsibilities to squeeze us down, and Father is an unpractical optimist (250).

Perhaps Alex’s frustration implies the class-privilege of which Gifford and other critics have accused the Findlaters. But her frustration is nonetheless genuine, and her outburst illustrates the sense of powerlessness against circumstances common to naturalist fiction.

Moreover, the Findlaters suggest that this type of frustration is specific to women, who in Crossriggs spend their lives in unfulfilling toil. One of the Hopes’ neighbors, Bessie Reid lives ‘a monotonous life, spending much time in tending a paralyzed aunt’ (11). We learn that ‘it was only a brave effort that kept her going at all, and she made it unceasingly’ (11). Bessie’s ‘brave effort’ primarily takes the form of ridiculous personal decorations — a wreath of artificial grape vines around her hat, a lurid bouquet of bows pinned to her dress. Despite or even because of her questionable sartorial choices, Bessie is a sympathetic, even an admirable character; these decorations are really the only way she can make her bleak life brighter. That toil and suffering are particular to women is clearly illustrated when Alex and Matilda are walking home in the midst of a quarrel and run into Robert Maitland, who looks, Alex says, ‘as if you had been on some mount of transfiguration, whilst we have had such a petty and disgusting woman’s day, though perhaps some of us would have liked quite as well as you to lie by the side of a burn, and look at beautiful things, and come home to write history — and instead!’ (179). Instead, Alex and Matilda have endured ‘Singed soup, sodden potatoes, burnt apples, house dense with smoke, an unexpected guest to luncheon, one child ill with earache […] all the others naughty’ (179). If frustration is gendered, however, so is its expression. Maitland does suffer in his loveless marriage with Alex always before his eyes. But whereas Alex chafes against her lot in no uncertain terms, Maitland ‘is always calm about everything. […] Whatever he endures he will save other people being pained by the sight of his suffering’ (255).

The Findlaters’ purposefulness in emphasizing the unrelenting drudgery of daily domestic life in small town Scotland is evident in the metafictional moments that punctuate Crossriggs. When Admiral Cassilis employs Alex to read to him, he specifies that the reading materials will not include novels, not because they are frivolous, but, on the contrary, because, ‘Life […] is sad enough without fiction’ (76). Alex counters that the sadness of life is ‘so long and hard and spread out, compared to the brief romantic sorrows of fiction, that it does one good to read about them, I think, and then we can imagine that [our sorrows] are going to be like that!’ (76).

The irony, of course, is that the Findlaters have made Alex’s ‘long and hard and spread out’ sorrows into the stuff of fiction. Alex experiences an attenuated form of the ‘brief romantic sorrows’ that she believes proper to novels. In addition to the married Maitland, whom Alex loves fruitlessly, there is also Van Cassilis, the admiral’s nephew, who is desperately in love with Alex and for whom Alex feels an affection that she will not allow to ripen into love because she is nine years older and much poorer than Van is. In another metafictive moment, Alex declares, ‘It is one of the weak points of novels […] that they prefer to pretend that the outside circumstances look like the inside — the outside of the stained glass window like the window seen from within. It hardly ever does!’ (214). Despite her desire for intellectual and economic independence, Alex is very concerned with how things look from the outside, and fears that marriage to the young and wealthy Van would make her appear ridiculous or even despicable to others. In a novel, Alex believes, the disparities between their positions would be easily overcome, but not in the small and censorious world of Crossriggs. What Gifford has observed of the Findlaters’ protagonists in general is particularly true of Alex: ‘they feel their confinement the more keenly since they are all too aware that it is their own acceptance of the rules of conventional society which imprisons them’ (293).

Alex’s acceptance of convention perhaps plays a larger role than her futile love for Maitland in her repeated rejection of Van’s declarations of love for her. Only after Alex drives Van to marry the coarse, flirtatious Dolly Orranmore does she realize how much happiness he had brought into her life: ‘the image of Van — as she used to think of him before they quarreled […] stole into her mind, and seemed to warm the coldness of the dreary room’ (285). Shortly after his marriage, Van drowns, an incident that we are invited to interpret as suicide and to attribute to the volatile passions originating in Van’s ‘drop of [unspecified] foreign blood.’ Van’s death shakes even Alex’s fortitude. The narrator explains, ‘There comes a time in a monotonous life led in a small place when it simply can be borne no longer, when a break of some kind must be made unless the heart fails altogether. The quiet Square, the round of her home duties, had become to Alex like the walls of a dungeon, from which she must escape or die’ (334). To make matters worse, Matilda decides to remarry, taking all of her five children away from Crossriggs. Although Alex has worked herself to the bone to support the children, she is sorry to lose them, wondering, ‘To what purpose had all her struggles been if the children did not care enough for even one of them to stay with her? All the life and brightness were leaving the house with them’ (352). The novel’s last chapters strip away Alex’s connections, leaving her isolated and broken down.

The seeming resolution to Alex’s problems comes in the form of an unexpected legacy from her aunt Clara, whom she had nursed through several months of a long illness — a turn of events more appropriate to romance than to the Findlaters’ domestic naturalism. However, the legacy does not provide the happy ending that we might expect it to, as it does nothing to alleviate Alex’s loneliness, or her sense of the futility of her economic and emotional struggles. She decides to use her inheritance to make the escape from Crossriggs that she has longed for. Yet as she leaves Maitland standing on the dock, watching the ship sail off, Alex feels ‘as if she had no tears left to shed, no power left to hope as she stood there and looked out to the limitless distance’ (379).

Although the novel’s events are primarily described from Alex’s perspective, at the very end we see Alex’s departure through Maitland’s eyes. This shift in perspective highlights Alex’s physical escape, on one hand, and Maitland’s emotional release on the other, as we are finally made privy to the strain to which his love for Alex has subjected him. When Maitland can no longer make out Alex’s figure on board the ship, he turns away to ‘utter a little sigh, that was not of sorrow. ‘Twas the breath of a spent swimmer that had but just reached the shore’ (379). Unlike Van, who drowns of his love for Alex, Maitland is saved only because Alex takes the initiative to sever the ties between them. The novel’s ambivalent ending, with Alex looking out into the ‘limitless distance’ leaves open the possibility of future happiness for her, but it’s anyone’s guess what form this happiness might take.

The Findlaters’ depictions of the intellectual and social constraints of rural Scottish life, particularly for women, stand out for their rather grueling intensity. But the Findlaters’ novels share in common with other late-nineteenth– and early-twentieth-century novels by Scotswomen an eschewal, or even a critique, of romance that distinguishes them from the novels of their male counterparts. Similar to the Findlaters’, many of Margaret Oliphant’s novels (as distinct from her ghost stories) explore women’s economic and emotional sacrifices, large and small. To give just one example, the eponymous protagonist of Kirsteen (1890) leaves the Highlands for London rather than betray her troth to a young soldier who is fighting in India by marrying an aged and wealthy suitor at her father’s command. She generously uses her earnings as a dressmaker to buy back part of the family’s ancestral lands for her father, despite his insistence that she has contaminated the family name by adopting a trade. While Alex’s ethic of self-sacrifice in Crossriggs recalls many of Oliphant’s heroines, her yearning for a wider world of possibilities prefigures Catherine Carswell’s protagonists, whose resilience she shares. Like Ellen Carstairs in The Camomile (1922), and Joanna Bannerman in Open the Door! (1920), Alex recognizes that a conventional marriage to a conventional man would only stultify her. But unlike Carswell’s heroines, Alex either cannot or will not explore any alternatives to the conventional.

The Findlaters’ novels belong to a tradition of Scottish women’s writing about domesticity much richer than I can describe here, extending back through Susan Ferrier all the way to Lady Grisel Baillie. Yet their novels should not be confined to that tradition. Indeed, I would suggest that situating their work in a broader context could help us do for naturalism what Scottish writing has already done for Romanticism — that is, to question the geographical and historical parameters of a particular literary aesthetic.6 Doing so might reveal that the Findlaters have more in common with the nineteenth-century romance tradition than initially appears to be the case. The American naturalist Frank Norris claimed that while naturalism might initially seem like ‘a sort of inner circle of realism — a kind of diametric opposite of romanticism’, it is in fact closer kin to romance than to realism because naturalism and romance both ‘range beyond the polite parlor conversation of realism.’7 ‘Realism’, Norris wrote, ‘notes only the surface of things.’ Naturalism, in contrast, would not ‘stop in the front parlour and discuss medicated flannels and mineral waters with the ladies[…]. She would be off upstairs with you, prying, peeping, peering into the closets of the bedroom, into the nursery, into the sitting room.’8 And it is here, hidden in these everyday spaces, that we find romance in the Findlaters’ fiction.


References & Further Information

1 Jane and Mary Findlater, Penny Monypenny (London: Thomas Nelson, n.d.), p.113.
2 Ibid., p. 114.
3 Douglas Gifford, ‘Caught between Worlds: The Fiction of Jane and Mary Findlater’, in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, eds. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 297.
4 Donna Campbell, ‘American Literary Naturalism: Critical Perspectives’, in Literature Compass 8 (2011): p.499.
5 Jane and Mary Findlater, Crossriggs (Virago, 1986), pp.4, 8. Subsequent references to this edition will be made parenthetically.
6 See, for instance, Leith Davis, Ian Duncan, and Janet Sorensen, eds. Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
7 Frank Norris, ‘Zola as a Romantic Writer’ in Novels and Essays (New York: Library of America, 1986), p.1106.
8 Frank Norris, ‘A Plea for Romantic Fiction’ in Novels and Essays (New York: Library of America, 1986), pp.1166-67.

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Juliet Shields

Juliet Shields is Professor of English at the University of Washington. Her most recent book is Nation and Migration: the Making of British Atlantic Literature (Oxford 2016), and she is currently working on a study of nineteenth-century Scottish women’s writing.

More articles by Juliet Shields

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