Naomi Mitchison lived a remarkable life. She was born into an aristocratic Scottish family; she studied at Oxford, but gave up her studies to become a VAD nurse; she married a Labour MP and became a campaigner for social justice; she travelled widely; and yet she still found the time to write poetry, three volumes of autobiography, and a wide range of novels.
I picked up three of those novels, in green Virago editions, but they sat unread for quite some time; because they seemed so diverse – in size and in subject-matter – and there were so many other books on the Virago bookcase that called me more than they did.
But when I noticed that ‘The Bull Calves; was published in 1947 I decided that its time had come and that I would read it for The 1947 Club.
I am so pleased that I did; it was a big book, it required careful reading, and it was utterly absorbing!
Naomi Mitchison spent the Second World War in Carradale, Kintyre. She welcomed evacuees and refugees into her home, she managed the farm, she organised the local Labour Party, she was involved with her local dramatic society, and she wrote a diary for Mass Observation, of more than a million words.
She also wrote this novel; beginning in the dark days of 1940 and working slowly and carefully because she knew that what she wanted to say was important. She wanted to write about the need for peace and reconciliation after war; and she did that in a story set early two hundred years earlier, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745.
Her setting is Gleneagles House, home of the Haldane family, set on the southern side of Perthshire where the lowlands of Scotland give way to the Highlands. Over the course of a summer’s weekend in 1947 the family gather for the first time in many years; they have different feelings about what has happened, and different ideas about what should happen in the future. There is much to talk about and a great deal will happen over the course of that weekend.
At the centre is Kirstie Haldane, the daughter of a Whig family, who has married Jacobite William Macintosh of Borlum. Her brother have concerns about her choice of husband; his political views are quite different to theirs and they have heard stories about his past, about what might have happened in the years he spent in the Americas.
Kirstie has no such doubts. She tells her young niece, Catherine, about the difficult years she had to endure with her first husband, about how she coped during the uprising, and about how she finally met and married the right man. Catherine was fascinated, and so was I.
That leads Kirstie to tell her husband a little more about her past than she has before; she tells him about the time when she crossed paths with witches. He tells her about some of the difficult things he had to do in America, and husband and wife both feel that they have reached a better understanding.
Neither has told everything though, and they both face the prospect of their darkest secrets being revealed before the end of the gathering.
Meanwhile, younger members of the family are concealing a Jacobite rebel. Robert Strange was an engraver, and all he wanted was to travel south, to practice his craft, and to return to his beloved books. Catherine began to fall in love with him, and I did too.
When a message arrives, saying that the Lord President Duncan Forbes will visit the house as he travels south, they are worried. Can they keep their man hidden, or can they get him away on time?
Those are the bones of a story that is underpinned by a wealth of detail.
Naomi Mitchison writes beautifully of the house, the grounds and the surrounding countryside. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that it was a place she knew and loved.
The stories that her characters tell and the conversations that they have say a great deal about the history they lived through and the future that they saw for their country. Some question, and even consider repudiating, the Act of Union, but others believe that Scotland’s agriculture, trade, and relations with the rest of the world are stronger as a result of that Act.
It was helpful that I had some idea of the history and that I was familiar with the rhythm of Scottish speech; those two things ran right through the book, I appreciated that the author did it very well, but it took a lot of concentration to keep track of everything, and I suspect that the significance of some things passed me by.
This books greatest strength is that it is a wonderful human drama. The characters were quite simply drawn, but I found it easy to warm to them, to understand their cares and concerns and to be drawn into their different stories.
I particularly appreciated the way the story showed the differences between generations who had lived through different periods of history and were at different stages of life; and how so much happened and so much changed over the course of a few days without the story feeling too contrived.
I have to admire the way that Naomi Mitchison reflected her concerns about the world she lived in, and the future it faced, in this historical family saga; and I know that a great deal of what she says is still relevant.
I loved the lengthy notes that she provided.
I can’t say that it is has become one of my favourite Virago Modern Classics, or one of my favourite historical novels; it’s a little too serious, a little too detailed, and a rather lacking in humour or light relief for me to be able to say that.
But I can say that it is a very good book.