As the referendum on independence for Scotland from the United Kingdom held in September 2014 showed, the Scots are a different, difficult and divided nation. Different because although the independence movement was pushed and led by the Scottish Nationalist Party, what defines historical Scotland is a unique culture and social structure. Difficult because the Scots have hardly ever been independent, if one defines that as the simultaneous possession of external sovereignty and internal unity. Despite the mythologies of Robert the Bruce, ‘Braveheart’, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora Macdonald and the fighting traditions of Scottish armies and the Scots regiments of the British Army, Scotland’s full independence from England arguably lasted only from Bannockburn in 1314 to Flodden in 1513. Divided in part due to the factors and forces already mentioned; but also because the Scots are essentially clannish, contumelious, territorial, migratory and have for nearly five centuries experienced a frequently bloody religious reformation which has resulted in a model Presbyterian social structure, a traditionally dissentient but fundamentally loyal Catholic minority and a largely urban Catholic working class (also a minority) that looks elsewhere for leadership and tends to oppose the idea of a United Kingdom. Although the outcome of the referendum was a decisive yet fairly narrow margin against independence, this almost guarantees that the issue is not settled and will generate continuing political strife and yet another campaign a generation from now, or even sooner. Yet voting in it was confined to existing inhabitants of Scotland. Among that five million or so, perhaps half a million are inward migrants who were not born in Scotland, many of whom have no genealogical connection with Scotland, who today live in other parts of the United Kingdom. The questionable legitimacy, political outcome and future consequences of the referendum all underscore the different, difficult and divided nature of Scots identity; yet guarantee that it will continue to beset the politics and social life of Britain for as far ahead as one can peer. These are excellent background reasons why anyone interested in exploring the uniqueness of Scots society should take a keen interest in the works of Jim Burnside. He has written an extraordinary, sometimes fascinating novel, ‘loosely based on historical events’, including those of his family. All of his novels (this is the second and four others are forthcoming) explore the divided, and divisive nature of Scotland and Scot’s identity through one Scottish family. Central to the narrative is the figure of one woman, Hannah Duff after whom the book is named. She was born in Edinburgh in the early 1890’s. Her life traces the development of her family and its surrounding society through to the early stages of the Great War of 1914–18. The author creates out of this account of one life a rich tapestry of the social order of Scotland’s capital during the early twentieth century. Hannah’s father, John Harper, the central figure of the author’s first novel, Fever Therapy has by now succeeded in escaping his roots and upbringing in north-eastern Scotland and become a senior manager in an insurance company. His first wife had died in tragic circumstances. There are three young girls of this marriage. Harper eventually and with a degree of reserve, marries their nanny, Margaret whose immediate family has also come to Edinburgh from elsewhere: "This was Harper’s fine city now, as well as Margaret’s. It was their proud country; their time in the sun. Everything imagined to be worthwhile and all they might need, was here in reach. Their situation could not have been re-arranged to have felt more right." The account of Harper’s anguished rise from despair following his first wife’s demise, and development of his feelings for Margaret, is written with much insight and numerous touches of humour. As the youngest of three sisters, Hannah’s relationship with her step-mother is crucial to the plot. Even at this early point in her life, aged about ten in the middle of the first decade of a new century, she has already experienced the deaths of her mother and great-grandmother, both named Hannah, her sister Elsie and the family’s pet cat, Molly. She is able to intimately connect with her father but her relationship with her step-mother, though close, is by no means gratifying: Although Duff admired Margaret’s endurance, she also had to accept the absence of genuine mutual interest between them. They lived in parallel – frequently nodding at one another like busy neighbours in a hurry. Implicitly at least, Margaret’s wish to have a family of her own is cramped by Hannah’s adolescent presence, and more so by what she symbolises: Margaret saw Harper’s deceased wife Hannah in their lovely girl. Moreover, her eldest sister Elizabeth, to whom she always looked up in terms of intellect and articulacy, has left home to become governess and tutor to a notable aristocratic family which Hannah decides, somehow or other, is a failure of self-will and independence. In turn this raises one of the persistent and problematic themes of both novels published so far which is particularly present through the development of Hannah Duff: the relationship between Fate and Capitalism. In the author’s first novel, Harper represents Fate, in the shape of Destiny, through the demiurge of passion between him and his first wife, his short-lived but fateful periods as a farm worker and then a Police constable, his consistent efforts to develop self-awareness through education and the mysterious yet decisive patronage he receives from the anonymous, wealthy man who is probably his biological father. In this narrative his rise is comparatively straightforward and his success is considerable but this makes him less sensitive and ultimately boring. Harper embraces Capitalism without ever justifying to himself its superiority and this is a fateful compromise. The nearest he can get to rejection comes after his own assured prosperity coincides with the death of one of his daughters. He returns to his birthplace and converses with the Minister, Reverend Blair: “Sometimes lives have no apparent meaning, unless it lies in the element of tribulation – whether a body responds to suffering altruistically, or with self-regard. Too many never make it through Seven Ages, to exit stage left.” Hannah represents the alter ego: she will not endorse what she sees as this iniquitous system and yet is, in many respects, the beneficiary of her father’s success and the largesse of the system before its destructive catharsis in the First World War. Having decided that she can no longer go on living with her father and step-mother, she takes up a role teaching the children of two wealthy aristocrats, Sir Hugh and Lady Christina Leslie. This relationship is described lyrically as well as analytically. For example, describing the development of the young children: "Helena learned to read, Clarissa to walk and talk. Both had hair as white as Norman butter, with cornflower blue eyes." And yet at the same time Hannah, complemented by her slightly older and better educated, fellow employee, Alice becomes an active member of the women’s suffrage movement and a ‘fellow traveller’ with a group of dedicated Liverpool dock-worker revolutionaries: "From Alice she learned to have a pocket diary to hand at all times and the fine art of prioritising commitments. Political activism had to be kept separate and secondary, or it could never be sustained." Alice is also the catalyst of Hannah’s early prejudices when she inveighs against the priorities of the Capitalist system: “There is architectural ostentation in every town hall throughout the land that would make this house (the Leslie’s) seem ordinary. Civic buildings, cathedrals and churches, opera houses, railway stations and public parks – but it all gives the lie, Hannah doesn’t it? It’s why I can never go to church any more. There is just too much hypocrisy in public life. Who is all that ostentation for? All that dressed marble, I mean? Why not start with the homeless and all those living in poverty?” In the margins of her life living among the aristocracy outside Liverpool , Hannah returns to Edinburgh and begins to develop a serious friendship with a bus driver named William Macdonald, who she had first encountered when a homeless man was killed getting off his bus in Leith. William remains somewhat undefined in comparison to Hannah but he is considerably older; he has a maimed foot from an industrial accident; and he is bright, mannerly, upstanding and tends to be forthright in a characteristically Edinburgh way. Although this gains him relatively ready recognition by Harper and his wife, it remains unclear at the end of the novel what direction the relationship will take. For the remainder of the novel, as Hannah grows into womanhood, it is her relationship with the avuncular Sir Hugh Leslie and still more importantly his wife, Christina that carries the weight of the story and its underlying dialectic between these major preoccupations and various subsidiary themes. Central to the action are a conversation on a holiday voyage through the Mediterranean between Christina and Hannah and Sir Hugh’s letters to his wife after he is mobilised and commissioned into the British Army with the outbreak of war in 1914. In a very fine passage of writing, Christina and Hannah converse about Capitalism and impending war: "Leaning on the safety rail, Christina’s dreamy eyes scanned a stunning westerly skyline. Rubbing high cheeks with her long, lacquered fingers she spoke quietly above the ship’s humming vibration as it plied the exuberant Atlantic. “Are the WSPU strongly against the old institutions then? Monarchy and the banks? Or do they simply see them as a bastion of male intolerance and conceit?” Holding up her hand, a lighter snapped open. Christina cupped its flame as Hannah’s cigarette hissed, then she lit her own. The Ronson clanked shut with industrial surety as she turned to look at Hannah for an answer to her question, again with a playful smile around her eyes assuring goodwill . . . “Will Asquith throw Pankhurst’s lipstick Marxists in jail, or will there be a little dance shuffle in which the opponents compromise, for the sake of national unity?” . . . Hannah stared at Christina, lips parted slightly, still hesitating in confusion. At last she responded tentatively, her voice trembling in light of Christina’s incredible revelation . . . “My God, you’re serious! You know people who decide such things over the Brandy and cigars, don’t you?” Winnie (Winston Churchill) is a relative, isn’t he? Christina lifted her eyebrows in a gesture of sultry, aristocratic eloquence, “Oh, please allow me some credit. I’m an educated woman, Hannah! Read August Nieman, ‘Der Weltkreig: Deutsche Traume.’ Sorry – that translates into Scouse as, ‘The Coming Conquest of England’” The culmination of the book is a dozen letter written by Sir Hugh to Christina from France after the outbreak of war. The author allows these to speak for themselves and they are eloquent about what is today accepted as the ineptitude of the Generals and politicians, as well as the carnage visited upon the ordinary soldier, in the face of industrialised warfare. So how well does this novel succeed in overall terms? However unusual its themes and preoccupations may be, it is best to judge it conventionally, in terms of structure, plot, characterisation and prose writing. Clearly the author is in it for the long-run; his aim is to produce six books altogether, which will take the fictionalised family and social history well into the twentieth century. It is too early to judge whether or not this will become the lower-middle class equivalent of Downton Abbey, but in much of it the potential is there. That said, some of the action is slow and deliberate; it takes a hundred pages in this work before Hannah begins to develop on her own terms. The plot and direction of the novel are also somewhat wayward, with digressions on economic and political issues, for example bi-metallism in the United States, that are, arguably secondary. What is the significance of ending the book with the death of Sir Hugh Leslie? Characterisation, by contrast, is almost always interesting, apt and perspicuous. Harper, Margaret, Hannah, Alice, Christina and Sir Hugh are drawn with clarity, empathy and pathos; none is predominant and all possess the power of self-observation. Only William Macdonald eludes us and that is possibly deliberate. The prose writing very occasionally becomes semi-academic but for the most part is delightfully creative, combining skill, humour and irony with gentle understanding for the rites of passage through which his characters proceed. Dr Hugh Josephus, Oxford, February 2015.
Historian, Dr Hugh Josephus.