Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid – whom many hail as a genius – is on record as saying, ‘Scottish women of any historical interest are curiously rare… our leading Scotswomen have been… almost entirely destitute of exceptional endowments of any sort.’
Sadly for MacDiarmid, he popped his clogs in 1978, so he wasn’t around to benefit from the work that Glasgow Women’s Library has been doing to record and celebrate the work and lives of all those amazing Scottish women who were far from being ‘entirely destitute of exceptional endowments of any sort’.
When I came across this outrageous MacDiarmid quote in Sleeping with Monsters, Conversations with Scottish and Irish women poets, a memory came back to me of a literary event I attended in Edinburgh some years ago.
Beth Junor was talking about the book she’d just finished putting together: Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve. (Chris Grieve being none other than MacDiarmid.)
Beth told the story of how, when MacDiarmid was working in Shetland and his wife Valda was in Cornwall with their toddler son, he used to post bundles of his dirty laundry to her and expect them to come back all clean and sorted. I was outraged. Was it really impossible for a man to wash his own socks? Even a ‘great’ man?
MacDiarmid scholar, Alan Riach, knew Valda and MacDiarmid as a couple. In an essay for The Scottish Review of Books he describes how during a visit to their cottage in Langholm, ‘Valda joined us after a couple of hours, interrupting the flow of words and Glenfiddich with, “I can’t talk to you about Victorian epic poetry, but would you like a fried egg or a bacon roll?” Before she could finish the sentence, Chris (MacDiarmid) had interrupted her: “Well, you’ve nothing but laziness and ignorance to conquer!”‘
Was the ‘great man’ trying (and failing) to be funny?
Would I have found it acceptable if my husband had said this to me? Well, actually, no. And when you put it together with MacDiarmid’s self-confessed inability to see the achievements of women in the wider sense, and the fact that he deemed it reasonable to put his dirty socks in the post for the already struggling Valda to wash, it’s totally unacceptable.
There is no doubt that MacDiarmid wrote some beautiful poetry. But how many women of his generation also wrote beautiful poetry, or had sharp political minds, or the ability to shine in so many different fields, but found it well-nigh impossible to gain recognition?
Or worse still, were stuck at home washing the socks, shirts and underpants of their menfolk, and never even got the chance to find out what they could achieve?
If you’d like to read of the subtle – not to mention blatant – ways that women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were discouraged, denied or rendered invisible, take a look at the excellent, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ. (We have a copy in the library.)
Glasgow Women’s Library is at the forefront of making sure that the achievements of women from the past are recorded and visible – and we’d love you to help us make sure that even the most short-sighted amongst us can never again claim there are no remarkable women around.
One of the things you can do to help is come along to one of the Illuminated Letters activities we’re running in partnership with the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (GoMA). We’re launching a series of workshops (which will include poetry, drawing, doodling, illustration and prose writing) at a special event in the Nikki de St Phalle exhibition at GoMA on International Women’s Day – Friday March 8th, from 12.30 – 3.30. You don’t have to come for the whole time. Just pop in for a while if you can. We know you’re busy, what with your exceptional endowments to nurture and your very own socks to wash!
And if you can’t make it along to one of our workshops in Glasgow, don’t worry, you can still take part in our letter-writing celebration of inspirational women from the GWL archive! More of that in a future blog…