Lewis Grassic Gibbon: the road to Sunset Song

In August 1932 a new Scottish literary star was born when the novel “Sunset Song” by Lewis Grassic Gibbon was published. An instant critical and commercial success it was reprinted multiple times that year in the UK as well as being published in North America and quickly translated into other European languages. Gibbon’s novel tells the story of Chris Guthrie and her life on a farm in Kinraddie in the North East of Scotland. The novel uses the rhythms and cadences of the local dialect of the Scots language to capture its land and people and in doing so helped create a new tradition of Scottish writing. In 2016 it was voted Scotland’s favorite book in a poll conducted by the BBC.

Little or no mention was made of James Leslie Mitchell, the birth name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, when the novel was first published in 1932. This was despite Mitchell already having published six books under that name including two novels earlier the same year that “Sunset Song” appeared.

You can read a digitised copy of the first edition of “Sunset Song on our website http://digital.nls.uk/lewis-grassic-gibbon-books/archive/205174226. Click through from the volume called “Scots quair” which is the title of the trilogy that has “Sunset Song” as its first part. Here you will also find all the other books published by James Leslie Mitchell during his lifetime both under his own name and as Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Great works of literature often have a mysterious quality about them. How did the author bring elements such as language, characters and story together into a work that continues to resonate with the public and also inspire contemporary writers? In the case of “Sunset Song” we can get at least some of the answers by looking at James Leslie Mitchell’s life and earlier works. Here I plan to have a look at the life, work and external influences on James Leslie Mitchell that led him on the road to writing “Sunset Song”.

James Leslie Mitchell was born on the 13th of February 1901 at Hillhead of Seggart in rural Aberdeenshire. He described his family as peasant farmers and they eked out a living here until 1907 when they lost their lease on the land. The family were forced to move to a densely populated part of industrial Aberdeen. A year later they managed to get a croft in the part of Kincardineshire known as the Mearns. This gave the family some security but it was a precarious life dependent on the vagaries of the elements. The young Mitchell was aware of the contrast with the comfortable lifes of the gentlemen farmers just down the hill who had better and more substantial lands.

James Leslie Mitchell was the embodiment of that Scottish stereotype the Lad O Pairts, a boy from a humble background with academic ability which enables them to make their own way in the world. He also had that other great cliché the inspirational teacher in Mitchell’s case Alexander Gray who became a long-term friend and mentor. Like Chris Guthrie the central character of “Sunset Song” Mitchell was an autodidact. He read widely across literature, astronomy, philosophy and geography. He was particularly interested in ancient history, anthropology and accounts of exploration and these became lifelong obsessions that would inspire his writing.

In 1917 he left home to join the Aberdeen Journal as a cub reporter rejecting the life on the land he was expected to follow. Mitchell left the Mearns with a developing social and political consciousness, a desire to see the world and an ambition to write. This was a time of radical politics, revolution and uprisings in Russia and Ireland amongst other places and Mitchell quickly became politically active. The committee of an Industrial Council Soviet established in Aberdeen in 1918 included a young Leslie Mitchell. A promotion to junior reporter for the Scottish Farmer would take an 18 year old Mitchell to Glasgow during the period known as Red Clydeside. Mitchell self described as a Marxist with anarchist tendencies throughout his adult life,

Just as his career and life were getting established they fell apart. He was sacked from the Scottish Farmer for cheating on his expenses. Public shame, an end to his journalistic career and a breakdown were the results. Mitchell signed up to the Royal Army Service Corp for four years, surely a move made out of desperation. He worked in logistics in some of the distant lands he had read about as a boy including Palestine and Egypt. Here Mitchell witnessed the brutalities of colonial rule.

His return to civvy street in the 1920s resulted in unemployment and depression. Mitchell signed up to the RAF for six years doing clerical duties and was based in southern England. He married Rebecca Middleton, known as Ray, who had been a near neighbour in Kincardineshire. Despite time and distance Mitchell had maintained his links with the Mearns and would occasionally visit family and friends. It was a happy marriage tinged with sadness. Ray lost a child very late in pregnancy and the theme of troubled childbirth and pregnancy would appear in Mitchell’s first two novels and later “Sunset Song” and “Cloud Howe”.

In 1928 Mitchell published his first book “Hanno, or the future of exploration”. During a writing career of around six and half years he would publish ten novels, short stories, books on exploration and reams of book reviews and essays.

“Hanno” allowed Mitchell to tap into all the knowledge and ideas he had accumulated since he was a bright schoolboy. The book mixes ancient history, astronomy, anthropology, science and geography. It is a heady rush of a book that tells the story of our planet and man’s exploration of it. The book finishes by imagining man’s first landing on the moon which Mitchell thinks will happen within fifty years. In a similar vein to other popular non-fiction works of the period by writers such as Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells it was a success selling over a thousand copies in a year.

Two years later and now a full-time writer and living in Welwyn Garden City he published his first novel “Stained Radiance: a fictionalist’s prelude”. The novel begins in then present day Kensington High Street, London with a dialogue between two female characters Norah Casement and Thea Mayven. Thea is from the rural north-east of Scotland and can be seen as a prototype of Chris Guthrie in “Sunset Song”. She is the lover of John Garland a character who has much in common with Mitchell. Garland is a communist, an airman and an aspiring novelist trying to get by in 1920s London where much of the novel is set.

The novel though comes most to life when Thea reflects on her life in the north east of Scotland. She disliked and rejected Scottish peasant life when it was an everyday reality but now looks back on it fondly. Later in the novel Thea and John look out from the London to Aberdeen train onto a pastoral scene of haymaking.

“Stained Radiance” was generally poorly received by critics and had low sales. A typical first novel it is awkwardly structured and overstuffed with ideas. The good parts of the novel though showcase a talented stylist coming to terms with his conflicted feelings about his childhood home and able to write about it in an original and evocative way.

Mitchell’s second novel “The Thirteenth Disciple” was published in 1931. Like his first novel it is overstuffed with ideas and has structural problems and its narrator Malcom Maudsley is a version of its author. Its strongest sections are again set in Scotland in this case the first four chapters about Malcom’s childhood in the Leekan Valley this books version of the Mearns. That is not a typo the narrator of the novel is called Malcom, not Malcolm. It is though a better novel than “Stained Radiance” and a pleasure to read.

In the books opening chapter ‘Suicide and the horizon’ Malcom remembers setting out to the Leekan Hills aged five to drown himself in the old well after being chastised by his father. His mood lifts as he has ‘his first conscious awareness of the horizon’ of the brown and yellow gorse finding consolation in nature just as Chris Guthrie later would in “Sunset Song”.

The chapters set in the Leekan Valley also feature Domina Riddoch the local dominie’s niece. Domina is one of Mitchell’s many strong, confident female characters. A free spirit she scandalises the community with her views and by wearing less than they think she should in hot weather.

The book purports to be based on diaries, an abandoned autobiography and an autobiographical novel written by Malcom and this gives it great immediacy and narrative drive. Malcom like Mitchell becomes a journalist in the 1910s in Glasgow and sees the terrible living conditions of the poor in the city. Malcom joins the fictional Left Communist Group and Mitchell even fictionalises what must still have been painful memories by having Malcom sacked from his newspaper for fiddling expenses.

Mitchell has Malcom join the army earlier than he did. Malcom serves in the trenches of World War I and the novel has a vivid account of his experiences in the trenches, one of the best fictional accounts of that war in Scottish literature. Malcom seeks escape from the trenches by looking back at his days in the Leekan Valley.

Mitchell was learning his craft and the novel is a major step forward from his first and foreshadows the achievement of “Sunset Song”. At the time though it was commercially at least a miserable failure selling fewer copies than his first novel. Both his first and second novels are dark and intense in tone and this might explains their failure to find an audience.

The publication of “Sunset Song” was now little more than a year away, remarkably Mitchell would publish another two novels before it appeared. In these novels Mitchell would let the light into his fiction and further develop his craft.

These two novels break away from the realism of his previous work. In the dedication to the first of them to appear “Three go back” Mitchell writes ‘I wrote this book as a break from more serious things”. The more serious things almost certainly include “Sunset Song” which he was working on at the same time.

“Three go back” tells the story of an airship bound for North America. It falls into a timeslip and the three passengers find themselves in the Stone Age. It features a sabre tooth tiger, a mammoth and an idealised portrait of early man. The book was a commercial success which must have been a great relief for Mitchell.

It was followed by “The Lost Trumpet” published just a few months before “Sunset Song”. An adventure story that reads a little like a prototype for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or even “Lara Croft” it is set in Egypt which Mitchell knew from his army service and tells the story of the search for the legendary trumpet that brought down the walls of Jericho. Technically accomplished it shows Mitchell in full command of his craft. Looked at from the perspective of Mitchell’s life and writing career the subsequent publication of “Sunset Song” seems like a natural next step. Lewis Grassic Gibbon his new pseudonym was a variant on his maternal grandmother’s name Lilias Grassic Gibbon.

After the publication of “Sunset Song” he would have two concurrent writing careers. Works concerned with Scotland such as “Cloud Howe” and “Grey Granite” the sequels to “Sunset Song” would be published as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Non-Scottish books such as the excellent “Spartacus” about the gladiator who led a slave revolt and “Gay Hunter” another time travel adventure were published as by J. Leslie Mitchell.

On 4th January 1935 Mitchell was operated on for a perforated ulcer at the Queen Victoria Hospital, Welwyn Garden City. He died three days later just short of what would have been his 34th birthday. He was cremated at Golders Green. Ray took his ashes back to the Mearns for burial.

His final book to be published in his lifetime “Nine against the unknown” (1934) a collection of essays on explorers brought together his two identities as it is co-credited to J. Leslie Mitchell and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.