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Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Women in Politics and Culture

Personal, National, and International Testimony in Willa Muir’s Life-Writing

Margery Palmer McCulloch


Born in 1890 to parents initially from Shetland, Willa Muir graduated from St Andrews University in 1911 with a first class degree in Classics. Yet her fiction and other writings often suggest a personal insecurity in relation to Scotland and to her social role as a woman. She contrasted her approach to creative writing with that of her husband: he working through symbols, she "relying on the empathy of personal feelings and memories": a difference especially evident in her fiction and also in her travel writing. The following discussion will explore Willa’s approach by comparing her published novel Imagined Corners (1931) with her unpublished "Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey", written in the later 1930s. It will then move to consider her life-writing approach as testimony or "witness" in relation to her writings about the Czech city of Prague in 1921 and immediately after World War Two.

Texte intégral

1Life-writing is a practice that has long been with us in the form of autobiography and biography, diaries and personal essays, and in fiction that has its roots in the personal experience of the author. This last category was especially prominent in writing by women in the early years of the twentieth century, including women in Scotland writing during the interwar period popularly known in its own time as the Scottish literary renaissance. For example, with regard to Catherine Carswell’s two novels of the early 1920s, Open the Door! (1920) and The Camomile (1922), the first could well be interpreted as the story of the actual form taken by the author’s life, and the second as the form that life might have taken had different personal decisions been made along the way. In more recent times, however, “life-writing” has become recognised as a discipline in itself, with its aims and possibilities across its various forms interrogated in relation to philosophical, political and cultural as well as literary and personal outcomes. And life-writing as “testimony” has become an important element in this more specialised consideration. The work of the early twentieth-century writer Willa Muir in fiction, essay-writing, correspondence and personal journals relates well to such new approaches to life-writing.

2Willa Muir is probably best known outside Scotland – and still at times within Scotland – as the wife of the poet Edwin Muir and his partner in the first translations into English of the German-language Czech writer Franz Kafka. The academic Peter Butter, whose Edwin Muir: Man and Poet was published in 1966, wrote of Willa that “her greatest work, I think she would gladly agree, was to make possible the production of his poetry” (Butter 59): a comment that might be seen as diminishing the achievements of both Muirs. Willa, however, was and remains a substantial figure in her own right. As well as being increasingly recognised as the principal partner in the Muirs’ Kafka and other German-language translations, her life-writing in published and unpublished fiction and in her journals makes a strong contribution both to the exploration of women’s lives and values which took place in the first half of the twentieth century, and also to our understanding of the wider social and political events of that time. Born Wilhelmina Anderson in 1890 to Shetlandic parents who had emigrated to Scotland, and brought up in the small east-coast town of Montrose, Willa was educationally highly successful with a first-class degree in Classics awarded by St Andrews University in 1911 and further postgraduate study in English and Psychology. When she met Edwin Muir in 1918, she was already Vice-Principal and Lecturer in English, Psychology and Education at a Teacher Training College in London. Despite this academic success, and despite a reputedly extrovert public demeanour, Willa’s life-writing shows her to have been psychologically insecure both as a woman and also as what she described in her Prague journal of the late 1940s as a “displaced person” in Scotland. She wrote in that journal: “All emigrants are Displaced Persons. My parents were D.P.’s in Angus. So I grew up not fitting into Angus tradition and therefore critical, resentful, unsure.” (Muir, Prague Journal 5/3) Elsewhere she attributed her skill with languages to her need at a very young age to become trilingual: to learn to speak in the Shetland dialect her parents used at home, the Angus form of Scots language used in the school playground, and the Scottish-English used formally in school. And it may have been this early personal and public insecurity of identity which then led her in adulthood to explore the nature and role of women more widely in her fiction, essay and journal writings and to interrogate conditions in the social and political environments with which she came into contact.

  • 1  Willa Muir, letter to Florence Marian McNeill, January 1926, National Library of Scotland MS 26194 (...)

3Willa’s first publication was the essay Women: An Inquiry which appeared in 1925 in the Hogarth Press Essays series. She gives as her primary aim in the essay the attempt “to find a conception of womanhood as something essentially different from manhood”; and within that exploration “to discover if the division of the human race into men and women involves a division of spiritual as well as of sexual functions, so that the creative work of women is different in kind from the creative work of men” (Muir, Women 2). Her disappointing conclusion in a somewhat circuitous argument is similar to that of the biologists Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thomson in their 1914 book Sex which implied that a woman’s reserves of energy were given in order to carry out the female reproductive role, while male energy could be directed towards public affairs. Willa’s essay surprises many readers who have previously come to her work through her innovative female-centred novel Imagined Corners, published later in 1931. She herself was lacking in confidence about the essay, sending it to trusted friends for their responses, expressing her willingness to make any changes considered necessary. Her nervousness may have been heightened by the fact that Virginia and Leonard Woolf were bringing out Edwin Muir’s First Poems also in 1925, and she clearly felt herself to be the subordinate figure in this Hogarth Press connection. Shortly after publication of the essay she wrote to a friend: “My old essay has fallen very flat [...] the Nation said it was as unexciting as boiled rice. Time and Tide has not reviewed it at all. I thought women’s societies and associations would have been interested. However – I shall launch bombs next time!” (Palmer McCulloch 201)1 At the same time as this feisty response to a not over-successful first launch as a writer, her letter goes on to suggest a reason why her essay had become beached on her preoccupation with childbearing. She writes:

We have had a trying time – you will realise why, when I tell you that shortly after I came home I proceeded to have a bad miscarriage – think of it! I had no idea that I was pregnant (I thought I had got a chill & when I was sick I thought it was caused by lumbago) and then we were worried by a debt which suddenly cropped up – very worried – and then I had the miscarriage, to my own shock & surprise. No wonder I was brooding over the bearing of children.
Palmer McCulloch 201

4In contrast, motherhood and the energy necessary for the bearing of children had no place in the plot of Willa’s later first novel Imagined Corners. This was begun in Menton in the south of France in 1926, where she and Edwin had gone with a commission to translate Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jüd Süss, but it was not published until 1931 as a result of a second, this time successful, pregnancy, together with her translating commitments. (In contrast, and with implications in relation to the social conventions of the time regarding male/female responsibilities, Edwin succeeded in publishing several books and literary reviews during the same period.) In her later memoir of their residence in Menton, Willa contrasted her own approach to creative writing with that of her husband, saying that while Edwin worked through symbols, she relied “on the empathy of personal feelings and memories”; and she hoped that even if she could not detach herself from her emotions (as perhaps had happened with her Women: An Inquiry essay), she might be able to use them “to present a story in a Montrose setting, imagining what might have happened had I married my Rugby champion and gone to live there” (Muir, Belonging 126, 125). This plan offered a provocative life-writing undertaking in its requirement to replace personal emotional involvement with creative, artistic distancing, while at the same time using life-writing as a means of interrogating and understanding that younger self who had rejected the opportunity of a scholarship to the British School at Rome in order to become engaged to a rugby-playing medical student who turned out to be a philanderer; and who had then dramatically ended the relationship by throwing her expensive diamond engagement ring into the harbour in St Andrews. More would be required than the mere retelling of her younger life. Despite its delayed production, however – perhaps even because of it – Willa’s Montrose novel Imagined Corners is a fine composition which explores the self-discovery of a young university-educated but emotionally immature young woman based on the experience of its author, but creatively distanced from the personal emotions of her younger self.

5Imagined Corners, with its title taken from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners blow”, is therefore a story of journeys of discovery – on the young Elizabeth’s part in particular, but also on the part of several of the subsidiary characters whose narratives help create the solidity and sense of a particular community in the novel. The ironic narrative voice in the opening chapter of the novel prepares the reader to encounter a Scottish small town which “turned its back on the sea” (Muir, Imagined 2) and, by implication, on the unknown world beyond it, while looking inward to its own life and its own rigid customs and opinions. This ironic voice is sympathetic to Elizabeth although less so to her fellow townspeople, as it points to the self-delusion in the way characters lead and look upon their lives. But what especially makes Imagined Corners such an interesting novel of female self-discovery is its exploration of its heroine’s situation through the invention of three Elizabeth Shands. There is the main character, the Elizabeth Shand by marriage, the clever but sexually inexperienced young woman who is beginning to realise that sexual passion is not necessarily the only quality necessary for a fulfilling marriage or for a fulfilling life; then there is her sister-in-law, another Elizabeth Shand, known to her family as Lizzie, who as a young girl fought against the restrictions of small-town life and shocked the community by running off to Europe with the school’s German teacher. Lizzie has now returned to Calderwick as the sophisticated Elise, Frau Doctor Mütze, widow of a European scholar, who has come home in search of that angry young Lizzie, in the hope of coming to some understanding of the course her adult life has taken. While one realises, when one knows the story of the author’s own life, that all three Elizabeths represent stages in Willa Muir’s own journey to maturity, it is also clear that this life- writing source has developed lives of its own in the making of the Imagined Corners novel, widening the range of interrogation and maintaining a creative impersonality in relation to original life story. Implicitly, however, it provides evidence of its author’s continuing sense of alienation in relation to the small Scottish community she herself lived in as a child and young adult, and which in several respects remained with her throughout her life in relation to Scotland as a whole. She never seemed to lose that sense of “displaced person” in relation to Scottish life.

6Unlike her Women: An Inquiry essay, Imagined Corners was well received when it eventually achieved publication in 1931. By this time, however, its author was increasingly in need of that reserve of female energy supposedly given for childrearing and domestic activities which she had written about in the earlier essay. The Muirs had moved with their young son to Hampstead in the early 1930s, where Edwin continued with his reviewing and his own creative writing and they visited and played host to many of the writers with whom they made contact. There was also the translation work which made up a good part of their income to be undertaken, and in this Willa would appear to have been the most active partner. In addition, there was the organisation of the domestic establishment, which again fell into Willa’s sphere of activity as the woman of the household, although she did not seem to have much talent or inclination for it. In her memoir Belonging, Willa looks back idealistically at the time they spent in Hampstead, writing that “living in Hampstead was like living with one’s True Love; there was no possibility of ever preferring another part of London.” (Muir, Belonging 162) Yet the female implications of their busy writing, entertainment, child-minding and housekeeping activities suggest a “true-love” environment that must frequently have been under stress; and this contrary aspect is played out in Willa’s unpublished novel Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey, written in the later 1930s after the Muirs had left London for Scotland in 1935. The novel does not appear to have been sent out to any agency or publisher, perhaps because of wartime conditions or because Willa herself had a period of serious illness at the time of the outbreak of World War Two and the book may have been put aside. It is an uneven work so far as creative fiction is concerned, with a lack of that necessary artistic distancing from actual life sources and responses in several of its later chapters. Yet it is also a fascinating work for the contemporaneous personal information it communicates, together with its opening up of the almost insuperable difficulties facing a talented woman in the early years of the twentieth century attempting to be a wife and mother and also to have a career of her own, either outwith the house or as writer or artist working within the family home; but without the financial means to buy in reliable domestic help and child care, and of course without the electrical housekeeping aids we take for granted today. In relation to life-writing, it appears obvious from the Mrs Muttoe scenario that it is Alison Muttoe, standing in for Willa, who is doing the principal Kafka translation work – the author cleverly renamed “Garta”, thus drawing on Willa’s awareness of Max Brod’s renaming of Kafka when he also wrote a novel featuring a character based on the Czech writer. It is largely to cover this translation work that Alison Muttoe requires to employ a maid to look after her child when he comes home from primary school, and in both fictional and real-life scenarios it is an over-religious childminder who does serious harm to the child by her threats of hellfire and drowning: psychological harm in the Mrs Muttoe story, but actual physical harm in the Muirs’ real life story where their son is so scared of his minder that he runs into the path of a petrol tanker and is seriously hurt.

7Although Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey is based on life experiences that on the whole have not achieved the necessary distancing to acquire a satisfactory artistic identity of their own when re-imagined in fictional form, it is at the same time full of interesting speculations about the nature of society and human relationships in a changing modern world; about the development of capitalism and how it is changing the residential face of London as well as its business affairs; a questioning of how those at the bottom of society can be employed and housed without exploitation. As Mrs Muttoe trudges to and from various qualities of domestic employment agencies looking for her elusive general cook/housekeepers, she seems to find herself for the first time noticing her changing surroundings and analysing the nature of the society in which she also is trying to survive. Similarly her nightmares in which she finds herself lost in huge constructions – sometimes new buildings under construction, at others disintegrating structures – give surreal life to the mental and emotional pressures of an everyday life-style which is becoming unviable. The novel’s title, Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey, does not refer, as might be assumed before reading the whole text, to the fact that Alison Muttoe had to cope with the domestic life downstairs while her poet husband escaped to his attic study to write his poetry and reviews in uninterrupted peace. What it principally refers to is Alison Muttoe’s increasing obsession with the unfairness in a capitalist society; with the hardship of the lower classes which seems never to be able to be eased; and the exploitation carried out by those who have gained the “top storey” in the world of affairs. And she cannot work out how she fits into this structure or how she can operate in it with fairness to herself and to those whom she employs. It is a thought-provoking script, even if not the achieved artistic success of the earlier Imagined Corners.

8Finally, there is the testimony offered by Willa’s life-writing in her Prague journals when she went there with Edwin when he was appointed as Director of the British Council Institute in Prague immediately after World War Two. Prague had been the first European city visited by the Muirs in the early 1920s when Edwin’s new contract with the American Freeman journal allowed them to travel in Europe in reality as opposed to in their imaginations through books. There they met the playwright Karel Čapek and his painter brother Josef and were taken into their theatre circle, with Willa learning sufficient Czech to translate Karel’s Insects play into English. Prague in the mid-1940s, and after years of Nazi occupation, was a very different place from that earlier city of the newly independent Czechoslovakia which Willa had described as being “sizzling with hope and experiment and enthusiasm”. Now, although the centre of the city “looked much the same [...] the one-time noisy, bustling cheerful people were warily silent, looking pasty-faced and ill-fed, with not a smile among them.” (Muir, Belonging 56, 214) It was during this period in Prague that Willa began to keep a regular journal, and from its beginning there is a sense of personal insecurity which in later stages of her first notebook and more strongly in subsequent notebooks merges with a wider sense of public and political insecurity. This was probably the first time in her marriage that Willa had found herself excluded from Edwin’s employment. Like Mr Muttoe, Edwin had previously written his reviews and critical essays at home. There is a strange comment in Willa’s first journal about her husband, with no context given: “Edwin – a document indecipherable even for home reading”; later there is a poem titled “Metamorphosis” in which the speaker sees her husband “disguised with large and horn-rimmed glasses”, as he leaves for teaching duties at Charles University. She dreams about her unhappy childhood home in Montrose where she had felt so much like a “displaced person”: “I realised how much I feared and loathed that house” (Muir, Prague Journal 5/3). Alongside such personal insecurities there are reports of comments by Czech acquaintances about the state of their country: “a nation of Schweiks, at least, all those over 40 [...] Czechs and Moravians would be better off without the Slovaks [...] Czechs are more kin to Russians than to West”. One acquaintance comments that after seven years of the Gestapo “people would look the other way even if murder were done in the streets” (Muir, Prague Journal 5/2). In the journal for 1947-1948 comments begin to appear which relate more specifically to current politics: there is the warning from a friend about secret police activity and therefore to be careful about what one writes in letters; a Czech friend who works for the government as a liaison officer is arrested. Tensions come to a head in the journal for January 1948-May 1948 titled “The Putsch, and after”. Here much of the diary information comes from Polaková the maid who becomes a kind of reporter from the milk front in the account. News of the resignation of ministers is noted by Willa as coming from “Brit. Wireless” alongside Polaková’s view that “They shouldn’t have resigned. One shouldn’t give up an inch.” The sense of an unstoppable movement is communicated by the way events are starkly listed with no attempt made to put them into an ideas context. On Wednesday Polaková comes back from the milk shop with news that “high officials” in various ministries, including the Ministry of Justice, have been arrested. There are no newspapers apart from the Communist papers and one Social Democrat paper, and she reports “more indignation about the stopped newspapers than about anything else so far!” Students continue to demonstrate, ministers to be dismissed, the ageing and unwell Beneš finally accepts the new government and news comes of the apparent suicide of Jan Masaryk, son of the first President of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia, and himself former Foreign Minister. He had visited Beneš on Masaryk Day, the day which celebrated his father; now he was dead on the day that the Czech Parliament was due to meet for the first time under the new Communist Government accepted by Beneš. Willa asks: “What will happen?” (Muir, Prague Journal 5/4)

9The Muirs eventually decided that they could no longer do any useful work in the new Communist Czechoslovakia and so they returned to Britain. While Edwin’s response to that difficult time is to be found transmuted within the imagistic poetry of his 1949 collection The Labyrinth, it is Willa’s belief in what she had called in their more carefree days in the south of France “the empathy of personal feelings and memories” (Muir, Belonging 126) and the resulting immediacy of her diaries which leaves direct testimony of these terrible times. Her life-writing in all its forms, published or unpublished, is witness to her own personal journeys of psychological understanding but it is also witness to the wider social and political complexities of the world of her time whether that world be Scotland or Hampstead or the wider world of Europe.



Butter, Peter, “Willa Muir: Writer” in C.J.M. MacLachlan and David Robb (eds), Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments, Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1990.

Muir, Willa, letter to Florence Marian McNeill, January 1926, National Library of Scotland MS 26194.

Muir, Willa, Women: An Inquiry, London: Hogarth Press, 1925, collected in Allen, Kirsty (ed.) Imagined Selves Edinburgh: Canongate, 1996.

Muir, Willa, Imagined Corners, London: Martin Secker, 1931, collected in Imagined Selves, 1996.

Muir, Willa, “Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey”, University of St Andrews MS 38466 1/2.

Muir, Willa, Prague Journals 1947-48, University of St Andrews MS 38466 5/2, 3, 4.

Muir, Willa, Belonging, London: Hogarth Press, life-writing.

Palmer McCulloch, Margery (ed.), Modernism and Nationalism: Source Documents for the Scottish Renaissance, Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2004.


1  Willa Muir, letter to Florence Marian McNeill, January 1926, National Library of Scotland MS 26194; reproduced in Palmer McCulloch 201.


Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow and published widely on Scottish literature. Most recently she focused on Scotland’s contribution to international Modernism, with Modernism and Nationalism (2004), Scottish Modernism and its Contexts (2009), and the co-edited Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid and Scottish and International Modernisms (both 2011). She was co-editor of Scottish Literary Review from 2005-2013. In 2017, she completed a joint biography of Edwin and Willa Muir and their Scottish and European contexts, research for which was funded by a Leverhulme Emerita Fellowship.

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