Version classiqueVersion mobile

Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Contemporary Scottish Women’s literature

Agnes Owen’s “strong fighting wom[e]n”1, or the insurrection of small, invisible lives

Benjamine Toussaint


As a working-class Scottish woman, Agnes Owens was triply alienated from traditional forms of authority in British literature. At the time she started writing, however, working-class urban novels were gradually coming to be seen as a trademark of ‘authentic’ Scottish literature, which somehow turned some of her disadvantages into assets. Yet this also meant that being a woman proved even more of a difficulty since these novels were quintessentially male. After considering her position towards a gender-oriented conception of literature, this paper will explore how the victimization of women in her fiction functions as a paradigm of vulnerability and how her relentless depiction of disempowerment becomes both an aesthetic and an ethical choice. When read in isolation, her short stories and novellas are stories of defeat yet, once they are read together and allowed to resonate with each other, they depict the insurrection of small, invisible lives and engage our response-ability as readers.

Texte intégral

  • 1 “Shout it from the rooftops: Agnes Owens was a bloody great writer and a great woman, a strong fight (...)
  • 1  James Kelman was first shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990 and won it in 1994. Alasdair Gray’s (...)
  • 2  In “Talking to the People: A Reflection on Recent Glasgow Fiction,” for instance, hers is the only (...)

1As a working-class Scottish woman writer, Agnes Owens was triply alienated from traditional forms of authority in the British literary canon although things evolved in the thirty years between the time when she wrote “Arabella” (1978) during a creative writing class taught by Liz Lochhead and the publication of her last collection of short stories in 2008. As Alasdair Gray underlines, in the late 60s “Scotland was still beyond ‘the fiction zone’ as far as the rest of Britain was concerned” (Tormans 571) and the 1970s are generally considered as a particularly low point for the publication of Scottish fiction, even though the Scottish poetry of the same period had quite a high British national profile. The failure of the 1979 referendum, however, acted as a wake-up call that resulted in “a change in publication policy and an adjusted critical view on Scottish writers” (ibid. 566) Literary talent predated this political event but it is only in its aftermath that there was a “proliferation of Scottish works on the literary market” (ibid.) and in the 1990s “the British book world became aware of Scottish writing as a distinctive entity” (Cumrey 37). Indeed, whilst the literary career of such leading novelists as Alasdair Gray and James Kelman started before the referendum, it is through the 1980s and the 1990s that they increasingly gained commercial and critical1 success. Despite the resistance of the most conservative members of the Establishment –as evidenced by the scandal surrounding Kelman’s Booker Prize in 1994– the success of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and the Rebel Inc writers in the 1990s led to working-class urban novels coming to be seen not simply as acceptable but as an actual trademark of authentic Scottish literature. While this implied that Owens’s national and social disadvantages suddenly appeared to have become assets, it concurrently turned her gender into an even greater hindrance to her critical recognition since those urban working-class novels were quintessentially male2. To quote Janice Galloway, “now that Scottish writing [had] a profile it [was] a bloke’s profile” (qtd in Jones 210) although her own works, as well as those of A. L. Kennedy “were hailed as putting an end to male hegemony” in prose fiction (Pittin-Hedon 29). It is not, however, with these women writers that Owens is usually compared but rather with Gray and Kelman, because they published a joint collection of short stories, Lean Tales (1985), and because she had chosen a young brick-layer as the main protagonist of her first two novellas, Gentlemen of the West (1984) and Like Birds in the Wilderness (1987). Moreover, she expressed her own reluctance to being associated with women writers during an interview published in 2008:

I’m supposed to be all for women’s rights, if I’m decent at all. But as far as writing’s concerned, I think that men are getting shoved out of the road now, and it’s the women that are taking over, and you see, I don’t think men are up to much, but I like a male character, if you know what I mean. […] I got a bit kind of disbelieving about these women writers who write for women and for women’s causes. They seem to make a meal of it. I can’t explain why I feel this, because I do think women are abused terribly by men, but they’ve got to maybe make it believeable. I mean, most men can’t help being abusive to women, and they might be good husbands, they might be good fathers, but they might also feel, “I’m the boss”, you know.
J. Gray 9

2Given that her female characters are the focal point of this paper, such a statement deserves some further consideration and contextualisation. The first part will therefore be devoted to a brief analysis of this interview. The point will be to identify what Owens considers as the constitutive elements of a female identity for a character or a writer and to determine how this vision informs the ethical and aesthetic choices she makes in her fiction. In the same interview, Owens reminds us that “the underdog can turn round and bite you just the same as any other dog!” (ibid.) The second part – devoted to the victimization of women – will therefore be followed by an analysis of their rebellion and of Owens’s fiction as an act of insurrection.

On the (in) decency of Agnes Owens as a woman writer

  • 3  Such prejudices as anglocentrism, but also other normative views on gender, sexuality, language or (...)

3Owens’s desire to distance herself from other women writers in this interview is not entirely surprising since she was being asked whether she saw herself “as being a specifically Scottish writer, or [whether she would] rather be seen as a woman writer.” Authors who present the slightest deviance from the implicit norm – of the White, English, middle or upper-middle class, heterosexual male writer – are constantly reminded both of that deviation and of their need to struggle against the restricting labels that are invariably used to qualify their identity as authors3. In spite of Owens’s admiration for and friendship with Gray and Kelman, it is worth noting that she was just as equally adamant that her work was very different from theirs. On the other hand, for all her criticism of women writers, the only author whose influence she does acknowledge in this interview is Flannery O’ Connor (J. Gray 8), and when asked to name other authors whose works she enjoys reading, the one writer she cites is Jessie Kesson (ibid. 10). In different circumstances, moreover, she had stated that it was pleasing “to be thought of as a woman writer” (qtd in Pirie-Hunter 54). As for her taste for “a male character” it seems to have been motivated mainly by her distaste for some recent publications for, in a different context, she had said: “I get vaguely tired of the Scottish situation and the Glasgow man” (ibid. 47) Her position is therefore to be seen as a reaction – or even a form of resistance – to a particular context rather than as a definitive position on gender issues.

4Given that she likes to expose what she calls “treacheries of attitude” (J. Gray 9) – and that she does not consider herself as guiltless in this regard – it is interesting to note that she suggests that the “decent” thing to do in her position would be to support women’s rights. If we consider her works, the fact is that many of her protagonists are women and that in her denunciation of their predicaments, her position is not strikingly different from that of women rights’ supporters. When she claims that “most men can’t help being abusive” it is not to rehabilitate misogynistic behaviour but to qualify a Manichean vision of gender relations and to shift the blame on patriarchal society rather than on individuals. It is consistent with her desire “to convey people that are condemned in a better light than what people would think […] or maybe to make people think, well, these people are human” (ibid.) She refuses gender polarisation because she cares for “the failures” (ibid. 12) of society, regardless of whether their being confined to the margins of society has to do with their social status, their gender, their alcoholism, their madness or any combination of the above. The ethos at the core of her work is vulnerability. This is what Mac, her young brickie, and her numerous female protagonists have in common.

  • 4  All her characters are considered as subalterns on the ground of their social status and victimize (...)

5The point of focusing on her female characters is not to suggest that she is a woman writer “who writes for women about women’s causes”. It is, however, a convenient means to study her staging of vulnerability through the characters who best seem to embody it in her fiction. While constantly depicting the precariousness of her characters’ lives, Owens shuns this word and uses the adjective “vulnerable” only three times in all her fiction, twice in A Working Mother, once in For the Love of Willie. In all cases, the adjective refers to a woman and to a threat that a man poses for her. Mai has been fired by the lecherous Mr Robson – although Betty is responsible for her being sacked. Betty herself feels in a vulnerable position when her husband towers over her, reminding her of her “father’s inquisitions when [she] was a child and he was about to thrash [her]” (CN 181). Finally, young Peggy is warned about the extreme vulnerability of young girls (CN 302) by the wife of Willie, her boss and lover. Moreover, the main protagonists of these two works are aging women in a mental institution, reminiscing about the time when they lost everything, leading to their mental breakdown and their being institutionalised so that they can be seen as icons of vulnerability. Clearly the vulnerability of Mai, Betty and Peggy involves other elements than their gender – mainly issues of economic power and childhood’s frailty – yet in all cases we are dealing with women’s victimization by men. For one of the implications of intersectionality is that in the patriarchal society Owens’s characters inhabit, women are de facto more victimized than men4.

6Besides this sociologically realistic explanation there is the issue of the metaphoric association of vulnerability with femininity. Levinas’s and Derrida’s works show “not only the centrality of vulnerability within the framework of the ethics of alterity, but also the centrality of the feminine as figure and condition of the ethical relation” (Ganteau 7). Their definition of the feminine undeniably goes beyond “sexual distinction or opposition” (ibid.) but to the more profane eyes, it is not necessarily easy to completely dissociate the feminine from women. Given that the heterosexual patriarchal order tends to define the female body as weak and penetrable, it makes the symbolic association of vulnerability (which, etymologically, refers to the wound) and women rather obvious. All the more so since sex is something Owens’s heroines submit to rather than enjoy and since sexual assault is not uncommon in her fiction. Owens’s representation of vulnerability goes beyond sexual opposition since it also involves male characters; however, as stated above, through their numerical superiority as well as the extent to which they are victimized, one can claim that her female protagonists epitomize the representation of vulnerability in her fiction.

7While Owens’s view on the relation between gender and vulnerability is subtle, she sometimes seems to endorse rather conventional essentialist stances on genders. She alludes to women’s taste for “romances” and to their tendency to be “talkative” (J. Gray 11). Her latter comment echoes the criticism she had previously formulated against women writers’ propensity for “making a meal” of things. Rather than speculate on what may have motivated such statements, what matters is the aesthetic judgement they imply. She does not consider herself as a woman writer because she has an aversion to verbosity and sentimentality which, in her view, are typically feminine. It is quite possible to disagree with her not uncommon definition of a specifically feminine kind of writing even while agreeing with her perception of her own style as concise and deadpan. Owens’s insistence on dissociating herself from any form of mawkishness is in fact quite understandable since “under the ‘fiction’ banner, a spate of romances – all sharing the same pithy title, Vulnerable – seem to pander to the reader’s taste for the highly emotional and sensational” (Ganteau 2). One of the most impressive aspects of Owens’s talent, on the contrary, is precisely her capacity to convey a sense of extreme vulnerability through an understated, unaffected prose, as will appear in the examples studied below.

“Women are abused terribly by men”

8Although Owens never described herself as a feminist and even stated that “It’s hard to have a family and be a feminist” (Duncan), her exposure of women’s predicament explores many facets of patriarchal oppression and could easily be quoted to support a feminist agenda. Her characters are repeatedly reminded that in a patriarchal society, their horizon is extremely limited. In its mildest – though by no means insignificant – form, this limitation takes the shape of a sermon against working mothers who are reminded that their true place is at home. In A Working Mother, this homily is, unsurprisingly, delivered by Betty’s husband while in “Getting Sent for” it is a headmistress who lectures one of the pupils’ mother. The former’s interiorisation of patriarchal dictates clearly demonstrates that symbolic power “can only be exercised with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it” (Bourdieu 164). The narrowing down of women’s space can, however, go further than denying them access to the public sphere of the workplace. In “The Silver Cup”, the father views “darkly any mission which necessitated [his wife’s] being gone from the house for more than an hour” (CSS 146) and is not even content with confining her indoors. Within the home, which is clearly under his dominion, the son has his own room which he “like [s]” and which is described as “his territory and a haven to his friends” (CSS 145). This contrasts with the mother’s situation since she is isolated and only feels safe in “the kitchenette… among the unwashed dishes” (CSS 146). Besides the clichéd gendering of space and a reminder of the domestic chores expected from her, what is striking is that the diminutive suffix and the allusion to a potential cluttering of the tiny room with everyone’s dirty dishes further reduce the size of the only space she can call her own.

9Beyond the space they inhabit, it is women’s own physical and mental integrity that is constantly threatened by the men in their lives. Verbal and physical abuse is ubiquitous and rape is not uncommon. One of the most terrible scenes is probably the assault of the middle-aged, amnesiac woman who has escaped from her mental institution in “People Like That”. Trifling, commonplace details are mentioned to emphasise her distress, such as the fact that “she had newly sewn on that morning” (CSS 241) the buttons that her rapist reaps off her coat. We are never told about the physical pain or the emotions caused by the rape itself. Rather the atrocity of the scene stems from the domino-like effect of a series of revelations unveiling a lifetime of misery:

Mary’s head hit the wall and as if this jolt had done the trick she remembered suddenly that Brian had died of an overdose two years ago when he’d gone down to Manchester with his junkie friends. ‘There’s nothin’ to dae up here, ’ had been his excuse.
‘Oh, my poor Brian, ’ she said aloud, wanting to cry but unable to do so with the man’s weight crushing against her.
‘Never mind poor Brian. Think o’ me for a change, ’ said the drunk. After what seemed like an eternity, he gave a shudder and became still. It seemed to be over. He must have had some success yet she expected a blow on the mouth. Her husband had always done that.
CSS 242

10The trivial phrase “as if this jolt had done the trick” and the casual way in which her husband’s violence is revealed – and presented as something she has come to perceive as normative behaviour – are disturbingly anticlimactic. They are in fact quite typical of Owen’s aesthetics which deny her readers any voyeuristic prying into the mind of her characters and which rely on downplaying the telling of traumatic events, thus creating an even more distressing impression on the readers’ minds. No less cruel or misogynistic than the rape itself is the man’s silencing of his victim. It is not a self-protective reaction to prevent her from calling for help but an egocentric refusal to let her mind focus on anything other than the violence he is inflicting upon her. She is both physically and verbally denied the right to express her grief through either tears or words.

11The silencing of women is a recurring theme in Owens’s fiction. In “The Silver Cup”, for instance, Sammy’s father refuses to watch anything “which related to female predicaments” and “Sammy’s Ma had learned to keep her mouth shut about what she liked” (CSS 146). In “The Hut”, the tabooed female predicament is more specific: the narrator is “never allowed to mention the miscarriage. It [is] like a crime that had to be kept hidden” (CSS 279-280). Silencing them in this way is a denial of the specifically feminine elements in their identity and therefore a threat to their subjectivity. The silencing of women may be based on other grounds than their gender, it may stem from social contempt for subaltern’s stories or simply from a form of social invisibility. Regardless of the motives that lie behind the silencing, being silenced is a trauma, as is made clear in “The Silver Cup”. The household is not simply dominantly male in terms of numbers, it is aggressively misogynistic, with a father prone to physical violence and a son who casually mentions his having “[gone] out for a gang bang” (CSS 150). When his mother wrinkles her forehead and repeats “Gang bang?”, he simply ignores her. His statement and his nonchalance are so bewildering she cannot even articulate a full sentence and he continues talking about the silver cup as if he had not even heard her. With her existence thus negated in her own home, she has no choice but to turn to her neighbours – whom she has long wistfully observed from her window – in the hope of being finally acknowledged by other human beings. Aware of the comic potential of her husband’s and son’s latest row, Sammy’s mother sees it as an opportunity to finally integrate the local female community by telling her neighbours about it: “She longed to speak rather than listen” (CSS 151). As she is on the verge of empowerment, about to escape confinement and gain visibility, she is so nervous that she trips and falls. The neighbours – making fun of her but “not unkind” – escort her back to her flat but refuse to listen to her story and this ultimate silencing is such a trauma that she begins to “laugh hysterically” (ibid.) and the neighbours leave, convinced that she is mad. They softly close the door behind them, entrapping her again.

  • 5  Lynne Stark sees this focus on alienated individuals as having originated in the works of Gray and (...)

12Never in Owens’s fiction do we find benevolent communities in which her characters can hope to find solace or protection. The vulnerability of her protagonists is heightened by the fact that they are utterly isolated5. They are misfits whose suffering is invisible in the eyes of others, including those who have the professional responsibility of looking after them. In “People like that,” when the asylum staff come to look for Mary and bring her back to the institution, the woman warns her against running away: “One of these days you’re going to come to real harm, you know”. There is a terrible discrepancy between her outward display of warm-heartedness and her blindness to Mary’s plight. Unlike her, the reader is aware that Mary has just come to real harm already and that she has in fact repeatedly come to real harm in the past. Her suffering is further negated by the final lines of the story. During this exchange between the other staff member and a railway clerk, the latter denies the singularity of her experience, including her in an unspecific, derogatory category:

“I hope we haven’t put you to any bother. She’s a sad case really.”
“No bother at all,” said the railway clerk. “We have them in here all the time – people like that.”
CSS 242

13Through the indifference of Sammy’s mother’s neighbours, of the railway clerk and of those who are supposed to be the representatives of an ethics of care, Owens denounces society’s incapacity to fulfil its duty towards the vulnerable and challenges the reader to engage in a different ethical response.

“The sound of nothingness”6

  • 6  “Go into any place where history is stored and listen. Hold your breath. Hear how still it is. […] (...)

14Vulnerability is not to be confused with weakness or passivity for attempts at rebellion are in fact the underlying motif of most of Owens’s stories. This, however, does not imply that rebellion is necessarily successful: the underdog can fight back but biting dogs are often put down. The sense of empowerment is usually ephemeral and illusory in her fiction. When it is more permanent it is placed under the sign of escapism, either because the characters are insane or because of elements of fantasy in the stories. Arabella, for instance, is both disempowered – as a social outcast victimized by her parents – and endowed with a dubious kind of power over some “respectable gentlemen” (CSS 2). The central dramatic incident in this short story is the dreaded visit of the Sanitary Inspector who, as a man in charge of enforcing rules, is theoretically the embodiment of power. Arabella emerges victorious from the conflict since the threat is literally eliminated. Moreover, his being compared to a rag-doll and described as “fragile” as well as Arabella’s condescending comment that “she could have helped him if he had let her” (CSS 6) are quite effective from the point of view of gender role reversal. It is, however, difficult to see a psychotic murderess who is something of a monstrous ogress as a role model for women’s emancipation. Unlike Arabella, the heroine of “The Castle” is cunning and manipulative rather than delusional. However she is also a murderess and the realistic elements in the story are undermined by burlesque fairy-tale details and the playful hint that the French village in which she will live happily ever after is a utopian place where “no one is expected to pay more than they can afford” (CSS 296).

15There is only one example in all of Owens’s fiction where the main character achieves a form of success that it is both enduring and socially acceptable. “The Dysfunctional Family”, her very last short story, is a counterpoint to all her previous fiction because it seems to be a rags-to-riches story. The protagonist is a young girl whose complicated situation improves after the Social services take her and her brother away:

I was fostered by a very nice middle-aged couple who gave me everything I wanted. The snag was, I had to be obedient, well mannered and speak with a proper accent which was the hardest thing to do. Also I was only allowed to befriend nice well-mannered girls, which I did without too much bother, but I swore to myself I would run away at the first opportunity to find my younger brother
CSS 372-73.

  • 7  As Kelman underlines in his tribute to Owens, this is a “mysterious all-powerful male figure who ei (...)

16The concluding lines of the story, however, are disturbing: “deep in my heart by then I didn’t want to find him because I had changed so much and the chances were he wouldn’t have changed at all” (CSS 373). From the beginning, this short story has been about silencing the subalterns, those who are perceived as dysfunctional. It has begun with the teacher who “put a big cross” (CSS 370) through the narrator’s partly autobiographical composition. Later, a strange man7 pushes her and her younger brother into a van as if they were “dogs being taken to the dog pound” (CSS 372). This scene makes it clear that it is not simply that “kind of story” (CSS 370) that normal people would like to cross out of sight but, more precisely, that kind of people. And the dysfunctional are indeed successfully erased from the story though the murders are symbolical. The process of social assimilation implies that the girl should renounce her former identity and, quite significantly, learn to speak in a different voice. This one underdog does not bite, it allows itself to be trained into a nice pet instead. Besides, her wishful thinking reads like a metaphorical fratricide “He could be anywhere in the world, maybe even dead” (CSS 373). What impresses Kelman in Owens’s female characters is the relentless energy with which they fight: “It is not that these women are survivors, and many do not survive, but they engage in a struggle that is virtually insurmountable” (Kelman). The protagonist of “The Dysfunctional Family,” however, has renounced fighting. Her individual (istic) victory reads like a further betrayal of the vulnerable.

  • 8  There is the suggestion that her stories don’t sell well because they are sad, which is a comment (...)

17Owens’s last collection of short stories includes texts entitled “Meet the Author” and “The Writing Group”. This might lead us to surmise that while she rejects the bourgeois teleological tale of upward social mobility, she is willing to consider other forms of empowerment – such as literature – for her characters. In her previous fiction, the rare times when a book was mentioned, the characters failed to read it or understand its relevance to interpret their own lives thus suggesting the uselessness of literature. In “Roses” – which is inserted between “The Writing Group” and “Meet the Author” – Owens playfully takes this idea a step further. In this parodic fairy-tale, the heroine’s addiction to reading alienates her from everyone and even leads her to commit several murders until she becomes too blind to read, makes a bonfire with all her books and “dance [s] around the ashes with a feeling of freedom” (CSS 318). If reading is not a key to emancipation, neither is writing. In “Meet the author”, the eponymous novelist complains of her lack of commercial success and is in desperate need for recognition. This character is a kind of grotesque refashioning of Owens8 as a “wom [a] n writer who write [s] for women and for women’s causes” (J. Gray 9) since her only audience is the female narrator and the cover of her book is a picture of “a doleful woman holding a baby” (CSS 319). As for “The Writing Group”, it deals less with the art of fiction than it does with class conflicts and what the young female protagonist gains from this experience is not self-enlightenment or artistic vision but a more material gain in the shape of a wallet she has stolen from the libidinous old man who assaulted her. This, however, does not mean that Owens’s works do not contain meta-fictional comments. Rather, they are to be found in novellas which – at first sight – might seem less concerned with writing: A Working Mother and For the Love of Willie. Unlike Peggy, Betty tells but does not write the story of her life. Her oral tale however is a counter narrative to the book Mr Robson is writing on “Capabilities of Human Behaviour in Animals” (CN 240). Writing rather than simply telling her story means that Peggy is confronted with further impediments as she constantly needs to struggle to obtain sheets of paper. After donating her manuscript to the hospital, she regrets her gesture and wants to retrieve it but her request is denied and she leaves, convinced that it has been “chucked in the bin” (CN 351). This weakness of the material object is only one aspect of the vulnerability of fiction depicted in both novellas. They also repeatedly draw our attention to miscommunication between the narrators and their unsympathetic audience, Lady Lipton and the Duchess. The latter always seem to misconstrue the meaning of the story they are listening to / reading. They interrupt the narrators, demand further information about secondary characters, see the men portrayed as villains as gentlemen, etc. The narrators themselves are not exempt from responsibility in the failures of communication. Betty is an utterly unreliable narrator prone to revisionism. As for Peggy, she makes fun of the Duchess’s taste for the Mills and Boon novels and claims that love is “only sex with a sugar coating round it” (CN 319) yet her own narrative is sometimes stylistically infected by Mills and Boon sentimentalism (Von Rosenberg 203). Thus fiction proves as vulnerable and as fallible as Owens’s characters and yet, unlike them, it is somehow victorious in the end. While Mr Robson, this “parody of a Freud figure” (Pirie-Hunter 71), tries to reduce Betty to the status of object of his ‘hysterical narrative’, Owens makes her voice centre to the narrative (CN 69-71). Similarly, Peggy’s manuscript may be lost but we have read her story.

18“The definition of vulnerability is predicated on a vision of the human as vulnerable and essentially dependent on others, and vice versa, a conception of interdependence that makes humanity essentially relational” (Ganteau 5). Through her meta-fictional comments on the precariousness involved in the transmission of one’s story, Owens appeals to our response-ability as readers to engage fully with her works and see the characters who – within the diegesis – are denied visibility. This is not an easy task because the depiction of vulnerability cannot rely on linear teleology; it requires an aesthetic of fragmentation and circular wandering (ibid. 35) which demands a more active participation of the reader. It is easy and gratifying to notice the poetic echoes in a short story, such as the figurative and literal brick walls in “People Like That”. It is, however, less easy to notice repetitions between two works when one was published four years after the other, unless one takes time to read them again. Although A Working Mother and For the Love of Willie are obviously worth reading individually, they do complete each other and the anecdote both narrators tell about being described as “sad apple” by American soldiers (CN 185, 313) invites us to compare the stories of these women. Isolated Owens’s stories are stories of defeat, when they are read collectively and allowed to resonate with one another they create “the huge, invisible, silent roar of all the people who are too small to record” (Kennedy 64). This is what motivates the numerous repetitions within and between her stories but these repetitions can be oppressive for the reader. Even more challenging is the suggestion that we are potentially as vulnerable as her characters. In “People Like That”, Mary uses this titular phrase to describe an ordinary-looking woman before the label is applied to her. Not only does Owens suggest that our normative views may be challenged but she also denies us the safety of imagining that we are ontologically different from her misfits. As the social worker states in “Bad attitudes”: “All my clients are normal. It’s their lives that aren’t” (CN 378). It is easy to overlook the marginalized in real life because they are a minority and because society seems to keep them at a safe distance but they people Owens’s fiction and refuse to be silenced.

19Twenty years ago, Douglas Gifford claimed that “this self-taught, original writer [had developed] her deceivingly straightforward and simple stories of hard life at the edges of society to the point where she must be considered as one of the most significant of contemporary women’s voices” (Gifford 624). She has also been acclaimed by fellow writers, especially Alasdair Gray and James Kelman but also Liz Lochhead and Ali Smith. The first two have repeatedly championed her through interviews and, in the case of Gray, even in his published works, as he pays tribute to her in The End of Tethers and Of Me and Others. For a long time, however, Owens has remained “a neglected and marginal figure” (McNeill), “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors” (The End of our Tethers 175). Her age, her unglamorous lifestyle and the non-ameliorative dimension of her fiction have been evoked to explain her lack of recognition. So has the length of her works. Short-stories are considered more difficult to market – which explains why Gentlemen of the West was first published as a novel – and in the case of Owens, writing only short stories and novellas seems to have contributed to the erroneous impression that she is not a fully-fledged author. While the more famous Gray, Kelman or Lochhead are professional writers, Owens was at first only a part-time author, with a working-class day job, then a retiree. It took the publication of her complete short stories in 2008, to give her the impression, for the first time, that she was a proper writer: “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do […] It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!” (Ramaswamy). There have been powerful counter-movements in literature that have challenged previously established canon. Women’s writing and working-class novels are now seen as culturally acceptable and even canon-worthy; yet Kelman is still being asked why he writes about the working class and uses a “dialect” and contemporary statistics reveal that “the neglect of women writers and women’s writing continues to distort our sense of the critical landscape” (McNeill). Moreover, as Natsuda Satayaban underlines, the works of Agnes Owens are characterised by a “radical dialectical engagement with her specific sociopolitical and cultural context as a female-centred form of class critique that cannot find an aesthetic recognition within mainstream Left history and politics” (Satayaban 355). Owens is often compared with Gray and Kelman, sometimes with Scottish women writers like Spark, but her position remains somewhat interstitial so that, like her characters, she finds herself isolated and therefore vulnerable. Vulnerability should not, however, be confused with mere weakness. In L’Insurrection des vies minuscules, Guillaume le Blanc analyses the aesthetics that underlie the ethics at work in Charlie Chaplin’s films and describes the figure of the Tramp as a life that is constantly in the process of being expelled, always about to vanish into thin air yet relentlessly reappearing. Always on the verge of extinction, the Tramp is a tiny parasitic creature, a precarious witness who cannot alter the world but can bear witness to its frailty and give visibility to the vulnerable. In the way Owens’s characters refuse to be silenced, one can see a similar insurrection of the small, invisible lives that have so often been excluded from history. Although Owens may not quite be said to have entered the canon yet, she is gaining increasing visibility, whether it is through the publication of her collected works by Polygon, the growing critical and academic attention she is receiving, or her being celebrated – alongside Naomi Mitchison and Janet Paisley – during Open the Door 2019 at Glasgow Women’s Library. The difficulty of fitting her into a particular canon on the grounds of her gender, nationality or social class may for a while have kept her at the margin of literary history but this is also what makes her such a significant, disruptive voice, from both an ethical and aesthetic point of view.



For ease of reference, the following abbreviations will be used in referring to Agnes Owens’s works:

CSS The Complete Short Stories, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008. Print

CN The Complete Novellas, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

Brooks, Libby, “Don’t tell me who I am”, in The Guardian, 12 January 2002.

Cumrey, Andrew, “The Public Image: Scottish Literature in the Media”, in Berthold Schoene (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007, 34-42.

Dixon, Keith “Talking to the People: A Reflection on Recent Glasgow Fiction”, in Studies in Scottish Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 1993, 92-104.

Duncan, Lesley, “A heart that stays at home”, in The Herald Scotland, 14 May 1994. home/

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British fiction, New York: Routledge, 2015.

Gifford, Douglas, “Contemporary Fiction II” in Gifford, Douglas & Dorothy McMillan (eds.), A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997, 604-29.

Gray, Alasdair, The Ends of our Tethers: Thirteen Sorry Stories, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.

_______, “’Honest Poverty’ and Agnes Owens at 70”, in Scottish Review of Books 2: 4 (2009)., Of Me and Others, Glasgow: Cargo Publishing, 2014.

Gray, Jane, “Giving ‘people like that’ a Voice”, in Études écossaises [Online], 11 | 2008, Online since 30 January 2009, connection on 2 October 2016. URL: Page numbers in this paper refer to the PDF version that can be downloaded.

Jones, Carol, “Burying the Man that was: Janice Galloway and Gender Disorientation”, in Berthold Schoene (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007, 210-218.

Kelman, James, “Agnes Owens”, in The Herald Scotland, 27 October 2014.

Kennedy, A.L., “The Role of Notable Silences in Scottish History”, in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, London: Phoenix, 62-72.

Le Blanc, Guillaume, L’Insurrection des vies minuscule, Montrouge: Bayard, 2014.

Maxwell, James, “A Disaffection: James Kelman versus the world”, in Glasgow Guardian, 30 November 2009. disaffection-james-kelman-versus-the-world/

McKibbin, Tony, “Agnes Owens: The Non-Ameliorative”

McNeill, Dougal, “You don’t read women authors, do you?”, Overland, 21 March 2012.

Pirie-Hunter, Rupert Alexander, “After Scotland’s Literary ‘Golden Age’: Locating Agnes Owens”, MA thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2015.

Pittin-Hedon, Marie-Odile, The Space of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-devolution Age. Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2015.

Ramaswamy, Chitra, “The fat with the lean – Agnes Owens Interview”, in The Scotsman, 4 April 2008.

Satayaban, Natsuda, “Politics of Class Aesthetics: Rereading Agnes Owens’s Novellas,” Contemporary Women’s Writing Vol. 12, no. 3, November 2018, 338– 356, doi: 10.1093/cww/vpy025

Smith, Ali, “On the light side of dark”, in The Guardian, 26 September 2003.

Stark Lynne, “Agnes Owens’s Fiction: Untold Stories”, in A.Christianson and A. Lumsden (eds.), Contemporary Scottish Women Writers, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2000, 111-116.

Toremans, Tom, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, “An Interview with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman”, in Contemporary Literature, vol. 44, no. 4, 2003, 564-586.

Von Rosenberg, Ingrid, “People like that: the fiction of Agnes Owens”, in H. Gustav Klaus and Stephen Knight (eds.), British Industrial Fictions, Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2000. 193-205.


1  James Kelman was first shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990 and won it in 1994. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) was highly praised by Anthony Burgess and has acquired the status of a classic and Poor Things (1992) won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Award in 1992.

2  In “Talking to the People: A Reflection on Recent Glasgow Fiction,” for instance, hers is the only female name in “a fairly representative corpus of contemporary fiction produced by Glasgow-based writers” (Dixon, 94) and Keith Dixon describes this “whole corpus” as “very much male-centered” and “the anguish” as “very much of a masculine sort” (ibid, 103).

3  Such prejudices as anglocentrism, but also other normative views on gender, sexuality, language or social status have been repeatedly denounced by writers. The following reactions of Jackie Kay and James Kelman, for instance, are cases in point: “I remember doing an interview once, and they just had as the headline ‘Black Lesbian Scottish’. I struggle to see Martin Amis being described in this way (Brooks) It’s an odd thing that people don’t ask Ian McEwan, for example, or Martin Amis why they don’t write stories about a working-class culture in Maryhill. Why do people say to me ‘why don’t you write stories about Morningside?’” (Maxwell). As Libby Brooks suggests, when analysing Jackie Kay’s statement, it may not be reasonable “to demand that that which marks you out be ignored” but it is equally understandable that writers should wish for “a more rounded appreciation of [their] work”.

4  All her characters are considered as subalterns on the ground of their social status and victimized as such. In their hetereosexual phallocentric world, however, men are less likely to be raped or institutionalised. See for instance Pirie-Hunter’s use of Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980 to underline society’s indulgence towards the vagaries of men (Pirie-Hunter 72-73). After all, “if a guy loses his head once in a blue moon, he’s entitled to” (CN 202). A woman, on the other hand, is not. In Like Birds in the Wilderness, Mac is kept sedated in a hospital for a short period of time but when women are concerned, institutionalisation lasts for years and even decades.

5  Lynne Stark sees this focus on alienated individuals as having originated in the works of Gray and Kelman in reaction to contemporary societal changes: “Conscious that the new environment of industrial decline, structural unemployment and social fragmentation demanded innovative narrative patterns, their writing went well beyond the confines of conventional social realism, redefining the model of ‘working class’ writing, the alienated social subject replacing the community as centre of attention. There was a determination to bring to fiction the unimagined: voices, people and places denied cultural existence” (Stark 111).

6  “Go into any place where history is stored and listen. Hold your breath. Hear how still it is. […] It is the sound of nothingness. It is the huge, invisible, silent roar of all the people who are to small to record” (Kennedy 64).

7  As Kelman underlines in his tribute to Owens, this is a “mysterious all-powerful male figure who either has the backing and blessing of society, or is able to act as though that is the case.” This nameless secondary character exemplifies the way in which the powerful tend to be associated with the masculine while the vulnerable tend to be associated with the feminine.

8  There is the suggestion that her stories don’t sell well because they are sad, which is a comment that has often been made about Owens’s work. She is, however, prone to self-pity while Owens never seems to indulge in self-pity in her interviews and insists on the importance of humour in her fiction, albeit a dark kind of humour.

Notes de fin

1 “Shout it from the rooftops: Agnes Owens was a bloody great writer and a great woman, a strong fighting woman” (Kelman).


Senior lecturer at Sorbonne Université and a member of VALE (EA 4085). She teaches Victorian literature as well as Scottish history and literature. Her research centers on 19th and 20th centuries Scottish literature, with a particular focus on national and gender identities. Her most recent papers include: “Location and dislocation in George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters” (Études anglaises 70/4, 2017) and “Blood and Ice: Liz Lochhead’s Frankensteinian Biography of Mary Shelley” (Writers’ Biographies in American and British Contemporary Literature: Hybridities, Combinations and Metamorphoses, 2018).

© Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2020

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search