What’s in a name? For writers, names can hold so much meaning. An author must consider how they want to be publicly and professionally known to their readers. They must consider how the author name will look on a book cover and title page, how a reader might happen upon it at a bookshop. Names often carry information about sex, ethnicity, and class: all factors that might impact a novel’s reception and sales based on the cultural politics of its era. An entirely common name, a John Smith, might not stick with an audience. An utterly unique name might draw scorn and criticism (see the countless articles on the “unique” baby names selected by so-and-so celebrity). Some authors choose pseudonyms that sound more fit for the genre in which they write; this remains particularly true for genres of pop fiction like romance and western. When it comes to characters, names can be even more important as a reader often meets a character first by the introduction of their name. Reading the list of character names for any of Dickens’ novels will nearly give the whole plot away before you get as far as Chapter I. Though usually more subtle, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s eponymous heroine Gay Hunter bears the novel’s entire viewwpoint on civilization in her two names. We cannot be surprised when she discovers that the primitive hunter-gatherer societies are the most free and utopian.
Leslie Mitchell, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was certainly attentive to names–both in his personal and professional lives.
From the various correspondences that Rebecca Mitchell preserved and later donated to the Grassic Gibbon Centre as the Mitchell Literary Estate, we know that Leslie used multiple names for her. Born Rebecca Middleton, she went by Becky when young. Her letters to childhood friends and family were signed Becky. And a letter to Mrs. Gray from 19 August 1928, signed Rhea, points out that Rhea is “my husband’s name for me” and that she was known to them as Becky.
In Dorothy Tweed’s “Recollections of James Leslie Mitchell” (1959), she quotes Ray (Rebecca, Becky, Rhea, Ré) as writing “my name is stately Rebecca but my hubbie has re-named me Rhea. Will you, if you please, adopt my hubbie’s name for me?” (4). Leslie, in fact, had many names for his wife. In his letters to her, he calls her “ma Chere Rebecca”, “Dark Darling”, Ré, Rhea, “Lady of Hearts Desire,” and so on. When the Mitchell’s daughter was born, they named her Rhea Sylvia for the mother of Romulus and Remus, the twins who would eventually found Rome. Perhaps, Leslie’s dream of a new civilization founded on the principles of the Golden Age had some small influence on this naming. Clearly, names held significance and meaning for the writer: when it came to his own work, Leslie associated distinct attributes and personalities with each of his pen names.
James Leslie Mitchell is most famous for his work written under the name Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pseudonym used for his stories in Scots about Scotland. However, to some readers, the use of a pen name suggested more than the national content of the work. In his edition of A Scot’s Quair, Tom Crawford states, “In this novel Gibbon has created the most convincing female character in Scottish fiction, and so sympathetically, so inwardly, that many of the original readers wondered whether ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ might be the nom-de-plume of a woman author” (9). Reviewer J.F.G for the Aberdeen Bon Accord and Northern Chronicle writes “Lewis Grassic Gibbon has produced a very notable first novel. Whether the author is a he or a she is a matter of doubt in the mind of the present writer. It is evident, however, that Lewis Grassic Gibbon – we miss the final ‘k’ in Grassick – is an aboriginal Scot” (‘Sunset Song. Striking Story of Mearns Life’, 9 September 1932). In 1933, a reviewer for Newsweek praised the lyrical phrasing of Sunset Song and suggested that there continued to be doubt over the author’s sex, writing “its author, who has written other and dissimilar books published in this country, prefers not to reveal his (or her) identity with this one, and its title-page bears only a psuedonym” (“SCOTTISH: “Sunset Song” of the Vanishing Crofters: Peccadillos,” vol. 1, no. 5, Mar 18, p. 31).
Though we know the writer behind the pseudonym Lewis Grassic Gibbon was indeed male, readers had good reason to assume that the author was female, the pseudonym itself serving almost as a deliberate red herring. James Leslie Mitchell was the child of James Mitchell and Lilias Grant Gibbon. Lilias was the daughter of a Gibbon and a Lilias Grassick. The male name “Lewis” sounds very similar to Lilias, and the Grassic and Gibbon are clear references to his maternal ancestry. And it is through this maternally-indebted persona that Mitchell chose to write of Scotland, his “motherland,” in Scots, his “mother tongue”.
In his biography of the author, Ian Munro records that Mitchell was interested in his maternal heritage and had made notes from the Excise of Alford about that side of the family in the 1660s. Interestingly enough, both entries included by Munro seem to reference possible allegations of witchcraft. In the first record, a William Gibbone is called to testify about the alleged curing of his son James’ epilepsy by Janet Forbes. The second note records that a James Gibbon is called to court for the charming of cattle. Munro goes on to write that
“[Mitchell] certainly felt his mother’s blood strong within him, and took more than her name for his Scots Quair when it came to be written” (3). He contends that the “great influence” Lilias had on her son figured into Mitchell’s “wider conception of the eternal woman of the Scottish earth and land”(6).
Munro describes Lilias Mitchell as “a woman of strong and independent character, small-built, with reddish hair, and the country-woman’s weathered features. She had a brain sharp as a needle, and wits that were always quick and nimble, with a tongue to match them” (5). He finds her reflected in the incidents and language of the character Jean Murdoch, but also in the contradictions of Sunset Song’s attitude toward rural, Scottish life: both critical and generous, intelligent and sensual, ironic and intensely sincere. These qualities, along with a profound, sometimes painful connection to the rhythms and demands of the land, manifest most clearly in Mitchell’s work written under the pen name Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Yet, for most readers, the stories by J. Leslie Mitchell don’t seem to be an entirely radical departure from Gibbon’s. So then, what’s in a name?
For his “English” texts or those that were not written in Scots or primarily about Scotland, Leslie used his own name. However, that too, is a name that carries special connotation and family connection. The paternal side of his family had multiple James Mitchells. Leslie’s father was James McIntosh Mitchell. His father’s cousin was James Gordon Mitchell. His father’s uncle was a James Leslie Mitchell. Leslie, the author’s middle name, but also the name he chose to go by with friends and family also comes from his father’s side, but through a female descendant. Leslie’ great grandmother on his father’s side was Isabella Leslie, her father being a John Leslie. The author may have chosen to go by Leslie as a matter of convenience, or as a way to distance himself from his father with whom he did not share many qualities. His first success as a writer in 1924, when he won a short story competition for “Siva Plays the Game” published in T.P.’s and Cassell’s Weekly, is printed under the name Leslie Mitchell. However, the formal name in his school essay book was James Mitchell, without reference to the Leslie.
An anecdote from his former teacher Alexander Gray records what was apparently an important episode in his formative years, when an inspector at Arbuthnott school was critical of his Latin book. The inspector, according to Gray’s recollection, called him James. A letter to Mr. Gray from Leslie’s school friend Chris Queen (no doubt an inspiration for the name of the “quean” of Sunset Song, Chris Guthrie) to him as Jim Mitchell (letter to Alexander Gray dated 2 January 1957). As a writer, then, of all the possibilities, why did Leslie use J. Leslie Mitchell?
In a letter to the Grays from 4 January 1928, Leslie tells them of his plan to add James back to his name:
Can’t think of much more to write. . . Oh, one thing – the episode in my career which may be entitled THE RESURRECTION OF JAMES.
For James – James, flouted, despised, sneered at – has returned. James, no longer a potential footman or butler, again marches one pace ahead of Leslie; a revivified, rejuvenated James, he takes the field:
James Leslie Mitchell
We’ve decided that without the James my name has a weakness, a lack of substance. James is a guarantee of worth and good faith. In homespun, dour, a trifle owlish, James marches, trumpeting, ahead of the insouciant, ironical Leslie.
He signs the letter Jas. Leslie Mitchell. Across correspondence with friends, readers, and literary peers, the abbreviated James – either as Jas. or J – seems to have stuck around ever after except where supplanted by Lewis or L. Grassic Gibbon.
While Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the more famous of the two, it is under the name of J. Leslie Mitchell that he published the majority of his work. As Mitchell, he published the short stories inspired by his time in Egypt, articles on anthropology and archaeology, the historical novel Spartacus, several fantasy novels, histories of exploration and the Mayans, and several novels that flirt with autobiography. Through not primarily about Scotland or utilizing his synthetic Scots, many of the works evoke soundscapes and landscapes similar to a Scot’s Quair and we find many prototypes, both male and female, for Chris Guthrie. If the abbreviated James was supposed to add a sense of substance over the untroubled and casual Leslie, it seems that it wasn’t all that effectual. His work ranges from the more academic to the romance: he describes Gay Hunter to Helen Cruikshank as “[not] very serious stuff; it’s a fairy tale for fun” (letter dated “Tuesday 1934”). So ultimately, how can we interpret Leslie’s differing author personas and their supposed qualities? That Gibbon is more Scottish and Mitchell is more English is undoubtedly true, but what qualities beyond language and a handful of settings really mark that distinction? Perhaps, there is more to be gleaned about the author from the similarities in these two personas, their shared philosophies and styles, than their differences. Perhaps Leslie’s differing and wandering authorial personas show us a cohesive whole: a man deeply in touch with the feminine, desperate for progress but mourning the loss of the past, earnest but defensive in vulnerability.
Look out for our follow up blogs in which we continue the conversation by looking at Mitchell’s gender fluidity and the mode of writing called écriture féminine.
*Special thanks to Isabella Williamson and William Malcolm for their work on the Mitchell and Gibbon genealogy and to the Grassic Gibbon Centre for use of the Mitchell Literary Estate.