It is impossible to date the beginning of feminism. Every age has had its own ideas about the relationships between the sexes and the roles assigned to different genders.What qualifies something as feminist changes decade by decade, usually according to the socio-cultural and political issues of the period. One might think of Grendel’s Mother as the first great feminist in English literature, avenging her son and challenging the patriarchal hero Beowulf in her own swampy domain. Others might point to figures, both real and historical, that more explicitly challenged traditional concepts of feminine: Britomart, the disguised, triumphant love-seeking knight of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or Mary “Moll Cutpurse” Frith, the historical crossdressing figure portrayed in Middleton and Dekker’s “The Roaring Girl.” And we cannot think of British feminism without pointing to the queens Elizabeth and Mary, and activists Mary Wollstonecraft and Emmeline Pankhurst. Now, in the “Me-Too Era,” feminist heroes populate social media and magazine covers. For younger generations, feminism might immediately be associated with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Daisy Ridley as Rey.
Personally, as an American in my thirties, I think of Emma González, the Parkland shooting survivor and teen activist for gun control. I was a sophomore in Spanish class when the Columbine shooting happened, just 25 miles away from my own school. We were among the first teenagers to learn the emergency code for an active shooter on school grounds. Whether it was shock or the cultural context of the United States in the new millenium, very few of us were brave enough then to stand up for our rights. Almost twenty years later, Emma González did what I couldn’t. Her head shaved, speaking at the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C., Gonzalez was a superhero pulling my generation out from our hiding place beneath the old formica desks. She is my rightfully angry, rightfully loud, feminist icon. It is not just her speeches or positions that I admire: rather, she is the woman I wish I were brave enough, focused enough, unrelenting enough, to be. And perhaps, what is most essential for me about feminism is not the specific qualifications that each historical period has used to define it, but rather identifying with another woman, with their struggle, and sharing in their strength and triumphs. Is it this phenomenon of identification that has made Chris Guthrie such beloved heroine for multiple generations of readers?
During J. Leslie Mitchell’s short life (1901-1935), Virginia Woolf rose to prominence as a modernist writer. Her work often reflected the social and economic issues women faced at the time in Britain. Mitchell was certainly aware of the writer. His own experimentation with perspective or viewpoint in A Scot’s Quair suggests a strong familiarity with her innovative work. And in his essay “Literary Lights” in The Scottish Scene, Mitchell looks forward to a time when “a Scots Virginia Woolf will astound the Scottish scene” (197). It is not unlikely, then, that Mitchell would have been somewhat familiar with Woolf’s more prominent ideas about women and women’s rights. In fact, we might read Chris Guthrie’s story as Mitchell’s own exploration of the issues Woolf so famously illuminated.
For Woolf, women are caught between two undesirable positions: submission to paternal and patriarchal expectations or revolt against a female identity. Neither position provides a basis of identity that is free of the influence of socially “approved” expectations. In her essay “Three Guineas,” Woolf recasts the traditional conflict between the domestic “angel of the house” and the public “whore” as a conflict between the dependent daughter and the independent professional female. Woolf’s most important distinction between these two roles for women is that the working woman has purchased an escape from the stifling limits for female behavior and thought that self-interest and dependence demanded. She writes:
In place of the admirations and antipathies which were often unconsciously dictated by the need of money, she can declare her genuine likes and dislikes. In short, she need not acquiesce, she can criticize. At last she is in possession of an influence that is disinterested.“Three Guineas”
Yet the purchasing of this right meant that female professionals had to submit to a new form of paternalism: capitalism. The working woman moved from her dependent status in a domestic hierarchy to a dependent status in a professional hierarchy; from daughters of educated men, working women became the subordinates of powerful employers. And, in order to gain the small liberation a wage provided, women had to enter in to the masculine world of competition and force. Woolf asks
If we help an educated man’s daughter to go to Cambridge are we not forcing her to think not about education but about war?—not how she can learn, but how she can fight in order that she may win the same advantages as her brothers?“Three Guineas”
Thus, for Woolf, the professional woman, in order to establish herself as worthy of employment, must become man-like: she must compete, she must establish her superiority over others, she must dictate. Such authority comes at the expense of the female identity. For Woolf, neither the position of the domestic daughter nor of the masculinized professional woman is desirable; both represent an absence or loss of disinterested female identity. Woolf’s solution to the problems of the female binary is exile: women writing in a room of their own. Yet, she struggles to define what that third female identity, free of male influence, might look like:
You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men . . . But this freedom is only a beginning–the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms?“Death of the Moth”
While the room of female identity may seem still bare to Woolf, it is crowded full of innumerable Chrisses for Lewis Grassic Gibbon. His solution to the binary limits placed on female identity is to offer a character of limitless change, a woman who can move between the roles of daughter, sister, lover, mother, dependent and heiress, wife and wage-earner. Moreover, throughout all of these changes, Chris never completely loses the child Chris, the first Chris, the one free of patrilineal surnames. Though she may never return to Blawaerie, she returns at the end of the trilogy to Cairndhu, the farm where she was born. Here at her beginning, the many Chrisses settle into one stable identity.
When leaving the city for Cairndhu, her son’s girlfriend refers to her as Mrs. Ogilvie, the surname of her third husband. Upon her arrival, her neighbours identify her as “just a widow body, Ogilvie, wanting to take on the course little place” (496). These references to Chris as the wife of her third husband, the Chris with a male’s surname, have been carefully limited to outsiders’ perception of Chris. After describing how others perceive Chris, the narrative voice leaves off from the gossipy second person to dwell in the strange space between Chris’ thoughts and objective description. Here, the narrative voice refers to her as Chris only, without the previous modifiers of nationalities, order, or masculine connection.She is not English Chris, nor Scottish Chris, not Chris Guthrie, Chris Tavendale, nor Chris Oglivie. Free of modifiers that denote social influence, the stable identity which she discovers, the final Chris, is a Chris of epiphany and acceptance. Here, free of the identities placed upon her by father or husband, Chris discovers a final authority, a power, to whom she has no choice but to submit. In the somewhat ambiguous final moments of Chris’s life, while sitting alone above Cairndhu, she finally and willfully submits to the one thing which can have power over her:
A Scots Quair, 496.
And that was the best deliverance of all, as she saw it now, sitting here quiet — that the Change who ruled the earth and the sky and the waters underneath the earth, Change whose face she once feared to see, whose right hand was Death and whose left hand Life, might be stayed by none of the dreams of men, love, hate, compassion, anger or pity, gods or Devils or wild crying to the sky. He passed and repassed in the ways of the wind, Deliverer, Destroyer and Friend in one.
Like Woolf’s vision of a woman in a room of her own, Chris’ most enduring, truest self is one in self-willed exile where only nature holds influence. Ultimately, Chris’ previous identities as daughter, mother, and wife slip away until she is left to herself: “She had found the last road she wanted and taken it, concerning none and concerned with none” (496). Alone in exile, she need not submit to Woolf’s educated man nor battle man-like against societal demands for female submission: she has found the third way—or perhaps a fourth, fifth, and sixth way. It is in exile where Chris finally realizes the old kirkyard dream of a Chris alone. Neither conqueror nor conquered, she sits alone, surrounded by a disinterested nature, part of something greater than the world of men:
One by one the lights went out and the rain came beating the stones about her, and following all that night while she still sat there, presently feeling no longer the touch of the rain or hearing the sound of the lapwings going by.A Scots Quair, 496.
For me, Chris Guthrie is an example of how to find wholeness in a fractious, hostile world. On my own first reading, my shock of self-recognition convinced me that no one had ever before or ever since so authentically articulated my own experience as a female. Masterpieces of female characterization from Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin seemed to pale in comparison. Somehow an introverted Scottish man, born nearly a hundred years before me and thousands of miles away, had discovered the secret words, unknown even to me, of the most personal, most subjective, most authentic aspects of my female identity. Through Chris, I have found a feminism that allows me to be true to my most authentic, complicated, contrary self. I believe Gibbon’s feminism is rooted in his abhorrence for those who seek power over others, those who wish to control and exploit. Whether writing of slaves, of farmers, of women, or of soldiers, Gibbon always exhibits an incredible power of empathy for those being crushed beneath the boots of another. The best evidence of his genius is the way we identity with his small heroes as they struggle for the freedom to choose their own way.
If you have felt a special kinship or sense of recognition with any of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s characters, I would love to hear from you. In the upcoming months, I will feature a series of “Leslie’s Legacies” in the blog and hope to feature responses of fellow readers. Email me at Emmarosemiller@email.arizona.edu