Document 1452

The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines

Author(s): Prof Isobel Murray

Copyright holder(s): Prof Isobel Murray


Time tends to be an unpredictable element in Jessie Kesson’s work. At the beginning of her uniquely successful 1949 radio play "The Childhood", the adult narrator looks back:

"This then was my childhood. Alone
in the tall house, the lamp-lit rooms, the long
passages stealthy as nightfall.
Here, the years I recall are years
without time, condensed to one hour,
One everlasting moment; or that fall
out of time altogether, years that flower into space –
And I am wounded by their outlived joy." (1)

It is possible to enjoy and admire Jessie Kesson’s work without particularly noticing that its simplicity is very individual, very one-of-a-kind. But her books are not traditional stories, with beginnings, middles and ends, in that order: if we look just a little deeper we can see that each is individually created within a unique structure, to best display the character(s), and their inmost feelings. Over the sixteen or more years when she was engaged experimentally in producing her first and best known novel, "The White Bird Passes", Kesson discovered her own ways of expressing herself, and made them appear simple and effortless. A crucially important factor in the construction of each of her novels is Kesson’s treatment of time, in each case uniquely different, and appropriate to the work. There is tacit recognition on some level of ordinary, chronological time, but there is also the process in which ‘years/ without time’ are ‘condensed to one hour,/ One everlasting moment,’ and some experiences that ‘fall/ out of time altogether,’ and ‘flower into space.’ I will confine myself here mainly to two typically brief stories, "The White Bird Passes" and "Where the Apple Ripens", but this point about time is equally relevant to all the fiction she published, and much of her radio drama. (2)

In her second novel, "Glitter of Mica", for example, Kesson would insist that it covers three generations of farm workers and their living conditions, and the changes for the better that the Second World War made in these conditions; the amelioration of the poky tied houses, the lack of job or house security or pensions, the possibility of ‘the sack without words’, knowing you must leave just because the farmer has omitted to ask you to stay. (3) And this is all true: it is an enormously ambitious novel, which also sympathetically discloses the inner feelings and struggles of all the main characters, sympathetically in all cases but one. But its success depends not on this ambition, but on its organization, which takes enormous risks in its treatment of time. It needs a second reading to disclose its full plot, because it begins on a Friday night, with Hugh Riddell remembering the violent events of the previous Friday, which climaxed in Hugh’s discovering his daughter Helen in the arms of Charlie Anson, a man he despises, in Hugh’s attacking Anson fiercely, and in Helen’s running into the road and being run over. Her life is still in the balance as Hugh remembers, and no one knows whether this was accident or attempted suicide. Although there are various retrospective passages, the whole narrative is contained between these two Fridays, with frequent reference back to one immediately previous Friday, when the respectable community had been shocked by Hugh, a mere farm-worker, asked to propose the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, attacking the picture of frugal and contented cotters which Burns painted in ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, and being indecently outspoken about sex. The novel has no chapters, just floating sections of text, with floating narrative that focalises in turn on different characters.

Her last novel, "Another Time, Another Place", published in 1983 to coincide with the opening of the prize-winning film directed by Michael Radford, is also presented in sections, which are ordered this time by the inexorable return of the seasons and the farming year. It centres on a young woman inadvertently trapped in an unrewarding marriage, and living, again, as a cottar wife. She is clearly a prisoner now; marriage has closed off any poor prospects of liberty or change she ever had. The advent of three Italian Prisoners of War is the catalyst for the awakening of her sexual awareness, which ironically only emphasises her imprisonment. Almost inevitably, it seems, she finally has a brief affair with one of them, and confesses this to the authorities when he is accused of raping someone else. Ironically, this well-intentioned act of confession means that he will in any case go to jail, and that she will be multiply a prisoner from now on: the news will be public; the wartime Stand Still order for farm workers means she and her husband cannot move on and escape disgrace, and now, through her, her man will suffer this disgrace as well. Ahead, indeed, stretch ‘years without time’.

The endings of both these novels are more complex, more indeterminate than I am making them seem here: open endings, with indications less and more pleasant, less and more unknown, are marks of Kesson’s work. All her characters are bound in with a complex experience of time. Here I want to concentrate on two works, Kesson’s first book, the partly-autobiographical "The White Bird Passes" (1958), and a novella I come to admire more and more, "Where the Apple Ripens" (1976). I want to look at how they are structured and narrated, and how the narrators use time, and at the two central characters, both young and female, with vivid openness to experience in different situations.

The structure of "The White Bird Passes" is so obvious that students have regularly complained of a disjunction between the two parts of the novel, the longer first part, when Janie is a child with her mother in a city slum, and the much shorter second part, when she is in a country orphanage. Expecting the coherent narrative of a child’s life, they miss what is offered instead. They miss, for example, that although the reader feels totally exposed to life in the Lane and, in particular, to the mind of the heroine over what feels like years, the whole Lane experience is technically condensed into eight days. This ‘week’ can be compared in some ways to the passage of a week in George Mackay Brown’s "Greenvoe" (1972), or Naomi Mitchison’s "Lobsters on the Agenda" (1952), being in some respects universalised, and coming to stand for years. But if we look in sober contemplation at the happenings of the week in the Lane, we realise that it covers Mysie Walsh’s suicide, in which Janie is inadvertently involved; and Mysie’s funeral; a ritual visit to the tinker Beulah on the Green; a blissful visit to Grandmother in the country; and a wonderful interlude with Janie’s mother, when Liza is in ‘one of her rare enchanting moods’, and enchants her daughter with poetry and song (p.59). But danger signals show, and we become aware of the precariousness of Janie’s security, and the frightening prospect of the Cruelty Man, who may drag her away from her mother because the law says she is neglected. On the eighth day, summonsed to court, Liza is to lose her daughter. And on that same day begins the shorter section at the distant orphanage. Treatment of time there is even more cavalier: the narrative covers the day of arrival, and then moves some eight years to the day when Janie will leave the orphanage, her future fate to some extent decided: in between, just one remembered meeting. Clearly, this unusual structure is carefully and deliberately chosen.

Similarly, the narrative is subtle and unexpected. There are two main narrative modes. One is focalised through Janie, and it often provides the most memorable passages of the novel, because of the intensity of the child’s reactions to life and to the Lane. But the child Janie is not even introduced until page 3, and before that, and very frequently after it, we have a quiet, unobtrusive narrative voice, apparently omniscient, as we habitually say, and yet here particularly intimate with the Lane and its characters. It is that voice that sets the novel in time and place in its first words. They contrast a distant past with a very specific present, and a pastoral, religiously believing world that honoured the Virgin Mary above all women, with the Lane which will turn out to contain boisterous secular life, mainly female; battle-axes, bullies and two prostitutes, the characters most loved by the central character:

"Our Lady’s Lane; that was what the Monks had called this thoroughfare eight hundred years ago. The name may have fitted it in their time; perhaps it had been a green and cloistered place in those distant days. But in this Year of Grace 1926, it was no longer green, although it still remained cloistered." (p.1)

The narrative method remains very fluid. There are times when this relatively objective adult voice controls it, and others when we are definitely seeing through Janie’s eyes, but it is not always possible to discern when exactly we move from one to the other, or indeed which we are receiving. The one place where the narrator very obviously intrudes is in the supremely happy passage on the walk to Grandmother’s, when Liza is enchanting the child with poetry. Suddenly, an analytical, even judgmental tone intrudes:

"These rare moods of communication between Janie and her Mother more than made up for the other things lacking in their relationship. And yet, if these moments had never existed, it would have been so much easier for Janie in the years to come." (p.60)

One might be tempted to wonder if this is the narrator we know, plus a personal edge – whether the story is in fact being told in retrospect by an adult Janie: but we do not need clarification on this point, and we do not get it. I would not expect an adult Janie to make this claim, although we can understand why an outside narrator might.

What we have, then, is a sordid, squalid tale of slum life and a prostitute mother, irregularly transformed by the power of the child’s zest for living, and the force of her imagination. Janie’s basic affirmation is that ‘the Lane was home and wonderful’ (p.80). The first thing we learn about her is that she ‘never quite lost faith’ in Annie Frigg, the old woman who bribed her into fetching water with a host of hollow promises of wonderful presents. Her friend Gertie, whose common sense is a useful foil for Janie in the Lane, tries to make Janie see sense: ‘Annie Frigg’s just an old twister…Let that old bitch carry her own water, and come on’ (p.3). But Janie braves Annie’s door and its appalling stink of cats, ‘a willing prisoner, caught again in the spell of Annie’s promises’(p.4). And one of Janie’s basic qualities is thus revealed: the narrator comments:

"Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true." (p.5)

She can enjoy even what she realises is an unlikely future delight. In the present, Janie gets maximum delight out of occasions when Mysie Walsh dances to the chip shop’s gramophone:

"In moments like those the Lane became so alive and full of colour to Janie that she felt suddenly and intensely glad just for being alive in a world of song, and colour, and whirling petticoats and warm, dark women like Mysie Walsh." (p.6)

And when Mysie habitually sends her on errands, Janie and her imagination make mountains of joy out of the exotic particulars and pathetic rewards:

"Phulnana from the chemist’s, a smell of it, a little on your own cheeks, rubbed well in by Mysie Walsh herself, and the promise of the jar to yourself for ever and ever when the cream was done. Or a comb from Woolworth’s, the brightest one you could find, with gold stars on it, that shone through Mysie Walsh’s hair, even when it was tucked away, and her old comb with only some of the teeth out for yourself." (p.7)

Janie can make a wonderful dream out of anticipating the Waifs and Strays picnic, where she plans to eat till she bursts (p.32), or going brambling with her mother in autumn:

"Liza cast an experienced eye over them. ‘We’ll need to come for a day in autumn for the bramble picking.’ They wouldn’t of course. But Janie had learned to enjoy the prospect more than the reality." (p.59)

But a vivid imagination does not only mean enjoying anticipation. It also means an abnormal degree of fear and apprehension. When two of the Lane women begin to have a fight, Gertie prods Janie excitedly. ‘Poll and Battleaxe are getting tore into each other at the pump. Come on and watch. Come on, Janie. Don’t be such a fearty’(p.36). We are admitted into the intimacy of Janie’s thoughts, here, and to the passion of her protective love for her mother:

"Janie was a fearty. Feared of so many things that left Gertie unafraid. Like the women when they fought. Not looking like women any more. But dark and furious and whirling like witches Janie had seen in story books. Janie’s fear was never for the actual, but for the imagined. It could have been her Mother, lying there mauled and vulgar with her clothes up round her head, and blood trickling from her mouth. But that will never happen, Janie vowed to herself. Because I would fight for my Mam. I’d be so frightened for her, that I wouldn’t have fear left for myself at all. I’d become as strong as anything. I know I would. I’d batter the women’s heads against the cobbles, and squeeze their faces, and trample all over them with my feet. I’d just kill them, if they ever touched my Mam." (p.36)

Apprehension is usually connected with her mother – or with the Cruelty Man, whom Liza and Janie both see as the enemy: he may try to part them, the great fear. It is a fear Janie tries not to look at. When Lil tells that the Cruelty Man has been round three times looking for them, Liza is fiercely angry, and one of the women remarks to another, ‘You’ll see, she won’t get herself out of this lot. She’s lost that Janie. It’ll be a Home for her’ (p.80). Janie fears this too. She confides to Gertie.

" ‘I think I’ll have to go away to a Home’[ . . .] partly to shock Gertie, and partly to put her own apprehension into words. ‘Cruelty Man was looking for me. He was up here three times.’" (p.81)

Gertie scoffs, ‘That’s nothing’, but to divert her mind from this dreaded prospect Janie has to resort to an old stratagem, trying to distract herself from her fear by going to look in the window of the High Street shop Janie and Gertie pretend to themselves they own. (p.81)

Worst of all is the fear of her Mother dying, something that recurrently troubles the child after Mysie Walsh’s death, the suicide across the passage. She gives up her turn in a ball game to go and call to her mother, ‘Just say this one time that you won’t die soon.’ The answer lights up her whole life. When Liza answers. ‘Of course I won’t die soon. What on earth would I do going and dying?’ Janie tells no one, but hugs it to her:

"A promise that lit and warmed the Lane for the rest of the night, that put the apprehension of the Cruelty Man completely out of mind, that made Woolworth’s bangles shine more brightly on the young girls’ arms, that whirled herself and Gertie faster round the street lamp than ever, singing as they whirled." (p.90)

But when she is abruptly taken from her mother by legal process, Janie’s emotions are chaotic, verge on panic, make no sense of time. Her head had been shaved after the court appearance, and the child arriving at the orphanage is bald, clinging desperately to a large hat. ‘If I got one wish I’d just ask for all my hair back again. No, I wouldn’t. I’d just ask to get home to my Mam again. Not having any hair wouldn’t matter if I could just get home again.’ (p.105) Her mind is full of ‘urgent elusive scraps’ that don’t come together:

"The sense of lostness when the train screamed past Loch Na Boune, the last known landmark in Janie’s world. Screaming out of time and place altogether. I’m leaving my Mam. I’m leaving my Mam, it had panted. A loud thing in a living hurry." (p.104)

Nothing in the landscape makes sense, experience has moved beyond the ordinary sense of time: ‘Time had leapt out of bounds. She lay trying to catch time and return it to its proper place. Its hours eluded her.’ And home ‘lay too raw and tender to the piercing touch of thought yet.’ (p.105)

Janie’s worst pain begins when Liza visits the orphanage much later, and this pain never entirely leaves her thereafter. Liza has syphilis, is going blind, and wants Janie released from the orphanage to look after her. We realise that this is impossible, but we are concentrated on Janie’s realisation that it was Liza who taught her to see:

"She could make the cherry trees bloom above Dean’s Ford, even when it was winter. Hidden birds betrayed their names the instant she heard their song. She gave the nameless little rivers high hill sources and deep sea endings. She put a singing seal in Loch Na Boune and a lament on the long, lonely winds. She saw a legend in the canna flowers and a plough amongst the stars. And the times in the Lane never really mattered, because of the good times away from it. And I would myself be blind now, if she had never lent me her eyes." (pp.123-4)

Liza used to be beautiful, but all dreams are now ‘disintegrated in the wrecked reflection of Liza’s face’ (p.119). But now the stunned Janie cannot find words to tell her mother how much she loves her, and the old stratagems don’t work any more:

A vividly remembered fear of death had clutched at Janie’s mind:

" ‘You’re not going to die, Mam? Not for a long, long time?’ She had almost pleaded, ‘Promise me that you won’t die. Just promise this one time.’ But, knowing now that people couldn’t truly make such promises, had sat quietly, filling her eyes and mind with the long lengths of the great trees and shutting out the brooding image of death." (p.122)

The end of the novel is complex. Janie’s future is left open. She is young, very alone, intellectually gifted, capable of happiness, and becoming aware of her own sexuality. She famously tells the Trustees on her last day that she doesn’t want to go into service, to dust and polish, but to write great poetry, ‘as great as Shakespeare’. There is no authoritative comment on this. Given space, I would argue that there is enough evidence in this narrative of Janie’s vivid imagination, flights of fancy, love of literature, nascent creative ability, to make her a poet indeed. But for now, Janie is to work at the threshing this one summer, and then, the Mannie says, she’s to go to Kingorm to be a scholar. But language and emotion here are not suggestive of happiness and fulfilment ahead, any more than is the book's title. In ‘The Valley of White Poppies’, from his play "The Immortal Hour" (1900), William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) speaks of ‘the grave of dreams’:

A white bird floats there like a drifting leaf:
It feeds upon faint sweet hopes and perishing dreams
And the still breath of unremembering grief.

And silent as a leaf the white bird passes,
Winnowing the dusk by dim forgetful streams.

At the end, Janie’s status as an outsider is what is confirmed, more than ever with her mother’s illness. She is always alone, always an ‘ootlin’, as Kesson put it (4). Janie is looking forward to going beyond the Cairngorms, and ‘beyond beeswax’ (p.126). She certainly doesn’t fit in the quietly drawn battleground of an ongoing gender battle where the male farm workers bring their dirty feet into Mrs Thane’s aggressively spotless kitchen, or outside, where she becomes the object of their sexually suggestive sniggers. We are left uncertain about her future. Alone by choice, she throws in her lot with the landscape:

"The Cairngorms had begun to close in and were pressing down on the howe... A peesie had cried through the silence, weeping its grief across the stubble field. Some long, long grief that had found an echo in Janie herself. Her pain became submerged in the peesie’s cry. Herself and the landscape had stood in some ache, waiting for release..." (p.150)

Her need for some resolution is patent, and unanswered by the end:

"Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into Cladda river.... To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain." (p.151)

My second text, "Where the Apple Ripens" of 1976, is a short and extraordinarily economical novella, where time is again important. The title and opening lines quote from a Browning poem about the loss of Eden, which connects sex and loss of innocence (5). It is structured round two consecutive days, Isabel’s last day at school, and her first day of official adulthood: she is due to depart for service in the city just two days later. And one obvious point the novella makes, with wit and delicacy, is that of course a sixteen-year-old does not move simply from childhood to adulthood as this programme implies. Isabel’s sexuality is a central concern: she is physically adult, but like so many of her peers she is at risk – most obviously of unwanted pregnancy. This is emphasised by the fact that her last day at school coincides with the funeral of an older girl, a former pupil of the school, who has died, perhaps from shame, after the birth of an illegitimate baby. We might fancy that this timely example would keep Isabel on the straight and narrow for at least a few days, but Kesson’s point is other. Her heroine oscillates between genuine grief for Helen and a desperate desire for sexual experience in a non-solitary situation. Kesson once said in a radio talk, ‘a very young girl is such a mixture of spirit and animal need’. A mixture of spirit and animal need, and a mixture of childish and adult emotions: these are what we are engrossed in, as Isabel rushes pell mell into a seriously dangerous encounter with a local Lothario, whose former housekeepers regularly trail, pregnant, to the workhouse. When Alex asks Isabel’s father to ‘keep him in milk’ until his cow calves, and Isabel is deputed to deliver it, everything conspires – with Isabel - to her destruction.

Isabel comes from a normal family background, with two parents and a brother, not the tormented situation that threatened Janie’s well-being. But she has an imaginative and emotional life, of which she is as yet only partly in control, that could make her bear comparison with Janie as a potential poet. Indeed, her love of literature is more apparent than Janie’s, because she is not so distracted by the painful grief for her mother that preoccupies the growing Janie. We concentrate on her imagination and her emotions, especially her sexual awareness. This time the narrative is virtually all focalised through Isabel, although we are constantly reminded by others, especially her mother, when she is ignoring or transforming reality to suit her imagination. Her mother denounces Alex Ewan succinctly: ‘Poor bits of lassies, just! That’s who Alex Ewan takes for his housekeepers.[ . . .] And himself just ready to father another bairn on them!’. Her mother blames dancing as the dangerous occasion for sexual transgression: ‘half the trouble in the parish starts off with those dances. Poor Helen Mavor, herself, started her dancing days too young.’ But listening, Isabel goes off in the opposite direction: ‘That was the thing that was worth dying for![. . .] If I could go once. Just once to a dance. I’d never ask for another thing in all my life again.’ And off she goes into a dream of shimmering dresses and silver shoes. (pp.40-41)

On another occasion Isabel is wrapt in fantasy, wearing, in fancy, a red skirt and a frilled petticoat, blending into memories of Tennyson’s Cophetua declaring, ‘This Beggar Maid/Shall be my QUEEN’, when her mother shatters the dream resoundingly:

" ‘You’d make a far better job of that skirt,’ her mother advised, ‘if you’d press it on the wrong side. The seams won’t show up, that way,’ she added, shattering the crystal ball, with an instinct that was almost unerring. ‘It doesn’t look too bad, now that you’ve pressed it,’ she conceded, allowing neither time nor desire to gather the shattered fragments together again. (p.32)

I’ll come back to the power of Isabel’s creative imagination.

We can discern the co-existence of child and young woman in Isabel by the music that chases through her head; many hymns from school, popular songs from girls already ‘out in the world’, children’s chants and sniggering rhymes, Scottish songs and street games. Left alone, she often reverts to childish games: on the way to be seduced she plays at being blind, and at another point at a hopping game, which she is embarassed to be caught at. But the young woman in Isabel is obsessed with potential sexual experience. Held back by her mother as always, she reflects: ‘Nobody in all the world knew the real Isabel. The Isabel that lurked somewhere within the long coat, tacketty boots and tight plaits. The only thing that made the world’s ignorance tolerable was the secret surprise Isabel had in store for it!’ (p.13)

Isabel’s most important experience to date is an unusual one, and one to which she attaches great importance. It was in church, with the strong sweet smell of Himalayan cowslips that she seems to have simultaneously experienced the onset of menstruation and her first orgasm. It is a moment in and out of time. Remembering that, she reflects, echoing the introduction to "The Childhood" with which I began:
‘Maybe, maybe, the important things that happened to folk fell out of time altogether. And flowered into space.’ (p.9)

After that, she discovers a secret world of solitary masturbation which variously includes ‘not one horseman, but all the horsemen that ever was’, plus the tenor in the kirk choir, the young locum minister, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. But this world perforce remains secret: even her best friend Else doesn’t respond to hints of confidence. Reality begins to loom only on the night Alex Ewan comes to ask for milk: ‘Her blood stirred in recognition. The thousand anonymous horsemen Isabel had longed to lie under in the dark haylofts began to merge into, and take on the identity of the guest by the fire from the gleam of his leggings to the hairs curling red on his hands.’ (p.40)

The whole village, including dead Helen and her flowers, conspires to warn Isabel off. As she approaches Alex Ewan’s croft, voice after voice occurs, as if warning Little Red Riding Hood about the wolf. It happens time and again. But when one girl asks whether she isn’t afraid to go to Alex Ewan’s on her own, we have this:

" ‘Not . . . feared,’ she admitted at last. And in the wake of her considered admission, realisation overtook her. She wanted to go. She wanted to go, more than anything else in all the world. ‘Never feared!’ She threw back her head and laughed at the bewildered expressions on their faces. And for the relief of a truth acknowledged." (p.51)

It is a close thing. In the novella, Isabel is literally saved by the bell on the Postman’s bicycle, but that’s all. It was Kesson’s habit to ‘pre-write’ her fiction as radio plays, and in one radio version of this story Isabel is saved against her will and sets off for Alex Ewan’s again the next day! What really saves her in this story is shame and loss of dignity. When Postie’s bell sounds, Alex immediately ceases his almost-successful attempt at seduction, and changes his manner:

" ‘Get that straw out of your hair!’ Alex Ewan said, staring at her as if she was somebody he had never set eyes on before. ‘And for God’s sake, tidy yourself up a bit! Get a move on!’ he urged, as she stood shamed into immobility. Her knickers dangling below her knees shamed her far more than his hand groping up them in the darkness had done." (p.72)

And what makes us fairly certain that she will be safer in future is not any realisation on her part of the danger so narrowly avoided, but this:

"For never. Never again would she stand not knowing what to do. Crumpled and sticky and dirty, with her knickers dangling around her knees. And herself be told to ‘tidy up.’ " (p.73)

For Isabel, as for many of Kesson’s central characters, being shamed or losing dignity is the worst humiliation, the worst experience of all.

I have suggested Isabel could become a poet. In minor ways she is one already. When she cannot remember a Shakespeare line, she is anxious until she has supplied a line of her own: ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, she had remembered, as they scrambled for a hiding place in the shade. How her mind had been trapped, whirling in search of the rest of the words, that had eluded it until she found some of her own. Nor its embroiling ray.’ (p.38) One wonderful moment of oscillation between young woman and child is caught early on, when she grasps after the new musical repertoire of the girls who work in town. Blue heaven...: ‘If only they had sung it often enough for her to get the tune, for she could always make up her own words. How she would have blue heavened it, in the school porch on a rainy day, to a captive audience, mystified and admiring.’ (p.7) But within seconds she is back to a school hymn, ‘old enchantments, not quite erased’; reciting the words of ‘By cool Siloam’, the hymn they sang for Helen’s death. But shortly after, while the adults are at Helen’s funeral, Isabel is transforming the music to suit the urgency of her own life and youth:

"Never had she climbed the tree so high, nor swung so sure and careless along its branches. ‘By Cool Siloam’ singing inside her head, and she couldn’t get it out of her head, nor could she slow her body’s movement down into its rhythm, but speeded up the lament it was, till it became a paeon of praise for being alive itself." (p.19)

Isabel’s imagination shapes each day carefully in retrospect: she can go off into an associative daydream about her brother Davy taking the King’s shilling (p.59), and as Janie in "The White Bird Passes" armours herself with landscape, she can use literature and music to shield her from the pain of reality. One last example. After her humiliation by Alex Ewan and Postie, and their knowing manly sniggers, she applies "A Tale of Two Cities" as a kind of mental bandage: ‘Juggling with time. Losing herself in the recollected safety of last Tuesday’s silent reading period. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. A fair haired queen. . .’ (p.73). When her memory slips back to the shameful event, she tries again, the little girl in her dominant with an innocent, pastoral hymn for younger children:

Time slipping out of her control altogether. Shamefulness falling away from her in the intense, absorbed recollection of early praise from morning memory.
Daisies are
our silver
buttercups our
this is
the treasure
can have
or hold. (p.73)

1 See "Somewhere Beyond", ed. by Isobel Murray (Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 2000), p.41. This radio play, about children ‘boarded out’ far from abusive parents and family, caused an outcry that brought about a national enquiry, to which Kesson gave evidence. The system was improved and later discontinued.
2 Kesson published "The White Bird Passes" in 1958; "Glitter of Mica" in 1963; "Another Time, Another Place" in l983; and "Where the Apple Ripens and Other Stories" in 1985. All of these, plus "Somewhere Beyond", are currently available in paperback from B&W Publishing. Page numbers for the relevant book are given in parenthesis after quotations.
3 See the interview with Kesson in "Scottish Writers Talking", ed. by Isobel Murray (East Linton: Tuckwell Press), 1996, passim.
4 "Scottish Writers Talking", p.58.
5 Robert Browning, ‘A Woman’s Last Word’ from "Men and Women" (1855). Kesson changes Browning’s ‘reddens’ to ‘ripens’, to suit the nuances of her story.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


Cite this Document

APA Style:

The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from

MLA Style:

"The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 25 July 2024.

Chicago Style

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines," accessed 25 July 2024,

If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 1452

The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines


Text audience

Adults (18+)
General public
Informed lay people
Other French reader
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2003
Word count 5757

Text medium


Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in Etudes Ecossaises
Editor Keith Dixon
Page numbers 135-147

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 1051
Title Prof
Forenames Isobel
Surname Murray
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired professor
Place of birth Alloa
Region of birth Clackmannan
Birthplace CSD dialect area Clcm
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Aberdeen
Region of residence Aberdeen
Residence CSD dialect area Abd
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Lawyer
Father's place of birth Stirling
Father's region of birth Stirling
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Stlg
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Secretary
Mother's place of birth Stirling
Mother's region of birth Stirling
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Stlg
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes