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  (James) Leslie Mitchell (1901–1935), by unknown photographer (James) Leslie Mitchell (1901–1935), by unknown photographer
Mitchell, (James) Leslie [pseud. Lewis Grassic Gibbon] (1901–1935), writer, was born on 13 February 1901 at Hillhead of Seggat, Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, the third son and last child of James McIntosh Mitchell (1862–1936), farmer, and his wife, Lilias Grant Gibbon (1873–1953), daughter of George Gibbon, a farm servant, and his wife, Lilias Grassick. Those who knew James McIntosh Mitchell remember him as a hard-working but rather strict and severe man who was already nearly forty when Leslie was born; Lilias Mitchell appears to have been more lively and spontaneous. Both sides of Mitchell's family could be traced back to Scots peasant stock for several generations.

Early life

The lease of their farm having not been renewed, after a brief spell in Aberdeen the Mitchell family moved in 1909 to Bloomfield, in the Kincardineshire parish of Arbuthnott, in the district known as the Howe of the Mearns, close to where Robert Burns's father had been born and brought up. It was there that Leslie spent his formative years. Bloomfield was a smaller and poorer holding than Seggat and the struggle to scrape a living from it even harder, so that quite naturally James Mitchell expected that as his son grew up he would lend a hand with the endless work. Leslie had different ideas. He was an intelligent boy with very much a mind of his own, which did not accept that he should waste time on the mindless routine of farm work. Resentments built up on both sides. As often as not, to escape the unhappiness and drudgery of home he would simply go off on his own and wander in the nearby hills and moorland. There he came across relics of ancient history, the standing stones and flints, which stimulated an interest in prehistoric times that remained with him all his life.

But books were Mitchell's abiding interest during these difficult adolescent years, for through them he could enter into magic worlds far from the grey routine of Bloomfield. He loved the romantic fiction of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, and this inspired not only his determination to be a writer but also the belief, which took him some time to get beyond, that fiction was about the remote and the exotic, not about the immediate world in which he was living, and that it was written in English, not the vulgar Scots that his community spoke.

Books also introduced Mitchell to ideas that seemed alien in Arbuthnott. At an early age he was reading Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel. H. G. Wells, however, was his particular favourite, for he brought not only the delight of science fiction but also an exciting radicalism. Later Mitchell was to turn from Wells ‘the inspirer and bamboozler of youth’ (Gibbon) but at this stage Wells had a huge formative influence on him. He taught Mitchell, among other things, to despise traditional religion and to place his faith instead in science, to have contempt for conventional education and schoolmasters, to call himself a socialist, and to question the stereotype of women's role in society. All these concerns, in more or less modified form, can be seen in Mitchell's later writing.

These controversial notions, and the outspoken way in which he made them public, did not help to reconcile Mitchell to his parents and the rather traditional community in which he lived. He was looked upon as an eccentric—some would say without all his wits—and it was fortunate that he had at Arbuthnott village school a teacher, Alexander Gray, who recognized that in this oddity lay real talent. They remained friends for the rest of Mitchell's life. When he moved to secondary school, however—Mackie Academy, in Stonehaven—he did not receive such understanding. There he was looked upon as a difficult and opinionated young man who refused to conform. His time there was not happy, and at the age of sixteen he left school as an academic failure.

The expectation now was that Mitchell would get a job as a farm labourer, like most other boys, but he was determined not to be caught up in that narrow and restrictive existence. In 1917, through his own efforts, he got himself a post in Aberdeen, as a junior reporter on the Aberdeen Journal. And so at the age of sixteen he left the Mearns, never to return except on holidays and, of course, in his imagination. The move to Aberdeen brought him into a whole new world, the life of a modern city, and his first acquaintanceship with the urban proletariat. Observation of their conditions, particularly when he was assigned to ‘the harbour run’, hardened his political beliefs, and by this time he was calling himself a communist. This was the year of the Russian revolution, and in a way that he was later to realize was naïve and idealistic he saw this as the beginning of a whole new era. When in 1919 he was appointed to a better-paid post in Glasgow, with the Scottish Farmer, his impressions of the horror of capitalist industrialism were strengthened. His essay on Glasgow in Scottish Scene (1934) is a virulent attack on the whole system, and describes the ‘life that festers in the courts and wynds and alleys of … the Gorbals’ (L. G. Gibbon and H. MacDiarmid, Scottish Scene, 1934, 137) in a way that shows how deep an impression had been made on him. This was the time of the ‘red Clydeside’ movement, and he became politically active to such a degree that he lost his job as a journalist, apparently for fiddling his expenses to fund his politics.

Mitchell's response to the horror of Glasgow and to his dismissal left him deeply despondent, and there was even an attempted suicide at this time. The future looked bleak. His prospects in journalism were now gone and yet he was determined not to end up in farming. Like many before him in a similar situation, joining the army seemed the only way to survive, and on 26 August 1919 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps, to spend the next ten years in the services.

As a rather opinionated and sensitive young man Mitchell was clearly not one to take easily to army life, and he hated it with an intensity that comes out in nearly everything that he wrote. The mindless discipline that was demanded and the squalid conditions of the barrack-room appeared to him to have a brutalizing effect upon the men, and in his fiction there are a number of examples of characters who have their souls, as well as their bodies, destroyed by the experience. The army did, however, have some compensations. It allowed him to travel in a way that he would not otherwise have been able to do. In the next four years he was stationed in various countries in the Middle East and central Asia, such as Persia, Palestine, and Egypt, and this provided him with some local colour, which he was later to exploit, sometimes over-zealously, in stories; even at the time, in letters home, he was cultivating the romance of it, describing himself riding across the desert on a camel to Hebron and exploring the bazaars of Alexandria and Cairo. Another advantage was that he was able to visit at first hand many of the great sites of antiquity, and this encouraged him to build on that interest in ancient history which he had had since childhood.

Religion and politics

Mitchell's travels in the Middle East and his interest in Egyptology led him to a particular approach to prehistory called the diffusionist theory—associated with Professor Elliot Smith, of London University—that became central to his world view and a preoccupation in his writing. The diffusionists believed that primitive man had lived in a kind of golden age. He was a hunter and food gatherer rather than food producer, a nomad roaming the world in innocent contentment. He had no laws to curb and confine him, and there was no need for them; in his pristine state man was kind and generous and sociable. There was no governmental authority, for no such thing as a state existed prior to the emergence of civilization. There was no religion and no externally imposed moral code, no taboo, no sense of sin. And there was peace in the world. The theory goes on to assert that man lived in this natural state for many thousands of years until, quite by accident, there occurred on the banks of the Nile an event that changed the whole course of the world. This was the emergence of what we now call civilization. It began with the chance discovery of agriculture, due to the peculiar circumstances of the annual flooding of the river. From that developed a settled community and with it a governmental system, a class structure, religious beliefs, and, as this civilization was diffused around the world, the inevitability of war.

Mitchell adopted and propagated this theory enthusiastically, and it shaped his thinking—not so much by changing his convictions as by giving him a theoretical underpinning to what was already there. Thus the religious scepticism that had been his since his youth now became a firm conviction that religion was a disease by which man had been stricken rather than a natural part of a healthy human life, ‘no more fundamental to the human character than cancer is fundamental to the human brain’ (Gibbon and MacDiarmid, Scottish Scene, 313). This disease called religion had had a particularly virulent form in Scotland, where Calvinism was a withering and distorting influence on the human spirit, particularly in matters sexual.

Similarly Mitchell's theory of history was used to underpin his existing political radicalism. It is not possible to say whether he ever belonged to a particular political party. Different friends have made differing claims as to his position, usually to imply that he shared their own stance. Orthodox Marxists in particular have regretted that his views on primitive society got in the way of the true faith. From his youth until his death Mitchell would always have called himself a socialist. At other times he used the term communist, and also anarchist, and this latter term probably best describes his position. There was never any doubt in his mind about the kind of free and egalitarian society to which he aspired; what was less certain was the process by which to get there.

Writings and later life

Mitchell left the army on 22 March 1923, and again the question arose of how he was going to make a living. He later told a newspaper feature-writer that for six months he nearly starved in London. Once again the services beckoned, and on 31 August 1923 he enlisted as a clerk in the Royal Air Force, spending the next six years at various bases in the south of England. His duties do not appear to have been too onerous, for it was at this time that he began seriously with his own writing. Nevertheless he seems to have been an efficient clerk, for in April 1924 he was promoted leading aircraftsman, and in September 1927 corporal.

One advantage of being back in Britain was that Mitchell was able to develop his relationship with a young woman called Rebecca Middleton (b. 1901/2), usually called Ray. They had known each other since childhood in Arbuthnott. Her father, Robert Middleton, was tenant of the farm of Hareden, just across the road from Bloomfield. While Mitchell was abroad he had written regular letters to Ray, and even a few poems; now she was working as a civil servant in London. She and Mitchell formed a strong attachment, and were married at Fulham register office on 15 August 1925.

On marrying Ray was obliged to leave the civil service, and on Mitchell's RAF allowance alone they were desperately poor. They rented rooms in various of the cheaper parts of London, which Mitchell of course was only able to visit when he had leave. The precariousness of their lives became even greater when incredibly he decided to give up the only income that they had. On 31 August 1929 he left the RAF. The foolhardiness of this was even more apparent when a daughter, Rhea, was born, and later a son, Daryll. But Mitchell was now determined that he was going to try to make it as a full-time writer. The omens were not good. To date he had published one slim volume of non-fiction, Hanno, or, The Future of Exploration (1928), and a short story or two, but the combined income from this would not have kept them going for long. Gradually he did establish himself as a writer, and although income was never great he was able to move at Christmas 1931 to a more comfortable home in the new town of Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire. Now with his own study, he was able to see himself as the real writer that Arbuthnott sceptics had always doubted.

The Mitchell fiction

Mitchell's breakthrough as a writer came with a series of short stories in Cornhill Magazine, starting in January 1929 and drawing heavily on his Middle Eastern experiences. Getting his first novel published proved more difficult, and Stained Radiance had been revised again and again, and rejected by twenty publishers, before it appeared in September 1930. A deeply ironic and sardonic anatomy of life in the modern city, it has as its hero an airman who aspires to be a writer. Mitchell's second novel, The Thirteenth Disciple (1931), was even more autobiographical. The story takes the hero through his childhood in the north-east of Scotland, journalism in Glasgow, and service in the army before he sets off on an expedition to Yucatan, in search of a lost city.

From his boyhood reading in Haggard and Wells, Mitchell was steeped in romance, and this is evident in much of his fiction. The Lost Trumpet (1932) follows an archaeological expedition by a group of characters, all of whom display sterility of some kind in their lives, so that it becomes a quest for fertility in the desert, while in Image and Superscription (1933) the hero, who has been damaged by a religious upbringing, follows a quest for meaning and enlightenment that takes him to a commune of naturists in Minnesota. Three Go Back (1932) and Gay Hunter (1934) adopt Wellsian time travel to compare modern civilization with the values of the primitive past.

There is a consensus that Spartacus (1933) is the best of the Mitchell novels, and in it he takes the story of the slave revolt in ancient Rome and makes of it a political paradigm of the revolutionary process itself. Making this link was not original to him. Spartacus was a recurring figure in socialist iconography, and Mitchell was familiar with the Spartacist movement in Germany led by the Marxists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In Spartacus is to be found Mitchell's most acute analysis of the nature and the demands of revolution, of the tension between idealism and ruthless practicality. It is presented as a problem of means and ends, the paradox of the cruel inhumanity required to bring about a humane society, which he confronts later in Grey Granite, but less convincingly. Mitchell's absorption in primitive history had led him to a vision of the true society that emphasized freedom and anarchy, but on the other hand the harsh experience of the general strike of 1926 had taught him that political effectiveness depended on the antithesis of these, on the kind of discipline that he had hated in the army: strict mass organization, the suppression of self.

In the novel this issue is explored through the juxtaposed characters of Elpinice and Kleon, with Spartacus trying to find his way between them. The whole venture begins in his love for Elpinice and their vision of the free life that they will live together; it is she who releases him from the chains that the masters have placed upon him. But he soon learns the necessity of Kleon's political authoritarianism, and one of the most admirable features of Spartacus is the way in which the character of the hero develops as he gradually apprehends the significance of what he is engaged in. He abandons the open, democratic organization of the army in favour of a kind of dictatorship, and reaches his own sacrificial crisis point when he is prepared to abandon Elpinice in childbirth. But Kleon himself can only be a temporary guide. He has been distorted by his experience of oppression; he is a eunuch, essentially sterile. Even to the end Spartacus retains his vision of the future, when there will be neither master nor slave, which is quite alien to Kleon's idea of the totalitarian state.

The Gibbon fiction

On 2 September 1932 Mitchell published a novel, Sunset Song, that was so different from what he had written so far that he felt the need to adopt a pseudonym, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, derived from his mother's family names. It had been written at great speed—it is said in a mere six weeks—but then he was working through matter that had been simmering in his mind for years.

The difference lies not so much in theme or location as in language and style. Mitchell had always been aware of his uncertainty in standard English. He claimed that for someone brought up speaking Scots that voice always remained a real and haunting thing, no matter how hard he tried to Anglicize himself. But to write in broad dialect was not a commercial possibility. His solution is highly personal and ingenious, and confirms him as one of the great experimental writers of modernist literature. What he does in effect is to invent his own language, in which he tries to capture the rhythm and intonation—the voice, as it were—of north-east Scots without a lot of dialect words. The result is essentially a spoken novel. The voice changes, the point of view fluctuates, but there is always a distinctive spoken voice behind the prose. And with this return to his linguistic roots comes naturally a sharper focus in what he is writing about, a return to the world of his mother tongue that makes Sunset Song the greatest evocation of that particular community and culture.

It is the emergence of this authentically Scots voice of Lewis Grassic Gibbon that creates the great writer, for with that voice comes the ability to present Scottish rural life from the inside in a way that had never been done before and not from the point of view of some alien external narrator. For the first time ordinary Scots folk are given their own voice to present themselves, warts and all.

The central character, Chris Guthrie, is in many ways clearly based on the author himself. She grows up in the same kind of place, in the same social situation, and goes through many of the conflicts with parents and the community at large that Mitchell himself experienced. But equally obviously Chris is not Mitchell himself. She is female through and through, so much so that when the book first came out one female critic insisted that the author must be a woman, for no man could have made such an imaginative leap into essential femininity. The author both identifies with the character and is detached from her, and it is this combination of subjective introspection and objective distancing that helps to make the characterization so effective. And she is not a fixed or flat character but one who changes and matures, so that in the story of Chris's development from childhood, through the confusions and uncertainties to the full flower of womanhood, Gibbon is able to explore and open up areas of human experience in which we can all share.

Chris is more intelligent than her parents and others in the community around her, more alive to things of the imagination, more reflective, and with a spirit that can look beyond the narrowness of farm life. When she goes to school this spirit is released and she discovers that books can carry her into another world, where life is more refined and exciting. And yet she is a peasant girl with generations of peasant blood in her veins, with a strong emotional attachment to the land itself and the folk who live on it. That is the inheritance from her mother, who could ‘never forget the singing of the winds in those fields when she was young … or the feel of the earth below her toes’ (L. G. Gibbon, Sunset Song, 1959, 33). While her father encourages her education as a means of getting on, her mother insists that ‘there are better things than your books or studies … there's the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you're neither bairn nor woman’ (ibid.). For a time these conflicts are laid to rest when, with the death of her mother, Chris's chance of education and a career disappears, and she has to fulfil a more traditional female role, staying at home to look after the house. But with the death of her father comes the opportunity once more to move into an educated, professional, middle-class way of life. And it is then, when she is all set to leave behind this life of the land and go off to college, that she realizes that to do so would be a fundamental betrayal of her real self. In a profound moment of self-awareness it becomes clear to her that her attachment to the land is basic to her being, for the land is the one thing that is permanent in a world of change. She marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer who ‘had fair the land in his bones’ (ibid., 29). Their relationship is evoked with such lyricism that when the First World War comes along and destroys it the novel takes on a tragic force.

This personal story of the conflicts and self-discovery of a girl growing up in rural Scotland at the beginning of the twentieth century is at the heart of Sunset Song. But equally important is the fact that this drama all takes place at a time of enormous change in farming life. At the start of the book Kinraddie is a community of small farms, each sustaining its own family. By the end it is very different; mechanization and economic change have turned farming into a large-scale capitalist industry. And with the changes in farming come changes in the whole way of life. The old language, the old songs, the old neighbourly ways have all disappeared. This is the sunset of which we are singing, and again the First World War provides the climax, the final setting of the sun. The new young minister of Kinraddie, Robert Colquohoun, makes this point at the unveiling of the war memorial when he says of the dead of the parish ‘With them we may say there died a thing older than themselves, these were the Last of the Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk’ (p. 193).

When published in 1932 Sunset Song was received rapturously both in Britain and in America. Compton Mackenzie, for instance, declared, ‘I have no hesitation in saying that Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is the richest novel about Scottish life written for many years’ (Daily Mail, 13 Sept 1932). Only back home in the Mearns was the response more grudging, where some felt that he had presented the folk and their way of life less than flatteringly. Buoyed up by his success, Gibbon went on quickly to produce the second novel, Cloud Howe (1933), in what was always intended as a trilogy, to be called A Scots Quair. In this book Chris has married the Revd Robert Colquohoun, and soon after their marriage they move from Kinraddie to Segget, where Robert becomes the minister. Segget is a creation of the author's imagination, a small manufacturing town in the Mearns depending upon its jute mills—very different from Kinraddie, which is based directly on what Gibbon had known at first hand since childhood.

Cloud Howe is set in the 1920s—a period of severe economic depression—and Gibbon gives a vivid picture of the hardship and injustice that he sees as an inevitable part of the capitalist structure. Much of the novel is concerned with differing political views about how this terrible situation can be remedied. Fascism, Scottish nationalism, labour socialism are all examined and dismissed. The main interest lies with Robert Colquohoun and his struggle to find his own solution to the ills of the time. When he first comes to Segget he naïvely thinks that he can turn to the so-called Christian community of the kirk and that merely by exhorting them to put their principles into practice he can change the face of the town. He soon realizes that the respectable kirk folk have no interest in reform and social justice. Robert then aligns himself with the mill workers and their kind of socialism, only to be disillusioned by the collapse of the general strike, and eventually to fall into a vague kind of mysticism that relies on the second coming of Christ. Chris has very little sympathy for this ‘madman's dream’ of Robert's (L. G. Gibbon, Cloud Howe, 1959, 127), and this gives a sense of estrangement and failure to their marriage. Chris indeed is sceptical about all the schemes for putting the world to rights. To her they are all clouds that will pass, all illusions. Her role in the novel is to stand back from the main action and provide critical commentary. The most positive character is her son young Ewan Tavendale, whom we see growing up to be a very clear-headed and forceful figure who ‘refused all clouds and all dreams’ (ibid., 122). When Robert, aware that he is close to dying and at last realizing the seriousness of the situation, preaches one final sermon, in which he turns away from the soft old creeds, Christianity and socialism, and advocates ‘a stark, sure creed that will cut like a knife, a surgeon's knife through the doubt and disease’ (ibid., 156) it is Ewan who picks up on this, and it is his role in the last novel of the trilogy to discover this creed in communism.

Grey Granite (1934) is set in the imagined industrial city of Duncairn and focuses on the differing responses of Chris and her son to its severe social problems. Now a widow again, she helps to run a boarding-house, while Ewan too is forced to earn a living and goes to work in the local ironworks. At first he feels alien from the working classes around him, dismissing them as mindless ‘keelies’; he is more interested in books and in history. But gradually we see him develop into the kind of revolutionary leader that was foreshadowed in Spartacus—wholly committed and willing to sacrifice personal fulfilment to the necessary movement of history. Chris again stands back sceptically. Towards the end Ewan goes off on a hunger march, but the novel concludes not with him but with Chris, who returns to the land from which she came, ‘concerning none and concerned with none’ (p. 144). It was essential to the plan of the trilogy that it should move from a traditional farming community to a town, and then to an industrial city. Thus not only is the central theme of change maintained but A Scots Quair as a whole reflects the main pattern of development of the western world in our time.

The completion of A Scots Quair established Lewis Grassic Gibbon as perhaps the most important Scottish novelist of the twentieth century. Growing success as a writer, however, also had its downside. There is no doubt that overwork played a part in Mitchell's tragically early death, at not quite thirty-four. Partly this was due to the need to prove himself to those doubters back home, partly it stemmed from the very precarious nature of his early finances. In the last year of his life he published no fewer than six books. At the time of his death he left a huge number of projects at various stages of preparation, and it has been estimated that by the summer of 1934 he was committed to an output of over a million words.

Mitchell suffered from gastric problems for most of his later life. He put this down to the damage wrought by years of services food, though the fact that he was a heavy cigarette smoker perhaps did not help. He was admitted to Queen Victoria Hospital, Welwyn Garden City, at the beginning of February 1935, and there he underwent an operation for a perforated gastric ulcer. He died, of peritonitis, on 7 February. There was a non-religious service for him at Golders Green crematorium on 11 February, and his ashes were interred on 23 February in Arbuthnott churchyard, where a handsome granite memorial now stands.

A Scots Quair was first issued as a single volume in 1946 and has remained in print ever since. The reissue in recent years of most of Mitchell's other work is a mark of his growing stature. Sunset Song has become perhaps the most widely taught novel in Scottish schools. The televising of A Scots Quair in the 1970s brought his work to an even wider audience, reflected in the founding in 1991 of the Grassic Gibbon Centre at Arbuthnott, with an archive of manuscripts and memorabilia. Academic interest in Mitchell, both in Scotland and throughout the world, has grown apace, and in 2001, to mark the centenary of his birth, the Association for Scottish Literary Studies devoted its annual conference to his life and work.

Douglas F. Young

Sources  

I. S. Munro, Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1966) · D. F. Young, Beyond the sunset (1973) · W. K. Malcolm, A blasphemer and reformer (1984) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · L. G. Gibbon [J. L. Mitchell], ‘Memoirs of a materialist’, NL Scot. [typescript]

Archives  

NL Scot., corresp. and literary papers · NL Scot., corresp. and papers · NL Scot., further corresp. and papers |  NL Scot., letters to Mr Alexander Gray and Mrs Alexander Gray · U. Aberdeen, letters to Jean Baxter · U. Edin. L., letters to Helen B. Cruickshank


Likenesses  

photograph, Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£329 3s. 10d.: administration, 9 April 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales