An editor of Marion Angus's poetry as well as a scholar of her work, Aimee Chalmers is extremely well-placed to know about the life of this most elusive, Sunderland-born but Scottish-raised, poet who sits alongside Violet Jacobs and Nan Shepherd in the annals of inter-war Scottish literature.
But can Chalmers envisage a private life for this poet? Can she bring this woman to life in fiction?
The answer to both questions is an unequivocal and joyous yes. Her fictionalised life of Angus begins in 1899 and from the viewpoint of a potential lover, Will Greig, who comes across her, lost in the mist of a glen, whilst he is poaching and camping out in the hills. Will is half-tinker (Angus would publish a collection of poems, The Tinker's Road and Other Verses in 1924) and sensitive to jibes from others, but Marion's ease and charm win him over. She echoes his Scots dialect in her speech, not to be patronising or to fit in with him, but because she loves it, and the musical quality of this section of the book, written entirely in Scots, is surprisingly magical and beautifully done.
Will chases Marion in the months to come, following up on her invitation to visit her in Arbroath, meeting her friends, Robert and Margaret. Will is struck by Marion's ways, her longing for independence and freedom, her shunning of society's conventions, and it all leads him to be bold. He asks her to leave for Canada with him, but while she's thinking about it, he books them a double berth on an earlier ship than originally planned, and asks for her to join him in a note he hands to her sister.
Needless to say, obstacles are put in the way of love, and Chalmers jumps forward 30 years, to a published Angus finding her way through the literati of Glasgow, whilst caring for her mentally disturbed younger sister, Ethel. The Scots dialect disappears and English resumes, its less lyrical qualities immediately apparent, but Marion does have an identity of sorts, and the kind of identity she has striven hard to achieve: she is a recognised poet. But Margaret and Robert have married, and so has her other sister, Amy. She is left to deal with an increasingly violent Ethel alone.
Chalmers isn't kind to her readers, in that she doesn't explain who everybody is but prefers to hint, making her a subtle and intelligent writer who demands the same in response. There's a Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness to Marion's inner life and how Chalmers demonstrates it, her worries about public appearances, her nervousness, her need to hold on to who she is in the face of opposition or ridicule from her family. For of course, Marion has failed to marry, although Chalmers shows glimpses of a controlling patriarchal figure in the Reverend Angus, reluctant to part with any of his daughters.
How Marion picks her way over the obstacles to her dream, to live as a writer, is well suited to a more stream-of-consciousness type of narrative, but Chalmers introduces enough tension to keep us reading on: what happened to Will? What regrets does Marion have over her relationship with him? Towards the end, we get a sense of what has mattered most to her through her life: "Something'd take my fancy...Something I read or saw; smelled, heard - touched! Something that made my blood quicken, my gut heave; that stiffened my backbone, narrowed my eyes, made my ears alive to nuances o sound, as I followed my whim, my desire, my urge - my need - to write, create."
As the depiction of a woman's consciousness, alert to love and family and the passing of time, as well as the portrayal of a poet's consciousness, full of contradictory doubt and confidence, and prey to the machinations of others who would seek to divert her from her path, whether in love or in art, Chalmers's novel succeeds superbly. This is a highly sympathetic account, readable for all its difficulty, and as lyrical in its evocation of dialect as Marion Angus herself.