Biedermeier Sunset

by Carl Pierer

Published in 1932, Sunset Song is famed as one of the most important Scottish novels of the 20th century. As the first part in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Trilogy A Sunset-song_converted Scots Quair, it tells the story of Chris Guthrie coming of age in a rural community in Aberdeenshire. Set at the turn of the century, the novel depicts life in this traditional Scottish setting and explores how this age-old structure is transformed by the unfolding of World War I.

As a classic text, it has received much attention and suffered many an interpretation, ranging from Marxist and Feminist to humanist and nationalist. But despite many doubtful attempts at classification, the work has defied reduction and remains a vivid testimony of rural life.

Perhaps the most striking of the novel's virtues is its language. Written in a distinctive style, it infuses Standard English with the rhythm and words of Scots dialect, giving the prose a unique lyrical flavour. Gibbon skilfully and consistently uses dialectal terms to be true to his motive, without rendering the text unintelligible to a non-Scots speaker. That the melody of the text is deeply rooted in the highlands has provoked remarks of the following sort:

The non-Scot can get a great deal out of Mitchell [i.e. Lewis Grassic Gibbon], but one can sympathize with Donald Carswell when he says that he did not appreciate the prose of Sunset Song until he heard a north-east girl reading it.[i]

Comments of this kind aptly illustrate the difficulty of appreciating the literary value of the novel without sliding into dubious political territory, against the author's intent.

The novel is a portrait of a particular region and its people, a love song and a hate speech at the same time. It describes its setting from within, and the lyrical, regional language contributes as much to the fullness of the picture as does the story itself, if this distinction can be sustained at all. Yet, it is precisely for its balance and its authentic coherence that it is hard to mistake the book for an appraisal of national uniqueness, or anything the like. But because the novel is about the land and the people populating it, their longstanding connection with the soil they are working, remarks of the above sort can all too easily come into the proximity of suspicious nationalistic ideas. Indeed, isn't the thought that you have to be a true Scot to feel the text already contained in the above requirement?

The novel derives its strength and literary merit from the great detail in which it explores the tension between Chris Guthrie's individual, deeply personal story and the broader history of the community, whereof she is a part. The two antagonistic sides condition one another. Chris' story derives its depth and particularity from the intricate communal structure that is her horizon of daily experience. Communal life in an Aberdeenshire village is made vivid by its force on Chris. This idea is acutely illustrated by the rich picture painted of Chris' marriage celebration.

All too soon after her father's death, Chris gets married to a local, causing plenty of gossiping. The intense discomfort and pressure exerted by the small, judgmental community is resolved in the gripping 20 odd page long description of the festivity. It is only against the background of the foregoing, stifling atmosphere that the exuberant and boisterous party conveys the folk's relaxation. In a sense, this is perhaps the strongest scene of the entire book, the author demonstrating in an overwhelming gesture his affinity to detail. The warmth, the lyrical choice of words makes the reader intimately sense the excitement of the party.

In the broader structure of the book it is the constant change of perspective, the different voices from the community that the author makes heard, as well as the deeply personal and moving descriptions of Chris' internal life that present a lived experience of rural Scotland.

In his recent adaption of the novel, Terence Davies presents the viewer with romantic pictures of a sublime Scottish countryside as well as “hints of Vermeer as families huddle in semi-lit rooms, painterly compositions defined by an artist's attention to detail”[ii]. Davies takes his time to show the land, to make the beauty tangible, thereby arousing in the spectator a strong sense of Fernweh.

It is precisely this romantic sentimentality that produces also a shift of focus in the narrative, which here almost exclusively tells the story that is Chris' personal drama. The lingering tension in the book, that provides the story with depth and uniqueness, is eradicated in the film. The rich communal structure, such an essential part of Chris' lifeworld, gets relegated to the background, if not ignored. The criticisms, the ambivalence of a society caught in between tradition and the modernising pressure of industrialised culture, is lost. The private comes to the fore, at the expense of the public, the political: of the many richly and roundly developed characters, only John Guthrie (Chris' father), Ewan Tavendale (her husband) and, fortunately, Chris herself remain worth mentioning.

Sunset Song persists to be tremendously popular in Scotland; a nationwide poll, the meaning and reasonableness of which may rightly be doubted, even chose it as the Best Scottish Book of All Time in 2005[iii]. It is not unsurprising then, that such a literary classic should finally be made into a film. Taken together with the fact that another adaption of a classic British regionalist novel (Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd) was released in April last year, it appears that there is a revived interest in the country, in the traditional and in society as it used to be.

Of course, it would be possible to present grandiose and boring theories of how, threatened by Globalisation, the individual retreats to a perceived idea of a lost golden age. But maybe something more subtle can be said about this interest, and in particular, the shift of focus that it enforces. What can be observed in the change of emphasis as we move from Gibbon's original novel to Davies adaption is an elimination of the political. The intricate social structure, the richness of communal life is ignored so as to allow a sentimental indulgence in the romantic, albeit tragic love story. Yet, any analysis would be ignorant if this eradication of the political was not seen as a very political stance.

Exactly because the politically unpleasant (the narrowness of a tiny rural community, the prejudices, the peer-pressure, etc.) is bracketed, the film can be seen to present a naïve nationalism. Chris' story cannot be told without the constant tension between her self-realisation and the communal expectations. The dirty aspects of rural life persist, of course, whether they are made explicit or not. But if the film presents a retracted family life and reduces structural problems to individual conflicts, it suggestively insinuates a narrative, which idealises the communal and nationalist. The idealisation has to be discerned precisely in the difference between the critical examination in the original text and the inoffensive modern film. It is not simply that communal life is presented as idyllic or perfect, that would be laughable. The move derives its force from excluding communal or national life from the (apparent) discourse. But of course, because the individual story cannot be untangled from the historic society in which it unfolds, the national aspect is carried over as an unquestionable element of life.

And isn't this Biedermeier retirement from the political politics in the pure form? Putting on the blinders and insisting that the private can be lived without any engagement with the political is obviously the strongest support possible for the status quo. It may then be suggested that this renewed interest in the regional can be seen as symptomatic of the highly political apolitical, akin to a similarly revived interest in the refined consumption of barista coffee and craft beer. Coffee, as brewed, pressed or otherwise excreted by the local barista can easily be consumed in abstraction from its embeddedness in the economy, for – evidently – it has been procured in a fairtrade agreement, which the barista set up herself during her gap year in Nigeria, where she built schools and water fountains and found her true self.

That's precisely the beverage the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) is trying to serve: a left nationalism without the unpleasant connotations, internal inconsistencies and blatant obsolescence of the nation state (quite unlike other nations, obviously), a social welfare state like Norway but with the benefits of and integrated in the EU, a green economy but thriving on North Sea oil, etc.; more concisely, Scotland as a nation, but without being a nation. Just like the shift of focus in the film renders national identity a necessary concept outside of what is talked about, the left's shift to nationalism precludes questions about the global economic integration and organisation from the discourse. The structure of the SNP's narrative thus parallels the pattern which was discerned in the difference between the text and the film.

Perhaps, eventually, this idea can be read backwards to suggest the conclusion that the cinematic adaption of Sunset Song simply mirrors the left's progressive move to the political apolitical.

[i] Douglas F. Young: “Beyond the Sunset”, p.83


[iii] Ali Smith: “Introduction”, in Gibbon: “Sunset Song” (Penguin 2007).