Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Weatherhouse - Nan Shepherd - #1930club

Nan Shepherd is something of an enigma. She's famous enough to be on Scottish £5 notes, and I think 'The Living Mountain' is reasonably well read, but I don't see much mention of her novels. I've had 'The Weatherhouse' for a couple of years unread so the 1930 club has been the push I needed to get on with it.

I'm so pleased I finally made the effort, and at times it is an effort, because Shepherd uses a lot of Doric dialect here. I spent 4 years in Aberdeen (her fictional community of Fetter-Rothnie is about 8 miles outside of Aberdeen) and there were bits I remembered, but I was about 50 pages in before I found the glossary and getting slightly frustrated. The glossary isn't especially complete so some guesswork is still required. Despite this I was hooked by about page 20, and when I hit the halfway mark more or less dazzled by what Shepherd was doing.

The Weatherhouse is the house that the now ancient Mrs Craigmyle moved to after she was widowed with her youngest unmarried daughter (she's 90ish when the book opens). Later she's joined by her other daughters - Annie, the eldest who had worked the family farm before it became to much, and Ellen Falconer who's marriage has left her destitute, as well as mother to Kate. The 3 generations of Craigmyle ladies are joined by a great niece - Lindsay Lorimer, 19 years old and meant to be recovering from a love affair her parents consider her to young for.

If that all sounds complicated there's a table of characters at the front of the book that helps keep everybody in place until you're far enough in for it all to make sense.

It's the First World War so Fetter-Rothnie has become a community of women, children, and old men.   Gossip abounds, as does emotion without much healthy outlet. The Weatherhouse ladies exemplify this in various ways, and when Lindsay comes to stay some sort of climax is inevitable.

It arrives in the form of Garry Forbes, nephew of a neighbor, and the man she loves. He's home from the trenches on sick leave and finds that the ministers daughter, Louie Morgan (now 35) is claiming she was secretly engaged to his friend David. David is dead, Garry doesn't believe in the engagement, seeing it as a terrible slur against the memory of his friend. He's determined to expose Louie, much to the distress of Lindsay.

What unfolds is something and nothing. Both Louie and Ellen have wrapped themselves about in a fantasy world, but whilst the older Ellen is uneasily aware of it, and the dangers in doing so, The 35 year old Louie is not. Both are essentially women without much purpose or anything to root them in the everyday in direct contrast to Kate and Annie who engage with life in a very different way.

It's a sometimes uncomfortable look at women's inner lives and how small communities operate, how they can offer both support and understanding as well as being unbearably claustrophobic and judgemental.

It's also interesting to compare how Shepherd is writing about crofting life in Aberdeenshire with how Adrian Bell is writing about farming further south at the same time, and perhaps even more interesting to consider 'The Weatherhouse' in relation to books like Edith Oliver's 'The Love Child' from 1927. I don't know if Shepherd read Oliver's book or not (she was a lecturer in English as well as a writer so she must have been well aware of the Fantastic in contemporary fiction either way). Shepherd writes so emphatically about the damage that living to much in your own fantasies does that it's hard not to see this book at least in part as a comment on the fantastic.


  1. I have tried, so many times, but I just cannot read her writing. I still keep the books - just in case...

    1. I find her writing very dense, I have a similar reaction to Elizabeth Bowen, but for me it was worth the effort. That said if I hadn't wanted to finish this book for the 1930 week I might not have bothered with it, and it was almost exactly half way through that the penny really dropped for me.

  2. Such an interesting review! I've read The Living Mountain and I loved it, but I did wonder how I'd feel about her fiction. Must admit I'm tempted to give it a go now! :D


    1. This was really worth reading, it's not a long book but there's a lot going on. I'm not convinced that the epilogue is necessary, but on the whole it seems very unjustly neglected. I hope you do read it!