On a recent train trip around Scotland I visited Inverness, a pretty little town, but was not aware that one of Scotland’s most famous working class novelists, Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) was born there. At the end of my trip by coincidence I came across her first novel at the wonderful Edinburgh second hand bookshop Till’s
“The White Bird Passes” (1958) is biographical as much as any novel can be.Jessie was the daughter of a prostitute as is the main character of the novel: Janie MacVean, is the daughter of Lizzie a prostitute ,who grows up in a poor,if close, neighbourhood of a Scottish city. In Lady’s Lane she lives amongst a matriarchy that govern the comings and goings of their community. The Duchess, Poll Pyke and Battleaxe are the women who police the streets and the children as they charge up and down the lane.
“Only the children of the Lane were irked by such vigilance. To get up through the Lane unnoticed took on the face of an adventure, and became triumph indeed, if they could reach their own doors without the Duchess confronting them with a pillow slip, threepence, and a threat: ‘Run up to Riley’s back door for a stale loaf, tuppence of broken biscuits. And see you that the loaf isna’ too stale.’”
Janie is a child full of hope; hope that has not been wrecked by the life she is living. Earning money for running a message for a neighbour she debates as to how she should spend it. She buys her Mum some tobacco and a book for herself. But “Dimly Janie realised that her Mother’s gladness at getting, just didn’t equal her own gladness at getting.”
Janie’s life is about avoiding the Cruelty Inspector, the Free Boot Man and the Sanitary Men. She has no father to protect her but makes one up, one that is dead in the cemetery that she visits with her Mum.
And it is Janie’s relationship with her Mum, Lizzie, that is central to the book. Jessie has a lot of sympathy for Lizzie as she tries to keep her home and child together. The facts of Lizzie’s life are made bare, including her life as a prostitute and her life as a mother.
Janie and her mother go to visit her grandmother. Lizzie grew up in the countryside and there is a wonderful scene where she talks to Janie about her childhood, her knowledge of the flowers and fruit on the bushes, and the stories of the ancient wood.
Janie as a young woman refuses the usual job description of a poor working class woman. She says: “I don’t want to dust and polish..And I don’t want to work on a farm. I want to write poetry. Great poetry. As great as Shakespeare”.
Jessie portrays the harsh life of working class girls and women in this book but there is a lot of light, singing and joy. Her characters may be down but they are not out.In her own life she came out of the orphanage with a poor education and worked in many low pay jobs.
But all the time she continued to write and write about her class in a positive and life affirming way. That is the strength of her novels and in her time no doubt was why they were popular. Two of her books, “The White Bird Passes” and “Another Time,Another Place ” were made into films unfortunately neither are available to watch.
Jessie Kesson’s work should be better known because she writes from a Scottish working class experience: her girls and women are not victims but cry out for justice and demand a better life.It is hard to imagine today any young woman with her life experiences getting her work published.
I am lucky that my local library has a biography of her; “Jessie Kesson; Writing her Life” by Isobel Murray.
I also found online this biography
Her books are now out of print but you may find them in second hand bookshops or online