My review of “The White Bird Passes” (1958) Jessie Kesson

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



About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My review of “The White Bird Passes” (1958) Jessie Kesson

  1. sandy rose says:

    Looks great. Will suggest for my turn at book group x

    On Tue, 29 Jun 2021, 5:55 pm lipstick socialist, wrote:

    > lipstick socialist posted: “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 h” >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s