The Bookbag

The Bookbag


Into The Mountain, A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock
Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason

Summary: More than the telling of a life, this puts Nan Shepherd’s work into its historical context and should have you reaching for the back catalogue.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Galileo Publishers
ISBN: 978-1903385562

Mostly we choose what books to read, because there is so little time and so many books… I can understand the approach, but I also think we sell ourselves short by it, and we sell the myriad lesser known authors short as well. So while, like most other people I have my favourite genres, and favoured authors, and while, like most other people I read the reviews and follow up on what appeals, I also have a third string to my reading bow: randomness.

It was in such a ‘left-field’ move that Into the Mountain was offered to me. I’d never heard of Nan Shepherd or any of her work. I took it on the strength of the title and the cover photograph. (Hint to all designers out there: rightly or wrongly we do judge books by their covers!) The photograph is of Nan, as we discover, at about the age sixteen, when she had just been messing about at the photographer’s studio, sticking a brooch onto a length of film and wrapping it around her head. That suggests the playful side to her, that from reading the book, we know she had, but the resultant picture is not playful. With her loose plaits, her headband, her simply smock and particularly her focussed gaze into the distance speaks of a quiet resolute nature. It’s probably not PC to call native American females ‘squaw’ – but that’s what she looks like – and I mean it as a serious complement. Those women had hard lives and they lived them nobly. In this picture, Nan Shepherd hints that she will do likewise.

The book takes us into a life which was not ‘hard’ by any stretch, but one which she nevertheless managed to live nobly, and on her own terms. And I admire her for that.

So who was she? Between the wars, she was one of Scotland’s best-known writers on the strength of three novels (The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, and A Pass in the Grampians) and a volume of poetry (In the Cairngorms). Then both her books and she herself faded into obscurity while her masterpiece The Living Mountain languished in a hall table drawer. It wasn’t published until 1977 and didn’t really find its audience until the 2008 re-issue, by which time the very private author was no longer with us.

Nan was something of an enigma…everyone speaks of how private a person she was and yet – as Peacock’s analysis shows – she laid her soul bare in her work and in her letters for anyone careful enough to read them closely. Peacock has taken that care, and reconstructs the life from the work, tying it in closely where there are letters or people who remember, and owning that we’ll never know, where she cannot corroborate.

Born of tenant farmer stock, into what was becoming a middle class built on industry with the turn of century, the coming of the railways, it seems that Nan’s upbringing was a strange mix of Victorian stricture and highland freedom. Above all she was allowed to roam the hills and did so, even if when she came home it was to unaltered Victorian attitudes on the place of women. Her ‘escape’ would have been education – but for reasons of family, of duty maybe, but also (I think) because of her own ties to the “place” of her life, she did not escape. Shortly before she died she spoke of having had the same bedroom all her life – and bar a few months, she scarcely exaggerated.

This must leave one wondering whether there can possibly be enough material in such a constrained life to sustain a read of some 260 pages. Peacock manages to retain our interest because although it’s sold as ‘a life of Nan Shepherd’ that is only part of the story, it is also an analysis of Scotland’s search for its own literature, a bookish tradition outside of that normally called ‘English’ and away from the Tartan tales that were Scots in origin but tailored for English publishers and English readers and a hundred miles away from the reality of life in the Highlands and beyond.

Though not overly prolific in the production of novels herself, Nan was active in literary circles. She wrote letters, she gave speeches, she taught, she read…she was quietly passionate about her mountains and about books – and although not explicit on the point, I think also on the point where the two intersect.

Nan’s own works are extensively quoted as are those of her friends and fellow-writers of the time, in part to show how the life came out in the work, but also to illustrate the consistency of feeling among this loose group.

Naturally, following one woman from her birth in 1893 to her death nearly a hundred years later, particularly a woman living in a single place for most of those years, unmarried, working, not badly off, but not wealthy, a lady of letters if not of leisure, the story cannot help but also be a record of social history. In talking about what Nan wore, the people she knew and how they talked about each other, in referencing the everyday way of stuff, there is a richness that will take more than one reading to absorb.

Whilst the blurb says that the book is ‘beautifully written’ that is only partly true. Whilst there are sections which earn that accolade, and others which offer a leavened slice of wry humour, there are also long passages of the historical forebears – not exactly of biblical he begat who begat’s ad infinitum, but just as difficult to read and impossible to keep track of. That’s a minor quibble though and my advice is just to skim those pages, you won’t need them. The rest is in intriguing introduction not just to Nan herself and her work (definitively now on my ‘dear Santa’ list) but also to other work coming out of Scotland at the time.

So many books…the joy of getting something from left field is that you find that there are indeed even more to be discovered…

Is it for you? Yes if you know Nan Shepherd’s work – or if you know and love the Grampians, in which case you probably need to know and will love her work. Also yes, if you’re interested generally in what a writer’s life was like (not just Nan’s) from the interwar years onwards. For the general social history of Scotland, it is also a useful source of reference. It isn’t the kind of book that you finish and immediately want to start over…but it is the kind of book that you’re relieved to find has been properly indexed and bibliograph’d, so putting it on the shelf doesn’t mean it will stay there.

For more on the life of our literary females we can recommend Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon and Aphra Behn: A Secret Life by Janet Todd

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