Claire Spencer (1895-1987) – A Lost Scottish Modernist

In the scholarship on interwar Scottish modernist literature, Claire Spencer is a completely forgotten writer. She was born in Glasgow and emigrated to the United States in 1915 where she published three novels in the 1930s – Gallows’ Orchard (1930), The Quick and the Dead (1932), and The Island (1935) – the first and last of which are set in rural Scotland. Gallows’ Orchard was her biggest success and was translated into Danish and German and adapted for Broadway by Noel Pierce in 1935.[1] Her follow up was The Quick and the Dead, a poorly received novel about Bohemian life in Manhattan, and The Island was a searingly brutal tale of a peripheral Scottish fishing society that returned Spencer “to her earlier and better manner.”[2] Through her marriage to novelist and civil servant, John Ganson Evans, she became associated with a circle of artists, writers, and poets affiliated with his mother, Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy socialite, patron of the arts, and owner of an artists’ colony in Taos, New Mexico.[3] Spencer’s network included Langston Hughes, Una and Robinson Jeffers, Myron Birning, Nicolai Fechin, Edward Weston, Ella Young, Hart Crane, and Georgia O’Keeffe.[4] Una Jeffers called her “the strangest woman I’ve ever met & one of the most interesting.”[5] This essay presents Spencer’s biographical recovery and pays long over-due attention to Spencer’s first and last novels – Gallows’ Orchard and The Island – by assessing them in the context of interwar modernist Scottish literature.

Claire Spencer was born in Glasgow in 1895, the daughter of wealthy parents who belonged to the prosperous mercantile bourgeoisie of the west of Scotland.[6] Her father, William Spencer, was a partner in his family’s firm, James Spencer & Son, a shipping and stevedore company based in Glasgow. Her mother, Janet, was the daughter of Duncan McGlashan, a sewing machine manufacturer and owner of Clyde Machine Works in Paisley.[7] Both families were extremely affluent – when her paternal grandfather died in 1907 he left a fortune that is equivalent to £15 million today.[8] Spencer parents separated in 1904 and were divorced in 1908.[9] The legal proceedings were lengthy and highly publicized, partly because legal reports were a popular feature of Scottish newspapers, but also because William and Janet’s pre-nuptial agreement was stipulated by William in the aftermath of his father’s death and size-able fortune.[10] Following the divorce of her parents, Spencer’s biographical details are difficult to trace. According to the press, after “a family tragedy and poverty” Spencer’s mother “took herself off with two daughters and two sons to Brussels, where one could live cheaply.”[11] By 1911 Spencer was living with her aunt and cousins in Bournemouth, England, from where she and her family travelled to Glasgow and then onto the United States in 1915.[12] On their arrival card at Ellis Island, they listed Cleveland, Ohio, as their final destination, which is where another aunt, LaBelle Winton (Isabel McGlashan), had emigrated with her husband and family.[13]

Information about Spencer’s early life as a Scottish immigrant in the United States is vague. Publicity letters state that she attended art school, where she painted “strange and beautiful landscapes,”[14] and briefly went on the stage “for a year or two.”[15] One newspaper described that after winning “recognition as a painter and sculptor, [she] decided to try her hand at story weaving.”[16] In 1919 Spencer married Oliver Harrison (Hal) Smith, a partner of the Jonathan Cape publishing house in New York, and had two children. They divorced in 1933 and, in the same year, Spencer married John Ganson Evans, a civil servant, novelist, and fellow divorcée, whom she had met in Mexico. The couple had two children and spent time living in California, New Mexico, New York, and finally settled in Brooksville, Maine. John’s government role required frequent travel – he was superintendent of Indian Affairs in Alaska, and Spencer travelled with him to Washington D. C., Israel, Lebanon, and Iran where he was posted by the departments of Interior and State. Evans was also a writer and published two novels, Andrew’s Harvest (1933) and Shadows Flying (1936). 

Despite her emigration to America and the publication of her novels in New York, Spencer’s Scottish heritage and ancestry are crucial to her novels under examination here. She was particularly attached to her maternal family, the McGlashans, who were originally from the Isles of Bute and Cumbrae, off the west coast of Scotland. She dedicated Gallows’ Orchard to her grandmother, Margaret Murray McGlashan, whom she described as “dead and whom I love.”[17] In The Island, Spencer juxtaposes a peripheral island community – partly inspired by her “long summers in a tiny peasant cottage, a ‘but an’ ben’ on the hillside at Loch Fyne, near Inverary,”[18] with McGlashan relatives – against the advent of the shipbuilding industry, most likely a nod to the shipping heritage of her paternal Spencer family. 

Both Gallows’ Orchard and The Island uphold essential themes of interwar Scottish fiction, including rural modernism, environmentalism, bleak realism, economic instability, landscape discourse, and cultural nationalism. Indeed, there are many similarities between Spencer and her Scottish contemporaries, most notably fellow émigré to the United States Lorna Moon (1886-1940), as well as Nancy Brysson Morrison (1903-1986), Dot Allan (1886-1964), and Neil M. Gunn (1891-1973), whose debut novel, The Grey Coast (1926), was also published by Jonathan Cape and likewise explored tense relationships, rural poverty, and peripheral life in remote Scotland. On the surface, Gunn and Spencer are not typical ‘modernists’, although they engage with ‘modernist’ themes: they both wrote in English, were not especially experimental, and centred their writing in Scottish historical contexts.[19] Yet they were preoccupied with the destructiveness of modern life, the frailty of rural identity, and paradoxical women characters.

Spencer first came to the attention of the British press in March 1930 when her debut novel Gallows’ Orchard was selected by the London Book Guild and the American Literary Guild as their book of the month for April. The novel tells the story of Effie Gallows, a young woman living in rural Scotland, whose promiscuous life and fierce independence rip through her village, destroying societal conventions and normal behaviours. Soon after its publication, reviewers likened it to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1891) and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), particularly the latter, whose protagonist, Cathy, was mirrored in Effie’s “dark, passionate directness.”[20] Time magazine found “something of the fateful quality of Hardy, something of the imminence of Hawthorne, something of the easy narrative of Stevenson.”[21] In the British press, Gallows’ Orchard was praised as “Grim, stark, bucolic” and “something large and bold and sweeping and, if you like masculine.”[22] 

Despite the comparisons with well-known Victorian provincial novels, Gallows’ Orchard is a modernist text due to its subversion of Kailyard themes and literary tropes, which was a key trait of new Scottish writing in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kailyard was a genre in Scottish fiction that became popular in the late-1880s, particularly in the United States, that sentimentalized nineteenth-century Scotland as idyllic, juvenile, and religiously observant.[23] As a result, popular imaginations of Scotland were skewed towards depictions of romantic Lowland landscapes and wild Highland glens habituated by happy rural communities full of humble Scottish characters, such as the blacksmith, the minister, and the weaver.[24] 

Newspapers were quick to compare Gallows’ Orchard to the most well-known anti-Kailyard novel of the early twentieth century, George Douglas Brown’s The House With the Green Shutters (1901), stating that it was “one more record of the misery caused by the ‘unco guid’ [self-righteously pious] attitude of the crowd towards a woman who has flown in the face of convention.”[25] However, Spencer’s novel goes a step beyond this. Whilst appearing on the surface like a romantic novel, it subverts traditional interpretations of sexuality, rurality, and the environment to challenge and contradict the limitations of patriarchal convention and Scottish society. Like The House With the Green Shutters, the people in Gallows’ Orchard are abhorrent and manipulative, and there are no happy endings or resolved situations: when the schoolmaster – traditionally an idolised figure in Scottish fiction – marries Effie following the brutal murder of her husband by her lover and before the arrival of her illegitimate child, he is banished from the village. 

Nevertheless, Gallows’ Orchard’s feminist exploration has far more in common with fiction by modernist women writers that surveys everyday life in recognisable settings and scenarios, such as Catherine Carswell’s The Camomile (1922), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and Willa Muir’s ‘Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey’ (c.1940). The familiar and seemingly non-threatening location of Gallows’ Orchard quickly gives way to a constant atmosphere of shame and sinfulness principally aimed at women and ultimately portrays the complete breakdown and disintegration of traditional society in small-town Scotland at the hands of fiercely independent Effie Gallows. Further, women are the source of conflict in The Island, which uses a bitter love triangle between twin brothers to explore a fishing society on the periphery of modernisation and anxious about the onslaught of steamships and shipbuilding that threatens their conventional way of life. Like Gallows’ Orchard, critics considered The Island unique. The New York Times noted its distinctiveness and described that it “belongs to a remote, romantic world of primitive emotion, and to judge it as realism would be obviously unfair.”[26] 

Spencer can most certainly be included among the Scottish women modernists of the early twentieth century who used fiction to explore “their natures as intellectual, emotional and sexual beings, as opposed to accepting the conditioned view of themselves which had been handed down by tradition and male-dominated social order.”[27] In Gallows’ Orchard and The Island, the sexually liberated women are ostracized and disliked, yet, it is through their sexuality that they are able to subvert society and exercise autonomy over their lives, especially in relation to marriage. Spencer’s novels and those written by better known Scottish women writers share many significant parallels: there are shared narratives of a “female struggle for self-determination and fulfillment,”[28] and commentaries on the stifling nature of rurality, and explorations of the boundaries between ruralism and urbanism, and degeneration and modernization. Much like these women, Spencer’s lived experience of motherhood and domestic labour was often at odds with her writing career.[29] Whilst struggling for a steady income in Arizona in the 1940s she wrote that “the thing that gripes me is that I can write and want to so desperately – and circumstances force me to give any creative effort of any kind up completely.”[30]

Spencer is an important modernist author because of her external perspective of Scotland, which has been hitherto underestimated by scholars of Scottish modernism. Although an emigrant and long-time resident of the United States, Spencer was intensely proud of her “Scotch sense of standing punishment,”[31] and though it does not appear that she reflected much on Scotland beyond her two novels, it is very likely that she was aware of the new wave of interwar Scottish feminist literature. Naomi Mitchison visited Mabel Dodge Luhan at Taos in 1934 and Catherine Carswell was a well-known (if maligned) figure in Mabel’s network.[32] Ultimately, Spencer’s novels are highly relevant in counteracting insular interpretations of Scottish modernism that focus principally on Scottish-born and Scottish-based figures and neglects the many poets, novelists, and essayists who emigrated from Scotland and who present a peripheral perspective of modern Scottish identity. As minor or canonically obscure as these writers may be, their experiences and writings about Scotland are nonetheless relevant to our appreciations of Scottish modernism as a broad and transnational movement.


Charlotte Lauder (she/her) is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and National Library of Scotland. Her research focuses on popular Scottish literary magazines published from 1870 to 1920. She is an associate of the Scottish Revival Network (http://revival.scot/members/) and on the advisory board of the Scottish Magazines Network (https://campuspress.stir.ac.uk/scotmagsnet/about/), and co-organizer of the research collective “Unforgettable, Unforgotten?” which recovers forgotten Scottish women writers published between 1880 and 1940. Her work on women’s magazines has been featured on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Scotland News.


References

  1. Claire Spencer Gallows’ Orchard, trans. Johanne Marie Larsen (Kopengahen: Hagerup, 1931); Claire Spencer, Gallows’ Orchard, trans. Marianne Trebitsch-Stein (Leipzig: F. G. Speidel, 1932).
  2. “Claire Spencer’s Tale of Island People,” New York Times, April 14, 1935, 6.
  3. See correspondence from Claire Spencer to Mabel Dodge Luhan, YCAL MSS 196 Box 11, ff. 309-318, Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University (New Haven, CT).
  4. Claire Spencer to Philip Horton, 1936, YCAL MSS 37 Box 5, f. 225, Philip Horton Papers, Hart Crane Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University (New Haven, CT).
  5. James Karman, ed., The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers. Volume II, 1931-1939 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 129.
  6. Claire Jessie Spencer, (Births statutory Registers, 644/13 283), 95, National Registers Scotland, Edinburgh.
  7. Paisley Directory and General Advertiser, 1888-1889 (Paisley: J. & J. Cook, 1888), 93.
  8. “Recent Wills,” Evening Standard, (London), January 5, 1907), 4.
  9. “Divorce Cases,” The Scotsman, (Edinburgh), July 20, 1908, 11.
  10. “The Effect of Divorce, Wm. Spencer v. Janet J. Spencer,” The Scotsman, (Edinburgh), December 21, 1908, 10.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Claire Spencer, (Census 1911, RG14), 285, The National Archives, London; List of Alien Passengers for the United States, 22 March 1915, Ellis Island, New York, 660, lines 1-3, National Archives, (Washington D. C.).
  13. List of Alien Passengers for the United States, 5 June 1911, Ellis Island, New York, 115, line 1, National Archives, (Washington D. C.).
  14. “Amazing Feat of Scotswoman,” People’s Journal, (Dundee), April 15, 1930, 14.
  15. Harrison Smith to Hilda McLeod, 20 April 1936, “Claire Spencer Correspondence,” Maine Writers Correspondence.
  16. “Amazing Feat of Scotswoman,” People’s Journal, (Dundee), April 15, 1930, 14.
  17. Claire Spencer, Gallows’ Orchard (New York: Jonathan Cape, 1930).
  18. “Amazing Feat of Scotswoman,” People’s Journal, (Dundee), April 15, 1930, 14.
  19. Margery Palmer McCulloch, “The Novels of Neil Gunn,” ASLS Schools Conference, 1992, https://asls.arts.gla.ac.uk/Laverock-Gunn.html, accessed 27 July 2021.
  20. “A Powerful New Woman Writer,” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, (Leeds), April 16, 1930, 6.
  21. “Beauty in Distress,” Time, (New York), April 7, 1930.
  22. “Talking of the Books You Read,” The Graphic, (London), April 26, 1930, 36; “Women Novels,” Daily Herald, (London), April 21, 1930, 6.
  23. William Donaldson, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986), 145-150.
  24. Andrew Nash, The Kailyard and Scottish Literature (New York: Rodopi, 2007).
  25. “Short Notices,” Northern Whig, (Antrim), April 28, 1930, 5.
  26. “Claire Spencer’s Tale of Island People,” New York Times, April 14, 1935, 6.
  27. Margery Palmer McCulloch, Scottish Modernism and its Contexts 1918-1959: Literature, National Identity and Cultural Exchange (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 70.
  28. Ibid., 72.
  29. For discussion of Scottish women writers’ views on patriarchal literary structures, see Margery Palmer McCulloch, ‘Willa Muir’, Dangerous Women Project, Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), University of Edinburgh, https://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/10/30/willa-muir/, accessed 30 April 2021, and Jan Pilditch, ed., Selected Letters of Catherine Carswell (Edinburgh: Kennedy & Boyd, 2016), xi-xviiii.
  30. Claire Spencer to Mabel Dodge Luhan, undated, YCAL MSS 196 Box 11, f. 315, 2.
  31. Claire Spencer to Mabel Dodge Luhan, 1933, YCAL MSS 196 Box 11, f. 310, 1.
  32. Karman, ed., The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 410. In response to the misrepresentations of D. H. Lawrence by John Middleton Murry in The Adelphi magazine (1931-32) (later issued as Reminiscences of D. H. Lawrence [New York: Jonathan Cape, 1933]) and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932), Catherine Carswell published Savage Pilgrimage (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), which was withdrawn from publication due to a libellous action by Middleton Murry. See Pilditch, Selected Letters of Catherine Carswell, 170-178.

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