1890 - 1970
Willa Muir was born Wilhemina Anderson on the Shetland island of Unst in 1890. She was brought up in the small town of Montrose before moving to St. Andrews where, supported by a bursary, she was one of the first women to study for a University degree. In 1910 she graduated with a first class degree in Classics, revealing the powerful intellectual capacity for which she would later become famous.
In the following years Muir became Vice-Principal of a teacher training college in London, but had to leave when, in 1919, she married the critic and poet, Edwin Muir. After their marriage, Edwin Muir was to become one of the central figures of the modern Scottish cultural renaissance.
During the 1920s and 30s the Muirs travelled extensively around Europe, living in Prague, as well as in Germany, Austria and Italy. Both were interested by developments in European literature at the time and, between 1930 and 1962, they translated more than forty novels, the best known of which are the works of the German writer Franz Kafka. Although the Muirs worked together, it is now acknowledged that Willa, a more able linguist, was probably the main translator in these projects, also translating many books herself, under the name of Agnes Neill Scott.
Willa Muir wrote only two novels, the first of which, Imagined Corners, was published in 1931 when she was in her forties. Like her second novel, Mrs Ritchie, which appeared two years later, it explores the conventions of small town Scottish life, such as the negative effects of Calvinism, and is particularly concerned with the limitations experienced by women in these settings. Muir also wrote two extended essays, Mrs Grundy in Scotland and Women in Scotland, both published in 1936, which examine the roles open to women in contemporary Scotland.
Having left Shetland in childhood, Muir sensed throughout her life that she lacked a place to which she really belonged - a sense of rootlessness which she shared with her husband, and which must have been heightened by their frequent travelling. After his death, she wrote a moving account of their life together entitled, Belonging: A Memoir (1968). She also wrote a study of oral poetry, Living with Ballads (1965), and several extended sociological essays in which (as in her novels) she turned her perceptive eye on Scotland and the feminist issues of the day.
While her collected writings are not extensive, her contribution to the modern Scottish Renaissance is nevertheless important, and it is recognised that she may well have written more had she not had to focus on making money from her translations, or poured her creative energies into encouraging the often troubled career of her more famous husband, Edwin, whom she outlived by some eleven years. She died on 22 May, 1970.
Long in the literary shadow of her more famous husband, the poet and critic Edwin Muir, Willa Muir is now recognised in her own right as a significant contributor to the modern Scottish literary Renaissance, a movement which reached its height in the years 1920-1940.
The Muirs were rarely financially secure, and much of her life was taken up by supporting her husband's career, working on translations of contemporary German literature, and writing sociological essays. This greatly limited the time available for her own creativity and she published only two novels, Imagined Corners (1931) and Mrs Ritchie (1933). Both texts are set in small towns on the east coast of Scotland, reflecting her own childhood in Montrose. Further merging the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, Muir also fills them with the frustrations she herself had experienced as a woman living in the Presbyterian Scotland of the early twentieth century.
Imagined Corners, the novel for which Muir is best known, depicts the intertwined lives of two families, the Shands and the Murrays, and their negotiation of the constricting social and religious mores of Calderwick. The novel questions the notion of 'belonging' and the extent to which the main characters are truly part of the community in which they live. As they begin to assert their individuality and independence, the characters have a growing need to escape from the town's suffocating social contructs.
Central to the novel are two sets of characters, William Murray and his troubled brother Ned, and two women who, although apparently very different, share the name of Elizabeth Shand. As so often in Scottish literature, Imagined Corners is concerned with the idea of the 'double', and this is explored through the relationship of these two Elizabeths. As the more unconventional of the two (known as Lizzie) comments, 'You and I, Elizabeth, would make one damned fine woman between us'. Only when Elizabeth Shand disentangles herself from the expectations of her role as 'noble wife', and follows the example set by the bohemian Lizzie, can she begin to gain self-knowledge. Similarly, Ned, who suffers a nervous breakdown, can be seen to represent the repressed side of his more respectable brother William. William's betrayal of Ned highlights his rejection of that freer side of himself and is evidence of the damaging effects of Calvinist doctrine. In destroying his 'other self' he will ultimately destroy himself too, drowning in stagnant water far removed from the open sea of his imagination.
During the First World War, Muir undertook postgraduate study in psychology and was interested in the then relatively recent work of Freud and Jung into the unconscious mind and the interpretation of dreams. Reflecting this, dreams and the imagination are central to Imagined Corners, offering the characters routes of escape from the stultifying morality and conventions of small-town Scottish life. Calderwick is contrasted with the wild moors and sea that surrounds it and, as the characters fail to escape (or, like Elizabeth, are only partly successful), their dreams can be seen as the 'imagined corners' of the novel's title.
Coming two years later, Mrs Ritchie is an even less sympathetic portrait of Calvinism and highlights the damage caused by moral repression. As in Imagined Corners, Muir is concerned with the limiting effects, especially for women, of social expectations, and a religion which preaches original sin and predestination. Mrs Ritchie, like many modernist novels, focuses on the inner workings of the subconscious and the search for identity, in this case of one women, Annie Ritchie, who is taught by her community that every natural instinct and feeling must be suppressed. A tyrannical protagonist, Annie is caught in an immense psychological battle with her subconscious, beset by images of good and evil, heaven and hell, God and the Devil. As time passes, her twisted and increasingly obsessive conviction damages her already loveless marriage and, as Muir herself acknowledged, her characterisation becomes increasingly two-dimentional. As a work of fiction, the novel is often criticised as being over-theoretical, a psychological portrait which reflected Muir's academic interests. Nevertheless, Mrs Ritchie provides a portrait of Scottish life which, if unrealistically negative, highlights the narrowness of small-town morality.
Later in life, Muir went on to publish two works of non-fiction, Living with Ballads (1965) an extensive study of the Scottish oral ballads, which Edwin had been commissioned to write but died before undertaking, and Belonging: A Memoir (1968), a moving portrait of their life together. Discussing this, she wrote, 'I had discovered that if Edwin and I did not Belong together, I now belonged nowhere.'
There are also three extended essays by Muir, Women: An Inquiry (1925), Women in Scotland (1936) and Mrs Grundy in Scotland (1936). Now back in print after a long hiatus, these are feminist in tone, and, as in her fiction, provide astute commentaries on the experience of life for Scottish women. Readers should look for the collected works, published by Canongate Press. Finally, three short story fragments exist as 'Elizabeth', 'A Portrait of Emily Stobo' in Chapman Magazine 71 (1992-93) and 'Clock-a-doodle-do' in The Other Voice, edited by Moira Burgess (1987).
Imagined Corners (1931)
Mrs Ritchie (1933)
Women: An Inquiry (1925)
Living with Ballads (1965)
Belonging (1968) (Willa Muir’s memoir of Edwin Muir)
“Elizabeth” and “A Portrait of Emily Stobo”, Chapman 71 (1992-93)
“Clock-a-doodle-do”, M. Burgess ed., The Other Voice (1987)
The Trial (Franz Kafka) trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1992)
America (Franz Kafka) trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1970)
Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka) trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (1990)
The Anarchist (Hermann Broch) trans. Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (2000)
The Realist (Hermann Broch) trans Willa Muir and Edwin Muir (2000)
Patricia R. Mudge, 'A Quorum of Willas'
Catriona Soukup, 'Willa in Wartime'
Lumir Soukup, 'Belonging' - all in Chapman 71 (1992-93)
Butler, P. H., 'Willa Muir: Writer', Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments ed. by C.J.M. MacLachlan and D.S. Robb (1990) pp.58–74
Elphinstone, Margaret, 'Willa Muir: Crossing the Genres,' A History of Scottish Women’s Writing ed. by Gifford and McMillan, Dorothy (1997) pp.400–15