Glenda Norquay is Professor of Scottish Literary Studies at Liverpool John Moores University and heads their Research Centre for Literature and Cultural History. Born in Dundee and educated at the University of Edinburgh, she researches Scottish writing in the nineteenth- and twentieth- centuries.  She has published widely on Scottish women’s fiction and on suffrage literature. She has just completed a research fellowship at IASH in which she worked on Robert Louis Stevenson, transatlantic contexts and literary networks. You can find her on Twitter @peedieg.

The Scottish novelist Annie S. Swan was viewed by many as a dangerous woman: a writer whose sentimental fiction spoke to the nostalgia of a Scottish diaspora, evoking a way of life and set of values increasingly outmoded in the modern world.  Her fiction, with its wee villages, rural settings, dying mothers, beautiful but timid heroines, bashful and romantic ploughboys, likewise inculcated in women an unrealistic vision of home, an impossible domestic ideal.

Certainly Margaret Oliphant, one of the most established Scottish novelists and critics of the nineteenth century, worried about the effects Swan’s writing might have. Locating Swan’s work in the category of ‘Kailyard fiction’, those popular but parochial novels that dominated the Scottish literary scene at the end of the century, she particularly attacked women novelists whose sentimental – and ‘silly’ novels were pernicious in their imagining of a national consciousness.  Such writers produced ‘cheap books and perfectly well adapted, with their mild love–stories and abundant marriages, for the simpler classes, especially of women, whose visions are bounded by the parish, who know nothing higher in society than the minister and his wife and believe that all the world lieth in wickedness except Scotland’.[1]

Two of Swan’s early novels are singled out amongst those that have a particularly detrimental effect on readers who ‘are lower in the scale of intelligence and knowledge’. In the early twentieth century Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid was also scathing about the effects of Swan, describing in 1926 a series of women writers ‘who all derive from Annie Swan, without her ‘uplift’ and genius for banal narrative, though with considerably more conscious, if not always successful, efforts after psychology and style.’[2]

Swan seems an unlikely candidate therefore for the more positive interpretation of a ‘dangerous woman’ that dominates the posts in this project. Yet the figure of Annie S. Swan both requires revaluation through her own biography and calls into question easy valorisations of ‘danger’ as expressed in terms of explicit challenge and radicalism. The extent of her appeal and influence demands a more nuanced analysis of the politics of emotion and the gendering of reader response.

While Annie Shepherd Swan (1859-1943), married name Annie Burnett-Smith, was seen to offer both a damaging version of Scottish identity and a limiting idea of womanhood, Swan herself was not confined to the domestic sphere. Publishing in the popular and sentimental journal The People’s Friend for over 60 years, her income supported her husband’s medical training and their move from country village, to Edinburgh and then to England and London. Her admirers included Gladstone and J.M. Barrie and writers Winifred Holtby and May Sinclair. Writing under the pseudonym, David Lyall, she contributed to The British Weekly (a penny newspaper which first appeared 1886 and enjoyed a six-figure circulation), contributing many short stories about the Boer War under his name. Her success in popular publishing led William Robertson Nicoll to establish The Woman at Home in 1893, which survived until 1919: Swan did not edit but was the chief contributor and her name became that most associated with the magazine. The first edition sold out of 100,000 copies immediately. Annie Swan’s Penny Stories was established in 1897 as an arena for writers of popular fiction.

Her work was consistently on the bestseller lists and dominated fiction sections in public libraries across the country. Many of her stories were serialised in D.C. Thomson’s, The People’s Friend.  While her considerable commercial success may account for hostility towards her, she has to be considered therefore as a highly professional writer and editor in a world that was still male-dominated. As she herself commented: ‘I shall never be recommended by the Book Society nor be allowed to consort with the elect within the guarded portals’.  Her efficiency, however, was in no doubt: ‘I have scrupulously observed the rules of the game, so far as Editors are concerned. They know they can depend on me to deliver the goods on time.’[3]

Her own activities beyond writing again suggest an energetic and public-facing individual.

She was a Liberal, unsuccessfully standing as parliamentary candidate for Glasgow Maryhill in 1922. She was a supporter of women’s suffrage and published a novel about it: Margaret Holroyd or the Pioneers in 1910. She was a founder member of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and active supporter of Salvation Army. She enjoyed a spell as Mayoress of Hertford, worked with the YMCA among the troops in France, and travelled to the USA in 1917 and 1918 on food missions. Her financial success allowed her to keep her own bank account throughout her life.  Even the more radical literary circles of the Scottish Renaissance expressed a grudging admiration for her.  William Power, historian of a Scottish literary tradition, campaigner for the Literary Renaissance and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party 1940-42, told her in a letter of 31 October 1936 that:

We have to remember that Scotland was lost, really lost, for the space of nearly two generations, and that when she was found again she had to be ‘recommended’ by degrees to people who had passed through the dreadful fires of the mid-Victorian era. You it was who did most to bring back the real Scotland to the apprehension of the victims of, let us say, a soul-less capitalism – and to bring them back with all their fine qualities of affection, fidelity and patience, to Scotland. It was a marvellous achievement for which you can never get all the credit you deserve.[4]

Meeting her for the first time at a Scottish PEN dinner for Power, the novelist Neil Gunn, a writer who sought to challenge conventional representations of his homeland, wrote: ‘I do not think the name of any Scottish writer is so well known to the folk of our country as your own.  It was a household name about as far back as I can remember. What a privilege therefore to meet you – and, if you will permit me, to meet a spirit as full of eternal youth as the youngest at that strange gathering.’ [5]

How then do we reconcile the different perceptions and contradictions of Swan — a dangerous woman in the most negative sense and a dangerous woman as celebrated by many other posts on this blog? Analyst of Scottish culture Christopher Harvie, recognises Swan’s ‘genuine feminism and nationalism’ but perceives these as ‘smothered in calculated kailyard sentiment’.[6] His acknowledgement of Swan’s importance also identifies her two most apparently dangerous elements: an eye to commercial success and sentimentality.  To challenge this definition of ‘dangerous’ we need to think more about these characteristics.

First, let’s consider her popularity.  While others saw this as a weakness in Swan’s fiction, indicating her failure to challenge mass consumption, Swan was a stout defender of her appeal and fought to keep her books at low prices: ‘The people who matter in Scotland’ the workers by hand and brain, can’t afford seven-and-sixpenny books.’[7] Writing ­— many years later — in response to Oliphant’s criticisms of her, she claimed: ‘I wrote almost entirely of the life with which I was familiar, and though the judgment of a young girl was necessarily immature, the public had not fault to find with it and asked for more. After all, it is the reading public which passes the final judgment on any book.’[8]

Swan’s claim of a close bond with her audience, reiterated in her autobiography through frequent anecdotes of being approached by grateful and involved members of her reading public, is reinforced, rather than threatened, by the cheapness of her fiction. Her fiction, she suggests, provided her reading public not only with what they desire but what they actively recognize. She speaks of: ‘the personal tie established so long ago between writer and reader, and maintained to this day’ although — perhaps bearing in mind the relative failure of her more experimental war novel, The Pendulum (1926) — she admits: ‘The warm bond between me and my readers has affected my work powerfully, and I think has, in a sense, hampered it by its insistence on a certain kind of writing, for which they would accept no substitute.’[9] Nevertheless she emerges as a writer who recognises that emotional engagement, the ‘warm bond’ created by her words, is central to the author reader relationship.

This brings us to the issue of sentimentality. Some of Swan’s writings on the home may seem hard to take: ‘In the heart of almost every woman’, she writes, ‘there is a house of remembrance, one which she holds specially dear. Perhaps it is only a cottage on a hillside or in some country lane, the house where she was born and lived with her parents perhaps in her careless happy childhood, it may even be only in a room in a tenement to which she came as a young wife and where little children have been born. But it is a house she never forgets and to which her heart never grows cold.’  Yet this is more than a celebration of domesticity: rather it is an evocation of desire, of loss and longing.  A range of feminist theorists, from Janice Radway writing about women’s reading of romantic fiction to Lauren Berlant discussing ‘The Female Complaint’, from Carolyn Steedman remembering her working-class mother’s longings for nice things to Sianne Ngai thinking about the complexity of ‘ugly feelings’, have suggested that the workings of emotions and their political operations are far from simple.

Swan, in her ‘tearful’ and tear-inducing fiction, it could be argued, offered a language for articulating ideas of a woman-centred space in which feelings might flow – in which the mourning for mothers or the expression of disappointment – were acceptable. Likewise, her ‘sentimental’ versions of a Scottish home and homeland create an alternative to what she often represented as the patriarchal and class-dominated spaces of Britishness.   Her readers, Swan argues, recognise, are affected by and want more of the worlds and the feelings that her fiction has produced: that desire does not necessarily equate to quiescence but can also articulate dissatisfaction.

Other Scottish women writers of the early twentieth century, such as Willa Muir, Catherine Carswell or Lorna Moon, became ‘dangerous’ in their challenges to small town life and restrictive morality. But their narratives of ‘escape’ are in their own ways conventional and accessible only to a few. In Swan’s fiction the language of ‘hame’ does not necessarily translate into a desire for domestic confinement.  And, as Swan’s own life suggests, the mobilisation of emotion can be powerful as well as ‘dangerous’.



[1] Margaret Oliphant, ‘The Old Saloon’, Blackwoods Magazine 146 (August 1889),  54-75 in Margaret Oliphant (eds.) Linda H. Peterson, Joanne V. Shattock, Elizabeth Jay, The Selected Works of Margaret Oliphant Part 2: Autobiography, Biography and Historical Writing, (London: Pickering & Chatto,  2012), pp. 115-30.

[2] Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Newer Scottish Fiction’ 2 July 1926 in A. Riach (ed.) Hugh MacDiarmid Contemporary Scottish Studies (Manchester: Carcanet, 1995).

[3] My Life: An Autobiography, Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd, London, 1934, p. 289.

[4] 31 October 1936, (ed.) Mildred Robertson Nicoll, The Letters of Annie S. Swan

(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1945), p. 186.

[5] 25 December 1938. (ed.) Mildred Robertson Nicoll, The Letters of Annie S. Swan

(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1945), p. 210.

[6] Christopher Harvie, Scotland and Nationalism 3rd edition, (London: Routledge,1977; 1988), p. 158

[7] Annie S. Swan, The Land I love, (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1936), p. 9.

[8] Annie S. Swan, My Life: An Autobiography, (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1934), p. 40.

[9] Swan, My Life: An Autobiography, (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1934), p. 291.



One thought on “Annie S. Swan: making people cry

  1. I enjoyed this, thanks for providing more information about her. I have always had a soft spot for Annie S Swan. I never knew my maternal grandmother, but she was a big fan, according to my aunt. As a working class woman ‘in service’ and with seven children, she had little leisure time. But she read Annie S Swan in bed, by gaslight (no electricity in the bedroom of their room and kitchen), eating walnuts. Much to the disgruntlement of my auntie, who shared the bed with her.

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