(13 March 1890 – 22 May 1970)

Scottish PENScottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.

Margery Palmer McCulloch is currently Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. She has published widely on Scottish literature in the twentieth century, with special interests in Scottish modernist writing and the writing of Scottish women in the interwar and contemporary periods. She was co-editor of Scottish Literary Review from 2005 to 2013. She is currently working on a biography of Edwin and Willa Muir and their Scottish and international contexts with research funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship.

Until recently, new writing in Scotland in the interwar period was defined principally through the male authors who contributed to the movement known popularly as the ‘Scottish Renaissance’. Yet, just as that Scottish Renaissance movement is itself now increasingly being recognised as a Scottish contribution to the international modernist writing of the time, so the contribution of early twentieth-century Scottish women is now being given its place in both Scottish and modern writing beyond Scotland. And several of these writers could well be considered as ‘dangerous women’ in relation to the events of their lives as well as in the challenge of their literary contributions. Catherine Carswell, for example, was not only a champion of D. H. Lawrence’s fiction but in 1908 she won a history-making legal case to have her marriage annulled on the grounds of her husband’s mental instability before marriage, even although this annulment would leave her daughter illegitimate. Like one of Dora Marsden’s ‘Freewomen’, she would now be solely responsible for the upkeep of herself and her child. Lorna Moon (born Helen Nora Wilson Low in 1886) eloped from her home in Strichen with a travelling salesman, set sail for the USA, and eventually became a notable scriptwriter in Hollywood, having left behind her two marriages and two children. Other women writers took part in the campaigns for female suffrage. Willa Muir, the subject of this article, is one of these ‘dangerous women’ whose courage, intelligence and imagination helped redefine women’s place in a changing society.

Willa Muir was born Wilhelmina Johnston Anderson in 1890 in the coastal town of Montrose in the north-east of Scotland. Both her parents came from families who originally belonged to Unst in Shetland, and a Shetlandic form of Scots language was spoken in her childhood home. In later life, Willa was to say that this Shetland legacy was what led to her linguistic skills in her adult life, since she had quickly to become trilingual in Montrose: speaking Shetlandic at home, Scots in the school playground, and a more formal Scottish English in the classroom. With her husband Edwin Muir, she was later to become the first translator into English of the German-language fiction of Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch and other writers. Willa was a clever child, winning a scholarship from her primary school to Montrose Academy where she studied Latin and Greek as well as French and English and Science. She also performed well in the St Andrews Bursary Competition which took her to the university in 1907. Her university career was as outstanding as her earlier school performance, resulting in the award of a 1st class degree in Classics in 1911 and a scholarship which allowed her to study English Literature between 1911 and 1912. She was also a strong presence in the non-academic life of the university community: active in the Women’s Debating Society and on the editorial committee of the university magazine College Echoes. She taught Classics briefly in St Andrews on the outbreak of war and the loss of male lecturers to the Front before pursuing research in Psychology in London. When she met and married the future poet and critic Edwin Muir in 1919, she was Vice-Principal and Lecturer in English, Psychology and Education at Gypsy Hill Teacher Training College in London.

Wilhelmina Johnston Anderson’s trajectory from childhood to adulthood was therefore not the pattern still expected of a girl child in the early years of the century, a pattern perhaps better identified in the name ‘Minnie’ that she was given and answered to at home. This kind of scholastic performance was more often considered ‘dangerous’ for a young woman, especially in relation to finding a husband. The mother in the 1923 novel Sure Traveller by another Scottish writer, Mary Clelland, tells her daughter who has ambitions to go to Girton: ‘the men don’t like college-bred women for wives, and if you got left, later on, you’d be blaming me in your heart’; a view echoed openly or implicitly in the scenarios of many interwar writings by women. Willa had herself fallen in love with a rugby-playing medical student when at St Andrews, and had turned down the opportunity of a research scholarship at the British School in Rome in order to become engaged to him.  However, on learning of his infidelities with other young women when she was later working for a period in England, she dramatically threw her expensive engagement ring into the sea from the pier in St Andrews and ended the association. Not the kind of behaviour a ‘college-bred’ man might expect or welcome.

A more compatible and lasting relationship was Willa’s marriage in 1919 to the Orkney-born writer Edwin Muir whose farming family had made an unfortunate emigration to the industrialised city of Glasgow at the turn of the century. Willa had the energy and exploratory confidence which Edwin at that time lacked, and after initially living and working for a time in London they went adventuring in Europe when Edwin achieved a contract with the recently established New York Freeman magazine. They spent two periods in Europe in the 1920s: from 1921 to 1924 and then again from 1926-1927. Their initial residence in Prague and Dresden from 1921 to 1923 was especially significant. In Prague they met with the Czech playwright Karel Čapek and his painter brother Josef as a result of introductory letters given them by Karel’s English translator Paul Selver. They became part of the Čapeks’ theatre circle, with Willa learning sufficient Czech language to translate Karel’s Insects play into English. Their move to Dresden was even more significant linguistically, especially after they met by chance at a tram stop the educationalist A. S. Neill whom Willa had known in her university days and who was now in the process of establishing an experimental international school in the Dresden garden suburb of Hellerau. Neill was in need of additional teachers for his school and he persuaded Willa to join him there. Both Muirs had by now some basic German language but as the teaching and communal living language of the School was German, they became more competent, with Willa described by her husband as ‘speaking it like a native’. This German-speaking interlude led to their future occupation of ‘translating for a living’ which included the first translations into English of the fiction of Franz Kafka, with Das Schloss (The Castle), published by Secker in 1930.

Although by 1930 Edwin Muir was the one with the growing literary reputation and contact with publishers, and was most often the one referred to as the translator of Kafka and the other German writers translated under their joint names, it is nowadays considered that Willa was the principal – and sometimes the sole – translator of this German-language work. She was clearly the one with the greater linguistic competence which remained with her even when no longer living in a German-speaking environment. This can be deduced, for example, from her correspondence – both literary and personal – with the Austrian writer Hermann Broch whose trilogy Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) they translated in the early 1930s, as well as from the frequent comments in Edwin’s letters about Willa being busy with her translations; and Willa’s own comments about having to get a translation finished to meet a deadline. A comment in her journal of August 1953, at a period when she had been very unwell, exposes her inward frustration at her lack of acknowledgement in relation to her translation work. She writes:

And the fact remains; I am a better translator than he is. The whole current of patriarchal society is set against this fact, however, and sweeps it into oblivion, simply because I did not insist on shouting aloud: ‘Most of this translation, especially Kafka, has been done by ME. Edwin only helped’. And every time Edwin was referred to as THE translator, I was too proud to say anything; and Edwin himself felt it would be undignified to speak up, I suppose.

Yet Willa did leave a literary legacy of her own which has gradually become better known, especially in the present century. Her first published work was Women: An Inquiry, which appeared in Hogarth Press’ Essay series in 1925. For many readers – and the reviewers of her own time – this appears a disappointing work in that having started out promising to investigate the nature of creative work by women in contrast to that of men, it ends by endorsing the existing cultural and social opinion that a woman’s creativity is for mothering and home-making while the man’s is for work in the public sphere. Writing to a friend that her ‘old essay has fallen very flat’ and that ‘The Nation said it was as unexciting as boiled rice’, she offered the excuse that she had unknowingly been pregnant and had now suffered a miscarriage: ‘No wonder I was brooding over the bearing of children.’ And she ended: ‘ I shall launch bombs next time!’. These more successful ‘bombs’ included her novels Imagined Corners of 1931 and Mrs Ritchie of 1933, which, in addition to being compulsive and satisfying reading experiences, make important contributions to our understanding of the lives of women and of the obstacles in the way of fulfilled female lives, socially and psychologically, in the early years of the twentieth century as well as in some respects still existing in our own time. The novels were followed in the 1930s by Mrs Grundy in Scotland, a short book in Routledge’s Voice of Scotland series and by the essay ‘Women in Scotland’ published in the Left Review of 1936.

In addition to her translation work and her fiction and essay writing, Willa Muir was also a splendid recorder of places and events. Essays such as ‘The Brothers Čapek at Home’ and ‘A Woman in Prague’ capture the Czech capital in the early days of the new Republic established after World War One. In contrast, her Prague journal of the late 1940s, written when she accompanied Edwin to his post as Director of the British Council Institute in Prague immediately after the end of World War Two, bears testimony in prose, poetry and reportage to the events that led up to the Communist Putsch of February 1948 and to the Czechs once more losing their national freedom. Her final prose publications, Living with Ballads, which she undertook to write when Edwin died before he could fulfil the proposed work for which he had received a Bollingen grant; and Belonging, her memoir of their marriage, written from her woman’s perspective, demonstrate that she had indeed achieved the goal of ‘what I meant to be’, as she had written years earlier in a poem for Edwin’s sixtieth birthday. Her last publication was a collection of poems Laconics, Jingles and other Verses, published by the Enitharmon Press in 1969, which she sent to friends the Christmas before she died accompanied by the greeting: ‘I’m no’ deid yet’. Although several male acquaintances who did not know her well such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Wyndham Lewis, and T.S. Eliot found her uncomfortably dominant, others, together with her women friends, found her witty and generous. She was a remarkable woman and ‘dangerous’ in the best creative and cultural sense of the word.