Book review: Into The Mountain: A Life Of Nan Shepherd, by Charlotte Peacock

Nan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd
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The image of Nan Shepherd which now graces a £5 bank note is a curious one. She looks as if she is in fancy-dress as a Native American, or a flapper more concerned with the Charleston than the Cairngorms. In fact, the strange band around her head is a piece of photographic film she hastily wrapped around her brow on a whim, before placing a broach in the middle. It is an image which seems to blur the technological and the primitive, the futuristic and the chthonic, the avant-garde and the elemental. To that extent, it is the perfect image for this strange, inspiring writer. Charlotte Peacock has done an immense service in writing the first full biography of Shepherd. In recent years writers like Robert Macfarlane and Amy Liptrot have been eloquent about the work: but what of the life?

Shepherd was born in 1893, the same year as Wilde wrote A Woman Of No Importance, and she died in 1981, the year Alasdair Gray published Lanark. She wrote three novels – The Quarry Wood in 1928, The Weatherhouse in 1930 and A Pass In The Grampians in 1933 – as well as a collection of poetry, In The Cairngorms in 1934. The rest is silence, except for the remarkable book she is best known for, The Living Mountain, which rested for 30 years in a drawer until its publication in 1977. Most of her life was taken up with teaching at the Aberdeen College of Education, then editing the Aberdeen alumni magazine, then caring for her own housemaid.

Any biography of Shepherd faces a particular challenge – why the cessation? Peacock shows that she did continue writing, but these are works of an occasional and transient nature. Why did the woman who was called Scotland’s equivalent to Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy keep schtum?

Her own answer was that she didn’t write unless she felt she needed to write, and smacks of 60 sorts of bogus. She was, after all, involved with the Scottish Literary Renaissance in many ways, lecturing on Hugh MacDiarmid, corresponding with Jessie Kesson and befriending Neil Gunn. She was instrumental in the establishment of Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society – it is not as if she forewent the literary culture of the day. It was not as if her one possible romance – a possibly consummated, possibly unconsummated desire for the philosopher John Macmurray (Tony Blair’s favourite philosopher, by the way, and an ambiguous exponent of open relationships) stifled her writings; most indeed come afterwards.

Reading this detailed and sensitive work, there are multiple possibilities. She may well have been wounded by Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s caustic review of her third novel. She may have been fulfilling her sense that words are inadequate things to convey the deepest of experiences: the mountain itself will always, in a Zen way, outstrip the adverb. It might be that the rejection of The Living Mountain undermined her. Yet it may also be that her operation for a thyroidal problem in 1947 was botched. Afterwards she wrote to Gunn, “To find I couldn’t believe in mind anymore – in something that was independent of the flesh and its mysteries – shook me very badly.” It is the most intimate letter she wrote.

Part of the joy of this book is seeing unpublished poems and letters and variant versions; it is a genuine gift to the reader to allow a keek into a very private life. The use of Shepherd’s commonplace books is excellent, and learning things like the fact that she transcribed Emily Dickinson’s poem with the line “Behind the hill is sorcery” deepens the reader’s understanding of Shepherd’s work. The downside is that there is a biography-ish quality to parts of it, with too many “we cannot know”s, ephemera about childhood school competitions and rather abstruse details about whose brother-in-law’s sister married which of the available siblings.

If Shepherd’s work is now again in vogue, it is almost against itself. When I recently re-read The Living Mountain what struck me most was how peopled the wilderness was. It was a place of crashed planes and indignant tree-fellers. In her hands, although it is transformed, it is the opposite of pristine. Shepherd, curious about non-Abrahamic religions, seeks to pierce, to puncture, to penetrate the material realness of the world to find the beyondness of it. She is one of the best writers at conveying the ineffable – she puts into words the wordless like no other. In a way, this biography puts her silence in front of her words, wisely.

This is a necessary book, and there is so much detail – those vagrant notes from the anthology of a child’s early sentences, the snappy but sharp letters, the awful position of “surplus women” after the First World War, when a “catch” was more than necessary and how one might negotiate that dilemma – that this will be a standard volume for the time being. But as Shepherd knew, knowing a thing and being a thing are different propositions. Peacock has done admirable work here: now let the critics loose to find all the subtleties and ambiguities and contradictions in the work.

*Into The Mountain: A Life Of Nan Shepherd, y Charlotte Peacock, Galileo Publishing, £20