The Other Muir: Willa Muir, Motherhood, and Writing

Pickard, Emily Lynn (2021) The Other Muir: Willa Muir, Motherhood, and Writing. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Research regarding Willa Muir (1890-1970) thus far has focused primarily on her relationship with her husband, Edwin Muir (1887-1959), and often values discussion of her novel Imagined Corners (1931) above critical analysis of her other writings. The ‘myth’ of absolute equality in her marriage is used to rationalise Muir’s prioritization of Edwin’s poetry over her own writing. Her contributions to Scottish literature are often downplayed. To address this gap, this thesis investigates Willa’s decision to sacrifice her writing in order to be a mother and wife, and to support Edwin’s poetry. The critical works of Kirsty Allen, Aileen Christianson, and Margery Palmer McCulloch have provided a crucial foundation upon which this thesis seeks to build. While this critical work remains pivotal for our understanding of Willa’s contribution, as well as seeing her works within their literary, cultural, and social context, a more nuanced understanding of the Muirs as a couple and as literary partners remains elusive. In particular, the theme of motherhood provides a rich and constructive approach to re-examine Muir’s life and work side by side.

This thesis begins with an investigation of ‘Marmaduke’, Willa’s unpublished journal of her son Gavin’s first years. This provides a useful starting point to address the anxieties and preoccupations of Muir’s own experience as a mother, and establishes a framework for exploring the theme of motherhood in her other key literary texts. This analysis begins by exploring the essentialist viewpoint that informs her feminist polemic, Women: An Inquiry (1925). It then analyses her two published novels, Imagined Corners and Mrs Ritchie (1933). Special attention is paid to the absence of mothers in Imagined Corners, in contrast, to the ‘monstrous mother’ of Mrs Ritchie. Both analyses are grounded in biographical context relating to Muir’s own experience as a mother, alongside the often difficult relationship with her own mother. These novels are seen as an escape from motherhood, allowing Muir a safe space to express her anxiety about the restrictions she faces in society as a woman and from the expectations of mothers. The thesis continues by exploring the autobiographical and historical elements of her unpublished third novel ‘Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey’ (1940), which, in contrast to Imagined Corners and Mrs Ritchie, presents the reality of Muir’s life as a working mother. This chapter discusses the gendered imbalance of affective and emotional labour in the domestic setting. The thesis then moves on to investigate Muir’s second feminist work, Mrs Grundy in Scotland (1936), which shows how the maternal figure of Mrs Grundy has been co-opted by the patriarchy to place women, and more specifically mothers, in a liminal space of being both feared and revered. The thesis concludes with a review of the role of supernatural and tragic mothers in Muir’s final critical text Living with Ballads (1965). Throughout, her memoir Belonging and her journals inform analysis with autobiographical insight. Furthermore, close readings of the texts are supported with feminist literary analysis, the contextual background for which is provided by Winifred Holtby, Virginia Woolf, Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill, and Cicely Hamilton, and theories investigating women’s labour and motherhood from Adrienne Rich, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Helen McCarthy, to provide a deeper understanding of the image and role of mothers, and women generally, in Muir’s lifetime.

By re-reading her work through the lens of motherhood, this thesis aims to reveal the continued relevance and significance of Muir as a feminist, Modernist, Euro-Scottish woman writer. This investigation of her work is situated within the currently increasing awareness of the invisibility that mothers’ experiences have historically faced. It is this context that shows the necessity of studying writers like Willa Muir in the popular, public realm by voicing concerns around limiting gendered expectations that restrict women’s access to the literary canon. This thesis studies a selection of Muir’s published and unpublished works in order to highlight her range in artistic style and voice and in genre experimentation. By showcasing her use of observational journals, essay writing, fiction, satire, and autoethnographic non-fiction, this thesis aims to broaden an appreciation of Muir’s abilities as a writer and to emphasise the multifaceted framework of the maternal.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Supported by funding from the Scottish Literature department and the College of Arts.
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: McCue, Professor Kirsteen and Riach, Professor Alan
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82665
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 03 Feb 2022 09:54
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2022 16:53
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82665

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