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Looking for Nan Shepherd – Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, by Charlotte Peacock

I had been looking forward to reading Charlotte Peacock’s Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd (Galileo Publishers, 2017) , because I was curious about Nan Shepherd, best known these days for a slim book called The Living Mountain. Nan Shepherd was, among other things, a walker, and she loved best to walk in the Cairngorms. Hers was an intense engagement with landscape, and this was distilled into The Living Mountain; her writings about the mountains have an almost hallucinatory quality to them – I suppose one might call it ‘spiritual’, although I gather that Nan Shepherd herself might have disavowed this precise term. Maybe ‘animistic’ is the word, though I think she might have rejected that too. Call The Living Mountain then a prose-poem of a very distinctive kind.

The Living Mountain had an odd publishing history. Shepherd was a poet and a successful novelist in the early 1930s, associated with the Scottish Modernists, though seemingly not one for literary movements herself, and in many respects a reluctant writer who didn’t particularly desire fame. She wrote novels until she stopped writing novels. She wrote The Living Mountain in the 1940s but couldn’t get it published at that time so simply put it away in a drawer. This was, we learn, very like Nan. For most of her adult life she worked at Aberdeen’s Teacher Training Centre, lecturing on English literature, apparently extremely good at her job, much loved by her students, but saying nothing about her life as a writer. The Living Mountain was finally published in 1977 to very little notice, but much later, well after Shepherd’s death, acquired a new fame, mostly I think as a result of Robert Macfarlane writing about it so extensively. Certainly, it’s where I first came across her name, to the point where I started to read her work because I was so sick of everyone else going on about it, and that is never a good beginning.

So here I make my confession. I liked The Living Mountain well enough but it did not capture my imagination in the way I’d been assured it would. If anything, I was slightly baffled by the adoration showered on the book, and a little disappointed that it had not worked its magic upon me. It may be that I simply read it at the wrong moment, read it too literally, or that I was so primed for miracles by the time I did read it my hopes and expectations were bound to go unmet. Whatever it was, nothing happened. It may happen later – and I will read it again, quietly, without telling anyone – but if it does I will never have that pure unmediated moment of recognition.

What did happen was that I had bought The Living Mountain in an omnibus edition with Shepherd’s three novels, The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, and A Pass in the Grampians, and they really did hit the spot, over and over. I was astonished by the power of her storytelling, the vividness of her characterisation, and the way she addressed women’s place in the world, and wondered why I’d not heard of these novels before. According to this biography, Shepherd didn’t think that much of her novels, or much about them once they were done; if that’s true, it’s a shame, as I think they are amazing. What might have happened, for example, if Virago or The Women’s Press had picked up her work back in the 1980s, and what a pity they didn’t.

Instead, Nan Shepherd is known to us now primarily through The Living Mountain,  and … and I don’t know quite how to put this, but it makes me uneasy … somehow that book seems to have become the property of men. It’s coincidental, I don’t doubt, but I’ve been struck by how often I’ve seen Shepherd’s book written about by men, recommended by men, praised by men, and only ever the one book, and how little she is mentioned by women. It may be the nature of the bubble in which I exist in the world, and that elsewhere women are eagerly discussing her writing, but … I don’t know … I would have thought I’ve have heard something by now. The appearance of Charlotte Peacock’s book is therefore all the more exciting because it is a book about Nan Shepherd, written by a woman, and one seemingly familiar with The Living Mountain, although, almost inevitably, Peacock herself came to Shepherd’s work through reading Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

 But Nan Shepherd, it turns out, is a difficult subject for a biographer, particularly an inexperienced biographer. She was apparently intensely private, said little about herself to others; many of her friends didn’t even know she was a writer. It also seems she didn’t leave a lot for a biographer to work on. In the Preface, Peacock says:

She left no journals and much of her correspondence was pitched out. What little is extant in the archives has been heavily censored. Lines are scored through, pages snipped into and in some places completely excised, presumably by Nan herself. Even in her two commonplace books there is rarely any personal comment made alongside the extracts she has carefully copied in. Renowned for her reticence in life, in death it seems Nan Shepherd wished to remain as enigmatic as she was in life. (11)

This prompts a number of questions, not the least being, if someone really does not want to be known to posterity, should one continue to pursue writing a biography. One is forever mindful of Ian Hamilton’s engagement with J.D. Salinger, not to mention the many other biographies where subject and biographer have fallen out, or where the biographer was obliged to tackle the subject in a less conventional way, often, in the case of novelists, through close examination of the subject’s writing. In the case of Nan Shepherd, it would seem that her novels were indeed autobiographical, her first heavily so – Shepherd’s friend, Agnes Mure Mackenzie noted this, and said as much to Shepherd herself: ‘I can’t do this as a rule with other people’s work. With yours as you know I can to a large effect (including tracing some bits of my own in it!)’ (11) –and Peacock indicates in the preface that she will draw on them to flesh out what is known about Shepherd herself.

Part of me thinks ‘oh, no, don’t do that, please’. I’ve seen enough biographies where this approach has been attempted to know that it is likely to fail horribly. But part of me is still very curious, and as it turns out, Peacock seems not to be making really wild assumptions about Shepherd’s life from her fiction, instead using the fiction to provide colour for the facts on the page. And because of Mackenzie’s comment, I can to some extent run with that as an approach. I am uneasy, though, as I nowadays always am about biographical writing, life writing, memoir, call it what you will. In her Preface, Peacock talks about the biographer’s job being to try to reveal the essence of the subject; and for Peacock, the essence of Nan Shepherd lies in The Living Mountain. ‘To grasp Nan Shepherd’s essence is to grasp what prompted her to take that journey into the mountain and what she apprehended from it’ (12), which is probably the one thing we never do entirely grasp, not least because I doubt it is graspable, except by reading The Living Mountain (and because I am curious about Nan Shepherd, I’m clearly going to have to read it again). The point would seem to be that to know her own life, the life of Nan Shepherd, can only be achieved by knowing the life of the mountain.

But if this book is the seminal work in Nan Shepherd’s literary life, the problem is that its gestation is almost entirely invisible to us. Peacock begins the chapter that covers the period when it was probably written by saying:

Nan was thinking about, if not already writing, The Living Mountain in August 1943. We do not have her letter to Neil Gunn, but it is clear from his reply that she had outlined the book to him. (216)

We will pass swiftly over that ‘Nan’ – I dislike first-name familiarity with biographical subjects one has never actually met (and even in those one has met, if truth be told, unless they are close family or one’s partner), and it truly grates in this narrative, not least because of the constant references to Shepherd’s reticence and need for privacy. (And yes, I know, why am I even reading this biography, given all that.) Yet that, and a description of its being turned down by Batsford almost immediately, is pretty much all we will learn about The Living Mountain, until it is finally published, thirty pages later, when its lack of reception will be briefly noted, and its subsequent publishing history cursorily discussed. It may be that Peacock felt she could not convey what Shepherd herself had already conveyed but if so, it’s nonetheless a curious omission given that this is now the book that Shepherd is known for.

In the Preface, Peacock also notes that ‘I have attempted, too, to examine the role of friendship in [Nan Shepherd’s] life, her place within the Scottish “Renaissance” movement and her work, as well as her writing’ (12), and this she does. There is a considerable amount of detail as to who Nan Shepherd knew, and corresponded with, mostly drawn from letters, and this is fascinating in terms of seeing her among like-minded people. Nan Shepherd may have been physically isolated (though she travelled widely at times, visiting friends) but the correspondence that survives suggests she was part of a group of women with very rich intellectual lives who supported one another’s work (although, as Peacock indicates, it was the writer Neil Gunn who was apparently her main creative support). The glimpses we have of this group of women, most of them drawn from among the first female students at the University of Aberdeen, are fascinating. They were part of that post-war generation who were considered a social problem because they couldn’t marry owing to the lack of men to marry, women who worked because they had to but often because they wanted to, women often obliged to support aged parents and unable to live the lives they desired. And buried in this we may find another reason for Shepherd’s reticence about her life – the need to maintain respectability in order to keep her job. Place this alongside Peacock’s suggestion that Shepherd was in love with the husband of a close friend, a couple who at various times experimented with different models of living, including that of an open marriage, though it is not clear whether they knew of Shepherd’s feelings, and one begins to understand Shepherd’s caution about the ultimate fate of her papers. Peacock speculates a little, perhaps rather clumsily, but is not prurient. The sense, though, is that Shepherd had a very rich and fulfilling life; it’s just that she chose not to share it with posterity.

Peacock has done a fairly decent job in laying out the groundwork for a biography of Nan Shepherd. But – and yes, I have been quietly suppressing that ‘but’ until now – I am not sure that Peacock is the biographer that Nan Shepherd really needs; or, maybe, that Peacock has written the biography that Nan Shepherd really needs. So far as I can tell, this is Peacock’s first non-fiction book, and though she’s done an amazing job of pulling together so much information, what is less successful is the way in which she has digested and presented the material.

Unsurprisingly, she has opted for a mostly chronological approach, but the narrative begins a little awkwardly, with the first encounter, in 1941, between Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson, who would herself become a writer with Shepherd’s encouragement. But why Jessie Kesson, other than because she had a good story to tell about meeting Shepherd It’s because their meeting offers a sort of top-and-tail to the story. They got talking on a train because Kesson simply had to tell someone that Charles Murray, the writer, had died. Years later, Kesson is telling the story of the Lady on the Train, and someone asks who it is, only to have to tell Kesson that Shepherd had died that day.

It’s neat, but is it a good place to begin? One has a distinct impression throughout the book that it was more important for Jessie Kesson to have known Nan Shepherd than it was for Shepherd to have known Kesson. Shepherd seems to have been a generous correspondent to other writers and those who wanted to write, but Kesson hovers over the book like an anxious, fluttering presence, constantly retelling the story of how her life changed as a result of meeting Nan Shepherd. Obviously, the narrative must rely on Kesson’s accounts of her interactions with Shepherd, but this opening chapter seems to imply that Kesson was a more intense presence in Shepherd’s life than I suspect was actually the case, and throws the narrative off-kilter before it’s properly begun. After this, the chapter lurches off in different directions, trying to set up various arguments that Peacock will attempt to pursue, before the narrative settles down to a more traditional year-by-year structure. The nature of Shepherd’s spiritual beliefs surfaces here but  in all, this is a throat-clearer of an opening chapter and does the narrative as a whole very few favours.

It’s a shame that, for all her recognition of biography having ‘infinite perspectives’, Peacock settles for the traditional approach – not least the in media res opening – because that relies on having a lot of information about the subject, and it’s clear that Peacock doesn’t really have that much about Shepherd herself, bar a few photographs and various memories. Consequently, we get a lot of detail about other family members, about the locale, its social history. Even that wouldn’t be a bad thing except that it’s dropped onto the page as though Peacock has become distracted from the main task at hand, and has all this fabulous material she just has to tell us about. And a lot of it is genuinely interesting stuff, just not where it is currently situated in the text. Narrative threads are dropped unexpectedly, and just as unexpectedly picked up a few chapters later. Or, we see things like this: ‘Then, in January 1901 the Queen died. The nation went into mourning’, which closes Chapter Two. Chapter Three begins ‘Christmas 1903 was a black one for the Shepherds’. I have no idea what happened to 1902. It’s noticeable too how later chapters are thin, and hurried, by comparison with early chapters, as though Peacock was exhausted by the endeavour, and was anyway running out of material, as I rather suspect she was. Indeed, the biography doesn’t so much draw to a close as simply stop. There is no summation of Shepherd’s life or her career, which suggests that this is an aesthetic choice, but even so, it does not feel satisfactory as a conclusion

But is the fault entirely Peacock’s? I don’t think it is. Writing a book is an exhausting endeavour; after a while you can’t see the wood for the trees, there’s so much to think about. This feels to me like a text that has been lovingly crafted but published without much in the way of editorial oversight. Someone clearly dropped the ball with that conclusion, and indeed at many other points along the way. For various reasons, including stories repeated, questions posed and never answered, desperately convoluted prose, and a myriad other things, I have a strong suspicion this text did not receive quite the edit that it needed and deserved. And here I am talking about developmental editing, not least to help it break free of the ponderous tyranny of chronology. There are questions that someone should have been asking, to guide the author towards the text the bones of which are visible under the informational fat. Precious as every crumb of information about Nan Shepherd might be, it’s clear from this that we really don’t need all of it. Or, rather, that the biography would probably have benefitted from a more thematic approach. I wanted to know more about the women Shepherd knew, Agnes Mure Mackenzie especially. I wanted to know more about Shepherd’s friendship with Neil Gunn, as a piece rather than excavated from a chapter here, a chapter there. I certainly wanted more about the Scottish Renaissance and Shepherd’s involvement in that. Similarly, Peacock clearly wants to talk about what she sees as Shepherd’s interest in Zen, something she references a good deal at the beginning of the book but never properly gets to grips with. For that matter, Shepherd’s relationship with John Macmurray and Betty Campbell needed to be explored with greater clarity. In short, I wanted context and analysis, and there simply wasn’t enough.

The book’s production is also something of an oddity. It looks nice enough externally but the page layout (overly narrow margins, a slightly uncomfortable font) initially suggested self-publishing, although Galileo Publishers seem to be a perfectly respectable small press specialising in poetry reprints and some original poetry collections (and indeed published a very nice edition of Nan Shepherd’s In the Cairngorms a couple of years ago). So did the single-column index, which has some unusual and not tremendously helpful features. The endnotes are a thing of wonder, too, all 1112 of them. You can probably guess how I know that. The more usual way of dealing with them would be to start the numbering afresh with each chapter, and indeed to ask oneself whether all of them were strictly necessary (they aren’t). I’ll just say that it’s very difficult to trace some texts through the endnotes, especially when they don’t appear in the Works Cited section. Which is a shame given that it’s so rare nowadays to have anything approaching critical apparatus in something intended for a more general audience. To make things worse, this text was not copyedited or proofread. Given it’s what I do for a living I try not to talk about the copyediting and proofreading of a text, because obviously I always have a View, and  the lay reader mostly doesn’t need to care about the things that annoy me. In this instance, I challenge you not to see at least some of what I see – there are so many egregious errors I quickly gave up marking them as I read.

To balance this out, I must say that quite apart from having done an amazing and commendable amount of heavy lifting in assembling all this material in the first place, and bringing it to our notice, Peacock is an excellent close reader. She is a published poet herself, and there is absolutely no doubt that the most successful moments in the biography come when she is analysing Shepherd’s poems and fiction. Her prose lifts noticeably and you can tell that she’s happy and confident in what she’s doing. Indeed, one could also wish that Peacock, who has apparently explored the Cairngorms herself, had written about that as well within the terms of the narrative, and perhaps engaged in a creative dialogue with Shepherd. We would, I think, have got a far better insight into Nan Shepherd’s experience as a result, and it would have provided a fantastic perspective on her work. This alone suggests to me that with the proper editorial input Peacock might have produced a slimmer volume but one that more closely hewed to the important things about Nan Shepherd’s life: those writings Shepherd left behind that she could not later edit or excise. As it is, with Into the Mountain, we have ended up with both more than we need and less than we might want.

Still Thinking About Walking

Back in December 2012, I wrote about reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, and commented then on how few women walkers there seemed to be; how few women seem to casually drop things and wander off to walk in the way that Macfarlane does. They seem either tied to a very small piece of ground (Nan Shepherd – walking into the landscape rather than across or out of it) or else emphasis is laid on their singleness (i.e. the implied freedom to move around) and their interactions with men as they travel (I was struck by this in the readings of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild I heard on the radio, but it is an old, old trope).

This morning, reading Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker review of Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is For Hawk, it occurred to me that there is another aspect to this, and that’s illness – in particular, grief. Or, rather, in Macdonald’s case, as a falconer, she has always been able to walk the landscape on her own, with the hawk on her wrist as a spurious indicator of authority for her right to be there. But it is her father’s death and her grieving over that death, embodied in her decision to train a goshawk, that grants her ‘permission’ to write about it.

I read the book over Christmas and liked it very much. I will write about it at some point, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll say only that my reading was not framed exclusively in terms of of Macdonald’s struggling with grief to a level that seems almost irrational to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and so far I have not (although, undeniably, this is in part what Macdonald wrote about). Instead, I saw it more in terms of the discipline of training a goshawk imposing some sort of shape to Macdonald’s life at a point when she had few other anchors. And yes, by Macdonald’s own admission, there is a point where she recognises that she has in some way gone feral, but to me it’s significant that she can see this and act upon it.

Yet Schulz frames this element of the book in terms of ‘coming home’.

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.

There is a delicate path to be traced through this, because on the one hand, Macdonald knows better than any of us what it she experienced, and I cannot and must not presume to understand her grief better than she does. On the other hand, I found myself bridling somewhat at Schulz’s ‘comes home’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to believe that you never can come ‘home’, because ‘home’ is always behind you. Where you arrive is not where you left, even if it looks the same, because you are not the same. Tolkien may put those famous words, ‘Well, I’m back’, into the mouth of Sam Gamgee, but ‘back’ implies that everything is precisely as he left it, whereas we know that it is anything but. Not all the restoration in the world can alter that fact.

To me it seems that to recognise that ‘The wild is not a panacea for the human soul’, as Macdonald does, is not the same as to reject it, something I don’t think she does. But home? With all the connotations that carries? I wonder.

I found myself thinking of Margery Kempe, the fourteenth-century mystic. she was an extraordinary woman, famed for her impassioned weeping. No wonder she wept. The mother of fourteen children, some of whom may have survived to adulthood, she clearly experienced at least one episode of post-natal depression, possibly more. She experienced visions, which she, being illiterate, persuaded someone to write down for her. She sought a chaste marriage with her husband, and travelled extensively on pilgrimages, and also to visit the other mystics of her times. Should we think of her as someone who sought to come home, or who carried on travelling?

Another book out recently is Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, in which Norbury begins a walking project in order to assuage her grief after the loss of a much-wanted child because of a miscarriage. Again, the walk is framed as a project to ameliorate a feeling rather than as something that exists as a thing in and of itself. Can the walk only be justified because it has an ulterior, distracting purpose?