‘The Usurpers’ by Willa Muir
We recently celebrated the publication of a novel which had waited 70 years to get into print. This is Willa Muir’s ‘new’ novel, The Usurpers. Two typed versions of the manuscript, and a few pages of a handwritten version of one chapter, have been in University Collections since the 1970s along with the rest of Willa’s papers. Now thanks to the hard work of Jim Potts, who recognised its potential, and Anthony Hirst of Colenso Books who edited and published it, the novel has finally seen the light of day.
Willa was a student here in St Andrews from 1907-1911, when she was known as Minnie Anderson. She came from Montrose, though her family were Shetlanders. She read Classics, English and Modern History, graduating with a first-class Honours degree in Classics in 1911. She was awarded the Berry scholarship and was active in student debating, the women’s suffrage society and the students’ representative council. She was also on the editorial committee of the student magazine, ‘College Echoes’.
She married the poet Edwin Muir in 1919. The couple led a peripatetic life around Europe, England and Scotland, including spells in Prague, Dresden, Vienna, Salzburg, and Menton in France. They subsisted by teaching, writing and translating. They were the first to bring Franz Kafka’s works to an English audience. Willa also published 2 novels, Imagined Corners (1931) and Mrs Ritchie (1933), and feminist studies on the place of women in Presbyterian Scotland. Her writing, initially overshadowed by Edwin Muir’s reputation, is now recognised as a significant contribution to the Scottish Renaissance; the Muirs’ numerous translations of German-language fiction are now acknowledged to be largely her work.
The Usurpers is set in Prague during the years that Edwin was director of the British Institute there, from 1945-1948. Czechoslovakia was just starting to recover from the German occupation during the Second World War. Willa kept journals during that time (ms38466/5/2-3) where she talks of working hard to gain the trust of the Czechs, now suspicious of foreigners after the war. She contrasts this with the warm reception they had found when they had lived there in 1921-1922. Hatred of the Germans and suspicion of the Russians and the Communist party infused Czech society. She reflects on the increasing tensions within the country, as well as the frustration Edwin was feeling after restrictions were imposed on the British Institute by the new British Council representative, Reg Close.
The last journal, entitled ‘The Putsch and after’, (ms38466/5/4) records the coup of February 1948 which brought the Communist party to power, and precipitated the Muirs’ return to Britain. There are insightful comments on public demonstrations, political manoeuvring and views of the ordinary Czech people. The uncertainty of not knowing who to trust, the feeling of being spied upon, arrests and interrogations of their friends, and the difficulty of being foreigners subject to any whim of the law, led ultimately to their decision to leave. Edwin applied for a transfer on the grounds of health and they returned to England in 1948.
All of this political turmoil made its way into The Usurpers. It’s a comic novel initially about the machinations of a new head at the Utopian Cultural Mission in Slavomania, but becomes increasingly serious as the insidious influence of the Communist Party grew, describing propaganda wars, political intimidation, infiltration and violence. The title has a double meaning, with the main characters not only struggling with a new regime at the Mission, but also the refusal of their friends to believe that a Communist takeover could be possible.
Willa wrote The Usurpers during 1952. There’s a year long gap from 31 January 1951 until 22 February 1952 in her journal (ms38466/5/5):
“because I began to write my book again and have therefore written nothing else. It is finished, but not revised. I think, whiles, it’s very good; surprised that I could have thought it out at all; then, whiles, that it’s disjointed, ill put together, lacking proportion and style.”
She was hurt and disappointed that Edwin did not make an effort to read it immediately.
“I could see how little value he attached to the expectations he might have of it, how little real importance it would have. Perhaps he is right thought I; this book I have been dreaming myself into, with such enthusiasm and delight, is really a very second-rate production: it won’t matter to anyone. It made me suicidal for some hours until I got the better of it. Once convinced that you are utterly unimportant, you think suicide doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”
In the end she got down to editing it herself:
“I was surprised to find out how many clumsinesses I had left in the book, and how many superfluous bits of explanation and elaboration.”
But she was pleased with the final result and proposed to send it off to various publishers, under the pseudonym Alexander Croy. Eventually she withdrew it herself after she was named as the author – having read the novel and the diaries she used as source material, I can now see why, as fiction is very thinly-veiled reality. Characters in the novel were based on real people in the British Council and real situations, so it was a little close to the bone at the time. The Muirs appear as Martin and Jamesina Russell. Many of their friends and colleagues would have recognised themselves in the manuscript. Edwin probably didn’t want to be reminded of those frustrating days in Prague.
Jim Potts was also director of the British Council in Prague, from 1986-1989 during the final years of the Communist regime, so the Muirs’ experiences resonated with him. He met people who had known the Muirs in the 1940s, and his interest in Willa started his relationship with Special Collections in the University Library in 2013. Almost a decade later, the book was ready. A gathering in the Napier Reading Room in Martyrs Kirk to celebrate its launch was treated to speeches about the book and a display of material from the Willa Muir archive. Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone introduced the event. She was presented with a copy of the novel.
Willa and Edwin had many connections with St Andrews, which made it very appropriate to have her book launch here. They lived in St Andrews for several years from 1935, and their son Gavin later attended the University. They had been tempted back here by an American friend, James Whyte, who ran a bookshop and a literary magazine, The Modern Scot. They lived in Castlelea, on the Scores opposite the Castle, with wonderful sea views.
Willa writes in her diary (ms38466/3/3):
“St Andrews was still as pleasant a small town as it had been in my student days. Besides its natural advantages of sea and sand and links it had an aura of past history that helped one’s imagination: the old ruins and half-ruins of the Castle, the Cathedral, St Regulus Tower, the Pends and the West Port were integral parts of the town, as St Salvator’s Chapel and tower were parts of the University. Prior Hepburn’s walls – built to spite his Bishop – still stood nearly as straight as when they were first raised, because, tradition said, their mortars had been compacted with the whites of eggs extorted from neighbouring country folk. Past and present belonged to each other, wherever one turned, almost as pervadingly it seemed to me, as in Orkney. I know that Gavin felt he belonged to St Andrews and loved it: as for me, I could not help still loving its old stones, not to mention the clefts and dells to the south of it where I had enjoyed so much primrose picking and student picnics among the kingcups and the little shell-sand beaches.”
However, they found the social hierarchy very rigid and the culture conservative. It was not done to invite professors’ wives and lecturers’ wives to the same tea party, and fraternising between staff and students was frowned upon. There was little of the enlightened artistic and literary world that they had been used to in London or on the Continent.
Edwin was ignored by the English department, led by a professor who refused to admit that any contemporary work could be regarded as literature, and he was condemned as a man “who wrote for the papers”.
“It had never occurred to us that we were mavericks in some marginal region beyond the pale, and at first we were more amused than resentful.”
She records increasing tensions between Town and Gown over the University (and St Leonards School) buying up all the property, and not using landladies and digs any more. Townsfolk also disliked the R&A “which was filling up with retired proconsuls mainly from India”.
They left during the war in 1942, moving to Edinburgh where Edwin started to work for the British Council, the organisation that would take the Muirs to Prague 3 years later.
Willa’s other unpublished novel, Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey, has also featured on our blog, as part of our Reading the Collections series.
Copies of The Usurpers are available at Toppings and through the Wardlaw Museum shop if you live locally.