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Lewis Grassic Gibbon$

William K. Malcolm

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781789620627

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781789620627.001.0001

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Autofiction: Stained Radiance and The Thirteenth Disciple

Autofiction: Stained Radiance and The Thirteenth Disciple

(p.39) 4 Autofiction: Stained Radiance and The Thirteenth Disciple
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

William K. Malcolm

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Mitchell’s first two novels are examined as works deploying the medium of imaginative literature for introspection and analysis of his own past. In reverse chronological order they recreate the narrative of his childhood and early adulthood, in the course of which they present a state of the nation critique of early twentieth century Britain. The forthright verisimilitude of the social realism is in keeping with the philosophical nihilism prevailing in the inter-war years, with the political responses of mainstream parties and of radical splinter groups such as the Anarchocommunist Party appearing unable to change society for the better. Mitchell’s technical experimentation with metafiction and intertextuality indicates the scale of his literary ambition, while his proto-feminist sympathies are marked by his reliance on female protagonists.

Keywords:   Stained Radiance, The Thirteenth Disciple, state of the nation critique, verisimilitude, social realism, nihilism, Anarchocommunist Party, metafiction, intertextuality, proto-feminist

As is often the case with early novels, Mitchell’s are best classed as autofiction in that they deploy the medium of imaginative literature for interrogation of his own past fundamentally in search of some kind of salutary perspective on his life.1 The first two novels are especially important in shedding light on his background (and on his considered retrospective response to it), although they deal with events in reverse chronological order: Stained Radiance explores the immediate past of his time in London in between the wars and in the RAF, while The Thirteenth Disciple delves back further to his boyhood in rural Aberdeenshire – home, school, family life, employment in journalism in Glasgow and his political indoctrination.

Stained Radiance: A Fictionist’s Prelude

Published at last in September 1930 and aptly dedicated to his wife whose staunch support of her husband had actually included collaborating on the editing of his first novel, Stained Radiance bears the scars of its prolonged period of gestation and of endless revisions: the final text is overcomplicated, overwritten and freighted with self-conscious literary quotation and discourse on art and literature, politics and philosophy. Complete with its brazenly lascivious art deco dust jacket (‘why on earth a rather well executed picture of two nude, normal and rather good-looking human beings should shock the reading public is a problem that might stagger even Dr. Freud’, Mitchell quipped disingenuously to Alexander Gray2), the book was (p.40) clearly pitched at a select middlebrow readership. In the final analysis, however, it’s a fascinating record at a fictional remove of the author’s experiences as a young adult, of his radical political development and of the evolution of his innermost thoughts about contemporary society. The novel’s social setting proffers an unforgiving picture of the early twentieth-century world at peace and at war as a damning state of the nation critique, and the interrelated storylines of the twin protagonists John Garland and James Storman finally snuff out all hope of ordinary people finding concrete ways forward; the dead-end represented in the stagey exchange of roles manufactured at the end of the book destroys any substantive hopes for the future that the reader may have harboured. Admittedly at the book’s resolution Garland rediscovers a sense of political mission and, more poignantly, Storman invests his future hopes in his infant son, reflecting the optimism that the author himself felt at the time of writing at the prospect of becoming a father. The overarching bleakness of the novel, though, alternating abrasively between gritty social realism and ironic nihilism, undeniably captured the spirit of the time, with the radiance of the title (lifted from Shelley’s ‘Adonais’) all but extinguished by the all-pervading stain; but in purely commercial terms – now the jobbing author’s uppermost concern – the book was destined to undersell.

In Stained Radiance the reader identifies most with Garland and with his lover Thea Mayven, a prototype of Chris Guthrie. Mitchell draws on his RAF service for Garland’s characterisation, but Thea is the most heavily autobiographical figure, sharing his love–hate relationship with his rural roots. She is introduced in terms of conflicting emotions – ‘Scots, she had never ceased to feel foreign in London, and intrigued by it’ (SR2) – but her love of the countryside articulating ‘the sad romantic realism of the peasant’ (SR3) produces the most lyrical passages in the book. Her skittishness about her ‘heritage of the earth’ (SR3) poignantly captures the author’s own inner turmoil; nonetheless, the Scottish passages in both the opening novels appear quite comforting, like Mitchell’s annual family holidays back in the Mearns and in Aberdeenshire offering homespun relief from the frenzy of the city. Thea clearly possesses Chris Guthrie’s spirit of independence, delicately shown in the (p.41) passage describing her open physical self-appraisal (SR51), and her intimate ‘Odyssey’ tracing her developing consciousness as an individual foreshadows Chris’s questing intellect (SR82) while discreetly paralleling James Joyce’s modernist citation of classical myth. Mitchell tries out a few alternative approaches concerning the deployment of Scots language, from the conventional jarring dichotomy of yoking together formal English narrative and colloquial Scots dialogue, to integrating interior monologue within the third-person narrative, and dispensing with intrusive inverted commas normally used for speech. Thea again is the one who is given to reflect on the lasting place of ‘the good Scots’ as the appropriate medium for painting traditional rural experience, in a passage looking forward to Long Rob’s stout defence of his native tongue at Chris’s wedding:

She found herself remembering long-forgotten words of the good Scots, canty, lightsome words and jingles, things with old laughter and the smell of the peats and sea in them; darksome old words like clanjamfried and glaur and greep, words wrought for the bitter winter nights by the plodding peasants of the Eastern sea-coast ….


The Garlands directly represent the troubles that the Mitchells had suffered in their early married life in London, in a city racked by profound housing and employment problems. Garland’s despondence at what he terms ‘the rottenness called Life’ (SR117) is shared by Storman, whose disillusionment is expressed in a more specific denunciation of ‘the cold-blooded inhumanity of man’ (SR145). Indeed in his preliminary incarnation as hard-bitten political agitator and secretary of the Anarchocommunist Party Storman foreshadows staunch CP man Jim Trease and young Ewan Tavendale in Grey Granite, despite the climactic crisis of faith that leads him to defect. Garland’s final affirmation of ‘the unknown beauty of London’ (SR206) shows Mitchell’s familiarity with the city’s geography although overall the urban setting only adds to the unforgiving tone of the novel, reflecting the hopelessness of the mass of ordinary people abandoned in its streets after the war.

Mitchell presents the reader with a full-on portrayal of the social iniquities of inner London, and while this situation is seen to foment a proliferation of left-wing political responses, (p.42) no single ideology emerges that offers any real promise of improving matters. Mitchell’s own stock revolutionary icons are invoked throughout the novel, from Spartacus to his characteristically politicised figure of Christ, to Buddha, Marx and Lenin, and snatches of lyrics from the principal left-wing anthems of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’ are transcribed in the text. Through the intertwined lives of Garland, Storman and Andreas van Koupa (the latter two steadily declining into lapsed revolutionaries), however, Mitchell questions the general efficacy of the radical political parties charged with improving the common lot.

Storman’s commentary on the political scene in Britain in the 1920s in the opening chapter directly represents the author’s own jaundiced viewpoint as he analyses the devastating impact of the failure of the General Strike in May 1926 upon all left-wing parties, in particular with regard to the comprehensive popular disillusionment with the Labour Party that had refused to endorse the action. Satirical set pieces directly looking forward to the political caricature of Cloud Howe and Grey Granite lampoon the various political parties of the time, from the annual congress of the Anarchocommunist Party in chapter four that degenerates into egotistical mudslinging to the by-election in chapter seven that serves up risible caricatures of the mainstream parties’ candidates – including, prophetically, fascist blackshirts bolstering the Conservative campaign. This steady stream of political irony culminates in Storman’s insipid address of the South Wales Anarchocommunist Party that highlights the anaemic nature of local working-class agitation as the members grasp at empty slogans and clichés and regurgitate hollow political rhetoric.

Mitchell was constantly reflecting on the purpose of literature, and his fiction has a strong subtext running through it focusing on writers and their work. As he does so often in his fiction, in Stained Radiance he plants metafictional clues within his narrative that hint at his own literary aims. John Garland, in many ways a mirror image of the author himself as airman, practising communist, rationalist and aspiring first-time novelist, sets out his stall early on in the novel when he reflects on the ‘lack of purpose’ among contemporary novelists (SR58–9). An even more critical commentary on contemporary literature is embodied by (p.43) the satirical subplot featuring the lairy figure of Andreas van Koupa, who sells out to author preciously esoteric works whose primary motivation becomes quite transparently mercenary and self-interested. Mitchell’s final comment on the moribund state of literature at the time is summed up in the novel’s closing subchapter, in which Koupa sets all his former agonising about life and about his creative vocation aside and surrenders all artistic credibility in the pursuit of hedonistic gratification with his submissive patroness-consort.

The Thirteenth Disciple: Being Portrait and Saga of Malcom Maudslay in his Adventure Through the Dark Corridor

Mitchell bowed to his publisher’s advice by grafting a happy ending on to The Thirteenth Disciple (and later to Image and Superscription), and yet the spurious leap of faith contrived at the book’s close is stymied and effaced by the deeply entrenched sense of despair built up in the evocation of the existential ‘dark corridor’ in the preceding chapters. The arresting title of The Thirteenth Disciple isn’t explained, but the declarative self-affirmation associated with the last of Christ’s apostles who replaced Judas obliquely captures the author’s own self-image as a latter-day iconoclast. The book itself is an incongruous conflation of social realism and ‘lost world’ fantasy, with a Diffusionist message crudely integrated within a narrative that, as Mitchell himself disclosed in the coda added to the synopsis of his autobiography, draws liberally upon the raw matter of the author’s early life.3 Formally released in January 1931, The Thirteenth Disciple was the only Mitchell novel published that year, a marginally more upbeat tale of protagonist Malcom Maudslay’s search for truth in the post-war world with easily recognisable autofictional elements stretching back to his upbringing in the Northeast. The early chapters chronicle the author’s own shaping by the farming communities that he was raised in, reworking his education at Arbuthnott Parish School and his subsequent removal to journalism and left-wing politics in Glasgow, with a curiously discordant genre-bending jump into the jungle of Central America in search of ‘the City (p.44) of the Sun itself’ (TD252) pasted on melodramatically at the book’s end. The archetypally difficult second novel inevitably hadn’t quite the dramatic impact of his first but it also exerts its own fascination, in its bracing autofictional elements, in its forthright confrontation of urgent socio-political themes and in its authentic Scottish interludes drilling deep down into his roots. The outwardly idealistic gloss at the climax, revolving around the protagonist’s dying fulfilment of his archaeological quest in Central America and the posthumous birth of his son back in England, looks ahead to the more palatable and marketable idealism of his imaginative romances.

Mitchell can now be seen freely experimenting with narrative technique, creating a layered intertextuality set out in the prefatory ‘A Footnote on Origins’ defining the varied literary sources of his narrative: his protagonist’s abandoned autobiography, his diary, portion of an autobiographical novel and a privately published book of Malcom’s verse, all supplemented by eyewitness testimony and transcribed interviews. These representational modes add a welcome sense of variety; as yet, however, Mitchell lacks the sophistication (and confidence) to steer his reader through the kind of innovative narrative boasting the fragmented unreliability of Grassic Gibbon’s protean voice. In addition, the storyline tracing the romantic fortunes of Malcom Maudslay, first with Rita Johnson and then with Domina Riddoch, is undeniably gauche, and on the whole the author’s characterisation beyond the febrile contradictions of his autobiographical persona is disappointingly one dimensional. However, Mitchell’s interest in strong female protagonists, ‘New Women’ who are political emblems commanding their own destiny in personal, social, economic and sexual terms, may be seen to carry over from Stained Radiance with moderate success. Like Thea Mayven before, Domina is a liberated figure who personifies the sexual mores of the 1920s – and while her figure also lacks roundness and depth, she attains symbolic status early in Book Two where she gives vent to the pent-up historical rage of the proto-feminist ‘crusader’, resolving:

‘[…] all those poor damn women who went through hell to give the dirty peasants and priests and patriots and poets of civilization easy times and well-cooked food and all the crazy satisfactions of (p.45) lust and torture and sadism which were yours – I’m going to live every unenjoyed life of those starved mothers of mine who were killed and eaten in cannibal rituals, starved to death, beaten to death, crippled in crinolines and ghastly codes, robbed of fun and sunshine and the glory of being fools and disreputable for over six thousand years … . And I’m going to get every woman alive to do the same!’


Mitchell’s hardening politics are represented in the humorous study of the Secular Control Group, a bourgeois gathering of well-intentioned dreamers idly attempting to transform their post-war angst into a cohesive plan of campaign. Their eleven-point political agenda constitutes a wish-list of serious-minded social solutions, and the three wilfully challenging principles advocating sexual equality by vouchsafing social, biological and economic rights are placed first in the list of ‘social and political’ aims by the wilfully challenging author:

  1. (i) Abolition of the Legal Status of Marriage.

  2. (ii) State Propaganda and Enforcement of Birth Control.

  3. (iii) A General Tax to be levied for the Endowment of Each Woman’s First Two Children. (TD215)

The more fully extended Scottish-set sections appearing in the first four chapters of the book are most memorable overall, faithfully recreating the author’s own upbringing and his radical political shaping. The naturalistic observation of people, places and actions looks forward directly to the trilogy, and Malcom’s love–hate relationship with the farm prefigures Chris Guthrie’s internal conflict, on the one hand denouncing its ‘grey, grey life’ and on the other savouring ‘memories of those early days in Leekan of which he never wearied’ (TD10). The account of Malcom’s education in Leekan Parish School and of his own astounding reading programme draws a wry acknowledgement of the nerdishness that worried his own mother, ‘lest his brain should soften’, and that made him ‘a consummate failure as a farm-labourer’ (TD24–5). The succeeding watershed in Malcom’s life, just like the author’s, deals with his dawning interest in socialism as his abrupt departure from further education leads Malcom to journalism in Glasgow, where his social sympathies (p.46) are hardened by the prevalent signs of poverty and squalor. Malcom’s gravitation towards the radical Left Communist Group appears an entirely logical development.

Prophetically, the author expressed misgivings about the perils of drawing directly on his background in the Northeast, writing to Alexander Gray:

The particular locality has such a close resemblance to Arbuthnott and the Howe o’ the Mearns generally that I was forced to insert a few entirely fictitious topographical details – in case some enraged Reisker or other fauna sued me for libel.4

As Mitchell was to find just eighteen months later with the tetchy local reception reserved for Sunset Song back home in the Mearns, verisimilitude of such immediacy could be adjudged to be just too near the bone.

Towards the end of Book One Mitchell wanders away from his own life experience, although the disturbing account of Malcom’s failed suicide had some basis in the author’s own desperate reaction to his sacking from The Scottish Farmer. The representation of the horrors of the war in the trenches at the Somme is still unsparingly graphic, however, and the transposition of Malcom’s mild-mannered brother Robert into the cauldron of death and destruction acts as the final indictment – just like Ewan’s sense of alienation in military service at the climax of Sunset Song. Mitchell had done his homework well, plunging his protagonist into the bloodiest battles that historically took place in Northern France, at Delville Wood, Trônes Wood, Longueval and Ginchy; his subsequent portrayal of Malcom’s post-war convalescence and rehabilitation in central London in late 1923 and early 1924 poignantly refers back to Mitchell’s own catastrophic slump in fortune suffered at that exact time. The therapeutic return to Leekan is represented in suitably sensuous terms that hark back with affection to Mitchell’s own default homing instinct to seek out the solace of the Mearns countryside in the wake of his worst travails.

Mitchell is incisively frank in his portrayal of the catastrophic loss of faith that Malcom observes all around him in post-war Britain and that he experiences himself as he enters the godless era, and ‘secured books by Huxley and Haeckel and rejoiced (p.47) with them at the discomfiture of the Deity’ (TD23). Anatole France, author of one of the novel’s principal epigrams, is again cited in Malcom’s reading, while the philosophical scepticism of the age is best captured in a typical reductive metaphor in which Malcom is shown to conceive of military life as the workings of a giant ant-hill (TD104), and the fragility of human life as a whole is apprehended later in the same chapter with bald materialist pragmatism as ‘only a temporary grouping of atoms endowed with a conceit called personality’ (TD115). To compound matters, the urgency of the social problems caused by rampant industrialisation, by economic disintegration, later by the war, promotes mass left-wing political activity, the resultant failure of socialist politics being succinctly summed up in Malcom’s alarmist term as ‘the collapse of the entire socialist philosophy’ (TD66).

Meierkhold’s political disillusionment reinforces the overweening sense of spiritual despair. Subsequently shaken by his own personal traumas, by the loss of his wife and unborn child and by his enforced mercy killing of his best friend Metaxa at the Somme, Malcom articulates the perennial questioning of religious belief that the carnage of the First World War throws up even now, asking, ‘God, what thinking can answer that, what God or faith justify that horror?’ (TD166). Further disillusionment follows with the failure of the General Strike, the fallout from which threw the British left-wing rank and file into corrosive disarray, which Mitchell rightly uses in turn to criticise the mainstream political parties charged with attending to the welfare of the people at this crucial juncture in the rehabilitation of the country and of the world at large.

Mitchell thought long and hard about the ends of his artistic endeavours, and his second novel makes two particularly telling references to this theme. The dawn of a new era, godless and faithless, symbolically welcomed by the local bonfire ushering in the new year, is seen to demand a new artistic response as Malcom perceives that the conflagration ‘flamed on a gaseous literature and an idiot art’ (TD12). At this point the author’s deep-rooted literary sardonicism is inextricably bound up with his overweening scepticism in relation to the world in general. The more specific application of the author’s unhappiness with literature to that of Scottish provenance hints at the much more productive response of Grassic Gibbon fashioned less than two (p.48) years later; the impatience that Malcom shows with sanitised Scottish fiction constituting ‘romantic novels of claymores and stag-hunting and bonnie brier bushes’ (TD6) is the first sign of the deep-seated disgruntlement with stock representations of Scottish national identity that underpinned Mitchell’s greatest creative achievement.

Although the author’s diagnosis of the ills of post-war society is invigoratingly honest, his prescribed remedy is unconvincing. Chapter two presents a formulaic Diffusionist homily as Malcom condemns ‘the base shames and tabus of civilization that befoul the clean desires of the healthy human animal’ (TD32). Subsequently Domina and Metaxa indoctrinate Malcom into the teachings of Diffusionism, which promotes a reasonably clear clarion call in a non-conformist attack on ‘the old, cobwebby religions, and the old and useless political parties’ (TD208–9). Sadly, though, the new dogma isn’t given any practical substance, and Mitchell’s imaginative wish-fulfilment at the book’s climax, of Malcom’s intrepid expedition in search of the legendary lost city of the Maya that sustains a valedictory vision of ‘the City of the Sun itself’ just before his death, stranded all alone in a remote cave in Central America, brings the book to a bathetic close that’s no more convincing for the lyrical natural imagery used to gild the hero’s dying vision (TD252–3).

In the final analysis, The Thirteenth Disciple raises profound questions about life-changing challenges facing people all over the world in the aftermath of the First World War, but the reader is short changed by the anodyne solutions put forward by the author that leave him hankering after answers that simply aren’t forthcoming.


(1.) The French critical theorist Serge Doubrovsky is credited with inventing the term ‘autofiction’ in 1977 with reference to his novel Fils (Paris: Galilée, 1977) as a self-explanatory concept representing the dynamic melding of autobiography and biography in which the author uses the detached modes of fiction to undertake a search for self.

(2.) Letter, Mitchell to Alexander Gray, dated 14 November 1930, NLS MS26109.

(3.) Mitchell’s ‘Synopsis of Memoirs of a Materialist’, NLS MS26060 (Sm785 ), cites his second novel as an exemplar of the ‘general line of treatment’ pursued in his previous published works in relation to his ‘early days’.

(4.) Letter, Mitchell to Alexander Gray, dated 14 November 1930, NLS MS26109.