Naomi Mitchison, The Big House (1950)

In the year C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950, Naomi Mitchison published a very different fantasy novel for children. Unlike Lewis’s book, The Big House is intimately involved with its own particular time and place, and time and place play a central role in its complex plotting. Set in Argyllshire immediately after the Second World War, in a village called Port-na-Sgadan (‘The Port of the Herring’) which is clearly modeled on Mitchison’s home of Carradale, the novel updates and relocates the Border ballad of Tam Lin, transforming it into a multi-stranded political fable. Simply put, it tells the story of a girl called Susan – Su for short – who embarks on a quest to save a long-lost piper from the fairies. In the process Su learns a great deal about the Big House where she lives and its role in local and national history. More specifically, she learns about class struggle, and how the Big House is deeply implicated in the continuing war of attrition that has been waged by the aristocracy on the commoners over the course of many centuries. As it happens, she also learns a few things about how that war of attrition might be brought to an end; and it’s this final element of the novel that marks its most radical distinction from the Narnian chronicles.

Rescuing the piper from the fairies involves travelling back in time, first to the days of the piper’s early life in the Napoleonic Wars, then to the medieval period, when the Big House is markedly smaller than its twentieth-century equivalent. Su’s travelling companion on these journeys is a working-class boy called Winkie, and each journey places the two children, girl and boy, in radically different situations, figured in each case by their different relationships to the Big House. The four siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience Narnia in different ways because of their different personalities (though it’s implied that one of them, Edmund, has had his character somehow ruined by an experimental school he went to). For Mitchison, by contrast, difference is embedded in the class system, which is also bound up with national, regional and gender identities in a complex web of changing relationships which gives her novel a much subtler and darker flavour, so to speak, than the first entry in the Narnia sequence. Its subtlety and darkness explains, perhaps, why it’s less well known than Lewis’s series, but the book is well worth recovering, along with its feisty protagonist, Susan, who provides such a welcome contrast to the relative insipidity of her Narnian namesake.

Carradale House

The Big House falls into three parts or acts, each of which drives a deeper wedge between Su and her companion, Winkie. The first act takes place in the present day, just after the war, at a point in history when the class system has been loosened or at least unsettled by the pressures of global conflict. It also takes place at a time of year – Halloween – when all the social, cultural and supernatural forces that seethe beneath the surface of the local community tend to boil over, thanks to the old traditions observed by all classes in Port-na-Sgadan. The second act of the novel, set in the early nineteenth century, exposes the material roots of the class struggle that brought about the long-standing hostility between the inhabitants of the Big House and their poorer neighbours. The third act takes the children back to medieval times and underlines the arbitrariness of the class system by placing Su and Winkie in reverse positions. In this period Winkie unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the Big House as clan chief, while Su becomes dependent on his good will in her new role as an injured stranger, who happens to be under Winkie’s protection as his houseguest. The final chapter of the novel returns to the possibility of discovering alternative narratives within the dominant narratives of history which is where the book began. In the process it suggests that the relationship between Su and Winkie might mark the beginning of a new and better phase of class relations, or even the eventual end of class antagonism altogether.

Naomi Mitchison

The threefold structure neatly invokes the many sets of threes that dominate the traditional fairy tale, and we’re invited to consider this numerical significance by the novel’s playfulness with numbers – although the number seven is more closely aligned with the fairies in this book than the number three. Three is the charm, though, as they say, and Mitchison’s narrative (which is full of magic charms of one kind or another) seems to urge or charm its readership, through their sympathy with the personal charms of its two protagonists, into both understanding and breaking down some of the inequalities that divided British communities in the 1950s. If Lewis is concerned with the spiritual and imaginative wellbeing of his readers, Mitchison is more concerned with their material and political welfare. But she too introduces a spiritual dimension into her narrative thanks to the prominence in all three acts of religion and the pagan supernatural, in the shape of the Christian church and its old arch enemies: ‘Yon Ones’, as Winkie terms them, the fairies or good people. The coexistence of these antagonistic supernatural elements alongside the class antagonism that threatens Su and Winkie’s friendship suggests that Mitchison wishes to stress the presence in any given period of multiple narratives or versions of events; narratives that must be understood and reconciled before the foundations can be laid of a better social order.

As I said, the first act of the novel takes place at Halloween, and represents it as a time when the power relations in the children’s community are temporarily suspended (or turned ‘tapsalteery’, as Winkie puts it, p. 66). The mechanism of this suspension is the Scottish custom of ‘guising’ as practised in this remote part of Argyllshire. In Port-na-Sgadan on All Hallows’ Eve women dress up as men, men dress as women, and all revelers don a ‘false-face’ or facial disguise to conceal their identity. Under cover of this disguise, class hostility can either be temporarily set aside (since nobody knows the identity of the revelers) or given free play (for the exact same reason). As the book opens, Su has just been attacked and hurt by an anonymous group of older schoolmates ‘because she was from the Big House, and in times past the Big House had been hard and cruel to the fathers and grandfathers of the ones at the school, and kept them in fear and, maybe, put them out of their houses, but now the thing had turned round and they had revenged themselves’ (p. 10). Halloween, then, represents a kind of miniature social revolution – literally, a ‘turning round’, when girls can join with boys in acts of violence that would not normally be condoned by either sex (Su is usually only subjected to class hostility at school through ostracism, as we learn later). The notion of turning things round also suggests that Halloween is a season when conventional measurements of time are somehow suspended, as they are in all annual rituals, since such rituals imply that time is cyclical rather than linear, and hence that progress, revolution and reconciliation are equally unlikely ever to be accomplished. Su’s attackers are committed, in fact, to upholding a perpetual cycle of injury and revenge – of feuding, in other words – which repeats itself in all three parts of the novel, and against which Su and Winkie’s friendship stands as the sole hope of future amendment.

Carradale

The cyclical view of time invoked by the annual custom of guising in turn reminds us that Halloween is a season when other forces are at work besides class politics. It’s a significant date in the old church calendar, for one thing, being the day before the major feast of All Saint’s Day. And it’s also a significant date in the pagan year: Samhain, when fairies and the dead are said to roam abroad and when children in particular are vulnerable to supernatural influences (this may lie behind the custom of guising, concealing as it does the children’s identity from potential fairy kidnappers). Sure enough, on this particular Halloween Su and Winkie meet the walking dead in the form of the piper, Donald Ferguson, who was born in the early nineteenth century before being abducted by fairies and granted supernatural longevity in exchange for his freedom. Halloween is the time of year when the doors of Fairy Land stand open, and Donald has managed to slip through them – pipes and all – and make his way down to the village that was once his home. As he marches along he plays a tune to give himself courage and keeps an eye out for the church, where he hopes to gain sanctuary from ‘Yon Ones’ on premises held sacred by their religious antagonists. Instead Su and Winkie take him to the Big House and protect him from the Fairy Prince by barring the way to his hiding place with a family Bible. Later he and the children seek to know what to do next by choosing a text from the scriptures at random, one for each of them – three in all; and each text accurately predicts the experiences of its chooser in each of the three acts of the novel. All three acts mix pagan and Christian elements in a continuation of the narrative begun at Halloween, thus underscoring for the children the coexistence of different religious as well as political perspectives on each historical period they visit. It’s an ingenious plot structure, which enables Mitchison to offer her readers an understanding of the interwoven processes of history of the sort C S Lewis is simply not concerned to provide.

Caramel from Above

There is a clear crossover between the political and the supernatural narratives in Mitchison’s text. The abduction of the piper by the fairies, for instance, has a political dimension. Donald Ferguson is a working-class man, and his abductor is a Fairy Prince unwilling to free him from his bondage or enslavement in the fairy kingdom. Yet despite the danger he is in from his fairy pursuers, Donald is at first reluctant to enter the Big House when Su invites him. ‘I will not go the Big House’ he insists (p. 12), presumably because (like his kinsman Winkie) he will not feel welcome or safe in the local stronghold of the ruling classes. His reluctance is justified a page or two later when Su instinctively invites the Fairy Prince into the building as he comes looking for the piper, giving him access to the premises with a formal Gaelic welcome as if in unconscious acknowledgment of their affinity as fellow members of the governing elite (p. 17). It’s because of Winkie’s class background, too, that the boy is so much more au fait with supernatural goings-on in Port-na-Sgadan than Su is. From the moment he meets the piper he is convinced of the continuing presence there of ‘Yon Ones’, as Susan is not; and this may be as much because there is no electric lighting in his house as because his family is more inclined than hers to give credence to oral traditions (‘“It just can’t be true,’ said Su, ‘you know it can’t! It just doesn’t go with electric light!’”, p. 16). Winkie knows many things that don’t ‘go with electric light’. He knows, for instance, about the recent doings in Port-na-Sgadan of the tutelary guardian of the Big House, the Brounie; doings about which Su has never heard, since, as Winkie puts it, ‘“There is things that dinna get told to the Big House ones”’ (p. 30). Moreover, for Winkie the difference between the Brounie, which gives its supernatural assistance to anyone who needs it regardless of class, and the Fairy Prince, who expects unquestioning compliance from his social inferiors, is fundamentally a class difference. This class difference is present, too, in the different level of understanding of the fairies possessed by the travelling folk, the tinkers, as compared to the local working-class people like Winkie, who despise the traveller community. The young tinker Ian Townsley can play a tune on the pipes which makes the Fairy Prince disappear from the Big House kitchen in the first act of the narrative; while in the third and final act Su and Winkie get help from tinkers when they find themselves stranded on the road between past, present and future. Each distinct class – the ‘Big House ones’, the local working-class population and the travellers – has access to a different level of knowledge about Yon Ones, which is in inverse proportion to their access to educational opportunities and the benefits of technological progress, such as electric lighting.

Second World War Mine in Carradale

Running alongside the other narratives in the novel – the stories of the class struggle and of the struggle between Christianity and paganism – runs the narrative of the recently ended global conflict. The impact of the War is felt everywhere in the novel, most deeply, perhaps, in the changes that have taken place in the Big House of the title. Like the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the building has diminished in social stature over time, but unlike Lewis Mitchison is keen to stress the role played by war in this diminution. The resident family’s fortunes clearly took a downturn during the Blitz, which destroyed their London home and killed Su’s ‘London aunt’; and since then London has remained the centre of the mother’s activities, because she works at a Ministry (we never learn which one, just as we never find out what has happened to Su’s father). Power, then, has been sapped from the Big House by the concentration of the military, governmental and economic High Command in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom. The absence of servants in the Big House, apart from old Morag, can be attributed to the fact that ‘there’s a war on’ (p. 24) – or at least a peace which continues to be shaped by the demands of war. The war explains, in fact, why the Big House has lost its ruling class glamour. Its once splendid kitchen now serves only the blandest food – potatoes, oatmeal, herrings, milk (p. 18) – because of rationing, which continued in the UK well into the 1950s. The occupants of the house are evidently subject to the same restrictions and regulations as the rest of the population, with the result that the appearance of the piper raises urgent questions in Su’s mind as to where she will find him an official ration book. The war has turned the Big House into a minor component in a nation-wide military machine, and in the process its political significance and authority have receded into the past.

The other classes in the novel too have been affected by war. Many of the men in the village have served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who wear military issue kilts, and when Su first sees the kilted piper she thinks he might be one of them. Presumably the servants at the Big House have been called up for military service or other war work. The fairies, meanwhile, seem to know as much about the war as the human population. When the children enter the fairy kingdom under the Hill in the second act, an enchanted brazen head asks them a riddle whose answer is ‘a bomber’. Not long afterwards the protective spirit of the Big House, the ‘Brounie’, shows a remarkable skill in forging official documents such as ration books and identity cards. The most striking of these supernatural wartime references, though, is the series of spells cast by the Fairy Prince in his effort to reassert his power over the piper, which resemble bomb blasts like the one that destroyed Su’s London home:

Then the Prince lifted his hand, and everything began to shake like in an air raid when they are coming close and you are all on the floor waiting for the next one. And like the falling of a bomb something terrible and blinding seemed to happen, and Su was holding in her arms a coiling, wriggling mass of snakes, or one snake, and its head was looking at her, and it opened a fanged earth-smelling mouth (p. 89).

In this passage it becomes clear that the children in Mitchison’s narrative have undergone wartime experiences that more than prepare them for the perils and terrors they encounter in their dealings with ‘Yon Ones’. Su clings fiercely to the piper as he changes into a succession of terrifying forms, just as Janet clung to Tam Lin in the old ballad to free him from the power of the fairy queen, and we are told before the changes begin that the piper’s wife was unable to complete the same challenge when it was given her many decades earlier. Su’s success, despite her young age, can be explained by her seemingly first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live through an air raid. And this knowledge comes in useful again later in the narrative, when she and Winkie correctly answer the riddle posed by the brazen head: ‘What is the bird that flies but is dead, and the eggs that it lays flying hatch death?’ […] ‘We think it is a bomber’ (p. 74). The head seems profoundly disturbed by their familiarity with the hardware of destruction (‘Sorrow, sorrow on me!’ it cries, ‘Sorrow on yourselves! Children of middle earth, it is over much that you know’); but the children themselves take their wartime experiences very much for granted, like their experiences of injustice in the classroom or of hostility between social classes. C. S. Lewis didn’t see fit to explain why Peter found it so easy to face a wolf with a sword in his hand when he had no experience of hand-to-hand combat; the impression we get is that such exploits just come naturally to properly brought up boys. Mitchison is careful to underline where Su’s courage springs from.

The difference between Lewis’s and Mitchison’s positions with respect to the war finds its most striking expression at the point in each novel when the antagonist offers a child some luxury sweets. Lewis says nothing at all about the sheer level of temptation felt by Edmund when the White Witch offers him Turkish Delight, or about the reasons why he should have succumbed to this temptation at a time of rationing. When the Fairy Prince offers Su and Winkie chocolates, by contrast, in the hope of tempting them to reveal the piper’s whereabouts, their experience of the offering is considered in meticulous detail. Su thinks at first, from the look of the chocolate box, that the Prince is about to offer her a diamond necklace, something she would find easy to refuse. But the chocolates – which evoke pre-war Christmases, a time of plenty and affection as embodied in the London aunt who used to give similar chocolates to her nieces and nephews as Christmas presents, so that the candy invokes an emotional as well as a physical yearning – the chocolates are a much more attractive proposition. They are made, we are told, ‘with the very best chocolate […] and real butter and real almonds and walnuts and Brazil nuts and pistachio nuts, and real fruit and any amount of castor sugar, and not one bit of saccharine or soya flour or flavouring out of bottles’ (p. 18). Like Edmund’s Turkish Delight these ingredients come from far off lands – the term ‘Brazil nuts’ stresses the fact – and the reference at the end of the sentence to the artificial ingredients substituted for natural ones because of shortages serves to intensify the sense of their exoticism and costliness. Even the butter is luxurious, since we learn later in the book that a ration of butter lasts only for a few days of each week, so that ‘it’s always margarine’ by Friday (p. 26). So far so tempting; but Mitchison also stresses the subtly different levels of temptation felt by ruling-class Su and working-class Winkie. ‘[T]here were no sweeties like this in all Europe,’ she points out, ‘and never had been for Winkie, and never would be again for Su’ (p. 18). The children are only rescued from temptation by the sudden arrival of a party of guisers, which means that the chocolates turn abruptly to a ‘scatter of leaves’. There is no suggestion that Mitchison would have judged the children if they’d eaten the sweets, and Su is later quite open about the fact that if she were offered them again she would be more than ever tempted to take some (‘“I do hope they won’t try and give us sweeties again like last time,” said Su, and sighed’, p. 33). Lewis’s moral condemnation of Edmund is the easy judgment of the well-fed. Mitchison, on the other hand, is concerned to stress the genuine difficulty any child would face in refusing a gift like this in a postwar economy.

The division between the two children’s class experiences, as embodied in episode with the chocolates, gets exacerbated in the novel’s second act. Here they travel back in time to the early nineteenth century, in a quest to recover Su’s shadow – stolen from her by the Fairy Prince in retaliation for her successful defence of the piper against his spells. The Fairy Prince perhaps considers himself entitled to the shadow because of the class bond between himself and Su which was confirmed when she welcomed him into her family home; and the period to which the children travel quickly interposes the shadow of class antagonism between the two of them, even before they have properly begun their quest. They live apart in this period for several weeks, and by the time they meet again their divided lives as ruling-class girl and working-class boy have radically changed their bodies – especially Winkie’s. When Su puts her arm around the boy’s shoulders she finds he has grown appallingly thin, and this lends weight to his words when he tells her that since his arrival in this epoch he has always been hungry. As a result, when food is offered as temptation by the fairies for the second time a few pages later, Winkie finds it almost impossible to refuse the gift and has to be forcibly dragged away by his better-fed companion:

‘Do you know,’ said Su, in her best grown-up voice, ‘I am really not hungry just now.’

‘Winkie is hungry,’ said Winkie’s lovely partner. ‘Eat now! Do you think I would harm you, Winkie? Do you think it is in me to harm you?’ And she smiled at him.

Su snatched at his hands. ‘Don’t eat, Winkie. Remember!’ (p. 70)

In this way the different period intensifies the children’s consciousness of the material differences involved in living as members of different social classes, and this awareness also means that their friendship is tested to a new level. Even meeting is difficult for them, and their eventual reunion is only achieved thanks to Su’s returning memory of their friendship in the twentieth century, a friendship that would be next to impossible in the nineteenth.

The friendship between the Pevensie children too is severely tested, of course, in Lewis’s novel; first by Edmund’s decision not to corroborate Lucy’s claim to have visited Narnia, then much more seriously by Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings to the White Witch. But in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe no motive is given for this betrayal beyond the vague allusion to the school he went to; and there is no real reason for Edmund’s actions not to be forgiven and forgotten as soon as he changes his mind. Since the four Pevensies share the same class background it is accepted among them that forgiveness is more honourable than resentment – that it is gentlemanly, to use an ideologically loaded term. In any case Edmund is the brother of Peter, Susan and Lucy, and forgiveness between siblings is ‘natural’. The threatened enmity between Su and Winkie, on the other hand, is structurally embedded in the class system as it manifests itself in each of the societies they live in. It’s embedded in their bodies – especially Winkie’s, which grows stronger and more energetic in the medieval period, when he is Chief of his clan and master of the Big House, just as it grew weaker in the nineteenth century. It’s embedded, too, in their experience of work, a world with which Winkie is already familiar in the twentieth century, as the son of a fisherman, and which becomes a desperate struggle for survival for him in the Napoleonic era. Su, meanwhile, does not work in the 1940s, and experiences the early nineteenth century as a time of uninterrupted play. The medieval period, by contrast, is for her a time of physical and emotional suffering. Winkie shoots her in the arm with an arrow, thinking she is a swan, and she spends the rest of her time there as an outsider among his people, yearning for a return to the modern Big House where she felt at home. She is unable to join in the ‘bower crafts’ of the women in Winkie’s community, and her inability to find a place for herself through work adds to her impression that the medieval period is somehow ‘unreal’ and that her own time is the only one that has any substance. The segregated activities of class and sex drive a wedge between the novel’s protagonists which threatens their friendship by forcing them to confront the alien cultures in which they were raised, the alien perspectives on history from which they have emerged, and the distinct kinds of knowledge they possess in every epoch.

At the same time, their friendship keeps reasserting its reality in each period, reestablishing itself as materially present at the expense of new relationships they have formed. At one point in the second act Su has a talk about class with one of her Big House relatives – a girl called Elspeth – which suddenly reveals to her the distance that separates them in terms of their attitudes to working people. Elspeth considers it perfectly reasonable to punish a man for cutting down a tree on Big House property, while Su is horrified by the savagery of his punishment (he has been forcibly conscripted in the British army and dispatched to the wars). Afterwards Su is suddenly visited by a Gothic vision in which Elspeth and the other children whose room she shares have turned into corpses in a mausoleum:

She rolled round. Elspeth was asleep. And at that she began to think in a horror, that grew worse and worse, how from her own time all these people were dead, and Elspie there was a dead corpse, and Mysie and Helen and all, and here she was left alone with them and she could not bear it, and she slipped quickly out of bed. Here was the room that used to seem so nice and cosy with the glow of the fire and the white linen of the feather beds, and each bed tented with bright curtains into a soft cave for two yellow heads whispering over the day; it was frightening now, it was not properly there! (p. 45)

This sensation that she is experiencing a variety of false consciousness, expressed in the melodramatic terms of early nineteenth-century sensational novels such as Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer, impels her to leave the Big House and meet up with Winkie. The boy then reveals to her the material conditions that have enabled her to live her comfortable life up to this point: the near starvation of his family, the violent suppression of their political ideas, the aggressive punishment of minor crimes to which they were driven by poverty. As he speaks it becomes increasingly clear that the class conflict they have experienced stands on the verge of escalating into full-scale civil war, and that the war being waged on Napoleon is an aspect of the same class conflict.

In the first act, Su rather patronizingly dismisses the ‘terrible great war’ against Napoleon, as the piper calls it, with the observation that her own time ‘had Hitler, who was much worse’ (p. 26). Her assumption is that the twentieth-century experience of war has been far more ‘terrible’ than the piper’s in every way. The piper, on the other hand, sees the Second World War as the continuation of a struggle that has carried on in every epoch: ‘It was always so,’ he observes resignedly. Su and Winkie’s visits to the past confirm both the savage nature of the conflict he mentioned and its continuity through successive generations. In the Napoleonic era, Winkie’s response to the prosecution of his cousin Dougie is to join with Dougie’s brother to give the magistrate a beating or ‘slashing’ of the kind handed out to Dougie before he was sentenced. As it turns out the magistrate involved is an uncle of Su’s in this period, and she must show solidarity with Winkie by joining him on the expedition of revenge against a member of her own family. Su watches as Winkie and his older cousin engage in an awkward and unsatisfactory brawl with the uncle, who is mounted and armed with a whip. Afterwards, she, Winkie and the cousin are chased through the night by the magistrate and his men in another act of retaliation, which will implicitly lead on to further retaliatory acts until the moment at the opening of the novel when Su herself will be attacked by her schoolmates for being descended from men like her magistrate uncle. These experiences are echoed in the third act of the novel when Winkie as chief of his clan is expected to carry on a blood feud with the neighbouring clan, killing a relative of the man who killed his father in a cycle of murder and counter-murder which lays the foundation, we are led to suppose, for the future acts of violence against class enemies which have blighted the lives of Winkie’s and Su’s families. The possibility of breaking out of this cycle of violence seems even more remote than the possibility of rescuing the piper from the fairies or retrieving Su’s shadow from beneath the fairy hill.

At the same time, Su’s growing experience of cyclical violence consolidates her determination to put an end to it. Near the beginning of the story, when the piper gives Winkie a sgian dubh or knife to use on his travels Su is envious of the possibilities for bloodshed it represents: ‘“Oh, you are lucky!”’ she tells him, ‘“You might really be able to kill someone!”’ (p. 34). By the time she and Winkie find their way to the fairy realm after the attack on the magistrate, however, she has changed her tune, and when the High King of the Fairies offers her a wish in place of her shadow, she tells him that her ambition in life is to be ‘someone who can stop wars happening’ (p. 77). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’ and bars them from the final conflict with the White Witch. Su, by contrast, chooses to set herself against violence, and learns in the process that the struggle for peace and social justice will be just as hard as the path of war. As he tempts her to turn aside from her quest for her shadow the High King of the Fairies gives her a glimpse in a magic mirror of the difficulties such a struggle will involve:

and it seemed to her to be a terrible hard way, and many of them on it were dead or dying, in some cruel and senseless fashion. And at each side there were a thousand pitfalls and temptations, and the end was beyond sight […] and indeed it was more than she had in her at this time to look along it any more. (p. 77)

Later, she learns from the Big House Brounie that her counterpart in the Napoleonic period – the girl whose place she took when she travelled back from the twentieth century, an ancestor of hers – chose a similar path of social justice, and that after a life spent fighting for ‘every kind o’ reform […] in the end she died of a fever that came on her down Gorbals way nursing a poor woman body that had nae kin of her ain’ (p. 80). Running alongside the heritage of violence, then, that mars Su’s family history, there is a counter-tradition of reconciliation and social responsibility whose adherents are as heroic – and often as badly damaged by their heroic actions – as any warrior. This tradition is more or less absent from the Narnian chronicles, despite the presence of female characters among its protagonists, and its absence is made the more striking by its prominence in Mitchison’s novel.

The tradition of reconciliation is embodied from the opening pages of The Big House in the friendship between Su and Winkie. When Su is attacked by older children, some of whom seem to be Winkie’s relatives, the boy chooses to take her side against his family because he feels ‘terrible affronted’ by what has been done to her (p. 10). Later he urges her to replicate this gesture by witnessing his own assault on her magistrate uncle, thus distancing herself from her family in a display of solidarity with Winkie’s kin. Meanwhile there have been several hints that a new kind of bond exists between them; something stronger than friendship or solidarity. This bond is implicit in the very fact that they find themselves together at Halloween. Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’ (1785) associates the season with pagan fertility charms: every Halloween custom it describes involves some trick or spell to find out who will be your ‘future conjugal yoke-fellow’, as Burns put it, either by picking kale stalks or pulling at a thread, or looking in a mirror while eating an apple, or sowing hemp-seed. These are Ayrshire customs, presumably, since Burns grew up near Ayr, but the customs invoked by Mitchison are just as focused on desire and the prospect of some future ‘yoke-fellow’. Cross-dressing draws the revelers’ attention to gender identity – the difference between male and female as established by custom and expressed in clothing – while their ‘false-faces’ invite guessing games about who is behind which mask, and by extension about whose company they are keeping. Winkie and Su join in these games even after they’ve met the piper:

Five people went by, grown-ups, all dressed and with false-faces and laughing. Susan and Winkie argued about who they were. Winkie was sure it was old Mrs. Macdonald from the smiddy’s skirt on the man of the party, and the one with the navy trousers and its head in a flour-bag was Betty who worked at the Manse. Su said no, it was young Mrs. Paterson. ‘It was Betty, right enough,’ said Winkie, ‘I knew her from the way she wiggled her behind.’

‘Well then, if it was Betty,’ said Su, ‘the man would have been Red Tom, and he isn’t that size.’

‘Betty hasna been going with Red Tom this month past,’ said Winkie, ‘she is after a slater from down the way.’ (pp. 13-14)

Part of the evening’s sport, then, is to decide who is ‘going with’ whom. Under the covers of the false-faces boys and girls, men and women can walk out with their chosen partners under a screen of anonymity, and the right guessing of who is walking out with whom serves to confirm the guesser’s knowledge of the local community. As an upper-class outsider Su finds this guessing game more difficult than Winkie; but the boy’s decision to come home with her that night, despite his unease in the Big House, allows the reader to make a good guess as to the strength of his feelings for her. And there are further hints later in the narrative. When the piper meets Winkie in the Napoleonic era and asks him ‘Where is your lassie?’ he causes the boy acute embarrassment, which Winkie expresses in terms that echo the description of his inner turmoil as he stood by Su after the attack: ‘myself feeling so affronted I could have bitten him’ (p. 54, my emphasis). The Brounie of the Big House, meanwhile, keeps referring to Su as Winkie’s lassie; and in the third act of the novel Winkie describes her in the same terms himself (‘I must seek my lassie’, p. 121), even going so far as to promise to marry her if she will stay with him in the medieval period (p. 158). Mitchison’s is a world in which children are not barred from an awareness of current or future attraction to each other. Lewis’s Pevensie siblings, on the other hand, are never put in the position of thinking positively about relations between the sexes, and the one sibling who does think about such things – Susan – is famously barred from a return to Narnia in the sequence’s final book. Lewis may have provided his children with serious adventures for high stakes, in recognition of the serious roles children had taken on in the Second World War, but he rarely contemplates the possibility that they might experience any form of mutual desire or attraction.

Su and Winkie’s relationship, by contrast, takes centre stage in Mitchison’s novel, anticipating the centrality of Lyra and Will’s relationship in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And like Lyra and Will’s relationship, it grows more intense as the book goes on, reaching its culmination in the third act. The act opens with the greatest test of their bond so far: Su has been sent away to boarding school in England, which both removes her from the hostile environment of the local state school and drives a new wedge between her and Winkie, ensuring that they don’t meet at all when she returns to the Big House for the vacation. But before this happens their bond has reached a new pitch of intensity. At the end of the second act Su saves the piper from the fairies for a second time, as Janet saved Tam Lin, by clinging to him as he goes through a range of magical changes into terrifying forms. But unlike Janet, Su emerges from this trial not with a lover but a baby; the last form the piper assumes is that of an infant, and an infant he remains after the fairies relinquish their claim on him. This alteration of the ballad is carefully considered, since the baby dominates the third act of the novel as an embodiment of the difficult but potentially transformative union of ruling-class and working-class culture that might spring from Su and Winkie’s alliance. The difficulty dominates at first. While Su warms to the baby at once, Winkie is deeply unsettled by the suggestion that he might take on the role of the child’s father, and accepts responsibility for him only when it appears that Donald will be raised as a Big House boy with no input at all from the working-class villagers. This is another affront to Winkie’s pride, since it involves making the infant piper a class traitor, a situation the boy finds intolerable: ‘“He isna to be just a Big House one!”’ (p. 97). It’s at this point that the baby assumes a new role as a promise for the future, confirming the connection between Su of the Big House and the fisherman’s son through a common concern for the child’s education:

‘I dinna want to be his father,’ said Winkie, ‘but when I have my own boat I want him to come wi’ me.’

‘But of course he is going to do that,’ said Su […] ‘and so am I. And it’s no good saying I’m only a girl, Winkie, because it won’t work with me. And after all, what Donald wanted was a home, and he may as well have that twice over. Yes, and he is going to play with the tinkers, and sit next to them at the school, Winkie. And you may as well make up your mind to it. (pp. 97-8)

The piper’s transformation into an infant, then, represents a new beginning for his fragmented Argyllshire community, uniting all the narrative strands in the book so far. As well as bringing Su and Winkie closer together Donald offers an opportunity to erode the arbitrary gendering of roles in the workplace and to erase the class hostility between dwellers in houses and the travellers. So when the child’s soul is stolen away in the final act, leaving a foul-mouthed changeling to possess his body, there is an implied threat to the whole community in the exchange. Mitchison’s solution to this threat is to weave the separate narrative strands of her story into single cloth, bringing together the Christian church and the fairies, the fairies and Su, the ‘Big House ones’ and the villagers, the tinkers and Winkie’s people, in a complementary warp and weft which can no longer be separated, and which together make up the concept of ‘home’. The fusion is anticipated in the baby, which has a home ‘twice over’ – in working-class Port-na-Sgadan and the Big House; and the novel’s concluding part can in fact be read as the forging of a home that meets the needs of all its inhabitants, as represented by the infant Donald.

The adventure begins on the night after the stealing of the baby’s soul, when Su wakes to find the Brounie in her room. The household spirit has sought her out to put things right by fetching the soul from the past, where it has been hidden, and once again this involves a journey into history. From the start this second journey involves a fusion of disparate elements, beginning with Christianity and paganism. To make the spell that will send Su back in time the Brounie draws a cross in the dust on the Big House floor, and it later uses the same mark to send Winkie on a separate journey. For the Brounie the cross functions as a potent magic symbol, capable of turning the girl into a time-travelling swan and hurling the boy from body to body across many centuries. But Winkie’s journey ends when he sees the same mark on the cover of a Christian Bible, on which he is being sworn in as the new Chief of his clan after his father’s murder. The medieval period he has arrived in has the rivalry between Christianity and the fairy people at its core; and when Su gets there shortly afterwards she learns from her friend Donaldina the tinker that the power of the Church functions to keep the power of the Fairy Hill at bay: ‘“They are aye taking the babies. They are aye putting their power on to folk for ill, or whiles for good. […] But when we are going to the church we have a bigger power and a stronger sign.”’ The two marks or crosses, then, seem to be at odds; except that the opposition between fairy and church is undermined by Su herself, who is transformed by the Brounie’s magic into a swan maiden, a kind of fairy queen, and whose moment of greatest power again fuses the pagan and Christian crosses into a ‘stronger sign’.

Part of Winkie’s duties as clan chief is to avenge his father’s murder on the neighbouring clan who carried it out. The opportunity for this comes when his foster brother brings one of the hostile clansmen to the Big House, now Winkie’s castle. Winkie prepares to carry out a summary execution; but before this can happen Su intervenes, and her intervention is accompanied by the reappearance of the Brounie’s cross in the hall of the castle: ‘a pattern of brightness came between herself and them, a pattern as huge as the hall, of a cross in the square, and the lines within the cross, and then the joining together of the lines through curves and loops’ (p. 132). Su enlists the pagan cross on behalf of her cause as she begs the boy to spare his enemy; and she finds an unexpected ally in the local priest, who backs up her plea for mercy with a text from the Scriptures, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (p. 133). The priest points out that this is not the first time he has cited the commandment in his efforts to end the feud, but that the clan has always persisted in cleaving instead to the ‘law of the old days’ – the law of retribution. Clearly a power from these same ‘old days’ – the swan maiden, with her pagan sign – was needed before the half-pagan men of the clan were able to hear the priest’s injunction. Later the swan maiden and the priest again join forces, this time to capture the Fairy Queen and compel her to reveal the hiding-place where Donald’s soul is stowed. On this occasion it’s the priest who seeks retribution, and as he prepares to destroy the Fairy Queen with holy water, Su again intervenes with a plea for mercy. Both her interventions prove successful; and as a result Su’s presence in the past turns out to have reconciled – for a time at least – the seemingly incompatible powers of Christianity and the pagan supernatural, combining them into a ‘stronger sign’ than either one of them would have been in isolation.

Carradale Church

Meanwhile Winkie’s position as elected chief of the clan, possessed of the fortified tower that stands where the Big House will later be situated, undermines the notion that social status is a matter of bloodline. His kinship with Su has in any case been established in the second act, when they wore the same tartan in the enchanted dance hall of the Fairy Hill. In the final act, for a while, their kinship seems to have been revoked by the Brounie’s magic – even though it was the Brounie who first pointed out the historical ties between them. Many of Winkie’s people, including the priest, are convinced that Su is not even human; after all, they first saw her as a swan, and even after her return to human form her quarters in the castle are often adrift with swan down. Winkie, however, insists on her humanity, and heroically keeps himself and Su together against all odds – above all, against his own interests. He brings her under his roof despite the suspicions harboured by the priest against her, agrees to spare his enemy at her request despite the demands of the feud, escorts her to the location of Donald’s soul despite his initial reluctance to go there, and finally agrees to give up his status as chief, with all the pleasures and privileges it entails, in order to help her get back to the twentieth century. In the process he cements the bond between them. As Su says to him after their return to Port-na-Sgadan, when he again expresses reluctance to enter the Big House with all her family in it, ‘Nobody else did what you did for me’ (p. 168) – in other words, he has brought himself closer to her than any of her relatives. In this final section of the book, then, as in the other sections, comradeship and humaneness outweigh the divisions that are always being imposed between classes, sexes, religions, cultures, families and neighbours. Mutual solidarity and affection win out over the material wealth that makes some people comfortable at the expense of others. It’s a far more complex ending than the one Lewis chose for his first Narnian book – a battle in which the antagonist is killed and all rights are wronged without any residual rancor or regret; then a role as monarchs for all four Pevensie children, a role that seems to have no impact whatsoever on their afterlives in the ‘real’ world of the reader. History is not so painlessly dismissed in Mitchison’s universe.

The last chapter of The Big House has the title ‘Times Within Times’, for what at first seems an obvious reason. In it, Su and Winkie meet a truck driver who is somehow also the prisoner Winkie freed at Su’s request. The driver is able to tell them what happened to the historical chief whose place Winkie took when he went back in time. Meanwhile Winkie and Su themselves embody times within times, since they remember all their adventures in the past, and plan to use these experiences to build their futures. Su intends to follow the difficult path taken by the ancestor whose body she briefly occupied, and work as a lifelong campaigner for peace. Winkie hopes to imitate the Chief whose place he filled. All three of these people in the final chapter – Su, the truck driver and Winkie – contain the past within their bodies, much as the Halloween revelers in the first chapter concealed beneath their masks at once their own personal identities and a link, through tradition, to the Halloween revelers that came before them. The difference is that Su and Winkie are concerned to change things rather than to keep them the same; and the truck driver – who was once a prisoner condemned to death and whose life they saved – represents that resolve as clearly as the baby’s soul they are carrying home with them.

In this book, then, Mitchison uses the past to build not a nostalgic dream of a golden time that never was but an aspiration for a better future. But she also insists that this better future must be built on a knowledge of times past – must contain those times within it, be in dialogue with them, so to speak – if it’s really to better them. The children who hold that knowledge embodied within them – having literally acted out the past using the limbs of their ancestors – find themselves better able to reshape the place where they live into a home fit for all its inhabitants, instead of just some of them. The potential for the Big House to be such a home has been signaled several times in the novel: when Su and Winkie defended the piper against the Fairy Prince in the Big House kitchen; when the Brounie revealed that it considered itself as much a protector of Su’s distant relatives in the village as of the actual residents in the building; and most of all when the piper gets a premonition, in the second act, that the Big House could be a ‘home’ to him as well as to Su. ‘It runs in my mind,’ he tells the children in a moment of vision that links him to bards before him, such as Thomas the Rhymer, ‘that there is a place for me at the Big House’; and he reinforces this premonition with a quotation from scriptures: ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ (p. 85). The verse is one of Christ’s most all-inclusive declarations, uttered just before his death, in which he reassures his disciples that there is room in heaven for all of them (John 14.2). Su at once takes Christ at his word by linking the saying to the fairies: ‘The [Fairy] Hill was full of mansions, too’, she tells the piper, and in doing so once again brings paganism and Christianity into a kind of imaginative union. And by the end of the book, when Su asks Winkie to come back to the Big House the next day – after the book has ended – the building seems to be about to fulfill its destiny of being a place with many mansions or homely locations in it. In the process it becomes a miniature model – like the lavish doll’s house Su enjoys in the Big House of the early nineteenth century – of the ideal community, nation or world, just as Su and Winkie become the world’s ideal future citizens.

It’s perhaps worth ending with a word or two about Mitchison’s style in this particular novel (she has as many styles, very nearly, as she wrote novels, essays and short stories). As may be obvious from the quotations I’ve given, she tells her tale in a flexible, often conversational, sometimes lyrical prose style that drifts in and out of Scots, and in and out of different varieties of Scots – historical and contemporary, middle and working class, old-fashioned and modern (for the 1950s) – in such a way as to invoke the diversity of class and culture which is its topic. It’s worth comparing this to Lewis’s style, which is dominated by an authoritative and implicitly adult controlling presence, and which does not vary much in the course of his narrative. Mitchison’s prose, like her plot, is less tightly controlled, more tumbling and prolix, at least on the surface, and her narrator is constantly being subsumed into the consciousness and (more importantly) the language of her two young heroes. This language, as well as its plot’s multi-stranded complexity, may explain why The Big House hasn’t achieved the international success of Lewis’s simpler chronicle; after all, not many readers outside Scotland will know the meaning of all the terms Mitchison uses. But the house of literature, like the house of memory, has many rooms in it, and I hope I’ve done enough to suggest that this fine book deserves a place in one of them.

Notes

All references to The Big House are to the Canongate Kelpies paperback edition of 1987.

An excellent account of the novel can be found in Moira Burgess, Naomi Mitchison’s Early in OrcadiaThe Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).