The political atmosphere in Scotland today raises the stakes for any political work of art. Increased scrutiny through a political lens is both a burden and blessing for new writers. Such scrutiny is welcomed by Victoria Hendry.
In the words of its author,
“A Capital Union looks at what we owe our partners in union, regardless of whether it’s marital union, or political union. It also asks what can be done when a union feels or becomes unequal. This is an especially difficult question for the weaker party in any union. Anyone with an interest in the Scottish independence movement in general will like the book: it’s set in the 1940s, yet many of the issues it raises still resonate today. I also hope people will enjoy reading a book that explores these big themes told from a female perspective, which is all too often missing from accounts of history.”
While ideas of nationhood and independence may captivate some readers, this should not be at the expense of the book’s other themes – not least those concerning war, loyalty, love and sexism.
It is the the ‘Home Front’ of World War II, and Agnes faces conflicts of her own. Enveloped by an early marriage, engulfed by the competing priorities of others’ politics and wars, and engendered by the social expectations and judgements placed upon a young women, her world is torn.
Keeping up appearances and attaining respectability are foremost in Agnes’ mind as she adjusts to city living. Yet when her husband, Jeff, rejects the violence of war and conscription, stability is no longer an option.
The questions of identity, love and loneliness are factually inspired, at least in part. Hendry gathered elements of the tale from the papers of Douglas Young (SNP Leader 1942-45) and Neil MacCormick’s The Flag in the Wind. However, this is not a historical account but a narrative from which we are challenged to consider legacies and inheritance.
One legacy concerns complicity in war and loyalty to the nation. Some see glory and pride in the battlefield, while others respond with objection and shame. Jeff’s conscience creates conflict with the warring authorities. (or is it his desire for martyrdom?) Agnes must choose her own loyalties, eventually. Nationalism swirls awkwardly within her mind, before different morals direct Agnes towards her own form of dissent and defiance.
I read A Capital Union back-to-back with George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia. “I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”, Orwell wrote in the years previous. Certain forms of barbarity and shock, Agnes finds, are not covered by military rules of engagement. Violence, inequality and social expectations are gendered. There is no escape from the threats of men, social stigma and the impending pressures of motherhood; as there is no escape from the chaotic impacts of war.
This does not bring peace of mind. The novel is a map of psychological dissent. Strains of the war and above all Agnes’ relationships take their toll. As Hendry originally describes it, A Capital Union concerns the breakdown of union: the death of love. That is no easy experience. The certainty of union can come clattering down in the face of cold realities. So it does with Agnes, and not without emotional turmoil. Feelings of loss and loneliness follow. Despair brings introspection and doubt before the inevitable challenge of starting again.
What costs are there in conflict? What regrets are there in lost love? What benefits are there in taking independent control of your life? Months after reading A Capital Union, I still wonder.
Photo: Amy Shipway
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) August 14, 2013