Agnes Owens has been described by Alasdair Gray as someone who, in the mid-seventies, "had come recently to story-writing, and worked as a clerk and shop-steward in a local electric factory...was twice married, once widowed, with two self-supporting children and three still at school." Owens was writing stories and going to creative writing groups out of Vale of Leven, a place that in Gray's words was "a shadow valley of small factory towns along the river flowing from Loch Lomond into the Clyde of Dumbarton Rock". It was Liz Lochhead, visiting the class, who showed a story by Owens to Gray and James Kelman. It sounds like a rags to riches story, but of course, in Scottish fiction, the story works more as rags to rags. As Gray amusingly notes at one point, Owens' first book Gentlemen of the West was returned, with the publisher saying he "might consider printing it if a famous Scottish comedian said something about it which could be used as advertisement." She posted the manuscript to the comedian, never heard back, and some time later, after losing her job, became a part-time cleaner and, finding herself in the comedian's house, retrieved the manuscript.
The episode wouldn't seem too unlike one we might expect to find in Owens' fiction: an older, more successful man with power over a woman by virtue of wealth and status. In both A Working Mother and Bad Attitudes, Owens presents women pragmatically accepting the advances of men with power to furnish the women's own small dreams. In A Working Mother, central character Betty takes a job in a lawyer's office and ends up helping a lawyer, Mr Robson, with a book he is writing about human behaviour in animals. At one moment she enters the bedroom and "he stroked my hair, my face and my breasts for some minutes, then retired behind the screen. I sat on the edge of the bed hearing small panting noises, then a low painful groan, but as I wasn't involved in this I considered I had been let off lightly". Though the novella concludes with questions concerning the narrator's sanity, most of the way the first person perspective is detached and observant. When Betty's work colleague Mai says that "I wish I could find a nice decent bloke with plenty of money", Betty replies: "There isn't any such thing." The remark has the wise, knowing tone consistent with Betty's later thoughts that she got off lightly concerning her assignation with the lawyer. Equally, when in her conversation with Mai, Mai says "you mean rich and decent", Betty replies: "decent". Shortly before entering the bedroom with Mr Robson, Betty announces that she thinks her young lover Brendan has sexual aberrations, with Robson replying that he thinks "most of us have". After a sexual encounter with Brendan, her husband's best friend, she observes that "feverishly we made love, without much sexual satisfaction on my part, but I had the pleasure of making him happy". Later in the book after she has sex with her husband, the narration tells us that "the act had done nothing for me". Betty might have delusional tendencies, but she has the measure of the men in her life. What she doesn't have is the financial freedom to make such thoughts and feelings count: she is still trapped in a marriage with kids, loves a man who she sees as a big boy, and receives hand outs from Mr Robson for what seems like his self-administered hand-jobs behind a screen.
Betty is the classically trapped woman, but Owens invests in the character a perspective that makes visible someone whose interiority would be too often ignored. It is surely much more politically purposeful to create characters that are in impossible situations, and explore the impossibility from the inside, than creating more superficial characters who manage to change their lives but who remain socio-political ciphers of change, a point Gray explores well in his essay on Owens that can be found in The Collected Stories. Owens, in both A Working Mother and the novellas Bad Attitudes and Jen's Party's, creates working class mums who wish for the better life, but Owens resolutely holds to the idea that the reflective life is the one, if not always worth living, certainly worth writing about: what matters is not the change Owens can narratively generate, but the perceptual awareness she can explore through her characters. Betty, Rita (from Bad Attitudes), and Maude (from Jen's Party) all dream of a nicer existence, with Betty, for example. saving the money she gets from Robson to start a new one with Brendan: "with some money we could make plans". Brendan replies: "I've never made a plan in my life", and another modest dream is shattered, but with it comes a greater awareness of her situation. When she says earlier that she still loves her husband and happily acknowledges Adam's good looks, Mai meets him and finds him good-looking too, and Betty says that most women do so. But Adam cannot any longer furnish the exterior of her dreams, and she hopes Brendan might. She isn't so much deluded over Brendan, but she is hopeful that this younger man is capable of change, while accepting her husband no longer seems interested in such an idea, if he ever was, and where the image of their home together "increased my depression". Yet finally Brendan is more likely to make her aware of the hopelessness of her situation than help her to escape it.
In A Working Mother, Bad Attitudes and Jen's Party, the feelings the women have for the men in their lives and the perception they have of these self-same men means that the former can't be sustained when the latter realistically imposes itself. In Bad Attitudes the son arrives home on a Friday afternoon and sees his dad asleep on the floor. "What's the matter with him?" he asks, and Rita replies "Drunk. You should know by this time he gets drunk on a Friday." At the end of Jen's Party, Maude's husband turns up after many years away and looks like a homeless wreck, with Maude too embarrassed to tell her daughter this figure is her father. "He can't be my father, he's nothing but an old tramp". But nevertheless Maude still sees something in him: when he smiles she thinks that "he looked more like the Alex she had married...but it wasn't going to change anything" - before suggesting that he can stay in the house temporarily. The attitude is inevitably ambivalent: she still has some feelings for the man, but can't quite match them to her perception of the wretched bloke in front of her. A brief memory from fifteen years earlier is all she can dredge up. In Bad Attitudes Rita tells the councillor she wants to leave her spouse. "Yes, but I can't get a divorce if I'm living with my husband, and I can't move away until I get another flat and what with the council threatening to put us all out I don't know which way to turn." The place she turns to is the councillor, but he is as odious as her husband Harry, who happens to be scruffy, drink-drowned and constantly angry. At one moment Harry comes to the door when a neighbour complains "with only his vest and pants on". Shortly afterwards we're told that "Harry continued to stare at her from under lowered eyebrows. He was trying to assemble his wits, having been so drunk the night before that he couldn't remember a thing." Harry is hardly the man of Rita's dreams; he instead furnishes her nightmarish life: when a neighbour complains about noise, Rita points backward with her thumb in to the house that she is standing at the front door of and says: "See my husband, he's the one to blame". As she believes later in the book, "If only he would die, she thought, and she and Peter could go on a holiday with the insurance money." The lucid perception of her husband cannot easily incorporate within it feelings for the man.
It is clear what the women wants to escape, from but it isn't so clear what they can escape into. The councillor might be able to help, but his priority is to get a little light relief from Rita after they meet up to discuss her predicament. "'See what you can do with this', he'd said, thrusting his penis into her hand, which she almost let go, that is until it occurred to her this could be the price she'd have to pay in return for the flat". Between the 'hopeless cases' of Harry, Adam, Brendan and Alex and the oleaginous older wealthy men like the lawyer and the councillor, what chance is there of hope within the hopeless?
One may think none at all, and we would be right, but perhaps not for the reasons we would immediately assume. Initially Owens' work seems realist, and one of the features we can expect from contemporary realism is the eschewing of the melodramatic. A late 19thcentury writer like Zola will move towards melodrama through his fascination with certain assumptions about physiology, about characters containing within them drives that cannot easily be contained - leading to murder in Therese Raquin and La bte Humaine, creative obsession in His Masterpiece, drink, madness and promiscuity in L'assommoir. The central character in the latter is conceived by her parents in an alcoholic frenzy, and there is the suggestion that the character's lameness was partly due to this. When Leonard Tancock says in his introduction to the novel that its "lesson, if any, is that life in mean and depressing surroundings without the money even to escape, even for a few days, leads to a dreary existence from which the only relief is drink and promiscuity", he could be describing Agnes Owens as readily as Zola.
But much 20th century realism has eschewed the bigger events and the melodramatic, for the smaller-scale crisis. Writers like Stan Barstow, Allan Sillitoe and John Braine will allow for spats with a mother-in-law (A Kind of Loving), brawls in a fairground (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), a suicide related to a person whom it concerns, but that isn't dramatized (Room at the Top), all passing for the dramatic high point. Owens' work sometimes plays like a combination of the Zolaesque and the kitchen sink realism of the fifties writers. A Working Mother has superficial similarities with Therese Raquin, with Betty having an affair right in front of her husband, but the person her lover ends up killing isn't the husband but Robson. What we have is the melodramatic dimension, but without either the narrative pay off, or the dramatization of the event. Like Braine in Room at the Top, Owens has a character relate the news of the murder instead of showing it. Equally, the surreptitious affair leads to nothing more dramatic than Adam leaving her and taking up with former work colleague Mai: when Betty sees them in the supermarket they all but ignore her. Melodrama is contained by indifferent drama, by a narrative network being created but finally irrelevant to Owens' concerns. Here we have the potential for melodramatic symmetry, with Betty having an affair with Brendan, and Adam an affair with her friend, but instead of the symmetrical irony of Brendan killing Adam, and Adam all the while sleeping with Mai, Brendan kills Robson, and only after leaving Betty does Adam seem to start seeing Mai. It is as if the realism Owens is interested in can have melodramatic moments, but it can't quite have the narrative development of melodrama - it doesn't have the causal accumulation of event that leads to the big pay off. The situations don't build around strong plots, but are built up out of strong resentments. The characters aren't so much motivated out of greed, but more out of desperation.
It is a desperation that often segues into madness, and Owens' work frequently shows characters mentally unbalanced. In Bad Attitudes it would seem to be Shanky Devine who is a little crazy as he refuses to leave his terraced house which the council wants to knock down, but by the end it is surely Peter Dawson, the fifteen year old son of Rita and Harry - the murderer in their midst. When Shanky takes Peter hostage it is only because he doesn't want to be accused of murder, the very murder we find out at the end Peter has committed. In Jen's Party it is the aunt who seems wrong in the head, with one person claiming she's "as crazy as a bat", while the last paragraph of A Working Mother has the narrator saying, "Lady Lipton said I was in bad state when they brought me in, shouting and screaming and acting like a madwoman." Equally, in the story 'Commemoration Day', the central character wonders if someone she is talking to is insane. "She thought possibly he wasn't all there in the head. People like that sometimes had a passion for wanting to know the time as if there was nothing else to care about." In 'Arabella', we notice the 'madness' is seen both from the inside and outside. As Owens describes the title character's existence, with dogs in a pram, the massages she gives using "a special potion of cow dung, mashed snails or frogs, or whatever dead creature was handy", so she also offers an inspector's take on Arabella. "He had witnessed many an odious spectacle in his time but this fat sagging filthy woman with tangled hair and great staring eyes was worse than the nightmares he often had of dismembered bodies in choked drains. Equally terrible was the smell." Poverty might be omnipresent, but madness is a feature too, and perhaps stemming partly from the lack of financial resources.
This problem of money and madness is touched upon in Jen's Party when Jen's friend reckons her aunt is as crazy as a bat, and Jen replies that she isn't crazy - just eccentrically off-centre. Few writers more than Owens bring to mind Ellen Raskin's comment that "the poor are crazy, the rich just eccentric". Auntie Belle isn't rich enough to be an eccentric, so Jen's friend's comment is nothing if not sociologically accurate, and it is perhaps this question of madness as poverty that is vital to Owens' political perspective. Unlike Gray, Kelman, Dunn and Welsh, Owens' political position is rarely obvious in her work (a comment about "that heartless Tory Thatcher woman" in 'The Moneylander' an exception), but it is as if she has taken a remark like Raskin's and shaped her work around it. She's usefully adopted the term "treacheries of attitude" to describe the characters in her work, reckoning people are given in a low-key way to betraying others, and thus making their own world less secure as a consequence. As Gray says in the essay in The Collected Stories, "the affection is usually invisible, because the codes regard it as a dangerous weakness." Equally, honesty and decency are often warily offered too, while being economical with the truth and mild betrayal can leave a character appear quietly empowered, even feeling paradoxically generous. In 'Christmas Day in the Paxton', the young narrator pickpockets his just deceased older friend and gives his mum the money as a Christmas present. But in the wider (housing) scheme of things, does this lead to an increase in treacherous attitude?
Now of course this treacherousness is usually seen within the context of poorer characters, so one's attitude to the treacherous act needs to be viewed within a broader context of righteous actions linked to the sociological situation. The narrator in 'Christmas Day in The Paxton' acts both odiously and warmly, with the odious action leading to the warm one. When in A Working Mother Betty realises that she has betrayed herself with Robson, she knows that she's done so out of poverty, "The activities of this deluded old man made we want to puke. It seemed I had displayed my soul to him for a few paltry pounds. On the way back home I calmed down. There was no harm done really. I would display a lot more than that if the price was right. That's how desperate I had become." Near the end of Jen's Party, Alex says to Maude that Jen "seems quite reconciled to me being her father". When Maude expresses surprise, Alex wonders whether it was perhaps because he gave her a tenner for her birthday. "She always was a mercenary little bitch", Maude says, before Alex replies: "then she takes after her father". It is as though the treacheries of attitude move in two directions. The treachery can move towards madness as the characters' denial gets the better of them as we find in very different ways in 'Arabella' and A Working Mother, with the treacherous attitude residing in the inability to confront reality. But the treacherous attitude is also there in the cynical attitude Betty shows towards Robson and Adam in A Working Mother, and Jen towards her father in Jen's Party, the narrator in 'Christmas Day at the Paxton'. In the former there is a descent into madness; in the latter, a pragmatic shrug of the shoulders towards earning or being given or taking a few pounds. Both, though, say much about the social situation, rather than offering us an a priori attitude towards the character.
Is this the choice usually available in Owens' work: cynicism or insanity? That would be overly simplistic, but as many of her poor characters drink to escape their problems, this isn't so much work as the curse of the drinking classes, but demoralization and degeneration. Oscar Wilde's quip has almost an air of optimism to it when almost a century later work isn't easy to come by. Whether it happens to be madness or a cynical sense of necessity, Owens accepts the difficulty of characters' hopes being realized, and the ease with which one can fall into forms of hopelessness. Doesn't Betty's madness come out of a cynical attempt to realize her hopes? As she takes up with young Brendan, makes money out of Robson, and tries to persuade Brendan they can seek a better life than she has at home with her husband and kids, so the centre doesn't hold. As her wishes fail to come true, her activities for a few pounds from Mr Robson begin to dismay her, and, with Brendan proving incapable of making any plans for the future, so she begins to crack.
Interviewers sometimes ask Agnes Owens why she isn't better known. She talks of Alasdair Gray offering surprise that her books don't sell more copies. She might herself wonder if it's because she is old (she was fifty eight when her first book was published) and ugly (she makes no effort to look glamorous in photos), but maybe it is also that the work focuses on poverty but has little to do with the deserving poor. Obviously there are many successful writers who have little interest in the poor and deserving (and Owens mentions Kelman's books selling relatively well). One reason for her 'commercial failure' (despite a sense of humour that is sharper and less contrived than, say, Welsh's) could be that just as Julia Kristeva astutely saw in Marguerite Duras's novels a "non-cathartic literature", so one might say of Owens's work that it is non-ameliorative. If Duras's books seem to refuse to allow the characters and consequently the reader a purging of feeling, Owens's refuse the characters and the reader a sense that lives can improve or are improvable. If it was only an issue of characters mired in poverty we might accept this, but if at the same time we sense a resistance to any amelioration, partly because of the treacheries of attitude the characters possess, the despair becomes exacerbated. There may be a hint of hope in the last story in Gentlemen of the West, 'Goodbye Everybody', as the narrator leaves the village, but he also says, as he goes, "I counted my notes. Eight in all. Hardly a fortune but folk had set out with less - and starved to death."
Earlier we talked of Zola's interest in degeneration, but part of Zola's popularity rested in those physiological theories, in his belief that there are genealogical histories of violence, alcoholism, incest and so on coursing through a family's bloodline. The problems aren't treacheries of attitude but accidents of birth. When, as we've noted, there is the suggestion in L'assamoir that the main character's physical disability came about because she was conceived when her parents were drunk, it creates empathy through this horrible contingency for which the character is not at all responsible. Such notions can give Zola's work both epic qualities as it covers generations, and a get-out clause for behaviour that isn't easy to like. Owens is not at all the monumental figure Zola happens to be, but what she does very well is wonder what a non-ameliorative literature might look like, and wonders also what happens when characters are caught in situations where hopelessness leads not remotely to redemptive possibilities, but the acceptance of one's lot, cynically, or one's collapse, mentally.
© Tony McKibbin