Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature: The Connection to James Hogg

Alice Munro
In the Public Domain
Alice Ann Laidlow Munro is indeed the "first Canadian women to win [the] Nobel literature prize," as reported by CBC News. But perhaps more importantly to readers of this blog, she is also related to James Hogg through Hogg's mother Margaret Laidlaw. In her book The View from Castle Rock (Douglas Gibson Books, 2006), Munro shares with her readers her connection to the Ettrick Shepherd. She identifies the maternal uncle of James Hogg, Robert Laidlaw, as her "great-great-great, great grandfather" (6).

Munro read Hogg's works and is known to have drawn on them in her own writing, most notably in her short stories "A Wilderness Station," "Changing Places," and "Friend of My Youth as well as in the short story collection The View from Castle Rock. In the abstract for his article "Taking Possession: Alice Munro's 'A Wilderness Station' and James Hogg's Justisfied Sinner," published in Studies in Canadian Literature, Adrian Hunter writes of the similarities between Hogg's and Munro's writing strategies:

Alice Munro's purpose in recasting James Hogg's A Justified Sinner as she does is to be found in the way Munro's historical narrative endeavours to exempt its central character from the controlling impositions of narrative history. It is this staged aversion to any form of narrative “capture” that lies at the heart of her meditation upon Hogg; it is a key element in Munro's mature fictional aesthetic. “A Wilderness Station” does not so much restage the religious drama of Justified Sinner as offer an exposition in imitative form of the moral and artistic values that convolve within it. Much like Hogg, Munro works backward from assumed knowledge toward contradiction and uncertainty. Both authors write historical fictions that attempt to accommodate within their narrative praxis the inevitability of resistance to, and qualification of, the stories they tell – stories that refuse to take possession of their subjects. 

In "Dream Leaps," her review of The View from Castle Rock published in the London Review of Books, Tessa Hadley touches on Hogg's and Munro's shared authorial positioning:

James Hogg’s privileged movement between the old ways of the valley and the modernity of Edinburgh’s literary culture mirrors the way Munro has always positioned herself, mediating the old-fashioned rural Canada she grew up in for a sophisticated cosmopolitan readership. Even when her writing is preoccupied with particularly modern dilemmas – sexual freedoms or the breaking-up of the framework of marriage – her almost anthropological long view is so penetrating because of her vantage point between systems. Hogg, moving beyond the closed world of the valley, is able to have a ‘historical awareness of the recent past’ and a vision like Scott’s of the ‘importance of something that was vanishing’: the same vision gives urgency to Munro’s writing. The vantage point of the inside-outsider isn’t ever comfortable, though: it is open to discounting from both directions. 
And in "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Afterlives," published in The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg, Gillian Hughes reflects on the "narrative connections" between Hogg and Munro. 

These and other connections between the lives and writings of Munro and her relative and literary predecessor James Hogg deserve further study.

 --Holly Faith Nelson

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