Authored By: Britt Starr
Edited By: Anna Mukamal, Claire Battershill, Helen Southworth
Willa Muir, née Wilhelmina Johnston Anderson, was called Minnie as a child and sometimes published under the name Agnes Neill Scott. Born in Montrose, Scotland on 13 March 1890, she was the daughter of Elizabeth Gray Anderson, a dressmaker of modest means, and Peter Anderson, a draper from a long line of drapers. Both parents were from Shetland and spoke a Shetland dialect of Scots at home, which would be the first of Muir’s many languages. One of four children, she always excelled in school, earning scholarships throughout her educational career and becoming one of the first women to study for a University degree. Muir was awarded a 1st class degree in Classics at the University of St. Andrews in 1910 and was awarded a scholarship to study English Literature at St. Andrews between 1911 and 1912.
In 1918, she was employed as Vice-Principal and Lecturer in Latin and Educational Psychology at the London teacher training college, Gypsy Hill, when she met the man she would marry just one year later, Edwin Muir. Edwin had recently published his first book, We Moderns, and was working as a costing-clerk in a Renfrew shipbuilding firm. Upon marrying Edwin, Willa was forced to leave her position at the college on the grounds that, as she later writes in her memoir Belonging (1968), her husband “did not believe in God” (26). It may also be true that she was forced to leave because married women were not allowed to hold academic posts in the United Kingdom at this time.
In Edwin, Willa saw a kindred mind and spirit and a shared reverence for life that she linked to their Northern island backgrounds (he was from the Orkneys). In her memoir, she writes that they shared a “primitive simplicity,” which made them “likely to be wide open to vibrations from our tribal unconscious” (Belonging 22). She believed that she and Edwin were both wired for “co-operative not competitive ways of living” and were “keyed to general goodwill” (Belonging 23). Biographers have noted that Willa’s strong, confident, unabashedly intellectual personality and urban savoir faire were a source of comfort and strength for Edwin, who was sensitive, somewhat troubled, and lacked formal, university-level education (McColloch, Mellown, Butter).
Willa and Edwin continued to live in London until 1921, then moved to Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and France between 1921 and 1926. In Prague, they met Czech playwright Karel Čapek and became part of the Čapek brothers’ theatre circle. In Dresden, Germany, Willa reconnected with the educationalist A. S. Neill who hired her to teach at the experimental international school he was founding in Hellerau. Living in Germany also resulted in the Muirs’ successful occupation as translators—which included being the first to translate Franz Kafka’s works into English—though they wouldn’t translate Kafka until years later. They would also later translate Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy from the German into English, and in 1959, they won the inaugural Johann-Heinrich-Vost prize for outstanding achievement in German translation. Though Edwin received most of the credit for their translations during their lifetime, Willa’s journal would later reveal that it was in fact she who had done most of the translating. In August of 1953, she wrote:
And the fact remains; I am a better translator than he is. The whole current of patriarchal society is set against this fact, however, and sweeps it into oblivion, simply because I did not insist on shouting aloud: ‘Most of this translation, especially Kafka, has been done by ME. Edwin only helped’. And every time Edwin was referred to as THE translator, I was too proud to say anything; and Edwin himself felt it would be undignified to speak up, I suppose.
In 1925, Willa wrote Women: An Inquiry, which appeared in Hogarth Press’s essay series of that year and presents Willa’s early analyses of women’s unequal place in society. Despite the work’s disappointing, and many have argued, unconscious reinforcement of the theory of separate spheres, the work marks a significant contribution to the history of Scottish feminism, and was only the beginning of Willa’s lifelong efforts for gender equality. As historian William Knox has said, “it would be difficult to think of any other woman in the last century who has made a greater contribution to feminist theory in Scotland than Willa” (182).
In 1927, Willa gave birth to the Muirs’ only child, Gavin, who would go on to form part of Edinburgh’s literary pub circle between 1950 and 1985, though he has no publications to his name (Green). The family lived mostly in England between 1927 and 1933, and Willa and Edwin taught, wrote, and translated assiduously to try to make ends meet. Willa’s first novel was published by Canongate Publishers in 1931 when she was in her forties. The novel, Imagined Corners, which she described as “quite pre-Marxian! But a good picture of the world I grew up in” (Journal 1948), was reviewed as “a memorable contribution to the cartography of Scotland” (Glasgow Herald 1931). In 1933, her second novel, Mrs Ritchie, was published by Martin Secker in London, and is generally read as “darker and less autobiographical” (Ewan, Elizabeth, et al. 275). By the end of her life, Willa had translated more than forty novels and written two of her own. She also wrote short pieces, sociological essays on women’s social conditions, and radio talks, as well as two unpublished autobiographical novels, Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey (finished 1940) and The Usurpers (1951-2).
The Muirs moved to St. Andrews and Edinburgh between 1935 and 1945. After the war, they lived in Prague and Rome, at Newbattle Abbey in Dalkieth, and spent a year at Harvard in Cambridge, MA, for a poetry teaching fellowship of Edwin’s. Because Willa had seen herself as a “displaced person” for most of her life, she always aspired to own a home (Muir as qtd. in Ewan, Elizabeth, et al. 275). In 1956, she was able to realize this goal when the couple bought a house in Cambridgeshire, UK.
Once Edwin passed away in 1959, Willa wrote Living with Ballads (1965), a study of oral poetry, and the memoir, Belonging (1968), both published by the Hogarth Press in London. Willa died in Dunoon on 22 May 1970.
Willa is remembered as a significant Scottish feminist thinker, writer, and contributor to the modern Scottish literary Renaissance, which reached its height between 1920 and 1940; she was also a “remarkable” translator (Fuentes-Vásquez 32), having helped bring Kafka to English readers. However, she is remembered too for having lived somewhat in the shadow of her husband—her published works were received “with relative indifference by critics and by the general public” (Fuentes-Vásquez 29), despite more recent critical appreciation for her talents. The critics are not the only ones to blame, however, for Willa’s place in Edwin’s shadow. Willa consistently put Edwin’s needs for writing ahead of her own out of both a fervent love for Edwin and a self-diminishing view of the secondary importance of her writing to his (despite her ardent views on gender equality). As recent scholars have brought to light perhaps more than critics of her own time, Willa Muir was a complex individual who managed a great deal in her life: she was an original writer and thinker, a deeply devoted partner, a brilliant translator, a mother, a woman of fierce intellect and spirit, and an important contributor to both Scottish literary history and 20th century women’s history.