What Sunset Song tells us about the modern world

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie Metrodome

A film adaptation of the celebrated Scottish novel Sunset Song is arriving at a time of recurrent European financial crises and a war in the Middle East that is sucking in many of the world’s major powers for the second time in a generation. In 1932, when Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work was first published, Britain was in a decade-long depression, Europe had endured the World War I, and the seeds of the Spanish Civil War and World War II were already sown.

Gibbon would have been saddened but not surprised by these historic echoes.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Wikimedia

James Leslie Mitchell – Gibbon was a pseudonym – was born in 1901 into an Aberdeenshire crofting family. By the time he died in 1935, still not yet 34, he had published around 20 books. Overwork may have contributed to his early death from a perforated ulcer, just as he was on the brink of major success.

Sunset Song is about a young girl growing to maturity on a farm in northeast Scotland in the second decade of the 20th century. A set text in many Scottish secondary schools, it was voted Scotland’s favourite book in a 2005 poll. The novel is also highly regarded further afield. The writer Tariq Ali described A Scots Quair – the trilogy of which Sunset Song is the first novel – as “a masterpiece of world literature”.

Paradise lost

Change is the leitmotif of Sunset Song. It charts the demise of the fictional farming community of Kinraddie as a generation of men are killed in World War I. The local minister calls them “the last of the peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk”. With their going, a whole way of life, customs, songs and expressions disappears. The “sunset song” of the title is a lament for the passing of the crofting life, alluding to the song The Flowers of the Forest, popularly played to remember Scottish deaths in World War I.

The story focuses on Chris Guthrie (played in the film by Agyness Deyn) and her struggle to decide whether to stay on the land she loves or pursue her education. But more broadly it is about how capitalism fragments local communities. The surrounding woods are cut down for timber profit at one point, for instance, thus exposing the farmland and making it impossible to farm.

Sunset Song has much in common with that favourite novel of English regional life, Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, which was itself recently adapted by the BBC. Lee’s novel, set in a Cotswold village in central England, also captures a way of life in which “the horse was king” that was to be brutally ended by the First World War. But while the autobiographical narrator of Cider With Rosie remembers his childhood as an almost Edenic age before the post-war fall into modernity, the roots of evil already trouble Chris Guthrie’s girlhood, especially in the form of the Calvinist religion practised by her abusive father (played in the film by Peter Mullan).

Peter Mullan as John Guthrie. Metrodome

This different view of the past is no accident. For Gibbon, religion and war are among the various corrupt manifestations of civilisation. Many writers of the 1930s would turn to communism to solve what they perceived as the crisis in liberal capitalism, and to express their opposition to fascism – Laurie Lee, for instance, would fight against Franco in Spain. Gibbon was attracted to communism too, but his writing is also heavily influenced by the theory of diffusionism, which was popular in his lifetime.

Diffusionism held that civilisation emerged from ancient Egypt, a place that particularly interested Gibbon, who had been stationed there with the British army in the 1920s. Before accidentally discovering agriculture through the flooding of the Nile basin, goes the theory, humans had been free hunter-gatherers. Agriculture gave us a rootedness that created codes of gender, class, morality and religion that suppress human liberty. For Gibbon, who propagandised for diffusionism in many of his books, humans needed to break with militarist/capitalist civilisation to achieve a new peaceful way of life.

Kinraddie represents the original age of agriculture in Gibbon’s imagination, and this needs to be seen in the context of the whole Scots Quair trilogy. The second instalment, Cloud Howe, takes us into the era of the General Strike in the 1920s, while the concluding volume, Grey Granite, follows Chris and her communist son Ewan as they negotiate urban life in the 1930s. Gibbon is tracing humanity’s shift to the age of total politics and economic depression, which for him was a sign that the old order was breaking up. Diffusionism might not be common currency in the 2010s, but many people today still look at the sweep of recent history and hope for a major change to rejuvenate humankind.

Sunset Song has endured for other reasons too: the way we identify with the main character Chris; the nostalgia for community in a more individualistic age; Gibbon’s portrayal of the land, and his moving and witty prose, which is both accessible and distinctly Scots. The novel may also tap into a Scottish sense – mythic perhaps – of egalitarianism, at a time when Britain’s political and cultural power remains heavily centralised.

Three for price of one. Wikimedia

But fundamentally this is a book whose concern for sheer human decency in the face of adversity and injustice has resonated around the world. In a period of austerity, and continuing global conflict, this all makes the Terence Davies adaptation particularly timely.

Sunset Song ends with a eulogy by the local minister in which he asks for a new civilisation that will make the deaths of those he commemorates somewhat worthwhile. If Gibbon were looking at the modern world, I doubt he would think it had occurred.

Sunset Song is in selected Scottish cinemas from November 30 and across the UK from December 4