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After Scotland's literary "Golden Age": Locating Agnes Owens

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posted on 15.11.2021, 07:39 by Pirie-Hunter, Rupert Alexander

Celebrations of Scottish literature in the last decades of the twentieth century have neglected one of Scotland’s most important writers: Agnes Owens. Owens’ work and its influence is far more complex, and far greater in reach, than most accounts acknowledge. Her significance is no secret: Alasdair Gray and James Kelman have championed her work; Glasgow University’s Douglas Gifford has said that Owens “can claim to have done more than most in the redefinition of women in fiction.” This paper aims to lay the groundwork from which meaningful criticism of Agnes Owens can be realised in the 21st Century. Taking cue from Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer”, particularly his argument that “the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense”, I argue that the aesthetics and politics of Owens’ work deconstruct and redefine traditional models of working-class literature and representation.  The first chapter analyses her first collection of short stories, Gentlemen of the West and its sequel novella, Like Birds in the Wilderness. I challenge the way these texts have been read as realist working-class fiction through a careful examination of her short stories and novellas, offering an alternative framework through which they can be read. Gentlemen subverts notions of societal “initiation” in working-class fiction, with Mac’s attempt to escape his community being undone by the conclusion of Birds. The second chapter is a study of three of her short stories, attending to her minimalist illustrations of the socially condemned, and her confronting exposition of the readers’ gaze. Finally, this thesis discusses the gendered landscape of her novel, A Working Mother. Using Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady as an organising text, I argue that Owens’ treatment of gender relations challenge literary notions of female “hysteria” and madness. Taken as a whole, this thesis addresses Owens’ absence, attempting to locate her work within Scottish literary criticism. It is offered as a way forward for the study of her work in years to come.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


McNeil, Dougal