‘Lost’ manuscript from renowned Scottish author Willa Muir finally published

Monday 17 April 2023

A ‘lost’ novel by twentieth century Scottish writer and translator, Willa Muir, has been published almost 70 years after she wrote it, thanks to Special Collections at the University of St Andrews.

Fifty-three years after the death of the renowned feminist author, The Usurpers has now been published thanks to Colenso Books and the University’s Special Collections team.

The Usurpers is set in Prague in the late 1940s as Czechoslovakia was just starting to recover from German occupation during the Second World War. The characters in the novel are mainly based on real people and real situations and the insidious influence of the Communist Party, which culminated in the coup of February 1948. Essentially a comic novel, political infiltration, intimidation and violence, restrictions on freedom of speech, and the crushing of dissent all feature in the story.

Two typed versions of the manuscript for the novel have been in the University of St Andrews Special Collections since the 1970s, along with the rest of Willa’s papers, and remained unpublished until now.

Jim Potts, who undertook editing of the novel, was Director of the British Council in Prague from 1986-1989, in the final years of the Communist regime, so the Muirs’ experiences resonated with him. Potts met people who had known the Muirs in the 1940s, and his interest in Willa Muir brought him to St Andrews Special Collections in 2013. Almost a decade later, the book has seen the light of day thanks to Jim and Anthony Hirst, the Publisher at Colenso Books.

College Echoes editorial team, 1911 to 1912

Willa Muir was a student at the University of St Andrews from 1907-1911, when Minnie Anderson – as she was then known – was awarded a first-class degree in Classics. She married the poet Edwin Muir in 1919 and the couple led a peripatetic life around Europe, subsisting by teaching, writing, and translating. Their translations included works by Franz Kafka, which they brought to a British audience for the first time. The Usurpers is set in Prague at the time when Edwin was Director of the British Institute there, from 1945-1948.

Rachel Hart, Head of Archives and Rare Books and Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments at the University of St Andrews, said: “The appearance in print for the first time of an unpublished manuscript is always exciting. Both handwritten and typescript versions of Willa Muir’s The Usurpers are held with her archive in the University and this is a great opportunity to raise the profile of an early female graduate of St Andrews who was an exemplary student and active in the Student’s Union and student publishing between 1907 and 1912.

“Throughout her life she was a support for her husband – the poet Edwin Muir – and it is appropriate now to focus attention on Willa’s own writing, as well as on the editorial and translating role she played in their joint endeavours.”

Willa and Edwin

While The Usurpers is published more than 50 years after her death, Willa also published two novels during her lifetime, Imagined Corners (1931) and Mrs Ritchie (1933). Her first, Imagined Corners, is set in the fictional town of Calderwick, modelled on Willa’s hometown of Montrose and tells the story of the fictional Elizabeth Shand who, trapped in a conventional marriage, rebels against the constraints on women in the patriarchal society of small-town Scotland in the early twentieth century.  

A later, nonfiction work, Mrs Grundy in Scotland (1936), takes this theme further, providing an analysis of women’s position in Presbyterian Scotland and is recognised as an early feminist work. Written during the Muirs’ residence in St Andrews, the cultural essay reveals Willa to be an acute social commentator. Her writing, initially overshadowed by Edwin Muir’s reputation, is now recognised as making a significant contribution to the Scottish Renaissance.

Copies of The Usurpers are available to purchase at £14.75 through the Wardlaw Museum shop and in Topping & Company Booksellers of St Andrews.  

Cover image: Willa Muir by Nigel McIsaac, courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

A gathering in the University’s Martyr’s Kirk reading room to celebrate the book’s launch was treated to speeches about The Usurpers and a display of material from the Willa Muir archive. University of St Andrews Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE introduced the event and was presented with a copy of the novel by the publisher from Colenso Books, Anthony Hirst.

Willa Muir also wrote Living with Ballads (Hogarth Press, 1965), an exploration of traditional Scottish oral poetry, and the autobiographical, Belonging: A Memoir (Hogarth Press, 1968), about her life with Edwin, written after his death in 1959. The Muirs’ numerous translations of German-language fiction, particularly of Kafka’s work, are now acknowledged to be largely produced by Willa Muir.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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