Violet Jacob: Later Life (1916-1946)

1916 marked a turning point in Violet Jacob’s life because her only son Harry died at the age of twenty at the Battle of the Somme (Anderson). Susan Tweedsmuir tells how “a spring . . . broke” in Jacob and how she never fully recovered from Harry’s death (quoted in Gordon 34; Anderson). Jacob draws on her Christian faith to ease her grief, and she writes that “I believe so much in the ‘communion of saints’ that I am certain he is never far from me” (quoted in Gordon 34). In the meantime she wants “to conquer [grief] and to wait in hope and patience” (quoted in Gordon 34). She begins her third volume of poetry, More Songs of Angus from 1918, with the poem “To A. H. J.”

“Wild Geese” engraved on stones near Dundee in Angus

"The Wild Geese" engraved on stones near Dundee in AngusSource: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early reviewers spent little time on Jacob’s war poems, which make up almost half of More Songs of Angus (Gordon 353). The Scotsman praises Jacob for her “neat and daintily humorous rhymes,” “pretty vignettes of scenery,” and “many graceful, dreamy poems in a smoothly running standard English that is pleasant in spite of the constant tendency to sadness of feeling” (quoted in Gordon 353). The Times Literary Supplement calls her Scots poems “delightful” (quoted in Gordon 353). In 1935 L. M. Cummings writes in the Scottish Bookman that her war poems are

poignant with deep-felt sorrow and a tragic emphasis on the glory and sacrifice of war [ . . . but they] make us faintly uncomfortable. The cry from the heart is still audible, but after twenty years we shrink from the old simplicity of vision and our tired disillusion alike, and are less moved by these poems than by some. (quoted in Gordon 353)

Jacobs divides the volume into thirteen poems in Scots and ten poems in English and provides translations for some Scots words. Her fourth volume of poetry follows the same pattern but with fewer poems in English. Subsequent volumes contain very few poems in English but continue to offer translations for Scots words.

In 1921 Jacob published her fourth volume of poetry, Bonnie Joann and Other Poems, and wrote a collection of short stories titled Tales of My Own Country. Katherine Gordon observes that Jacob wrote more dramatic monologues that explore outsider figures such as exiles and travellers (358). The Scots Pictorial refers to Jacob as “the last representative of Doric poetry . . . [who] brings new life to the dying muse of the vernacular” in its review of Bonnie Joann and Other Poems (quoted in Gordon 358). The reviewer finds “Bonnie Joann” to be “one of the loveliest love lyrics written in any tongue” (quoted in Gordon 359). Jacob wrote “The End O’t” in response to Burns’ “The Rantin Dog, The Daddy O’t.” Where Burns celebrates male sexual freedom, Jacob highlights the restrictions on female sexuality (Gordon 362). “The Shadows” is an exile poem (Gordon 363). The speaker asks “Can footsteps reach those lands unseen, / Or wings of bird?” (ll. 7-8 Bonnie Joann), but concludes that “The heart may break for lands unseen, / For woods wherein its life has been / But not return” (ll. 10-12 Bonnie Joann). Letters to friend James Christison from the Montrose Library show that Jacob researched Scots words to ensure she spelled them correctly (Gordon 359). The Dictionary of the Scots Language used Jacob’s poem “Kirrie” to define the Scots word “bizzar” (Gordon 361).

Jacob first published many of her poems in the English Magazine Country Life (Gordon 35). Other periodicals include Living Age (Gordon 356), Current Literature (Gordon 357), The Deeside Field (Gordon 371), and MacDiarmid’s Scottish Chapbook (Gordon 369). MacDiarmid also included Jacob in the 1920 volume of his poetry anthology Northern Numbers (Gordon 359). John Buchan features her poetry in his anthology The Northern Muse in 1924.

Two New Poems: Rohallion, The Little Dragon from 1924 differs from other mediums for Jacob’s work because it is an illustrated broadsheet. Porpoise Press in Edinburgh published the work, with illustrations by A. Mason Trotter (Gordon 364). Jacob struggled to produce these poems. She wrote to Roderick Watson Kerr from Porpoise Press to express her enthusiasm to participate in the project, but in another letter she tells him that she has

nothing [in] either Scots or English at the moment and [I] feel as if I never could write verse again [. . .] But this feeling, which I often get, will go in time [. . .] when I can send you anything else I will. I’ll manage it somehow in time [. . .] I really will send you something in time. (quoted in Gordon 364-5)

Jacob’s letters to Kerr offer an interesting glimpse into the writing process, and her anxiety over producing poetry in time for publication would otherwise go unnoticed in the face of contemporary praise. The Scotsman called the Porpoise Press broadsheet series “a courageous local literary undertaking” and notes that “it is worthily rounded off by two fine poems by Mrs. Violet Jacob” (quoted in Gordon 364). In response to Kerr’ invitation to publish in the broadsheet Marion Angus comments that “Violet Jacob’s work it goes without saying is almost too high a standard for me to have much hope of writing anything good enough to be published in the same periodical along with hers” (quoted in Gordon 365). In response to Two New Poems The Glasgow Herald praises Jacob as “one of the most genuine of living Scottish creative writers” (Gordon 43), and in 1925 MacDiarmid considers Jacob to be “by far the most considerable of contemporary vernacular poets” (Anderson).

The Good Child’s Yearbook (1927)

"The Good Child's Yearbook (1927)Source: listing on eBay

Source: listing on eBay

In 1927 Jacob published The Northern Lights and Other Poems and The Good Child’s Yearbook. Jacob illustrated and wrote poetry for the Yearbook. Katherine Gordon calls Northern Lights “a book of extremes: it features some of Jacob’s most accomplished poetry [. . . and] some of her least successful verse” (365). Despite these faults, reviewers gave positive reviews. The Scotsman praises Jacob for her “happy knack of concentrating in a few stanzas the whole life of a countryside, the whole past and future of the person she delineates” (quoted in Gordon 366). Modern scholar Janet Caird echoes the Scotsman when she comments that “ [‘Helpmate’] has a whole novel in twenty-five lines” (quoted in Gordon 369). Similarly to “The End O’t,” the speaker in “Donald Maclane” reflects on the repercussions of her relationship with a tinkler and gives sexual connotation to “nettle” when she reflects that “fules think lichtly when fules are young / Tae pu’ the nettle and no be stung, / An’ it’s nocht but a fule I’ve been” (ll. 13-5 The Northern Lights).

The Jacobs travelled much in the 1920s and 1930s. They moved to Ludlow in Shropshire in 1920 following Arthur’s retirement and frequently visited Angus (Anderson; Scottish Poetry Library), spent time in Llantomas in Herefordshire, and took trips abroad to improve Arthur’s asthma (Anderson; Gordon 35). They visited India a second time from 1922 to 1923, and in 1930 they travelled to Liguria, Italy. Jacob published The Lairds of Dun in 1931, which is a family history of the House of Dun (Anderson). In 1936 Jacob and Arthur visited Southern France, Jacob received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh, and Arthur died (Anderson). Jacob writes to a friend that “I am getting on all right but no words can express how I miss him. But it is not everyone who can look back for over forty years of such happiness. There never was anyone like him” (Gordon 36). To David Waterson she writes that “I hardly know how to stand up to life now, but will try. I have lost what was more than life to me” (Anderson). After her husband’s death in 1936 Jacob moved back to Angus and lived in Marywell House near Kirrremuir (Anderson).

Jacob dedicated her final volume of poetry, The Scottish Poems of Violet Jacob from 1944, to her husband: “the Comrade Beyond.” Scottish Poems is a compilation of earlier poems and seventeen new ones, which include eight elegies for the war dead (Boos). The Times Literary Supplement asserts that Jacob “needs no commendation as a vernacular poet [. . .] in content her verse is as racy and homespun as is its idiom” (quoted in Gordon 370). The Scotsman relates how “Jacob stands high in popular esteem” and notes that “nothing that she has done in English, excellent as her technique in this medium is, has found the same favour as her Doric” (quoted in Gordon 370).

Jacob died on 9 September 1946 of heart disease, and she is buried alongside her husband in a public graveyard at Dun church near Montrose in Angus instead of the burial ground for the House of Dun (Anderson). The Scotsman’s obituary on 11 September refers to Jacob as “a woman of very strong character, with a delightful sense of humour” (Anderson).

Interest in Jacob’s work continues into the twenty-first century. Personal writings, manuscripts, and drawings surfaced in the 1970s (Boos), and in 1982 Ronald Garden published The Lum Hat and Other Stories: Last Tales of Violet Jacob, which includes two novellas: “Banny Firelocks” and “The Lum Hat” (Boos). In 1984 folk musician Jim Reid set “Wild Geese” to music (Gordon 352), and in 1990 Carol Anderson published a selection of Jacob’s earlier drawings and personal writings in Diaries and Letters from India 1895-1900. The lines “There’s muckle lyin yont the Tay that’s mair to me nor life” from her poem “The Wild Geese” are engraved on a flagstone in Makar’s Court in Edinburgh (Gordon 44). In 2006 this poem made the shortlist for BBC Radio Scotland’s poll for Scots’ favourite poems (Scottish Poetry Library).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Carol. “Jacob , Violet Augusta Mary Frederica (1863–1946),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, 2004. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.
  • Boos, Florence. “Violet Jacob (1 September 1863 – 9 September 1946).”  Late Nineteenth-and Early Twentieth-Century British Women Poets. Ed. William B. Thesing. Dictionary of Literary Biography 240 (2001): 107-112. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
  • Gordon, Katherine, ed. Voices From Their Ain Countrie: The Poems of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob. Ed. Katherine Gordon. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2006. Print.
  • Jacob, Violet. Bonnie Joann and Other Poems. London: John Murray, 1921. U of Toronto Libraries: Internet Archive. UVic Libraries Gateway. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
  • Jacob, Violet. The Northern Lights and Other Poems. London: John Murray, 1927. Print.
  • “Violet Jacob (1863-1946).” Scottish Poetry Library. Web.

Further Resources

  • Anderson, Carol. “Tales of Her Own Countries: Violet Jacob.” A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan.” Edinburgh UP, 1997. Print.
  • Bing, Sarah. “Autobiography in the Work of Violet Jacob.” Chapman 74-75 (Autumn-Winter 1993): 98-109. Print.
  • Caird, Janet. “The Poetry of Violet Jacob and Helen B. Cruickshank.” Cencrastus 19 (Winter 1984): 32. Print.
  • Gordon, Katherine. “Women ‘Wha’ lauched and lo’ed and sinned’: Women’s Voices in the Work of Violet Jacob and Marion Angus,” Études Écossaises 9 (2003-2004). Print.
  • MacDiarmid, Hugh. “Violet Jacob.” Scottish Educational Journal (17 July 1925). Print.

Thomas S.


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