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Julian Meldon D’Arcy, Subversive Scott: The Waverley Novels and Scottish Nationalism

Reykjavik: Vigdís Finnbogadottír Institute of Foreign Languages & University of Iceland Press, 2005

294pp., ISBN: 9979 54 666 2, £25

Andrew Lincoln, Walter Scott and Modernity

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007

250 + x  pp., ISBN: 978 0 7486 2606 9, £50

Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Possible Scotlands: Walter Scott and the Story of Tomorrow

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005

225 + viii pp., ISBN: 978 0 19 516967 6, £35.99

Reviewed by Graham Tulloch


All three of these books argue, either quite explicitly or by more distant implication, for the relevance of Scott to our world today. Two of them, those of D’Arcy and McCracken-Flesher, relate their argument particularly to Scotland. That anyone should need to argue for the relevance of Scott, the great novelist of their century, would have astounded the Victorians; that his relevance to Scotland should need arguing would have completely baffled them. Scott and Scotland, surely they were the same? Possibly the Victorians were right—and possibly they would still be right to some degree. As McCracken-Flesher argues, it is hard to see how modern Scotland, especially a Scotland with its own parliament, could exist without Scott (112). However that Scott was seen as a diehard Tory (and especially as a Scottish diehard Tory) has made it easy to dismiss him as irrelevant when the Conservative vote in Scotland has been consistently low for a long time. Similarly that he was seen as committed to the Union could allow him to be sidelined in a new Scotland with a new parliament (and now, since the publication of these books, with a new SNP government). Conversely where Scott’s continuing influence is accepted as real it is viewed as pernicious, the source of shallow tartanry and an outdated and backward-looking view of the Scottish nation. In such a context books which argue that Scott opens up possibilities of new Scotlands rather than embalming its past (McCracken-Flesher) or consider what exactly Scott did say about Scotland, both directly and by implication (D’Arcy) or examine Scott’s relationship to modernity (Lincoln) are timely and welcome.

Of the two writers focussing on Scotland McCracken-Flesher approaches the topic against a broader spectrum of events and ideas and D’Arcy from a more strictly literary standpoint. Although D’Arcy’s aim is not so much to argue for Scott’s relevance to Scotland as to argue that his attitude to Scotland has been misunderstood, his argument ultimately has implications for how we view Scott in relation to today’s Scotland. To a large extent D’Arcy traces the recent literary development of a view of Scott which might encourage us to think him irrelevant to today’s Scotland to David Daiches seminal article of 1951, ‘Scott’s Achievement as a Novelist’. Daiches’s thesis that Scott was emotionally drawn to an independent Jacobite Scotland but intellectually accepted a Hanoverian Scotland within the Union, a view neatly summarised by Lincoln as ‘nostalgia balanced by satisfaction’ (viii) but which might be put more crudely as ‘Scott was a Unionist’, has certainly not gone unchallenged, most notably by Paul Henderson Scott with his consistent and passionate assertion of Scott’s attachment to Scotland. (Fittingly both D’Arcy and McCracken-Flesher refer to him.) It is certainly worthwhile to examine across a range of novels just how far Daiches’s thesis holds up in relation specifically to Scott’s attitude to Scotland but it is well to remember, before setting it aside, that the Daiches paradigm has served us well in more general terms. It did make clear that Scott’s feelings were ambiguous and that the novels were in many ways ambivalent, as opposed to an earlier view epitomised in a passage from H.G. Wells quoted by Lincoln at the beginning of his book: ‘He was a man of intensely conservative quality; he accepted, he accepted willingly, the established social values about him; …He saw events therefore as a play of individualities in a rigid frame of values never more to be questioned or permanently changed’ (quoted vii). At the same time Daiches tended to suggest that the novels move towards a kind of resolution and closure whereas most critics today would see them as open-ended. D’Arcy accepts that there is a level of ambiguity in Scott’s writing but puts it to different use to Daiches. He characterises it as the possibility of a dual reading where a ‘dissonant discourse’ (48) undermines the novels’ surface acceptance of the status quo. The dual reading is based, in D’Arcy’s model, on the presence of two readers: ‘On the one hand, I believe there exists what I shall refer to as a ‘literary competent’ British reader, in the role of an English or anglicised Scottish narratee, and on the other hand there exists what I shall refer to as a ‘textually competent’ Scottish reader, in the role of an ideal or implied reader’ (51). In this scenario the ‘British reader’ will be happy to accept a reading of the novel which sees ‘England and Scotland idyllically united in peace, progress and prosperity’ while the ‘Scottish reader’ will ‘appreciate Scott’s subtle but harsh criticism of British imperialism and experience the deep resentment he feels at the loss of Scottish integrity and independence’ (51-52). The ‘Scottish reader’ will be able to read the novel in this way through the ‘dissonant discourse’ by paying attention to onomastics (noticing the implications of personal and place-names), by recognising the hints lying partly hidden in Scots or Gaelic words, and by noticing gaps and inconsistencies in the narrative. D’Arcy presents his argument with admirable clarity—the book in this respect is a pleasure to read—and produces some very interesting readings of some of the novels and tales. Inevitably perhaps, I find some readings more persuasive than others: D’Arcy’s approach works well with texts like Rob Roy and ‘The Highland Widow’ (it is good to see attention being given to what Stevenson considered Scott’s masterpiece) but I, for one, am not so fully persuaded by the part of the reading of Waverley which relates to the Baron of Bradwardine: amongst other things, it seems to me to lean too heavily on the Englishness of his surname and perceived negative connotations of his second name Comyne and this produces a characterisation of Bradwardine which runs counter to my instinctive and continuing reaction to the character. At the same time D’Arcy’s extended attention to names and their implications throughout his book is generally illuminating: in readings of Scott extremely suggestive names have been sometimes treated as if they carried no particular implications or frequently as if their implications are less important than the narrative. Not surprisingly this book concentrates on the novels and stories which deal with post-Union Scotland but it would have been interesting to extend the treatment to some of the other novels, most notably The Fortunes of Nigel, a work full of suggestive names—it is true that the setting is pre-Union but it does follow the Union of the Crowns and it does very much raise issues of Scottish ‘integrity and independence’ in relation to the English.

McCracken-Flesher’s book has the most complex argument of the three and in that sense is the most difficult to read but it amply repays the effort. In part the complexity arises from the use of Jean-Joseph Goux’s deconstructive economics (along with post-colonial theory) as a basis for the argument but it also comes from the widest range of reference. The first page, for example, brings the new Scottish Parliament into play while another chapter associates The Fortunes of Nigel and George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and yet another combines The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther and Chronicles of the Canongate. Of the three writers McCracken-Flesher is the one who most directly addresses the issue of Scott’s relevance to today’s Scotland. For her Scott is vital to the continuance and continual revitalisation of Scotland: using the image of ‘a Scotland dead in the moment of her incorporating Union with England, now walking again’, she describes Scott as ‘the architect of cultural Scottishness who still walks’ (3). If her complex argument can be summarised in simple terms it might be described as contending that Scott, far from fixing Scotland in time so that it is unavailable to us now, opened it up to constant renewal by implicating it in narrative where meaning is constantly being renegotiated. Hence her title—Scott’s writings released many possible Scotlands which will continue to be available tomorrow. To quote: ‘The Scott who sought to express nation through narrative met public expectation in defining a Scotland that could be posited against England and as past against present. But similtaneously, when he made visible the nation’s multiplicity Scott manifested its disruptions and discontinuities—and made unavoidable Scotland’s disturbing energies’ (13). Or again: ‘Scott insists on no pasts, and threatens no futures; he promulgates no reductive histories, and he delimits no current narratives. Instead, he has always invited the Scots to think of themselves as floating signifiers capable of making meaning through, and in place and time beyond, his tales’ (28). Such an approach unsettles our reading of the novels and produces interpretations which are at odds with earlier critical positions. As McCracken-Flesher notes, ‘Generally, critics see such layered narration [as we see in Tales of My Landlord] as distancing readers from tellers and tales’ although she notes that ‘[Ina] Ferris shows, however, that if this is his intent, Scott fails.’ By contrast, says McCracken-Flesher, ‘Viewing Scott’s strategy oppositely, I argue that Scott in fact succeeds. He does not distance or defuse the past. Rather he makes it a site of contestation before he enters its textual space. … Telling is a jostling, community activity that invites disagreement and evaluation anew, and careers headlong toward the cultural future’ (46).

One of the subjects on which McCracken-Flesher differs most strongly from other writers is the visit of George IV to Scotland. A consensus has emerged that Scott’s all-encompassing stage-management of the occasion, brilliantly successful at the time, was ultimately a failure. Scott, it is commonly agreed, merely gifted Scotland with a false tartan image of itself and fixed it in a no longer relevant past or, to quote McCracken-Flesher’s characterisation of this position, ‘he delimited his nation as a space subject to English purchase, his people as subject to English construction, and his land as a devalued vacancy’ (100). McCracken-Flesher’s own view is different and more subtle. As she argues to view what Scott created as ‘operat[ing] only on England’s behalf is to reveal that we ourselves are limited by a primary assumption of Scotland’s subjection’ (74). By her argument George IV needed Scotland to provide ‘a system whose recognition could stabilize him as monarch so forcefully it would obscure its own operations, rendering “natural” the relation between acknowledged King and willing people’ (78). Scott was able to supply this by deploying the notion of the king’s visit as a return of the descendant of the long line of Scottish kings in which Scotland became the place of origin and thus prior to England. In this way he was able to ‘determine George IV as the nation’s dominant term, but Scotland as his site of meaning’ (79). Consequently ‘Englishmen who took their value from the King found themselves redirected through Scotland’ (110). Scott’s success was to force on the English both a sense of Scottish identity and to some degree a sense that their own identity was defined against that Scottish identity.

Naturally such a radically different approach to the reading of Scott produces new interpretations and new emphases—a good example is the reinterpretation of the role of Lady Margaret in The Tale of Old Mortality. It also lends itself to being applied to texts which have received relatively little attention. Although the book begins with a discussion of the ‘Scotch Novels’ which have provided the bread and butter for so much of Scott criticism, it moves on to comparatively neglected works like The Fortunes of Nigel, Woodstock, and, most strikingly, Castle Dangerous. In the process again new readings of old material emerge: an example is McCracken-Flesher’s interpretation of the significance of Richie Moniplies through Goux’s theory which plays a central role in her reading of Nigel. Some of the most striking insights come from the conjunction of the novels with other aspects of the author’s life. For example, considering the scene at George IV’s coronation where Glengarry, dressed in full Highland costume, was mistaken for an assassin leads to a typically thought-provoking suggestion that ‘Glengarry’s embarrassment found its way into Nigel, and the novel became a worried consideration of how authorial, literary, and national value rises and falls with the dynamic of southern exchange’ (64). This book continually confronts its readers with such unexpected and illuminating conjunctions.

Lincoln’s book focuses on modernity rather than on Scotland but it shares with McCracken-Flesher’s book in particular a concern with how Scott’s work relates to our world today. The modernity referred to in the title is primarily the modernity of Scott’s own time but, as Lincoln points out, ‘The conflicts that run through his fictions – between modernisation and established interests, between individual liberty and public responsibility, between community and society, between the ideals and the material consequences of ‘civilisation’ – may be shaped by the cultural conditions and political crises of Scott’s age, but they still resonate in the twenty-first century’ (ix). On the other hand Lincoln shares with D’Arcy an interest in a dual readership though of a quite different kind: for Lincoln Scott’s fiction is ‘founded on a simultaneous appeal to the sympathetic romance reader and to a detached, enlightened, resisting reader, alert to the possibilities of irony’ (19).

The organisation of the book does not follow the chronology of Scott’s writing. Nevertheless it begins with the verse romances—not perhaps the obvious place to start for a book on modernity but a fruitful one. Nineteenth-century writers and readers generally saw the poetry and the novels as one oeuvre but for much of the twentieth century they were kept apart. It is a welcome development in more recent Scott criticism to see the two reintegrated. Apart from their value in helping us understand the formation of Scott as a writer, Lincoln suggests a further value in reading the poems in noting that the pose adopted by Scott in the poetry ‘anticipates the more sceptical and ironical romanticism of Byron and Keats’ and that therefore ‘our understanding of the development of British romanticism has been seriously impoverished by the disappearance of Scott’s early romances from the canon’ (36). Picking up on Scott’s persistent interest in the passing of feudalism as the beginnings of the modern state, Lincoln concludes that ‘When Scott turned to the late feudal era in his early poetic romances, it was not simply to escape the problems of the modern nation, but to represent their origin and to suggest this own relation to them’ (34). All of this leads into a recognition that ‘These early poetic romances already manifest the doubleness that will later shape Scott’s work as a novelist’ so that the poems both offer ‘a surrender to romance’ and a suggestion that ‘to live in a modern nation – whether Scotland or Britain – is to live in a condition of alienation and irony’ (47). From this Lincoln transits to a discussion of Waverley ending with a persuasive reading of the figure of Davie Gellatly, a new perspective having once again, as with McCracken-Flesher’s book, given new meaning to minor characters.

The next chapter brings together Ivanhoe and Kenilworth – two texts that work well together although one has been much discussed and the other until recently largely neglected. (I would suggest, however, that Scott’s transition from medieval to post-medieval world – not, as it happens Lincoln’s primary concern here – is even better understood if we include the two intervening and even more neglected novels, The Monastery and The Abbot.) Lincoln’s discussion of Kenilworth gains much from his introduction of modern ideas of heritage, another way in which Scott connects with our contemporary world. Indeed he suggests that the novel ‘represents a landmark in the development of British attitudes to heritage’ (84). After another productive conjunction in a chapter on Guy Mannering and The Talisman Lincoln proceeds to the Scottish novels with subtle and sensitive readings including a section on The Heart of Mid-Lothian which amongst other things examines the complexities of Scott’s attitudes to the fundamentalism of the Covenanters (a subject often oversimplified from his own time onwards) and ends with a strong plea for Scott’s continuing relevance. While accepting that ‘Scott’s turning away from the problems of the city in this novel might be cited as a fundamental evasion of the problems of modernity’, he reminds us that ‘Recent studies have traced a link between the disruption of rural communities and the appearance of fundamentalism among peasants and former peasants in our own time’, and concludes that ‘Rather than see Scott’s preoccupation with Covenanting tradition among the Scottish peasantry as a retreat into a historical curiosity, we might begin to see it as a prescient attempt to engage with a problem that is central to the condition of modernity’ (182-3).

The appearance of three excellent new books on Scott should excite the interest of scholars of Scott, Scotland and Scottish literature. That all three argue, in quite different ways and from quite different perspectives, for a Scott who still means something to us is not only interesting but, for me at least, extremely heartening. The great novelist of the nineteenth century remains a great and profoundly important novelist today.