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Ian Duncan, Scott's Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh

Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007

416 pp., ISBN: 0691043833, £32


Reviewed by Alison Lumsden


This study opens with a statement that it 'explores the distinctive literary field that flourished in Edinburgh between 1802, the year of the founding of the Edinburgh Review, and 1832, the year of the Reform Bill and the death of Sir Walter Scott' (xi). This defines the parameters of the book in precise terms and foregrounds the specificity of subject and meticulousness of empirical research that underpins this project. It does not, however, entirely alert the reader to the wide ranging achievements of this work and the extent to which it not only describes the literary field in this period but transforms our understanding of it, the ways in which it is philosophically conceptualised, and the extent of its far-reaching implications for the novel form and the development of both Scottish and British Romanticism.

This study is divided into two sections. In the first Duncan explores the phenomenon of Scott and the Waverley Novels by suggesting that Scott encapsulates a key event whereby fiction and the novel become the dominant embodiment of cultural commentary and an articulation of national life. This circumstance, Duncan infers, is wrought not only by the economic and publishing conditions within Scotland at the start of the nineteenth-century, but also by the philosophical conditions which arose out of Enlightenment debate. In particular, Duncan demonstrates that Scott 'fully realizes Humean principles'; building upon those circumstances whereby 'Hume establishes the philosophical matrix for the ascendancy of fictional realism in modern British literature' generating 'a "novelistic" model of the imagination' (124). This reading of Scott repositions his work within the historical / romance dialectic since it recognises that rather than creating a binary between these positions Scott collapses the opposition, synthesising these apparently dialectical terms. This reading thus renegotiates Scott's relationship to a national / fictional axis and is significant, for while some recent studies, such as that by Franco Moretti, have seen Scott's Waverley Novels as an essentially bourgeois expression of the novel form, Duncan's thesis allows for the altogether more 'ragged' version of Scott that has been recovered by the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels and which has become popular in recent criticism. 'Rather than opening a window onto the past' he argues, 'Scott's novels show us the obscure, occult, bewildering shapes and forces of the present', since the instability of the 'past' as empirical reality is foregrounded via the 'notoriously novelistic' aspect of Scott's fiction which thus activates storytelling as the 'genre of modern life' (114). This aspect of Scott's work, Duncan shows, is essentially 'generative' rather than 'restrictive' (xv).

It is the 'generative' aspect of Scott's fiction that is, consequently, explored in the second half of this book where Duncan examines the effect of Scott's work on his contemporaries and those who came immediately after him. While the phrase 'Scott's shadow' reflects the extent to which Duncan is uncovering an altogether more 'shady' and complex author than the monolithic construction of him by his biographer Lockhart and subsequent generations of criticism might imply, it also applies to Duncan's assertion that no writer working within the long cast of Scott's work could fail to engage with the complex relationship between fiction and national identity encapsulated within it: Scott's 'ascendancy' being such that it 'obliged ambitious authors to respond to his example and define their work in relation to his' (220). In this section Duncan offers readings of the ways in which the work of John Galt, Christian Johnstone and above all Hogg, may be seen as negotiating the new parameters for the novel established by the Waverley texts. 'These authors' Duncan argues, 'differentiated themselves from Scott by taking opposite sides of the dialectic between romance and history activated in Scott's fiction, in each case dismantling Scott's synthesis by rejecting the antithetical discourse' (220). While Galt reacts to the Author of Waverley by 'seek[ing] a more rigorous fictionalization of Enlightenment conjectural history, undisfigured by residual artifices of romance' (xvi), Hogg, Duncan claims, acts to resist 'the ideology of Enlightenment progress and the cultural historiography of loss and salvage … associated with Scott' (xvi). Via this discussion Duncan seeks to offer a new and intellectually rewarding paradigm in which to consider the work of these writers but also offers stimulating readings of key texts such as Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. While recognising that it shares much in common with Scott's Redgauntlet, for example, which was published in the same year, Duncan argues that Hogg's text offers a 'critical and parodic reflection upon the Scott model of historical fiction' (249), suggesting that while 'Scott reaffirms Humean skepticism along a labyrinthine historical dialectic', Confessions resists Scott's return into a 'comic condition of fiction which is the field of reading' and turns towards a more obdurate 'textual state' (251-2) representing a 'lethal alienation from common life' (286). While I would question that fiction, as Duncan argues, always does for Scott 'reaffirm a social and ordinary reality' (286), particularly in his later novels, there is no doubt that analyses such as these prompt us to consider both Scott and Hogg in stimulating and sophisticated ways.

Any attempt to summarise the main ideas in this book, however, fails to do it justice for, as the discussion of Confessions considered above demonstrates, what Duncan tells us along the way is as significant as his overarching thesis: any reader of this study will take from it an invigorated understanding not only of Scott and his cultural significance but also of Hogg, Galt, their contemporaries, and the entire matrix of the Scottish publishing environment at the start of the nineteenth century. As a consequence there is no doubt but that Scott's Shadow is a significant book. While it is at times demanding, this simply reflects the intensity of thought and wealth of material that has contributed to what is an exciting and ground-breaking study. Written with admirable attention to scholarly detail, critical acumen and considerable flair, the thesis it proposes not only enhances our understanding of Scott and his fellow writers in Scotland in the period under discussion, but also prompts us to consider anew the very nature of the novel and its relationship to representations of national life and cultural identity. Appearing at this point this study also acts as a marker of the current capital Scott holds in discussions of the novel, a position that marks a transformation from that which he held as little as twenty years ago. Duncan comments on Scott in a way that encapsulates a tendency in much recent Scott criticism to see him as an altogether more exciting and complex writer than traditional criticism may imply:

The impulse to read Scott's novels as closing down the formal and political potentialities of Romantic-era fiction has made it harder, perhaps, to attend to all that they opened up – as though their author's counterrevolutionary politics must have determined a general dynamic of closure. Yet opening up, rather than closure, characterizes the revolutionary impact of these novels on the nineteenth-century literary field (98).

The work of the Great Unknown is indeed 'opened up' by studies of a quality such as that offered us here. It is criticism such as Duncan's that demands that we see the full implications of the Waverley Novels enterprise, suggesting its on-going capacity for re-generation in the twenty-first century and its importance in any discussion of the novel, of Romanticism and of the relationship of fiction and society that takes place today.