- Scott's Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh
Ian Duncan's book confirms the fact that Scottish fiction in "the Age of Scott" is now a site of mature critical enquiry. For too long, Scottish critics tended to read Walter Scott as simply and fatally codifying a Unionist ideology in his writing. For its part, Romantic criticism tended to see work by Scott, James Hogg, and John Galt as rather too Scottish—and thus of peripheral concern to the main agenda of nationally transcendent Romantic creativity, where in any case poetry took center stage. Since the 1990s, however, much has changed. Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997) saw the novel in the British Isles of the early nineteenth century as essaying states of development in British civilization and its residual forms of primitivism in ways that made the novel as multivalent as any poem and far from simply (as in much previous criticism) a cheerleader for Whig historical progress. In the Scottish and Irish contexts, Luke Gibbons, Cairns Craig, Leith Davis, Ina Ferris, Caroline McCracken-Flesher, Duncan himself, and a host of others, have now established a formidable body of critical writing in which the "historical," "national" narratives of nineteenth-century novels are also interpreted as response to the challenges of modernity. Scott's Shadow brings into focus, the title signals, the way in which tradition and modernity compete with one another in the novel as conceived in Edinburgh in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
The opening chapter, "Edinburgh, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," very wittily points to the way in which the publishing firm Blackwood's (prominent among several such companies) arguably made Edinburgh the cultural center of the English-speaking world for a time, as well as the way in which Edinburgh not only produced much cultural capital through printed books and periodicals but also made itself anew as a "national" capital suited to a new imperial "British," or [End Page 333] (more neutrally) a new international, age, in which it was part of an economic and political unit that was far from simply "Scottish." At the same time, "Scottishness" became a new kind of commodity. As Duncan puts it: "The national obsolescence of Scotland, its consignment to a 'classical' antiquity, [could] be prevented by cultivating that past, by converting the foundation of national identity from politics to culture" (17). In one manifestation of Scottish cultural transformation, Duncan provides the best critical analysis of John Gibson Lockhart's Peter's Letters to His Kinsfolk (1819) yet published, using it to examine the formation of a Tory Romanticism. Lockhart's idea of Scott as rarefied "Wizard of the North" tended to sever Scott from his Enlightenment and even Whig-tinctured cultural roots. At the end of his chapter, Duncan's depiction of Lockhart's romantically grotesque transmogrification of his father-in-law into a kind of zombie is both hilarious and astute. What Duncan is essaying is Lockhart's long influential projection of Scott as gothic spirit of the age par excellence disembodied from the contemporary and also truly historic concerns of the nation.
Duncan's third chapter, "Economies of National Character," provides much welcome new material on Elizabeth Hamilton's The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808) and Susan Ferrier's Marriage (1818) as especially informing the implicit debate in novels of the period as to whether the stock Scottish character should become a satirical or heroic figure—both of these types having complicated implications in terms of what they signal of Scotland's imagined state of economic development. Which way was the Scottish novel to go in this period? Was it to pursue pawky regional humor or sublime national heroism? Duncan, in his next chapter, answers that it does both. In his astonishing reading of Scott's Rob Roy, he demonstrates by way of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, that "modernity, far from abolishing the difference between civilization and barbarism, preserves it—produces it—inside itself, in a relation of perpetual violence" (107). With this more complex interpretation, which begins to rescue...