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Enlightenment, Agency, and Romance: The Case of Scott's Guy Mannering Robert P. Irvine Introduction The position of Walter Scott in the history of the novel is an ambiguous one. On the one hand he is credited, most influentially by Georg Lukács, with the introduction of historical and political subject matter into prose fiction in a way that inaugurates the nineteenth-century practice of socialrealist fiction. Specifically, he is understood to have used the model of historical development posited by the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment as the grand narrative underlying the action of his stories: things happen in a Scott novel, people behave in certain ways, because of their place in a social totality that is itself historically determined.1 The tradition of commentary that emphasises Scott's invention of the historical novel thus tends to ignore or play down (or, even, regret) the fact that the action of a Scott novel is often, on the contrary, generically determined: that his detailed attention to the particularities of historical societies is placed within plots that deploy the conventional tropes and narrative structures of romance . In this essay I wish to explore the role of romance plot-structure in its relation to Scott's realist project, in the case of one particular novel, Guy Mannering of 1815. In doing so, I am drawing on the arguments of Northrop Frye and Fredric Jameson, who take romance to be not simply an extra-realistic principle at work in these texts, but historical realism's JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.1 (Winter 2000): 29-54. Copyright O 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 30 JNT opposite and antidote. Coming from their respective positions as Blakean romantic and romantic-inflected Marxist, Frye and, after him, Jameson both understand history as a nightmare from which humankind struggles to awake: in particular, as a force outside human control by which we are nevertheless determined, a world outside of us in which we find it impossible to realise our human essence. Romance then appears as the lucid dream in which human desires are ultimately realised in spite of everything . Both equate romance with narrative form, and then posit this form as embodying an apocalyptic or Utopian promise of free will in the face of a historical reality that denies it.2 In this essay I want to undo their conflation of a narrative form with agency per se. For as we shall see, the subsumption of agency by plot, while fulfilling a compensatory or redemptive function in the face of history as described by Jameson and Frye, also involves an effacement of another sort of agency within the novel; it involves, that is, the silencing of a discourse which represents a genuine resistance, however compromised or limited, to a discourse of historical determination. I will however channel my argument with Jameson and Frye through a debate with Ian Duncan, who in Modern Romance provides a usefully extended and detailed reading of Guy Mannering from a broadly Jamesonian position. Like Jameson, Duncan here opposes romance form to history as the promise of the possibility of the human subject's realisation in the material world: Scott's novels "pose the status of their discourse . . . upon a radical tension between the record of historical experience and the conventional forms, derived from the miscellaneous tradition of romance, which make that experience coherent to the needs of the imagination" (109). At the same time, however , Duncan suggests that romance form mediates between history and human desire: "Romance reproduces itself as the figure of mediation and synthesis . . . between fatal historical fact and extravagant spiritual possibility " (15). Now this is a problem: for if the realm of imaginative freedom from the historical world is already embodied in romance, then romance appears to mediate between historical determination and—itself. Thus, despite following Jameson's inversion of Frye's critical priorities (romance here is always historically located and politically effective), Duncan uncritically assumes Frye's version of romance as at once a particular type of plot structure and also the principle of absolute agency. So while Duncan shows that romance plot in Radcliffe subsumes and replaces Enlightenment, kgency, and Romance 31 any individual agency...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 29-54
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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