- Essential Scots and the Idea of Unionism in Anglo-Scottish Literature, 1603–1832 by Rivka Swenson
It is now possible to conceive of a field of Anglo-Scottish studies in the long eighteenth century. One might even term it a critical tradition, albeit a recent one, of examining artefacts in terms of their British attributes. Scholars who commit themselves to cultural analysis of this kind tend to be wary of studies that seem intent either on incorporating anything considered to be of value into an English canon, or assuming that the central task of other national literatures in this era was to establish the differences from, if not outright opposition to the dominant standards of English literary and cultural expression. In the later part of the twentieth century, Leith Davis and Janet Sorensen approached British writing in the period as a matter of finding common ground between English and Scottish interests, of exploring the dynamics of cultural conciliation. In this century, Evan Gottlieb and Juliet Shields examine Scottish Enlightenment theories of the passions and moral sentiment to consider the extent to which a language of feeling was deployed to generate a sense of shared national purpose and belonging, and other critics have recently adopted a constellated approach to both the beginning and the end of the period, endeavouring to trace the particularities and multifaceted characteristics of what might be deemed a distinctive British aesthetic.
Rivka Swenson's Essential Scots offers a welcome development on the notions of conciliation, inclusive feeling, and constellations as a means of national cultural analysis. She suggests that one should look to essentialism as a means of examining unionism as a literary phenomenon. And this, on the face of it, is a promising idea, not least because there is a long tradition in Scottish literary studies of seeking to identify, but never quite being able to fix upon a defining spirit for such works; hence, the sequence of twentieth-century interpretations of Scottish literature as a [End Page 141] progress of zig-zagging oppositions, a paradox, and the demonstration of a chameleon-like capacity for artistic self-transformation. Swenson declares that she intends in her study to examine "how English and Scottish writers during the period 1603–1832 conceived a prescriptive social formalism of phenomenological unionism, how essential Scottishness was understood to disable or enable the pragmatics and the aesthetics of unionism, and how the aesthetic politics of unionism and essential Scottishness interacted to contribute to the emergence of literary individualism" (11). Her inquiry, then, clearly does not lack for intellectual ambition. The author structures her study in five chapters. She begins by considering some foundational notions of unionism in the writings of Francis Bacon and Daniel Defoe. She proceeds to examine the national essentialism of Tobias Smollett's first and last novels. In the third chapter, she considers Samuel Johnson's tour of Scotland and the significance of ruins in both his writings and the Works of Ossian (1765). She then turns her attention to the mock-gothicism and Anglo-Scottishness of Susan Ferrier's fiction. The mainstay of her fifth chapter is a discussion of Robert Mudie's two accounts of George iv's visit to Edinburgh, and the book concludes with a brief "Coda," which suggests that Walter Scott's novels and short stories provide seemingly endless variations of Scottish recovery plots.
There is certainly no stinting of effort in this book. It is at once apparent that there has been extensive archival research, and, in addition to accounts of her main authors, Swenson includes ruminations on paraphernalia: commemorative medals, satirical prints, joke books, and cant dictionaries. She engages with a good number of the modern critical works and seeks to provide conceptual respectability to the study with allusions to canonical modern thinkers, such as Bakhtin, Benjamin, Foucault, Jameson, Lukács, Spivak, and Charles Taylor. Philosophically speaking, "essentialism" can be an exasperating term. A standard example of its puzzling characteristics is the conundrum of...