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GERARD LEE MCKEEVER “With wealth come wants”: Scottish Romanticism as Improvement in the Fiction of John Galt A RECURRING SET PIECE IN JOHN GALT’S NOVEL OF 1823, THE ENTAIL, emblematizes the protagonist’s tortured obsession with the ancestral lands that it has been his life’s work to regain. Dispossessed as a young man, Claud Walkinshaw has made recovering and safeguarding his hereditary es­ tate the “actuating principle of his life.” This fixation is reflected in the ageing Claud’s compulsive visits to a viewpoint that overlooks the nowreclaimed Kittlestonheugh lands: On gaining the brow of the hill, he halted, and once more surveyed the scene. For a moment it would seem that a glow of satisfaction passed over his heart; but it was only a hectical flush, instantly suc­ ceeded by the nausea ofmoral disgust; and he turned abruptly around, and seated himselfwith his back towards the view which had afforded him so much pleasure. In this situation he continued some time, rest­ ing his forehead on his ivory-headed staff, and with his eyes fixed on the ground.1 Claud’s “nausea of moral disgust” prevents him from being able to look upon the estates he has idolized—at the cost of sacrificing social values and practices, including disinheriting his first-born. Holding the “ivory-headed staff” (183) that we learn is adorned with the meaningful symbol of a lone silver eye, this pedlar-turned-Glasgow-grandee experiences a profound moral unease towards the end of a single-minded life of what Galt calls “gathering” (150): the accumulation of wealth. Claud is importantly motii . John Galt, The Entail; or, The Lairds of Grippy, ed. Ian A. Gordon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 12, 147—48. Subsequent citations to this work appear in the text. SiR, 55 (Spring 2016) 69 70 GERARD LEE MCKEEVER vated by his fanatical pride in hereditary status, and the sense ofjust desserts in this passage is aimed primarily at that weakness via another: simple ava­ rice. Yet both faults are serving here as parts of a wider meditation on an explicitly national narrative. This moment ofmoral outrage and self-disgust is one significant example from a novel that deals in striking fashion with a whole series of social, political, and moral anxieties occasioned by the pre­ ceding period in national history, Scotland’s “Age of Improvement.”2 Fur­ thermore, while the project of The Entail sees Galt’s historical analysis vividly disintegrate—through both formal and thematic means—into pessi­ mism, this can be read as an amplification of tensions already inherent within his oeuvre, as demonstrated in the Annals of the Parish of 1821.3 If Scottish literature of the early nineteenth century owes much to the cultural influence of the capital city of Edinburgh, Galt is a writer for whom Scotland’s western urban center is still more important. Building on his roots in Irvine and Greenock, Galt’s work particularly reflects the expe­ rience of the west, concentrated around the emerging imperial trading hub of Glasgow. As Glaswegian merchants gorged themselves on the profits of colonial markets—becoming “an oligarchy, as proud and sacred, in what respects the reciprocities of society, as the famous Seignories ofVenice and Genoa” (Entail 109)—a rapid transformation of the west seemed to focus the broader trajectory of Lowland Scotland. From the perspective of the 1820s, a frequently accelerated process of economic and social change in Scotland since the mid eighteenth century was evident. In critical terms this embedded “improvement”—the Enlightenment’s ubiquitous doctrine ofprogress—as a term ofparadigmatic importance for the period. Centered on this vital keyword used by Scots in many areas of life, discourses of im­ provement represent the ideological pressures produced at this early phase of modernization and globalization. Christopher J. Berry has recently of­ fered a lucid articulation of the centrality of improvement to the complex formation of the Scottish Enlightenment (including its widespread associa­ tion with the formation and consolidation of the British state).4 Improve­ ment is not exclusively a commercial paradigm, yet as the narrative by which Enlightenment conjectural history understood the transition from previous stages of civilization to commercial modernity, it occasions a cru­ 2...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 69-93
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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