- The Fin-De-Siècle Scottish Revival: Romance, Decadence and Celtic Identity by Michael Shaw
In a typically provocative phrase Hugh MacDiarmid described the Victorian and Edwardian years as possibly ‘the most jejune and uninspired period in Scottish literature’. Michael Shaw’s rich study presents an important and engaging challenge to this and other perceptions that have dominated accounts of Scottish culture at the fin-de-siècle: that Scotland and decadence are oxymoronic; that Celtic revivalism was a minor interest; that decadence in itself was anti-national. His book assembles an enormous amount of material – visual, textual, historical – to make the case for the significance of Scottish cultural revivalism and for reading this specifically in terms of a cultural nationalist agenda. Shaw in the main succeeds in sustaining this hugely ambitious project by combining his general argument with readings of fiction, poetry, manifestoes, pageantry, murals, paintings, pamphlets and projects that are detailed and nuanced. The book offers insights, stimulates questions and creates a desire to know more on almost every page. A particular delight of the publication is that Edinburgh University Press have supported it with such lavish and intriguing illustrations: 13 colour plates that include the work of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, John Duncan, E.A. Hornel and Phoebe Anna Traquair, in addition to an even broader range of black and white images. In every sense this book is consistently illuminating.
Moving between the ‘differences and dissonances’ of the Scottish romance revival, the negotiations of decadence in a Scottish context and the preoccupations of Celticism, the book covers fiction by R. L. Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Violet Jacob, William Sharp as himself and Fiona Macleod, paintings by John Duncan and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, E. A. Hornel and illustrations by Jessie M. King and Pittendrigh Macgillivray. It explores the neo-Jacobite and occult pursuits of S. L. MacGregor Mathers and the self-styled Laird of Boleskine, Alasteir Crowley and, drawing on archival research, highlights Patrick Geddes’s own vision for an occult order, ‘The Evergreen Club’. Through this rich and eclectic mix, the book argues these aspects of cultural revivalism can be translated into a broader ‘cultural nationalism’ that challenge stadialist views of history. [End Page 192]
Shaw recognises that his project faces a number of challenges. He is both relocating Scottish cultural activities in the wider context of decadence and its obsessions and also defining the specifically Scottish (and political) dimensions of these. Every chapter adopts different tactics and conclusions in pursuit of the broader argument but each is impressive in its deployment of original research and sophisticated framing of the issues. The chapter on Neo-Pagan Scotland, for example, teases out how neo-paganism, as a means of fashioning origins, was deployed to establish mythologies that undermined notions of societal progress ‘felt to malign traditional cultures and Scottish nationality’. At the same time this neo-paganism was used to promote ‘greater equality between races and cultures within Britain’ (pp. 180–81). Likewise, arguing against the view that Scottish culture in the period was insular or parochial, Shaw demonstrates how Scottish cultural revivalists learned from both the Belgian Revival (the influence of Maeterlinck in particular), and used Japonisme to reimagine Celtic cultures in ways that might undermine the ‘centralising and homogenising forces of the late nineteenth century that they identified’ (p. 137). His readings across cultures and into the intersections of particular aesthetic and political concerns are equally impressive in the chapter on the Occult Revival which draws on connections and differences with Yeats and the reworkings of the Golden Dawn in an Irish context but also links with Egyptomania in Scotland, the Jacobite revival and neo-Catholicism. One of the book’s most original contributions is its identification of particular aspects of pageantry in Scotland: Shaw argues that in acting as a form of cultural memory, celebrating the artists of the Celtic Revival, and advancing Scottish educational traditions, pageants produced a distinctively Scottish resistance to the centre.
The broad project of the book is underpinned by the fine detail...