Dale Street reviews “Scott-Land – The Man Who Invented a Nation”, by Stuart Kelly
Even during his own lifetime Sir Walter Scott was simultaneously lionised and lampooned.
Goethe described Scott’s “Waverley” as a novel which “stood alongside the best things that have ever been written in the world.” Fenimore Cooper adopted Scott as his model. Mary Shelley put him on a par with Shakespeare. Heine called him “Britannia’s greatest poet”. And Stendhal described him as “our father” who “invented us all (i.e. historical novelists).”
But such admiration was not universal. Kelly writes: “Scott was satirised at the beginning of his career as an upstart, unknown novelty. Towards the end of his life he was satirised as a predictable, conventional, all-too-well-known author.”
One example of the latter was Thomas Love Peacock’s parody of Scott as Mr. Chainmail in his novel “Crotchet Castle”:
“He is deep in monkish literature, and holds that the best state of society was that of the twelfth century, when nothing was going forward but fighting, feasting and praying, which he says are the three best purposes for which man was made. He laments bitterly the invention of gunpowder, steam and gas, which he says have ruined the world.”
Scott remained a controversial figure in the decades following his death.
The Scott Monument – the world’s largest monument to an author – was erected in Edinburgh. The city’s main railway station was named after one of his novels (“Waverley”). Hardy claimed that Scott’s early poetry was superior to that of the “Iliad”. And Swinburne described him as the only writer who could seriously be compared with Shakespeare.
On the other hand, the criticisms of Scott became less satirical and more vicious. In the midst of a diatribe which claimed that Scott’s influence on the Confederate states was “in great measure” responsible for the American Civil War, Mark Twain wrote:
“(Scott) set the world in love with dreams and phantoms, with decayed and swinish forms of religion, with decayed and degraded systems of government, with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm, more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote.”
Nor has the controversy about Scott died away with the passage of time. The substance of the controversy may have changed, but not is intensity.
Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist who ordered the murder of his Trotskyist compatriots but also led the struggle for independence from American imperialism, was a great admirer of Scott. So too was the Marxist literary theorist Georg Lukacs, for whom Scott was the pioneer of the genre of the historical novel.
“Although Lukacs readily admitted Scott’s ‘personal, petty aristocratic-conservative prejudices’,” writes Kelly, “he argued that Scott’s novels embodied a Marxist view of history: the clash of cultures lead inevitably to bourgeois progress; feudalism gave way to emergent capitalism; history was driven by class struggle, not the whims of great men.”
(For or Lukas, Scott was the Scottish equivalent of Balzac. Both were hostile to emergent capitalism but reactionary in their personal political opinions. Their ‘critique’ of capitalism therefore took the form of a romanticisation of a pre-capitalist past. There was nothing really new in Lukacs’ argument.
This was essentially the point Peacock had been making in his parody of Scott. Another contemporary of Scott, William Hazlitt, had likewise written: “He (Scott) knows all that has been; all that is to be is nothing to him. ... The old world is to him a crowded map; the new one a dull, hateful blank.”)
A more recent, but non-Marxist, admirer of Scott is Tony Blair. Reading Scott’s “Ivanhoe” at school made such an impact on that he never really “savoured” another novel thereafter. Failing entirely to understand what the novel was actually about, Blair describes it as “one of the greatest love stories in British literature.”
But while Lukacs was praising Scott, writers of the Scottish Renaissance such as Edwin Muir were damning him (and Burns) as “sham bards of a sham nation”, and James Bridie was denouncing the legacy of Scott and Burns as a hodgepodge of “Wallacethebruceism, Charlieoverthewaterism, Puirrabbieburnsism, Bonniebonniebanksism, Myainfolksism and Laymedoonanddeeism.”
Bringing the story up-to-date, Kevin Williamson, editor of “Rebel Inc.” and publisher of writers such as Irvine Welsh, has dismissed Scott as “not a great Scottish patriot nor even a particularly good writer – his prose is stodgy – but he was an arse-licking royalist, a falsifier of Scottish history and a Tory cunt of the worst order.”
(As Kelly points out, there are some double standards in play here. Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, advocated a “Scottish fascism” in the 1920s, looked forward to the Luftwaffe flattening London, and claimed that a Nazi victory in the Second World War would benefit Scotland. Yet no-one calls MacDiarmid a fascist cunt, least of all Kevin Williamson.)
So, was Scott a great writer or a churner-out of literary dross? Has Scotland benefitted or suffered as a result of his influence? Was he really the man who invented a nation? If so, which nation? Scotland – because of the impact of the Waverley Novels and the King’s Jaunt? England – because of the impact of his English historical novels? Or some British nation which transcended its Scottish and English components?
And if Scott-land is a sham country, are the alternatives on offer any better? According to the review of Kelly’s book in the “Economist”, for example: “If Scott-land is a sham country, so too is the new-nationalist, Burns-burnished alternative, a nation forged of feel-hard-done-by Braveheart movies, Celtic lettering on tawdry signs and synthetic rage at ancient clearances.”
(The writer might have added as well: A new-nationalist country whose government selects 2014 for the second Year of Homecoming for no other reason than that 2014 marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. And yet it is Scott who is mocked for seeing “the old world (as) a crowded map; the new one a dull, hateful blank”!)
Kelly’s sympathies clearly lie with Scott. While not being backward in criticising him, Kelly also writes of Scott as “the successor to the most daring writers of the eighteenth century ... He is not just still readable, he is enjoyable and even breath-taking. ... Scott changed world culture. ..That the novel would become the primary mode of literary production is Scott’s most lasting legacy.”
Kelly is critical of the emergence of Scott-land in the sense that it involved a series of historical travesties which found their ultimate expression in the King’s Jaunt of 1822, when Scott arranged the celebrations for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh: “Scott’s masterstroke in the organisation of the King’s visit was to have a lasting effect on ‘Scottish identity’. Indeed, it precipitated a permanent change in the very idea of Scottishness.”
At the same time, Kelly sees the Scott-land and Scottish identity which arose out of those historical travesties as something positive: “Scott-land has allowed a sense of identity to persist through dramatic, painful and significant social, political and industrial changes. ... Every incarnation (of Scottishness), from the most naive patriotism to the most kitsch adoption, makes
Scottishness stronger by making it more plural.”
(In a particularly cutting chapter Kelly also points out that the criticisms made of the pageantry of the Royal Jaunt could equally well be made of the Scottish Homecoming celebrations of 2009. Implicitly, Kelly is raising the charge of hypocrisy: How can Scott be condemned for his invention of Scott-land when it is that very Scott-land which is still being celebrated two centuries later?)
The basic problem with Kelly’s book, however, is that for all the words expended by the author on Scott, Scott-land and Scotland, and the relation between all three, it does not amount to anything approaching a serious analysis.
The book is certainly cleverly written. It jumps back and forth between Scott the person, Scott’s writings, anecdotes about Scott, changing perceptions of Scott over time, competing Scottish identities, and Kelly’s personal reminisces about the evolution of his own ideas about Scott. But what it thereby gains in readability it loses in terms of depth.
Despite the book’s title, Scott-land was not the invention of one man and could not have been so. Scott may have ‘invented’ the themes which eventually constituted a particular Scottish identity. But he cannot have been responsible by himself for their permeating popular consciousness. Other – broader, social, political – forces must have been in play.
But of those one finds little or nothing in Kelly’s book. Only passing references are made, for example, to the mid-nineteenth century invention of ‘historic’ tartans by the English Allen brothers and the late-nineteenth century consolidation of Scott-land by the “Balmorality” and “Balmoralism” spawned by Queen Victoria and her husband.
As more than one reviewer has commented, Kelly’s book is a failure, even if one not without merit: “At the end of the book Scott, the country he invented – Scott-land – and the real Scotland itself, remain as elusive as ever. In that sense Kelly’s book fails. But better a luminous failure than a mediocre success.”