by Cairns Craig

From Hume to Bloom

October 19, 2009 | by Cairns Craig

IN 1822 WALTER Scott was the organising genius behind the famous visit of George IV to Edinburgh, turning the tartan-bedecked city and the tartan-clad King into a celebration not only of Scotland’s military virtues, as evidenced on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, and of the Highland traditions with which those military virtues had become associated, but also of his own fictional invocation of Highland culture in novels such as Waverley (1814) and Rob Roy (1817). Scott’s novels, by 1822, had not only transformed the international perception of Scottish culture, confirming Edinburgh as, however briefly, the ‘capital of the nineteenth century’, but had made Scott the largest-selling and most influential novelist in the world. Except, of course, that Scott’s authorship of his novels remained a secret – suspected by many but never publicly confirmed. The ‘author of Waverley’, ‘the Great Unknown’, was a shade, a ghost, a haunting absence – even while the real Sir Walter, poet and baronet (but never novelist), conducted the King to enjoy a theatrical performance of the Rob Roy that he had not yet acknowledged as his own creation. It is as though imagination and reality had changed places, and a Hanoverian King fictionally constructed in the image of the defeated Stewarts attended the theatre to inspect on stage what had come to be accepted, despite the country’s imperial commerce and burgeoning commerce, as the reality of modern Scotland.

The paradox of Scott’s secretive absence from, and yet dominating presence on, Scotland’s literary stage in the 1810s and ’20s constitutes what Ian Duncan denotes in the title of his new book as Scott’s Shadow, the shadow not only of an apparently magical literary productivity – aided by Scott’s other secret, his partnership in the company which was printing his books – but of his radical exploration of the possibilities of the form of the novel. Scott might have been identified initially as the novelist of Scottish history, but Rob Roy (1817) and Redgauntlet (1824) are, as Dun-can shows, very different in their construction and in their conception of history from the groundbreaking Waverley of 1814. And with Ivanhoe, in 1820, Scott not only turned from Scottish to English history but to a history that was archetypal rather than typical. The relentless success of the works of the Great Unknown was to exert enormous pressure on the generation of Scottish writers – John Galt, Susan Ferrier, James Hogg, John Gibson Lockhart, Christian Johnstone – who tried to compete with him and, as Duncan shows, the range of their experiments with the novel were driven by their desire to step out of that shadow. Escape, however, was impossible because it is in Scott’s works, Duncan argues, that the novel itself developed as the form by which art could come to terms with modernity in the era of political and industrial revolution, so that Scott casts his shadow not only on his immediate Scottish successors but over the whole development of the nineteenth-century novel from Balzac and Dickens to Tolstoy and Hardy.

In 1922, exactly one hundred years after George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, the most influential novel of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was published in Paris. The contrast with the mass publication of Scott’s novels could not have been starker: in a throwback to the age of patronage, Ulysses was published in an edition of only 1,000 copies undertaken on an entirely non-commercial basis by a wealthy American admirer of Joyce’s work. If Scott was the prolific Great Unknown who was to become, by the end of the nineteenth century when the fashion for his kind of historical fiction had passed, the Great Unread, Joyce was the Great Known – made famous by a supportive network of other modernist writers as well as notorious by the efforts of American authorities to have his work banned for obscenity – who remained for many years the Great Yet-to-be-Read. And unlike Scott, who perfected his secret art while remaining a public figure in his homeland, Joyce was the eternal exile, his art made possible only by his distance from the Dublin in which all his fiction is set. Just as Duncan’s concern is with Scott’s absent presence in Scotland, so John Wilson Foster’s Irish Novels 1890–1940 is haunted by the ghostly absence of Joyce in Ireland. The greatest of Irish Novels, published in the very year of Ireland’s achievement of independence, plays no part in this account of the development of the Irish novel (except for a brief concluding Appendix on ‘Joyce and Popular Fiction’) because Irish Novels is an effort to reclaim the work of those Irish novelists who were not part of the Irish Literary Revival inspired by WB Yeats in the 1890s, or part of the literary modernism which the rejection of the principles of the Revival provoked in writers such as Joyce and Beckett. For Wilson, the overwhelming presence of Yeats and Joyce in critical accounts of Irish writing has produced a profound amnesia, erasing from history a vast hinterland of Irish novel writing that remained within those conventions of the nineteenth-century novel that Scott did so much to shape.

The purpose of Irish Novels, then, is to confront readers well versed in Irish modernism with the ‘Shock of the Old’ and thereby to provide a more accurate historical account of the kinds of novels written by novelists born in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an account freed from the ideological constrictions of ‘the Irish question’ and the cultural agenda of the ‘Irish Revival’. Wilson acknowledges that his own Fictions Of The Irish Literary Revival, published in 1987, contributed to this historical distortion, even though it pointed out in its introduction that there was another Irish literature of ‘popular fiction’ that “would make a fascinating study in its own right”. No one having taken up this challenge in the interim, Foster has decided to undertake it himself and presents us with a huge number of writers and works, from Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twin (1893), which was claimed to be “one of the greatest sensations in literature”, selling 20,000 copies in the first week alone, to Patrick MacGill’s The Amateur Army (1915), the first volume of the three volume account of the First World War written in the midst of the action, to Constance Malleson’s The Coming Back (1933), an exploration of ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ in the intellectual world post-First World War Cambridge. The aim of providing an encompassing survey of Irish Novels means that Foster deliberately abstains from aesthetic judgment: since most of the material is ‘popular’ fiction and falls, almost by definition, outside of the boundaries of critical discrimination, the story Foster tells is shaped less by the stylistic or formal achievements of the novels than by the social ‘reality’ which they reveal. The few canonical works, such as Wilde’s Dorian Gray or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are therefore fitted into chapters which are constructed around the typical social issues of the time – Catholicism, Protestantism, Sectarianism, the Big House, Poverty, Philanthropy, Decadence and the New Woman – or around the major ‘historical’ events of the period, the Irish Rising and the First World War.

If the development of Joyce’s fiction, from Dubliners in 1914 to Ulysses in 1922, is the unweaving of the novel as a medium for the realistic presentation of the world – until, by the end of Ulysses, we have entered a world apparently entirely textual and disconnected from any external reality
– Foster treats his novels primarily as revelations of the hidden realities of Irish life in the period, particularly those which a criticism focused on the nationalist values of the Revival would find anomalous: thus, “it is to Northern writers we have to turn, . . . [to] catch glimpses of the employed lower middle class” or to find the “documentary details of the lives, at desk and hearth, of ‘pen drivers’, emasculated drudges beset by poverty”. Even a Gothic tale such as Dracula is used to let us ‘see’ the impact of new technologies – “shorthand, the telegram, the Underground, the typewriter (indeed, the state-of-the-art ‘Traveller’s’, or portable, typewriter), the Winchester repeating rifle, field glasses, and the phonograph (a dictation machine using wax cylinders)”– which signal the “war between late Victorian ‘modernity’ . . . and the old nineteenth century”.

These largely forgotten novels allow Foster to reconstruct a world in which ‘Irish’ is not defined by the South-North divide, or by Irish-English conflict, a world in which a writer like Yeats’ prolific friend, Katharine Tynan, “and many privileged Catholic Irish like her, had the choice of inhabiting two overlapping or even, in some regards, superimposed countries and two overlapping, though hardly superimposed, Irish societies”. These different communities, which had become apparently impervious to one another in the aftermath of the Irish civil war, remained, in Foster’s account, culturally if not politically interconnected, linked by writers like Tynan “who regularly plied the Kingstown-Holyhead-Euston route . . . and for whom so much of British culture, if it was a second culture, was so in the way we describe something as ‘second nature’.” Whatever the political divides, “British and Irish popular novelists shared much the same readership and nourished the same idea of what constituted the concerns and style of an effective novel”.

Foster’s example of this coincidence of interests is Annie S. Swan, the popular Scottish novelist who set several of her novels in Ireland, and the introduction of Swan into Foster’s narrative points up the profound difference in the ways in which literary criticism has constructed Irish and Scottish literature in the period around the First World War. Foster’s book is an effort to recuperate the ‘popular’ as a significant lens by which we can come to terms with the ‘realities’ of an Irish culture all too effectively obscured by the success of the ‘myths’ invented by those writers – Yeats, Synge, Joyce – who have come to dominate the history of modern literature.

In Scotland, on the other hand, this is the period of ‘Kailyard’, of a time when ‘popular’ Scottish culture was so successful that its version of Scottishness was to provoke the ire of generations of Scottish writers and critics who felt their national identity demeaned by such popular success. Foster seeks to recall and revalue the very modes of popular fiction that Scottish critics have, by and large, sought to dismiss and displace from their prominent role within national literary history.

What this reveals is not only the strength of Scotland’s role in the popular fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – JM Barrie, Andrew Lang, Conan Doyle, Fiona Macleod, the Buchans (both John and Anna) – but the weakness of Scottish writers’ impact on international modernism. Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon may have attempted a Scottish Renaissance to match the Irish Revival, but their literary success (in terms of international recognition) was as limited in comparison with the Irish example as their political effectiveness in producing an independent Scotland. Instead, it was precisely in the kinds of popular fiction that Foster is attempting to recuperate in Ire-land, from A. J. Cronin and Compton Mackenzie to Alistair MacLean or Catherine Gavin, that the Scots gained international recognition.

The basis for this prominence of Scots in popular fiction, if we follow Duncan’s argument, is that it was in Scotland that the fundamental structure of the nineteenth-century novel – the novel before the Joycean revolution – was established. The source of Scott’s importance to the history of the novel, and of Scotland’s role in the development of the novel, Duncan traces to the philosophies of David Hume and Adam Smith, and to their foregrounding of the “sphere of common life” as the only security against, on the one side, religious fanaticisms that denied significance to individual experience, and, on the other, a metaphysical scepticism that denied the very reality of individual experience.

For Hume and Smith, it is the shared world of social experience that provides the bulwark against isolated egotism and forms of religious or political totalitarianism, but that world of shared social experience is the product of imaginative sympathy with others and as such is based fundamentally on a fiction: in the words of Hume, “the identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one, and of a like kind with that which we ascribe to bodies”. By defining the very nature of reality as a common construction infused with fiction, Hume and Smith allowed fiction – the novel – to become the appropriate medium by which that “sphere of common life” not only could but should be explored, because the exercise of the reader’s imagination helps sustain the very sympathetic fiction on which a civil society depends for its existence.

“In affirming the epistemological primacy of the imagination”, Duncan writes, “Hume establishes the philosophical matrix for the ascendancy of fictional realism in modern British literature”. It is Hume who is the absent presence in the emergence of the new novelistic modes of fiction written by Scott and his contemporaries, and it is through the philosophies of Hume and Smith that the modern ‘realistic’ novel – of the kind Foster is charting in Ire-land – becomes possible. The success of Scottish Kailyard fiction in the late nineteenth century, like its Irish equivalents, depended on making available to a mass audience the fictional modes that Scott had shaped nearly a century before.

It was those fictional modes, however, that Joyce decisively cast aside with Ulysses. Foster’s account of Irish Novels is haunted by Joyce not simply because he was better at representing Dublin than any other writer but because he revealed how artificial was the compact between fiction and history that Scott had forged in Scotland. But just as Hume is the animating figure behind Scott’s innovations, so, a hundred years later, it is Hume who is the disturbing force behind Joyce’s innovations: as Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellman, suggests, Joyce’s challenge to the traditions of the realistic novel is made possible because Bloom’s Day (June 16, 1906; the day on which the events of Ulysses are set) is also ‘Hume’s day’. If Hume’s construction of a social world in history that was held together only by fiction paved the way for the nineteenth-century realist novel, it is his underlying scepticism about the knowability of the world that makes possible Joyce’s revelation of the fundamental forgery of nineteenth-century realism. What makes Scott so interesting to contemporary critics, and what Duncan decisively reveals, is just how knowing ‘the Great Unknown’ was about his own role as the forger of that realism, and how relevant that makes him to our own concerns with nature of fiction in the modern world.


Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh
Ian Duncan
Princeton University Press, £24 pp416 ISBN 0691043833

Irish Novels 1890–1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction
John Wilson Foster
Oxford University Press, £5 pp520 ISBN 0199232830

From this Issue

Hammer of the Scots

by Karl Miller

Boosters and Begrudgers

by Graham Walker

A Tale of Two Unions

by Patrick Geoghegan

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