by Christopher Harvie

From Waterloo to The Western Front

May 26, 2014 | by Christopher Harvie

Michael Fry’s title appears on an alluring cover: transposing Baltic Ruegen to the Salisbury Crags. Gleaming chalk roughens into streaky red-brown lava-stone. From its lower centre a slight frock-coated figure looks away from us, not on the sea, but on the piled-up Acropolis of Edinburgh: Caspar David Friedrich, adapted by William Bell Scott. The point’s eloquently made: the painter being metaphysical in the style of Goethe … but he’s confronted by a city impossible to live in for the normal human span, let alone Goethe’s 83 years.

Germany in Goethe’s time was the land of the dialectic, and Fry has already conjured up Professor Tom Devine. The contest of Die Meisterhistoriker von Edinburg takes the stage. Devine has spoken in the Herald: a good flyting pleases us groundlings, and the contestants are Hans Sachs more than they are Beckmesser – but the recent books of both writers create lacunae as well as summits.

We badly need a narrative of the Scottish nineteenth century, something expressive of its grandeur, apparent stability – and the power of Walter Scott’s ‘broad and deep river’. It would have been a fitting lap of honour for our greatest historian, had Colin Matthew, editor and biographer of Gladstone and of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, lived. Or an autumnal essay for a guest such as Asa Briggs, in retirement at Whittinghame.

Here we have Fry, the grand fauve with this entrancing overture. Does the rest of it live up to it, and the dedication to George Elder Davie? The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century was launched in 1961 in a cased edition designed by John Mackie. Devine assaults Fry as unoriginal: a bit unfair as his own modus operandi has generally centred – like my own – on adapting learned articles into monographs. But there are problems for both contestants, as their period – centred on the ‘core 19thcentury’ of 1830-1886 – requires a high degree of chronological discipline.

Fry begins resoundingly at Waterloo, with the Scots’ desperate defence of Hougoumont Farm and Ensign Ewart hacking his way through the Forty-fifth. This would go on – in South America, India, the Crimea, the Sudan, commemorated in granite and McGonagallite doggerel – until it and the country’s hopes ended in the mud of the Western Front. But Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher not Ewart saved Wellington, and his story also has Scottish form, in the work of the brothers Keith in creating the Prussian army for Frederick the Great, waiting to be broadcast by Thomas Carlyle in fourteen volumes in the 1860s.

Fry’s narrative then breaks into theme mode – ‘Economy, Society, Margins, Politics, Culture’ – with no particular logic to this order, though several impressive episodes. Ought culture to take precedence, indicating point of view, strength of lens? Devine has a similar structure in To The Ends of the Earth (2011). There is no problem about relevance, but it can lead to indeterminacy and redundancy. V S Pritchett famously wrote of great novels requiring the ‘determined stupor’ of creation. Twenty years back I wrote Fool’s Gold on North Sea oil against a six-month deadline; so determined was my stupor that I’ve very little memory of the process, beyond my wife’s competence in interrogating and editing the weekly darg and one ten-day air-pocket in Washington, South Carolina and New Orleans where I got some insight into American involvement. But it seems to have stood up as narrative, because the author was bound continuously to the story’s chronology.

For both Fry and Devine the steamboat world of Kipling’s MacAndrew is central, but how did we get to the point of embarkation? Various fairly obvious techniques and places don’t turn up: the evolution of invention, collection and translation, the long partnerships with Scandinavia, Russia or Italy. Military Scottishness isn’t one of Devine’s strongpoints – nor does the theme persist in Fry – yet this was grounded in the ‘internal frontier’ of the Highland Line and the sociology of Adam Ferguson, a Gaelic speaker from Logierait, for whom ethnic difference and stylised conflict were guarantors of community integrity.

Ferguson’s teaching spread out from the ‘Scottish’ university of Gottingen, founded by George II in 1734, as well as the vast and qualitatively remarkable output of his protégé Walter Scott, from the Border Minstrelsy (1805) on. His Life of Napoleon (1827) was effectively a pioneering contemporary history, giving ‘imperialism’ its meaning until the 1880s. This is ignored by both writers, although there was a Union of Britain and Corsica under Lord Minto and Pasquale Paoli, Bonaparte’s first chief – as real as it was far-fetched, at least between 1794-96.

Could there be a sustained narrative? If our two authors had stuck to the powerful example of Eric Hobsbawm the way would have been demanding but more productive. Something echoed by Prof. Joseph Lee when he claimed the centrality of intellectual history to any national narrative in The Modernisation of Irish Society (1973) and he  triumphantly vindicated this in his Ireland, 19121985: Politics and Society (1989). This often depends on second-order interpreters – alas absent in both accounts – who generate and knit together epochs by engineering the information: the agriculturalist Sir James Caird, 1816-92, prophet of ‘high-farming’, Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882, between novel-writing and hunting setting up the Scottish Postal system which market weevils are currently gnawing away, George Bartholomew, 1784-1871, establishing Edinburgh’s dominance of world map-making, and Leslie Stephen, 1835-1905, of the Dictionary of National Biography. These people not only create account but also develop a sort of ‘niche history’ that foregrounds such apparent exotics as Scots-invented canneries, conservation and cable-trams in California or the speculator Lamont Young’s scheme in the 1880s to rebuild Naples as a Mediterranean transport hub (the Camorra burned down in the 1990sthe last of his Walter Scott gothic castles … ). These outliers demonstrate Leslie Stephen’s contention – writing on Trollope – that the character of a period shows itself not in normative behaviour but at the extremes, or the weird contrasts that Robert Louis Stevenson found in the Rockies between the speculators of his own dour country and the ‘impromptu cities’ that their money and mild ambition created.

As for flyting, I am reminded of Norman MacCaig’s line, ‘two rosy bourgeois howling at each other’. Like Carlyle against Macaulay, perhaps? In a way Devine and Fry are mutually dependent and a good thing, unlikely to degenerate to the level of today’s ‘quality’ journalists who replace descriptive craft with the slovenly ‘iconic’. Yet do they sometimes forget A J P Taylor on Carlyle: while academics could explain the causation of the French Revolution, ‘Carlyle would take you there.’ This visceral quality – which the incomparable George MacDonald Fraser had in spades – may account for the malign persistence of military history at your local Waterstones, but is still necessary. At this level written Devine is rather retiring, while Fry could use Edmund Wilson’s wrist-slapping fusion of ideas and journalist didactics in To the Finland Station.

A new race of men? Alas, only too true – not only for our two authors, but for most of us. Thirty-one women figure in Fry’s index: quickly equalled by the men whose names began with A and the first quarter of the ‘B’s. As to Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth, add all possible references (i.e. to ‘Marriage’, ‘Polygamy’, etc., as well as names) and you get about forty. I am actually worse in No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: twenty-one. No wonder its most succinct critique was ‘No Gods and Precious Few Women’. This I wanted to change for the forthcoming fourth edition, but my editor Prof Jenny Wormald won’t let me. 

Is a reflex of this (and an odd and not necessarily helpful one) the adoption of femininity by outraged male feminists? The best-selling Welsh – and also imperial – historian and essayist Jan Morris was formerly the explorer and reporter John Morris. Jo Clifford changed her identity from John Clifford after the death of her remarkable wife Sue Innes in 2005, and contributes a short but challenging essay to the recent Unstated symposium, which (as befits the author of Losing Venice) echoes the ‘housekeeping’ economics of Ruskin.

In this there’s a certain precedent in myth: what the novelist Emyr Humphreys calls in The Taliesin Tradition the Welsh facility of shape-changing, observable in his panoramic political-novel sequence Land of the Living centred on the Jennie Lee-like figure of Amy Parry: Taliesin being known as the ‘shape-changer’. ‘Fiona McLeod’ (the alter ego of the Celticist William Sharp) would fit in here, as well as Grassic Gibbon’s Chris Guthrie, observing the latter days of Fry’s world. We’re in for the Welsh-Liverpudlian Terence Davies’ film of Sunset Song, and not a moment too soon.

Ruskin doesn’t get into Fry, though Carlyle does. The Blackwoodsmen, W E Aytoun, George MacDonald and J M Barrie don’t crop up in either, nor do our other roamers: translators such as William Archer and Ibsen, Charles Scott-Moncrieff and Proust, Thomas Common and Nietzsche – or traveller-writers like Isabella Bird and Caroline Spence and landscape painters like David Roberts. Looked at practically, the sleep of narrative history brings forth some odd alternative growths. ‘Tartan Noir’ seems to coincide with the polis finding lots of historical cases to pore over. Yet responding to ‘There’s been a murrrder!’… some years back, we have missed out on the megacrooks of finance, or that Clan Murdoch which came from the ends of the earth – buccaneering as anyone in Fry – to tear deferential civil society to bits, while managing to run its own counter-culture in The Simpsons.

Neither Groundkeeper Willie nor Monty Burns – pace The Simpsons – exactly burnishes the Scots reputation. But the earliest tombstone I found on Boot Hill in Laramie, Wyoming (named by a Scot, the now-forgotten Thomas Campbell) was ‘Homer J Burns, 1873’, while his namesake’s epigraph to Tam o’ Shanter was ‘Of Brownyis and bogillis fule is this buke’ – borrowed from Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, from the unpropitious year of 1513. Troy itself wasn’t a model settlement, but we lose the great tale at our peril.

A New Race of Men

Michael Fry

Birlinn, £25.00, ISBN 978-1-780271-42-2, 448PP

From this Issue

What’s up, Doc?

by Alasdair Gray

Vlad the Invader

by Ian Mitchell

Cannon Fodder

by Brian Morton

Blog / Discussion

x
2
Posts Remaining