When I was sixteen I had to decide whether to study Scottish Literature or English Literature. I chose English at Oxford and then humphed about their lack of Scottish texts – the only optional “Scottish” paper finished in 1603. Modernism was Conrad (Polish), Eliot (American), Joyce (Irish) and Woolf (English). The older I get, the more the “nationalism” of texts strikes me as mutually enervating. Mutually: Scottish literature is weaker without a knowledge of “English” literature, and “English” loses an inestimable amount without a proper understanding of Scottish literature. I’ve written a long paper on this topic, and won’t replicate the argument here.
You can’t appreciate Burns without reading Pope, and you can’t appreciate Thomas Moore without knowing about Burns. The novel doesn’t jump from Fanny Burney and Anne Radcliffe to Emily Brontë and Charles Dickens: Walter Scott sits at the fulcrum of the changes, influenced and influencing. Stevenson is part of a nexus that includes Scots (Conan Doyle, J M Barrie), Americans (Henry James: Stevenson’s Humble Remonstrance to James is a crucial piece of thinking), Englishmen (Chesterton, H G Wells, Rider Haggard), French-English voluntary exiles (Ouida), French (Dumas, Verne, Allain and Souvestre), Argentinians (Borges, Bioy Casares) and Samoans (Sons for the Return Home by Albert Wendt must have the most Scottish title of a non-Scottish book). Historically, Scots have been variously relegated and patronised: Burns is a warbling thrush of inconsequence, Scott is a “mere entertainer” and Joyce might be a neologist of supreme invention but MacDiarmid is a blatherskite who made up words. I cringed throughout a seminar where the subtitle was “Is there anything to say about a red, red, rose?” just as much as I cringed when the List put Orwell, Woolf and Conrad on its catalogue of the Best Scottish Books. It’s an impasse maintained by lack of subtlety, lack of imagination and lack of ambitious reading.
Even Shakespeare, the pinnacle of the English canon, can benefit from a Scots angle. Hamlet nods at Buchanan. Denmark has few cliffs. For all the “father of kings” rhetoric around Banquo and James VI, and the A C Bradley idea of cathartic tragedy, it’s not Banquo’s son Fleance who ends up on the throne… the time is still out of joint as the close of Macbeth. What on earth might that mean? A Midsummer Night’s Dream winks at accounts of the coronation of James in Scotland (where the lion was replaced by a fake lion). A Winter’s Tale ends with statue of the mother falsely accused of adultery coming to life, in the same year as James ordered a statue of his own mother, Mary, for Westminster Abbey. Why is the Gowrie Tragedy lost (along with Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs and Robert II of Scotland? Is it the only angle we can take on Shakespeare? Of course not. Is it a valid angle? Absolutely.
As for Gibbon: well, if I’m going to read a “modernist classic” again this year, it’ll be Musil, Bely or Broch. If I’m going to read an early 20th century Scottish novel, it’ll be House with the Green Shutters, Sick Heart River or Carotid Cornucopius. And if I’m going to read a Gibbon, it’ll be Edward.