Book review: Literature And Union - Scottish Texts, British Contexts, Edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd

Literature And Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts, edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd
Literature And Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts, edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd
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The “elevator pitch” for this book is both simple and compelling. If, as “A Claim Of Right For Scotland” affirmed, “the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland”, why has no great Scottish novel dealt with the Union? And how did a “distinctive culture in Scotland” – one that comprised both Walter Scott and Annie S Swan, Edwin Morgan and Harry Lauder – appear to survive?

What follows is a series of 16 essays, most of them clever, assiduous, open-minded and closely-read. All of them are also academic. On one hand this a good thing, in that there is close attention to detail; on the other, it can mire the insights in a constant “but things are more complicated” hedging. How I long sometimes for simple polemic, be it from the pen of Edwin Muir or Hugh MacDiarmid.

But the central point more than stands. Most of Scotland’s literature has been produced under the Union, and it seems to be none the worse for that. In such a context, the support for a Yes vote by cultural activists – such as the Scottish Collective – requires some explanation. (Full disclosure: I made a radio programme about the perceived idea that writers were predominantly pro-independence). What Kidd and Carruthers excel at is stressing the complexity of the situation. For example – which Union? 1801? 1707? 1603? Or even 1502, when James IV married Margaret Tudor; the backdrop to William Dunbar’s epithalamium “The Thrissil And The Rois”? One weakness of the book, I fear, is the lack of attention paid to early Scottish literature (Sally Mapstone would have contributed an excellent piece) and the relative dearth of work on the post-war period.

Among the highlights though are the introduction and postscript by Colin Kidd and Gerard Carruthers; a superb piece on James Thomson, the Scot who wrote Rule Britannia, by Ralph McLean; a very sensitive reading of one of the less well known novels by Scott, The Fortunes Of Nigel, set in London, by Alison Lumsden; and an intriguing piece by Brian Young on AG Macdonell, a writer I had previously never heard of but now know was the satirical author of England, Their England.

Two themes emerge across the essays. One is that the primary division in Scotland was religious rather than between Unionists and Nationalists; and not just between Catholic and Protestant, but Episcopalian-Jacobite, inter-Presbyterian rivalries and more. These were the engines for many of the greatest Scottish literary works, from Burns to Stevenson and beyond. The other is that Scotland influenced

English literature and, conversely, English writers, journalists and academics profoundly influenced Scottish writing. Catriona Macdonald and David Goldie both provide extremely interesting and subtle essays on these topics.

It is regrettable that less is done on the specific careers of the generations that moved from Scotland to England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods – Carlyle, Barrie, Conan Doyle, Lang, Buchan – especially since so many of the archetypes of Englishness (Robin of Locksley, aka Hood, in Scott’s Ivanhoe, but then Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond – a Swiss-Scot!) originate from Scottish pens. Buchan in particular is ill-served, as a committed Unionist with patriotic feelings and a remarkable capacity for multiculturalism, as his treatment of First Nations people when he was Governor of Canada shows. In their defence, the editors do say that too much literary criticism – and I agree – has been fixated on “The Canon”.

It is curious to note that more than one essay deals with the union, later dissolved, between Poland and Lithuania, and in particular the work of Adam Mickiewicz, the Scott-inspired author of Pan Tadeusz and Konrad Wallenrod. I hope that more work is done on these kinds of cultural links. I am, to an extent, over the works of James “Ossian” Macpherson, but more can be done not only about his work – such as his decidedly odd translation of Virgil, often a code for Jacobite sympathies – but also what he inspired.

Is there a difference between Scottish and English literature? Indubitably. There could not not be, just as there is a difference between literature from Norfolk or Newcastle or Nairobi or New York. One thing does strike me though. In the works of Smollett, Scott, Stevenson and Buchan, for example, we have peripatetic narrators, who cross borders. In much of “English” literature, we have settled communities – Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Barchester, Casterbridge – into which there is an intrusion.

This book may be caviar to the general, but it is, as well, a significant intervention in Scottish literary studies, and all the contributors deserve commendation. I hope it is not the first and only book of its kind. There is much to be learned, and much to be unlearned, in looking with scrutiny at the intertangled, sometimes fractious, sometimes productive ways in which different parts of these islands find creative inspiration. I sincerely hope there is a second volume.

Literature And Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts, Edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd, Oxford University Press, £30