ASLS Schools Conference, 5 October 2013 |
When I sat down to write this paper, I began with two questions: What is the influence of this great nineteenth century triumvirate on our country’s literature? And why should we continue to read them and encourage new generations of readers to do so?
By the time I’d finished I realised I hadn’t answered either of these questions so, getting my excuses in early, I apologise if you wanted clear, concise answers to them. What they prompted in me were further questions: what is a literary canon, and in what way can or should such a thing be Scottish? Should we prioritise, give precedence to or positively discriminate in favour of Scottish writing? What does ‘Scottish’ mean in the context of a country like Scotland with its complex and often competing social, political and cultural forces within its own geographical space as well as relationships with other entities beyond its borders: England; other constituent parts of the UK; the other island of the British Isles, Ireland; Europe; North America; other literature in English; post-colonial literatures; and so on? What does ‘Scottish’ mean? There are so many variants and variables when we start to think about definitions that it is tempting to say, why bother to define at all? I don’t think that’s good enough. One reason for reading Scott, Hogg and Stevenson, and why they continue to be engaging and important writers 120 years after the death of the youngest of them, is because they allow us to explore these questions of identity and context and definition. But that is by no means the only reason for reading them and indeed if it were the only reason it would not be enough.
I’m going to talk about these writers and what I get from them and perhaps that might help us on our way during the course of today. Let’s take the biggest, and perhaps the most problematic of the three, first: Sir Walter Scott. Everybody knows that he is responsible for a false, romanticised view of our history and for creating a fake, tartanised national culture. And everybody knows that he is impossibly long-winded and dull. Correct? Well, my very strong impression is that these opinions of Scott are held, overwhelmingly, by people who have not read much or even any of his work. This in itself is a good reason for reading him – to see whether the reality conforms to the myth.
First of all, we have to ask what made Scott so incredibly popular throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, not only in Scotland but throughout the world. His principal achievement, it seems to me, first in his epic romantic poems and then in his novels, was to make the past – that foreign country where they do things differently – accessible, a place that his contemporaries could all visit. He acted as their guide, and as he showed them around he tried to demonstrate how, despite their funny clothes and habits and wars and weird political set-ups and the wild nature of the societies in which they often lived, the people of the past were pretty much the same as modern people. What changed was not basic human nature but the social, economic and political conditions which shaped their lives. This is why Scott, despite his conservatism, was so enthusiastically taken up by the Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács in the 1930s.
Scott’s views were formed by a mixture of his childhood exposure to oral history and storytelling in the Borders, and his education in Edinburgh in the latter part of what we now call the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a child of that age which prioritised the Science of Man, the study of humans and human society; which sought to explore the mysteries of who we are rather than speculate on the insoluble mystery of God. Or, as the American novelist John Dos Passos put it back in 1954, ‘the professor was taking the place of the clergyman as the venerated figure’ in Scottish society. You can see this fascination with human life on every page of Scott, whether he is writing poetry, fiction, history, essays, reviews, letters or his own Journal. Here, for example is the entry for 1 January 1826 in his Journal:
People say that the whole human frame in all its parts and divisions is gradually in the act of decaying and renewing. What a curious time-piece it would be that could indicate to us the moment this gradual and insensible change had so completely taken place that no atom was left of the original person who had existed at a certain period but there existed in his stead another person having the same limbs, thewes and sinews, the same face and lineaments, the same consciousness – a new ship built on an old plank … Singular – to be at once another and the same.
Scott was obsessively interested in the past but not to the exclusion of the present or future. In fact he was always concerned with the passage of time and how it affects individuals and the wider communities to which they belong. In the final chapter or ‘postscript’ to Waverley, his massively successful, ground-breaking novel of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (which was published 200 years ago next year), he wrote the following: ‘There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland …’ (I think Scott had forgotten France, which had recently undergone violent revolution, in this assessment). The failure of the ’45 had led to the destruction of the Highland clan system and the wholesale reorganisation of dispensation of justice throughout Scotland; this had been followed by commercial, scientific and agricultural innovations, an increase in national and private wealth, and the early stirrings of industrial revolution. ‘But the change,’ Scott went on, ‘though steadily and rapidly progressive, has, nevertheless, been gradual; and, like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now distant point from which we have been drifted.’
Steady and rapid progress which is at the same time gradual: don’t we all feel this? Is it really five years since so-and-so died, or your sister got married and went to Australia? Is it possible that fifteen years ago the vast majority of us had neither internet access nor mobile phones, and the idea that you might be able to access your bank account or send a photo to your sister in Australia from your phone while sitting in a cafe in Barcelona … Well, you see what I mean. Our simultaneous engagement with and alienation from progress is no different, really, from Scott’s.
As a tour guide into the past, Scott was best on the territory he knew best. He wrote best when writing about Scotland, and it’s his Scottish novels that have really lasted, in my view. The Scotland of his long poems and his first nine novels was familiar to other Scots yet Scott made it new and exciting, especially in the way he encouraged you, as reader, to travel across not only time-lines but fault-lines of religion, war and culture, not least the Highland Line. Scott’s Celtification of Scottish culture – which he did not start, since he was only building on the previous generation’s infatuation with Ossian – was also a serious attempt to knit together Lowlands and Highlands. To his non-Scottish readers, he presented in all its parts an exotic and largely unknown country. Did he create a romanticised view of it? Well, he lived in a romantic age, and I don’t think can be held solely responsible for the way people responded to his novels. Books are a two-way process and Scott’s fiction is laced with heavy doses of irony if you look for them. His heroes, like Edward Waverley, are deliberately blank canvases so that Scott can have fun at their expense, make them fall for the romantic and then be dragged back into sober reality and into the present having been thoroughly impressed upon in the course of their adventures. Waverley, a ‘sneaking piece of imbecility’ according to his inventor, is the empty carriage into which the gentle reader steps at the start of the novel, and from which he or she descends at the end. The last laugh Scott has, perhaps, is on his readers.
It’s the same with the supposed ‘heroes’ of Rob Roy, The Antiquary, Guy Mannering and Redgauntlet. Actually they aren’t the main attraction: it’s the characters they meet who are fascinating and memorable. I don’t have time today to go into the details of why Scott, at his best, is so good, but here are a couple of examples: if you’re looking for a way of engaging your pupils, in this coming referendum year, with the idea that the yes/no question of independence has been around for a long time, then hand out a sheet (remember, Scott is out of copyright) with the following conversation from the novel Rob Roy: this is the section when Frank Osbaldistone is riding into bandit country (i.e. the Trossachs) in the company of his girny manservant Andrew Fairservice and the Glasgow merchant Bailie Nicol Jarvie. It’s just before the Jacobite rising of 1715. As they ride, Jarvie (a Unionist) and Fairservice (a nationalist) argue about the merits of the Union of just a few years earlier. Frank, the young English hero, is narrating:
Although, like my father, Mr Jarvie considered commercial transactions the most important objects of human life, he was not wedded to them so as to undervalue more general knowledge. On the contrary, with much oddity and vulgarity of manner, Mr Jarvie’s conversation showed tokens of a shrewd, observing, liberal, and a well-improved mind. He was a good local antiquary, and entertained me, as we passed along, with an account of remarkable events which had formerly taken place in the scenes through which we passed. And as he was well acquainted with the ancient history of his district, he saw with the prospective eye of an enlightened patriot, the buds of many of those future advantages which have only blossomed and ripened within these few years. I remarked also, and with great pleasure, that although a keen Scotchman, and abundantly zealous for the honour of his country, he was disposed to think liberally of the sister kingdom. When Andrew Fairservice (whom, by the way, the Bailie could not abide) chose to impute the accident of one of the horses casting his shoe to the deteriorating influence of the Union, he incurred a severe rebuke from Mr Jarvie.
“Whisht, sir! – whisht! it’s ill-scraped tongues like yours that make mischief atween neighbourhoods and nations. There’s naething sae gude on this side o time but it might hae been better, and that may be said o the Union. Nane were keener against it than the Glasgow folk, wi their rabblings and their risings, and their mobs, as they ca them nowadays. But it’s an ill wind blaws naebody gude – I say, Let Glasgow flourish! whilk is judiciously and elegantly putten round the town’s arms, by way of byword. – Now, since St Mungo catched herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade? Will onybody tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-awa yonder?”
Andrew Fairservice was far from acquiescing in these arguments of expedience, and even ventured to enter a grumbling protest, “That it was an unco change to hae Scotland’s laws made in England; and that, for his share, he wadna for a’ the herring barrels in Glasgow, and a’ the tobacco casks to boot, hae gien up the riding o the Scots Parliament, or sent awa our crown, and our sword, and our sceptre, and Mons Meg, to be keepit by thae English pock-puddings in the Tower o Lunnon. What wad Sir William Wallace, or auld Davie Lindsay, hae said to the Union, or them that made it?”
As teachers used to say and perhaps still do, discuss.
I wish I could tell you of the fine scenes in a novel like The Antiquary, where the lives of well-to-do gentlefolk are so brilliantly contrasted with the hard lives of fisherfolk, with whom they nevertheless have a regular discourse. When the Antiquary of the title haggles over the price of fish, Maggie Mucklebackit chides him with the remark, ‘It’s no fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives’ – a warning which comes back to haunt them all in a tragic scene later in the novel. Nor do I have time here to remark on the remarkable modern relevance of a novel like The Heart of Midlothian, with its mass of rich and engaging characters, its two central, strong female characters Jeanie and Effie Deans, the moral dilemmas they each face, again the historical drama of a Scotland still in 1736 ill at ease with the Union, the amazing depiction of Edinburgh as a living breathing character in its own right … It is true that Scott can sometimes drag, is sometimes too wordy, sometimes allows himself to go off on too long a diversion: and it is true that I never read a Scott novel till I was in my twenties, but that was largely because whenever as a boy it was suggested that I read one it was usually Ivanhoe or Woodstock or Kenilworth, much less interesting books than the Scottish series, and I gave up. (Coincidentally one of you here today sent me an email yesterday saying they’d tried a couple of Scott novels this summer: had enjoyed Redgauntlet which he found ‘surprisingly light and humorous’ but got a bit bogged down in Waverley, then found Scott admitting at the end of chapter 5 that the preceding chapters could be criticised for being ‘tedious and unnecessary’!) Scott is certainly challenging, but then so are many things and nane the waur o’t. If you have students who can and do read, say, Jane Austen, then Scott is her contemporary and there is no reason why they shouldn’t try him too. Scott himself said of her, after reading Pride and Prejudice for ‘at least the third time’, that though he could do ‘the big Bow Wow strain like any now going’ she had the exquisite touch for describing the commonplace things of ordinary life which was denied him. True? Perhaps that’s a good way of introducing Scott to a good reader. Contrast and compare, as teachers also used to say and perhaps still do. Did Scott create a fake, tartanised Scottish national culture? Did he become dated? He certainly fell out of favour after the First World War, for various reasons. He was, notably, a toff and a Tory, in contrast to that much better-loved democratic egalitarian Robert Burns: again, these are myths and reputations that perhaps need to be revisited, explored and challenged. Hugh MacDiarmid – who by the way is one of my great literary heroes and whose work plugged me in to my country’s culture in a way my education singularly failed to do – was caustically dismissive of Scott: he called the Waverley Novels the ‘great source of the paralysing ideology of defeatism in Scotland’, but it suited MacDiarmid – who in the 1920s and 1930s had his own project for constructing a narrative of Scotland just as Scott in the early 1800s had his project in different circumstances – to attack Scott, Stevenson and nearly everybody else. I think now, in the early twenty-first century, we are in a good position for appreciating the wealth of our literature, including both Scott and MacDiarmid, in a way that doesn’t require us to take sides in quite the same way. Argue and discuss, yes: but this is partly why I am standing in front of you this morning trying to persuade you that Scott, Hogg and Stevenson matter: because it is by reading and contextualising them that we, and younger readers, can discuss the big issues of life; which is surely, after all, what literature is about if it is about anything.
Another way into Scott is to ask students to look around and identify how ubiquitous he is in our urban landscape, and ask why? I’m not just talking about Waverley Station, the Scott monument, the newly restored Abbotsford: I’m talking about the innumerable pubs and hotels named after him or his characters or novels or poems. I’m talking about the fact that almost every town of size and all of our biggest cities have their Scott zones: the Inch estate in south Edinburgh; Shawlands here in Glasgow; Motherwell, Paisley, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness. Find out why street planners took Scott as their source and continued to do so in new towns like Livingston and Glenrothes in the sixties and seventies and even in housing estates since then.
Time to move on, to Scott’s friend and almost exact contemporary James Hogg. If Scott represents (to some extent) gentility and the establishment, Hogg represents peasant culture, folklore and oral tradition. When James Kelman talks of a Scottish tradition to which he feels he belongs, he cites Hogg: Hogg, the illiterate peasant who taught himself to read and write in order to make his voice heard, who had plenty to say and struggled all his life to say it. We think of Hogg today primarily as the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but when that novel was published anonymously in 1824 it was a commercial failure, appeared in a couple of bowdlerised versions later in the nineteenth century and then was largely forgotten until André Gide and others began to raise it out of obscurity with their critical acclaim. It’s a novel that – rather like John Galt’s Ringan Gilhaize published the previous year, also a commercial flop – was in terms of theme, construction and execution about a hundred years ahead of its time. What were these Scottish novelists on at this period? Scott published his most unconventionally constructed novel, Redgauntlet, in 1824 also. Hogg’s Justified Sinner is set in the seventeenth century, written by a writer formed in the late eighteenth century, published in the nineteenth century and finally recognised as a work of enormous power in the twentieth century.
Of our three writers, all of whom wrote huge amounts, the works of Hogg are those I know least well. He is uneven, erratic, alternately sure-footed and slipshod, brilliant and dull. He is a naive writer with a heightened sense of his own naivety, well capable of playing the peasant to the gallery of polite society. He stands at a door that opens back into an older, superstitious and fantastical oral culture and forward into a working-class literature steeped in realism and averse to pretension. The best way into Hogg may not be through the Justified Sinner or the other big novels The Three Perils of Man, and The Three Perils of Woman, but through short stories and sketches, such as his article in Blackwood’s Magazine on ‘Storms’ and how shepherds and their sheep did or did not survive them, or his wonderful story ‘The Brownie of the Black Haggs’, which effortlessly combines local anecdote and peasant philosophy with a disturbing tale of murder, cruelty and supernatural intervention. Hogg’s sometimes fractious relationship with Scott is also fascinating: Hogg clearly saw himself at times as the heir to Burns and expected the financial and moral support of Scott and others in that role, whereas literary Edinburgh saw him as ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’ and parodied and laughed at him in that character – one which again he was often happy to inhabit. But all of this leads to his masterpiece, the Justified Sinner, and it is this text that assures Hogg of his place in our literature.
I have read this novel five or six times. Each time I begin it, it is with the firm intention of finally nailing it down and understanding it, and each time I fail. It is in the nature and design of the book that I should do so, and it is this that draws a restless reader back to it again and again. In this respect it is a stunning piece of post-modernism: nothing is certain, nothing is authoritative, nothing is fixed or fully explained. The editor’s introduction and epilogue are contradicted by or contradict the memoir of the Sinner, and vice versa, and within the narrative of the memoir there are further inconsistencies and confusions. We are never sure who or what Gil-Martin, the Sinner Robert Wringhim’s enigmatic companion, is: devil, warlock, doppelgänger or figment of Robert’s imagination. The novel can be read as a warning against the dangers of religious fanaticism, or more specifically an attack on the extreme Antinomian variant of Calvinist theology, which holds that if you are predestined to be saved by God then whether you adhere to a moral code or break it can have no effect on your salvation after death. But, perhaps more easily today, it can be read as a novel which simply questions why or whether we feel bound by moral or natural law at all. This reminds us too that it is Hogg’s peasant origins, his self-education, his status as an outsider, that make him such a subversive writer.
The religious background to the novel is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to any reader’s engagement with the novel today, especially when deep familiarity with the Bible, let alone with Scottish church history, have virtually disappeared in anyone under the age of fifty. That doesn’t make Hogg unreadable however: in fact, the Editor’s Narrative which opens the story gets off to a relatively easy beginning, and has a kind of gothic strangeness about it that young readers in 2013 may actually find engaging. My feeling is that if after reading ten or twenty pages a reader is confused and finding the whole experience pretty weird then Hogg’s trick has once again paid off. The deeper you enter the territory, the more puzzling it becomes, so that by the time you reach the Sinner’s confessions you are ready for an explanation which then – doesn’t come! My sense is that it is probably best to let a new reader plunge in alone into this book, and fill in the theological and historical background when, or if, they emerge later.
Certainly this is what has led me back and back to it, and what made me write my own twenty-first century version of it in The Testament of Gideon Mack. And here I must issue a warning and some advice to you: do not to allow the students in your care to read this novel, even though, or especially because, it is one of the prose works on the list of Scottish texts selected for study in English at National 5 level. A couple of weeks ago the Scottish Daily Express published a story under the headline SCOTS PUPILS TO READ MODERN NOVEL INSTEAD OF SHAKESPEARE:
Shakespeare could be banished from Scottish schools in favour of a controversial novel in which the devil carries out a sex attack on a Kirk minister, it emerged yesterday.
The article continued:
Teachers have raised concerns that by making Scottish literature compulsory, the SNP government may be forcing them to dump classic English literature … Among the works they are having to drop in favour of a Scottish work is the Shakespeare play Macbeth. One of the Scottish books … is The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. It includes a sexual assault scene, in which Satan takes on the guise of a gay man and forces himself upon a troubled Church of Scotland minister.
When my novel was chosen for the National 5 exams, I did actually see this nonsense coming. Whether the folk who selected the texts did, I cannot say.
(The Scottish Daily Express does have form on this. In an editorial in 1611 it demanded that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth be banned because it dealt with regicide, witchcraft and Satanism and had bedroom scenes in which the Macbeths did not keep one foot on the floor, and another scene in which a drunken porter discoursed on lechery.)
Seriously, though, I return to this question of a Scottish tradition of literature. The point of literature is that it tells us about ourselves and about life, and it connects us to other times and other lives. It will, if we allow it, go on performing that function for a lifetime, and it will tell us different things at different times. I felt a need to revisit Hogg and the questions his novel poses but in the context of a secular society which has largely lost touch with the very idea of faith. What happens to us if we cannot believe in anything, if that great human asset scepticism becomes so powerful that it makes us unable to act with any certainty at all?
A tradition does not flourish by being fixed and preserved. That’s not a tradition, it’s an artefact in a museum. A tradition thrives when it is broken, challenged, added to, discarded, renewed. And a Scottish tradition of literature is enriched by engagement with other literatures. This is not about one or the other. This is about opening doors that, with luck, will stay open long after the National 5 exams have been forgotten and replaced by something else. But I submit that the door that opens onto the literature of your own place, of your own community and culture, is one all young people should have the opportunity to go through. It certainly should not be barred and locked against them.
From the subversive world of James Hogg I move on sixty years to the perhaps less obviously subversive world of Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had read both Scott and Hogg. It’s no surprise that he had read Scott – it’s inconceivable that a Scottish boy with an interest in reading and writing growing up in the second half of the nineteenth century couldn’t have read Scott – but it’s interesting to know that he had read Hogg. In a letter from Samoa in 1891, Stevenson mentions that he had read the Justified Sinner about ten years before, in ‘black, pouring weather on Tweedside’, and that it had ‘haunted and puzzled’ him ever since. It was ‘without doubt a real work of imagination, ponderated and achieved … I never read a book that went on the same road with the Sinner. It is odd, though I may have heard the story told when a child, but it is odd that somewhat a similar idea exercised me for some time, and the Sinnerdamped it out: though perhaps unconsciously it came again in a new form’.
This would date Stevenson’s reading of Hogg’s novel to about 1881, and he published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886. There is, I think, little doubt that that is the new form of the Sinner to which he refers. Stevenson is a bridge between the worlds of Scott and Hogg, which straddled the pre-modern and the age of Romanticism, and the modern. Now I’ve reread Jekyll and Hyde even more often than I have the Justified Sinner. It is one of a handful of Scottish texts (Barrie’s Peter Panand Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are others) that have acquired such worldwide fame that they have become clichés, or shorthand for syndromes or psychological states of one kind or another. Jekyll and Hyde is one of those books that everybody thinks they know and therefore don’t need to read. One of the great rewards of reading it is that, for many, it turns out not to be the book they thought they knew. Another merit is that it is very short, and its language is not too difficult for young readers. It is another possible way of entry into Hogg’s novel.
Stevenson inherits from both Scott and Hogg, and then he breaks from them and makes his own art. He straddles not only the folk and literary worlds, but he also links the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the twentieth. With his creed of hard work, honesty, courage and honour, he might have failed to find a place in a cynical, exhausted, sickened and broken post-1918 world, the world of modernism and competing brutal ideologies and psychology and revolution. Yet in many respects his work prefigures the key themes of dislocation, alienation and dissolution that mark much twentieth-century literature. Stevenson is subversive but unlike Hogg he is subtly subversive. What appears superficially simple in his work is often complex and subterraneously disturbing. Jenni Calder in her excellent Life Study draws attention to his fiction from the South Seas. Look at the work he was producing in, and about, the South Pacific. In ‘The Ebb-Tide’ and ‘The Beach of Falesá’ he was writing about ‘morally ambiguous situations and personalities … moral and political corruption … exploitation and degradation’. In the South Seas a man, a European man in particular, did not need to transform himself into Mr Hyde to behave badly. The worst aspects of colonialism and racism were visited on the islands. Yet in this environment a man might also behave well. The narrator of ‘The Beach of Falesá’, Wiltshire, is far from flawless or heroic, and he isn’t magically reformed or transformed in the course of the story. But that is the power of it: Wiltshire’s language is ‘ambivalent, honest but limited’ and true to Stevenson’s experience of the Pacific. I think he applied the same care and attention to much of his work, including his Scottish novels Kidnapped, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston, and I’d like to say a little bit about Kidnapped in a minute.
Critics over the years, notably F. R. Leavis but others too, have done their very best to rubbish or destroy both Scott and Stevenson (Hogg seldom even crossed their line of vision) on various grounds including that they were bad writers, or imitative, or two-dimensional, or over-consciously stylish, or mere entertainers, or that their books were not for grown-ups. All of these criticisms may contain truths, but none of them is comprehensively true. The ones about them being mere entertainers or writers for children always tickle me. How did such highbrows think readers become readers in the first place: by being bored to death by books? Stevenson has a nice line when he says, ‘Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life’. I don’t think he was saying either/or there: choose books or choose life. I think he was making a conscious connection between the two: each informs the other, and this, again, is surely why we read and why we want our children to read.
Alongside that corrupting novel about the Devil and the Minister (Der Teufel und der Kirchenmann is the title of the German translation), Kidnapped is on the list of Scottish texts for National 5 study. It is, yes, an entertainment; an adventure story; it is still accessible for young readers and even with the general decline of knowledge of Scots vocabulary the Scots is not hard to read, and all difficulties are solved if an edition with a good glossary is read. But it is much more than a ripping yarn: it takes us, as Scott does in Rob Roy, on a journey into the past, into the Highlands, but this time the narrator is a fully fleshed-out character, David Balfour, and the development of his relationship with Alan Breck Stewart is central to, and runs concurrent with, the high drama of the plot. Add to this the geographical spread of the novel, which encompasses so much of Scotland, the historical background which Stevenson illuminates through his fiction, the tensions between and conjunctions of Gaelic and Scots cultures, the linguistic sophistication and complexity of the narrative – and I recommend the introduction to the Canongate edition by Barry Menikoff for an excellent discussion on the language of the book – and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a really excellent choice of text for both pleasure and serious study.
Just to knock on the head those slights against Stevenson’s style, here is what Italo Calvino has to say about Stevenson, whose ‘marvellous lightness’ he praises: ‘I love Stevenson because he gives the impression he is flying’; ‘There are those who think [Stevenson] a minor writer and those who see him as one of the great writers. I agree with the latter, because of the clean, light clarity of his style, but also because of the moral nucleus of all his narratives’.
Lightness of touch, gravity of moral nucleus: that’s some combination. As I’ve already hinted, I reread Jekyll and Hyde every couple of years and always take something new from it. I go back to Stevenson more than to any other writer, and not just his fiction, but his essays, travel writing and letters. This is because just as I am being lulled by familiarity into knowing what it is he is telling me, he tells me something else. He does it in Jekyll and Hyde and he does it in his South Seas stories. I read ‘The Bottle Imp’ once every couple of years because it is so light of touch and yet contains such profundities. It is a folktale, a fairy tale, for adults and younger people. This is not easily created, nor is it to be sneered at. We are back in James Hogg territory again.
Let me try to finish where I started. There is another reason why these writers have often been sneered at, and it is that the critics who sneered were coming from a different place. They saw – some still see – literature from Scotland as an appendage or footnote to something else: English literature. Once you recognise the existence of a literature that bears the label ‘Scottish’, Scott, Hogg and Stevenson make sense in ways that they don’t if considered as English literature. This is so obvious that I am amazed I still need to say it. Again, to emphasise the point, it does not mean that they are ‘only’ Scottish writers or that their work does not or cannot reach beyond Scotland. Our late and much lamented friend Gavin Wallace wrote in the introduction to the book he co-edited in 1993, The Scottish Novel since the Seventies, ‘the days when a Sunday Timesreviewer could applaud George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe as “a novel in the great tradition of English social realism” seem long distant’. I wish I was quite as confident now as Gavin was twenty years ago that those days are over. Nevertheless the work of the ASLS and other organisations and individuals to create the critical and educational context that makes such a statement seem so dated and silly has been heroic. That work is not finished, but what progress has been made! Scottish literature is now very firmly taking its place on the international stage.
I am not even going to list the contemporary Scottish writers who acknowledge Stevenson and Hogg as influences upon their own work. There are too many. The influence of Scott is less felt, less recognised. But I think we are moving into a new phase: it was necessary the best part of a century ago for MacDiarmid to do his work as the catfish biting the other torpid denizens of the aquarium, to be the volcano emitting a lot of smoke and rubbish as well as fire, to assail the unassailable figures like Scott and Stevenson – and especially Burns – so that we could see them afresh and see beyond them to a whole Scottish literature. It was necessary for him to shout ‘Not Burns – Dunbar!’ and ‘Not Traditions – Precedents!’ In the aftermath, as the smoke clears, Scott, Hogg and Stevenson are still standing. Pick them up, examine them, read them, enjoy them. Now, at last, again, we can begin!
Copyright © James Robertson 2013