Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830

Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830

Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830

Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830

Excerpt

The approach and period of this book have been framed so as to form a 'social history' of literature for Scotland from the late 17th to the early 19th century. I have not aimed to cover the background. Social issues have been followed up only where questions of literary significance or, sometimes, of failure to develop uncovered what seemed to be key trends or traits in the life of the people. Thus the method used has had to be flexible. At some points one has to look closely into the layers of meaning in a particular novel or poem. At others one must discover who exactly was reading a book, whether judges as well as ploughmen. Here we have to study the kind of community behind the literature, down to the very town-plan or working conditions amidst which writer and readers led their lives; there, again, we have to study a period through key events--the trial of a trade unionist, waves of emigration, or the annual councils of a Church. Always the aim has been to find the particular facts and particular passages of poetry or fiction in which the life of the people seems to reveal itself most genuinely, and hence to give actuality to themes such as community, society, class, speech-idiom, tradition--which are so apt to remain vague.

Such work is liable to defeat itself unless it is controlled-- indeed inspired in the first place--by a literary-critical sense of its subject. For very far from all facts of 'background' are relevant. We need a sense of where the main centres and lines of cultural force lie, what ways of life, milieux, and events had most to do with shaping the creative product. And unless this sense is based on a critically-formed idea of what literature in the field is valuable, one will easily be enticed by theories away from the facts of what was there in the society. A critic recently wrote (in an article with the impressively modern title The Bride of Lammermoor: A Novel of Tory Pessimism) that "Redgauntlet is a mature man whose devotion to the Pretender is so deep-rooted that no change of ideology is possible". Now, we do naturally wish--as we gaze back and try to make out the features of 18th-century Scotland--that Scott had somewhere followed through such a theme. But attentive reading of Redgauntlet shows us that Redgauntlet, so far from being a mature man, is a stock villain-hero from melodrama. Scott, like Burns . . .

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