Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"With Wealth Come Wants": Scottish Romanticism as Improvement in the Fiction of John Galt

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"With Wealth Come Wants": Scottish Romanticism as Improvement in the Fiction of John Galt

Article excerpt

A RECURRING SET PIECE IN JOHN GALT'S NOVEL OF 1823, THE ENTAIL, emblematizes the protagonist's tortured obsession with the ancestral lands that it has been his life's work to regain. Dispossessed as a young man, Claud Walkinshaw has made recovering and safeguarding his hereditary estate the "actuating principle of his life." This fixation is reflected in the ageing Claud's compulsive visits to a viewpoint that overlooks the now-reclaimed Kittlestonheugh lands:

   On gaining the brow of the hill, he halted, and once more surveyed
   the scene. For a moment it would seem that a glow of satisfaction
   passed over his heart; but it was only a hectical flush, instantly
   succeeded by the nausea of moral disgust; and he turned abruptly
   around, and seated himself with his back towards the view which had
   afforded him so much pleasure. In this situation he continued some
   time, resting his forehead on his ivory-headed staff, and with his
   eyes fixed on the ground. (1)

Claud's "nausea of moral disgust" prevents him from being able to look upon the estates he has idolized--at the cost of sacrificing social values and practices, including disinheriting his first-born. Holding the "ivory-headed staff" (183) that we learn is adorned with the meaningful symbol of a lone silver eye, this pedlar-turned-Glasgow-grandee experiences a profound moral unease towards the end of a single-minded life of what Galt calls "gathering" (150): the accumulation of wealth. Claud is importantly motivated by his fanatical pride in hereditary status, and the sense of just desserts in this passage is aimed primarily at that weakness via another: simple avarice. Yet both faults are serving here as parts of a wider meditation on an explicitly national narrative. This moment of moral outrage and self-disgust is one significant example from a novel that deals in striking fashion with a whole series of social, political, and moral anxieties occasioned by the preceding period in national history, Scotland's "Age of Improvement." (2) Furthermore, while the project of The Entail sees Galt's historical analysis vividly disintegrate--through both formal and thematic means--into pessimism, this can be read as an amplification of tensions already inherent within his oeuvre, as demonstrated in the Annals of the Parish of 1821. (3)

If Scottish literature of the early nineteenth century owes much to the cultural influence of the capital city of Edinburgh, Galt is a writer for whom Scotland's western urban center is still more important. Building on his roots in Irvine and Greenock, Galt's work particularly reflects the experience of the west, concentrated around the emerging imperial trading hub of Glasgow. As Glaswegian merchants gorged themselves on the profits of colonial markets--becoming "an oligarchy, as proud and sacred, in what respects the reciprocities of society, as the famous Seignories of Venice and Genoa" (Entail 109)--a rapid transformation of the west seemed to focus the broader trajectory of Lowland Scotland. From the perspective of the 1820s, a frequently accelerated process of economic and social change in Scotland since the mid eighteenth century was evident. In critical terms this embedded "improvement"--the Enlightenment's ubiquitous doctrine of progress--as a term of paradigmatic importance for the period. Centered on this vital keyword used by Scots in many areas of life, discourses of improvement represent the ideological pressures produced at this early phase of modernization and globalization. Christopher J. Berry has recently offered a lucid articulation of the centrality of improvement to the complex formation of the Scottish Enlightenment (including its widespread association with the formation and consolidation of the British state). (4) Improvement is not exclusively a commercial paradigm, yet as the narrative by which Enlightenment conjectural history understood the transition from previous stages of civilization to commercial modernity, it occasions a crucial intersection in discourse between progress and commerce. …

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