Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Giants in the North: Douglas, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Scott's Redgauntlet

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Giants in the North: Douglas, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Scott's Redgauntlet

Article excerpt

IN THE SUMMER OF 1757, DAVID HUME EXULTED TO A FELLOW-SCOT, "IS IT not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our Chief Nobility ... that, in these Circumstances, we shou'd really be the People most distinguish'd for literature in Europe?"(1) Hume may well have had in mind the controversial success of his friend John Home's tragedy, Douglas, produced in Edinburgh in late 1756 and in London the following spring. Douglas was celebrated by its admirers as decisive proof that Edinburgh had come to rival London as a capital of "learning and genius.(2) But in his casual way, Hume puts his finger on the ambiguities that pervade that play's relationship to ideas of nationhood that would be explored in Scotland well into the following century by Walter Scott, among others. Specifically, Hume raises the question of how the nation as a cultural entity is related to the nation understood as a set of political institutions and activities. How did cultural production and self-conscious cultural identity compensate for the loss of political independence and the disintegration of the public sphere? And where did the idea of nationhood fit into the discourse of civic virtue that Scottish Enlightenment thinkers sought to revive? As Home's Douglas tried to mesh seamlessly the literary public sphere with the paradigm of civic virtue, the play's supporters argued that public spirit could be manifested by seeing, judging, and surrendering emotionally to this heroic "Scottish play."(3) But in the ensuing controversy, both the literary public sphere of Edinburgh and its purportedly nationalist discourse of civic virtue were demystified. Pursuing that critique, this essay argues that Douglas achieved its success by demonstrating how the idea of the Scottish nation could be efficaciously suspended in an imaginary and literally anachronistic void. From the vantage point of post-Waterloo Britain, Walter Scott spots this irony in the development of Scottish identity and suggests in his last Jacobite novel, Redgauntlet (1824), that the Scottish exercise of civic virtue turns on a highly equivocal nationalism that wishes both to disavow and to conjure up and conjure with the imagination of nationhood.

More than the author's friendship with David Hume made Douglas into a focal point for the tensions and energies of mid-eighteenth-century Scottish nationalism. John Home was part of that close-knit circle of clergymen that provided the intellectual and social force behind the Scottish Enlightenment.(4) But Home's tragedy, Douglas, had closer links to the issue of Scottish nationalism in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745. When the play was rejected by David Garrick of Drury Lane as "totally unfit for the stage," Home's Edinburgh friends decided, in Walter Scott's words, "to try the experiment of a play written by a Scotsman, and produced, for the first time, on a provincial stage" and thus to make a striking bid for cultural autonomy.(5) In a rehearsal in late 1756, William Robertson and Adam Ferguson took the parts of Lord and Lady Randolph, David Hume played the villain, Hugh Blair the maid, and Home himself the hero, the young Douglas (Sher 77). Other forms of Scottish autonomy were also under dispute at this moment: the very day that Home's tragedy opened at Edinburgh's Canongate theater Pitt introduced his militia bill in Parliament after a long period of widespread debate, particularly in Scotland. Home's friends, most notably Adam Ferguson, had strongly supported the plan for a Scottish militia that would renovate a depleted public sphere.(6) Douglas, too, set in a temporally vague but distinctly national past, focuses its dramatic energy on the young hero's eagerness to win military glory. Pitt's bill would eventually become the Militia Act that pointedly excluded Scotland from the right to bear arms in self-defense; but Douglas would succeed beyond anyone's expectations, "[retaining]," even seventy years later, in Walter Scott's words, "the most indisputable possession of the stage. …

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