Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Preparing for Renaissance: Revaluing Nineteenth-Century Scottish Literature

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Preparing for Renaissance: Revaluing Nineteenth-Century Scottish Literature

Article excerpt

Nineteenth-century Scottish literature represents a far richer field than a previously negative version of Scottish literary history suggested. Recent revisionist exercises unearthing this achievement, especially of a "regional" nature, show dynamic engagement with many pressing local, national and international themes and issues. The reassessment of nineteenth-century Scottish literature ought to cause also the reappraisal of the effects of the Scottish Enlightenment in the period immediately prior to this period and the milieu of Scottish modernism (or "the Scottish Renaissance") in the early twentieth century, which has greater continuity with the nineteenth-century period than has often been thought. The nineteenth century sees Scotland continuing to have a literature of both national and international importance.

Keywords: Revisionist disinterment; fiction of alienation; rural fiction; religious scepticism; national scepticism; gender writing; internationalism; parody.

This chapter seeks to question certain orthodoxies of literary history with regard to later nineteenth-century and fin de siècle achievement in Scotland, and its formative influence upon "The Scottish Renaissance" of the years between the first and second world wars.1 I begin with an admission of previous failure. In the late 1980s I edited The History of Scottish Literature: Nineteenth Century (Gifford 1988), the third volume of the Aberdeen University press four-volume edition. This proved to be a learning experience, but one which is far from being complete, and one which has in the years since left me feeling (as many editors must feel) that I would like to do it again. Current revaluation of Scottish history and literature is moving with great rapidity; and I recognise now the limitations ofthat volume. For all that it gave perhaps unusual emphasis to writers like James Hogg, John Gait, George MacDonald, and indicated the many areas which called for urgent research, such as the late nineteenth-century popular press, as editor I failed to recognise sufficiently the achievement of women like Susan Ferner and Margaret Oliphant, or to place significantly in the centre of the period the huge figures of Thomas Carlyle and Hugh Miller; or to emphasise sufficiently the achievement of poets like the post-Burns radicals, such as Alexander Wilson, Alexander Rodger, John Mitchell and Alexander McGilvray; or the later nineteenth-century Dundee disciple of Walt Whitman, James Young Geddes; or John Davidson, or the major and deeply satirical reassessment of the Highlands in the fiction of Neil Munro; or the massive, if uncertain achievement of writers such as John Buchan and S.R. Crockett - not to mention the need for perhaps less positive yet important revaluation of "decadent" movements such as the Kailyard and the Celtic Twilight.

Later critics have begun to reveal the richness of neglected areas. Many original and neglected radical poets were rescued, for example, by Tom Leonard in his groundbreaking anthology Radical Renfrew (Leonard 1990). Critics are becoming interested in the cultural influence of philosophers and thinkers like Sir James Frazer and Hugh Miller, and previously sidelined writers such as Neil Munro are being more positively reassessed. And along with this we must take stock of recent reassessments of a whole range of writers like Oliphant, Macdonald, Stevenson, James Barrie, Buchan and Davidson, at the same time exploring more fully what we mean by "Kailyard" writing and culture. We must listen also to William Donaldson and his tireless urging in studies like Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (Donaldson 1986) that we explore the neglected areas of our literature to be found in the huge number of local papers and publications which burgeoned following the repeal of Stamp Duty in 1855.

This project of revaluation is important not just for our understanding of the nineteenth century itself, but also for a diachronic reassessment of the notion of literary "Renaissance", which depends for its meaning on a sense of the achievement of writers who went before. …

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