Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

One
David Hume and the Vocabularies of
British Historiography

LET ME BEGIN by looking forward for a moment from David Hume to Walter Scott, the great legatee of the Scottish Enlightenment's vision of history. When Scott gave his famous subtitle 'Tis Sixty Years Since to the first of his historical novels, he called attention to the extraordinary transformation of Scotland since 1745. In the course of two generations, a new Scotland had emerged that was almost unrecognizable from its earlier history. “There is no European nation,” he wrote, “which, in the course of half a century or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland. The effects of the insurrection of 1745 … commenced this innovation. The gradual influx of wealth and extension of commerce have since united to render the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers as the existing English are from those of Queen Elizabeth's time.”1

Along with the rapid transformation of eighteenth-century Scotland, Scott's subtitle also calls attention to an important dimension of historical perception that is more universal: the span of two generations to which he refers not only witnessed remarkable changes, it also provided Scott and his audience with a privileged distance from which to observe this transformation. Two generations put the '45 just on the horizon of living memory. At this remove, when events are still close enough to recall, yet distant enough to have been overtaken by other developments, there is a need both to recover past events and to begin to resolve their singularity into the wider patterns and plots of history. At just such a distance, in short, both recuperation and resolution seem possible. Hence, as many a commentator on Scott's novels has affirmed, the genuine engagement with the past that sets the Waverley novels apart from so many imitative historical costume dramas; hence, too, Scott's ability to celebrate the distinctive textures of other times while affirming the present social order, which is also the product of history.2

____________________
1
Walter Scott, Waverley, ed. Andrew Hook (New York: Penguin, 1972), 492.
2
Among many important studies on Scott and the historical novel, see Harry Shaw, The Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983); Alexander Welsh, The Hero of the Waverley Novels: With New Essays on Scott (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992); Ina Ferris, The Achievement of Literary Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991); and Peter Garside, “Scott and the ‘Philosophical’ Historians,” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 497–512.

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