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Leith Davis, Ian Duncan, & Janet Sorensen, eds. Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism

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Leith DAVIS, Ian DUNCAN, & Janet SORENSEN, eds. Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism. Cambridge University Press, 2004, viii + 250 pp., €52.05, ISBN 0-521-83283-7.

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1Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism is a collection of essays written by scholars from Scotland, England, Canada and the United States which seeks to rehabilitate eighteenth-century Scottish literature within the wider canon of British literature. With this aim in view, the introduction, co-signed by the three editors, is legitimately polemical. The editors emphasise the role of Scotland in bodying forth not only Romanticism, but also major Victorian poetics (4). After having studied “Scotland in Romanticism,” they narrow down their focus to analyse “Romanticism in Scotland” with a questioning of such concepts as “nation and nationalism” and “Enlightenment”, and such personalities as Scott, Blackwood and Hogg, providing in the process an account of the most recent political and historiographic debates. This allows them to redefine the part played by Scotland in the Romantic era (“Scotland and the borders of Romanticism”), a part which is illustrated in depth by the following essays.

2The first one, Cairns Craig’s “Coleridge, Hume, and the chains of the Romantic imagination,” analyses Coleridge’s reading of Hume’s associationism and its influence on his definition of imagination, a concept which was to become paramount for the Romantic period. In the following essay, “The pathos of abstraction: Adam Smith, Ossian, and Samuel Johnson,” Ian Duncan studies Samuel Johnson’s reception of the lineaments of the interwoven concepts of “Romanticism” and “Enlightenment,” which developed into the Poems of Ossian on the one hand, and the treatises of Adam Smith on the other. Susan Manning’s essay (“Antiquarianism, the Scottish Science of man, and the emergence of modern disciplinarity”) concerns the part played by antiquarianism at the time of the Scottish Enlightenment. Antiquarians gradually yielded way to modern historiographers or historians in the wider field of a “Science of Man.” These two entities—antiquarians and historiographers—are to be considered as two sides of the same coin as their respective approaches were similar and even sometimes compatible.

3As was to be expected, there are a number of articles dealing with the part played by the figure of Walter Scott in the modelling of Scottish history. Ina Ferris, in chapter 4 (“Melancholy, memory, and the ‘narrative situation’ of history in post-Enlightenment Scotland”) considers the character of Croftangry in The Fair Maid of Perth (1828) as an exemplification of the emergence of a modern historical consciousness: Scott’s vision of history, showing a tension between a linear history without generational gaps and a background of drastic changes in Scottish society at the turn of the nineteenth century, paves the way for a “pragmatics of history” (90). James Watt’s essay, entitled “Scott, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Romantic Orientalism,” analyses aspects of Scottish writing about India in the wider field of Romantic Orientalism. He studies two novels by Walter Scott related to this phenomenon: The Talisman (1825) and The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827). Contrary to expectations, these novels concerned with explaining the differences between cultures and peoples are not instances of imperialist adventure-fictions but offer “striking accounts of peaceful contact and exchange” (108). Jerome McGann’s essay (“Walter Scott’s Romantic postmodernity”) begins by discussing Henry James’s and Lukacs’s comments on Walter Scott. In comparing and contrasting several novels by Scott, McGann proceeds to reassess Scott’s place among the Romantics: Scott’s art of self-concealment, his paratextual strategies and his game of authorship, are all means to integrate his audience in his fictions.

4The scene then shifts from Walter Scott to James Hogg, as John Barrell, in “Putting down the Rising,” analyses Hogg’s The Three Perils of Woman (1823), where corpses have a tendency to stand upright. These corpses embody personal as well as national histories, and display ambivalent metaphorical dimensions. In “Joanna Baillie stages the nation,” Alyson Bardsley argues that for Joanna Baillie, theatre-writing was tantamount to nation-writing. In such plays as Ethwald (1803), The Family Legend (1810) and The Phantom (1836), the private scene is the locus for a dramatisation of the national stage. As a Scotswoman living permanently in Hampstead, Baillie’s choice of dealing openly (and melodramatically) with Scottish themes provides insightful analogies between mental landscapes and real ones, as well as a view of the fraught relationship between audience and characters in the early nineteenth-century British context. Peter J. Manning’s essay (“William Wordsworth and William Cobbett: Scotch travel and British reform”) focuses on “the relation between geographical places and the rhetorical places of argument” (153) in the accounts of Wordsworth’s and Cobbett’s tours of Scotland. In 1831, Wordsworth embarked on a tour of Scotland to forget the Reform Bill debate. It was a trip full of nostalgia for Wordsworth, since for him Scotland represented an ancient England. Cobbett’s tour in 1832, whose account was published in 1833, testifies to Cobbett’s material considerations for landscapes and “chopsticks,” as he called the agricultural labourers. His descriptions are inseparable from his political goals. The comparison between Wordsworth’s and Cobbett’s tours allows Peter Manning to enhance the differences between the two “intellectuals.” There was one point in common: both tours turned out to be commercial enterprises, for both writers sold many publications.

5Two chapters are devoted to the mythical figure of Robert Burns. Chapter 10 (“Burns’s topographies,” by Penny Fielding) is about the way Burns has of inscribing location within the poetics of his poems, but also of inscribing poems in a location: “just as his inscriptions show that writing cannot become place, so […] he demonstrates that place cannot determine writing” (181). The following essay (“At ‘sang about’: Scottish song and the challenge to British culture”), by Leith Davies, posits the principle according to which “the representation of Scottish songs in printed collections served not just to promote the cultural hegemony of a London-based Britain, but in many cases to challenge the basis of its power” (188). Indeed, the editing procedures of Scottish songs served to “homogenize the geographical and cultural peripheries of Britain.” Leith Davis studies the case of several song-collectors: Allan Ramsay, who collected the old in order to set up the new and presented Scottish songs “not as a fixed corpus, but as part of a dynamic and ever-changing tradition”, of Harris, Brown, Herd and Percy. She perceives an ambivalence about folklore (alternatively death or revival), and more particularly in the case of Burns, a challenging of the hierarchy between the arts. Songs or ballads were at the bottom of the poetic scale, but as the “Epistle to John Lapraik” goes on to show, it can also be given pride of place. Burns’s “work in the wings,” so to speak, provides an instance of the death of the author before the concept existed.

6In “Romantic spinstrelsy: Anne Bannerman and the sexual politics of the ballad,” Adriana Craciun explores an aspect of the ballad-revival which occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. The ballad draws upon a Gothic material at the same time as it displays gender questions. Anne Bannerman’s is a case in point as far as this nexus of problems is concerned: she endeavoured to position her work in relation to central figures of Romantic-period Edinburgh, but her publishing career was stalled by her gender and her class. In the last chapter, “‘The fause nourice sang’: childhood, child murder, and the formalism of the Scottish ballad revival,” Ann Wierda Rowland tackles the form of the infanticide ballad and studies to what extent the content of such ballads fits within the nationalist frame of their composition. Antiquarians resisted responding to the contents of the ballad by choosing to focus on its form or by considering it as a unified body of popular items. By making use of Bourdieu’s work in Distinction, Ann Wierda Rowland underlines the role of the child—which oscillates between the innocent child and the child murdered—as a metaphor of national culture.

7Collectively, these essays celebrate this twofold phenomenon, Romanticism in Scotland and Scotland in Romanticism, and go on to underline the inventiveness of Scottish writers. While the works of Scott and Burns are reassessed, the works of writers who are too often overlooked are given prominence and context. The themes interwoven throughout the essays chart new and innovative journeys through an expanded map of Romanticism.

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Yann THOLONIAT, « Leith Davis, Ian Duncan, & Janet Sorensen, eds. Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 10, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 01 octobre 2020. URL :

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