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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter XII - The Evolution of Fiction


With the suppression of the rising of the '45 the history of Scotland, from a purely national point of view, may be said to come to an end. The Rebellion was something more than an attempt to restore the Stewart dynasty. It was the dramatic and final stage in the inevitable conflict between two antagonistic ideals—the feudal and the industrial. At the Union Scotland had entered into partnership with England in commerce and industry; but sentiment dies hard, and many, while alive to the superiority of the new days, gazed regretfully upon the days which were vanishing. At the Union Scotland gained much, but it paid a heavy price in the loss of its individuality, which meant the loss of the sharp dramatic contrasts and the vivid heroisms which make the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries illustrious.

From a literary point of view the Union was not wholly beneficial. In its backward state, intellectually, Scotland was compelled to go for light and leading to France and England, and thus the leading spirits of the nation were divorced from the aspirations and ideals of the common people. Burns provoked a reaction which was sustained by Scott. Carlyle contributed to the patriotic spirit by his sympathetic interpretation of the religious side of the national life; though at the same time, by introducing the German element, he helped to lead the Scottish mind out of the parochial into the cosmopolitan arena.

After Burns, Scott and Carlyle we find a change coming over Scottish literature. The national spirit grew less and less pronounced under the influence of commerce, industry, and the gradual spread of the English language and manners; and history clearly shows that with the decay of nationalism literature also decays. Scott could have no successor ; he exhausted the past and gave no guidance to the literary interpretation of the future ; and Carlyle found an outlet for his genius in other than Scottish spheres of thought and activity.

The result of the Union from a literary point of view was that Scotland presented to her men of genius no self-centred, self-developing national life which by appealing to their imagination could result in a new form of truly national literature. Genius there was in abundance, but it spent itself mainly in microscopic efforts, in detailed pictures of Scottish life; not in focusing and giving literary expression to the thoughts and ideals of a people bound together by unity of national feeling and purpose, but in describing life as it was, or in sentimental handling of bygone times.

In the great mass of Jacobite literature we have enshrined in poetic forms of a high order the sentimental side of Scotland; and in the domestic novel we find the national genius seeking the outlet which was denied in the higher region of nationality. In the absence of a real national life, creative genius of the highest order is impossible, and thus we are prepared to find in the literature of Scotland from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards—with the exception of Carlyle's writings—an absence of soul-stirring originality.

We have literature represented mainly by the talented but not original writers who grouped themselves round the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood's Magazine. We are all proud of Christopher North, Jeffrey, Lockhart, and the others who held aloft the torch of literature in the early years of the nineteenth century, but in reading their writings we do not feel as if we were breathing the atmosphere of genius. Literature in their hands was controversial, and had nothing in it distinctively Scottish. With the decay of national feeling there was bound also to come a fall in the Scottish mental temperature, which showed itself in the rise of a kind of fictional literature far removed from the Romanticism of Scott. Thus we have the rise of the domestic novel, which in the case of Miss Ferrier gave scope for microscopic character-sketching and satirical treatment of common life as mirrored in the middle classes. Then we have the realistic novel, as represented by Galt, in which, as in the Annals of the Parish, we no longer deal with human nature on the heroic side, but are introduced to the grimly tragic side of prosaic existence.

In poetry the tone is the same. We find abundance of talent and streaks of genius in the poets who come after Burns. We have descriptive, sentimental, heroic, and other kinds of poetry; but it remains unread, except by the diligent student. Who, for instance, now reads Wilson's The Isle of Palms, or Aytoun's poems—with perhaps the exception of the Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers—not to mention the large army of authors who disported themselves in verse during the nineteenth century?

With the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson it seemed as if Scottish literature was once more to strike the note of distinction. About Stevenson's genius there can be no dispute; and had he lived in an earlier time, when it was possible for him to be haunted by great ideals and inspired by deep emotions, he would have taken a place not far below Scott. A greater artist in the technical sense than Scott, he failed just where Scott was strong. Scott flung himself upon life with a hearty objectivity. Stevenson, no doubt largely owing to ill-health, and to the decay of religious belief, was lacking in the mental healthiness which is necessary in a genius of the first rank. Persistent introspection is fatal to success as a novelist and Stevenson was chronically introspective His insight into Scottish character was profound, his skill at portraiture undisputed, but the reader longs to get away from the hothouse atmosphere of Stevenson to the mountain breezes of Scott. Still, we must not forget to credit Stevenson with a distinct vein of originality. He was a disciple of Scott the Romanticist, though with Stevenson the spirit of romance was not, as with Scott, epochal in its sweep and influence. Scott's romance was inspired by the historic and the heroic, supplemented by a genius for character creation which links his name with that of Shakespeare. Stevenson's romance was inspired not by the historic spirit, but by the purely human spirit. In one of his essays Stevenson defines the highest achievement of romance to be the embodiment "of character, thought or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind's eye." In this kind of romance Stevenson excelled, and in order to work with effect, he calls into play the weird, the terrible, the blood-curdling, the supernatural.

One result of dealing with out-of-the-way characters and incidents is that in the reader's mind Stevenson is constantly identified with his characters; the reader never loses a vivid sense of the author's personality. This, while pleasing in a sense, is a sign of limitation, of a self-consciousness which we do not find in the highest order of genius. With longer life Stevenson would probably have worked clear of the affectations which hampered his genius, but as it is his writings are a unique product in the literature of his native land.

There are those who bluntly declare that Scottish fiction has no future. In these days nationalism as applied to the things of the mind is said to be losing its power. Cosmopolitan influences are gaining so rapidly upon nationalism that the parochial field, with its strongly marked individualities and quaint manners, is no longer available for the novelist. We are just now suffering from a return of the ideas which were so popular about the time of the French Revolution, when it was held as an accepted dogma that all the differences among mankind were due to circumstances and education. Give men equal education, social and political opportunities, and the differences which distinguish mankind, and which we attribute to race and nationality, would disappear. This revival of the equality dogma of the French Revolution receives plausible sanction from science, which as a civilizing influence is undoubtedly breaking down barriers of distance and such-like obstacles to the fusion of races. On the other hand, science from another point of view is a foe to the new idea of equality and the transformation of humanity under the sway of educational, industrial and political influences. If science has shown us the variability of all life and its modifiability it also emphasizes the elements of heredity and continuity by which the stability of species is secured. The school of the French Revolutionists, which attributed almost everything to environmental influences, has given place as a result of the doctrine of evolution to the modern school, which holds that each people possesses a national constitution as unaltering as its anatomical characteristics, which is the source of its sentiments, thoughts, institutions, beliefs, and arts. From this point of view it will be seen how superficial is the belief that because Scotland and England were united politically two hundred years ago, and have since been subjected to the same general influences, therefore the two nations are so identical that there is no room for the development of separate literatures. Is it conceivable that the intellectual and moral characteristics of a people which have come to them from a long past age are to be set aside by a mere change of legislative machinery ? Now and again circumstances arise which seem to favour the equality idea. Under the spell of imitation one nation or the leading section of a nation may, as in Scotland at the time of the Moderates, endeavour to copy the literary ideas and methods of other nations, but in the end race reasserts itself, and a national literature is the result. Burns and Scott represent in Scottish literature the re-assertion of the national spirit as opposed to the cosmopolitan; and there is no reason why in our own day, even in the midst of influences which make for the obliteration of national distinctions, Scotland should not reassert once more her individuality in literature, particularly in fiction.

Granted that Scottish fiction has a future, the question arises: What particular form is it likely to take? Novel-writers have been divided into two classes, Idealists and Realists. At best the division is a rough one. There is nothing in the nature of things to prevent a writer being at once an Idealist and a Realist. He may, like Scott, weave a world of romance and at the same time give realistic pictures of life. Still the distinction within limits is a real one. We call a writer a Realist who confines himself to delineating character and manners as he finds them existing around him. We call him an Idealist when his characters, or at least his principal characters, embody a higher type of life; and we call him a Romanticist when he transports his readers from the commonplace life of to-day to the idealized world of the past. Now, as a rule, it will be found that in fictional literature the law of action and reaction holds sway. For instance, the novels of Scott were part of the reaction against the ideal of the French Revolution. The thinkers of the Revolution held fast by the doctrine of the equality of man, the iniquity of Government, and the hideousness of the past, which to them was simply the result of superstition and despotism. The past deserved to be blotted out ; the year of the Revolution was the year One. Such a theory of life confined literature within very narrow limits. It killed Romanticism by clipping the wings of Imagination. Resting on a materialistic theory of life, it confined men's thoughts and aspirations to the seen and tangible; it made no provision for the higher aspirations of the soul. In fiction Scott was the most prominent figure in the reaction. Scott did not neglect the present, but his method did not permit him to deal with the collective life of the present. Unrivalled in delineating the character of individuals, he did not essay a picture of village life in the Scotland of his own time. That demanded a more microscopic form of genius than Scott possessed. He himself somewhere speaks of his "bow-wow " style.

In Galt we have represented the realistic side of Scottish village life. In the Annals of the Parish we have a lifelike picture of Scotland in the transition stage, the beginning of the new industrial period. The rise of the new era, with its influence on the sentiments, imagination, and feelings of the people, is given in a few masterly strokes which, while clearly realistic, have none of the forbidding realism of Zola. It is astonishing that Galt has had no real successor. He created a new school, and everything seemed favourable to the new departure. Instead of Scottish novelists utilizing the common people, they have shown a preference for dealing with certain select classes of the community. Susan Ferrier, for example, took for her sphere the higher middle-class element. Sharply tinctured with the feudalism of the law and with marvellous power, she put them under the microscope. Mrs. Oliphant, though different in spirit and method, followed much the same plan. Coming nearer our own time we find the ecclesiastical and religious side of life powerfully attracting our novelists. George Macdonald was the novelist of the reaction against Calvinism, and naturally his limitation of aim limited his influence. J. M. Barrie and Ian Maclaren have left us remarkable portraits, antique specimens of Scottish Dissenting life, but these are snapshots, not elaborately finished pictures. The "Kailyard school," profiting by the interest which Barrie created, wove their plots so completely round ecclesiastical subjects that it seemed as if Scottish life was bounded on the one side by ordination dinners, and on the other by church soirees. This school had not in it the roots of permanence. It represented a temporary yearning in the public mind for an ideal element in Scottish fiction. Weary of the realism of life, as revealed in the newspaper press, the public readily snatch at anything which leads the mind into the region of the poetic and the sentimental. Mr. J. M. Barrie began idealizing certain phases of Scottish ecclesiastical and religious life, and by his inimitable genius the popularity of the new school was secured. But abiding popularity cannot possibly be predicted of the "Kailyard school." In truth, the task they undertook was begun long years before by a writer of greater genius—George Macdonald, whose shoe-latchet the Kailyarders are not worthy to unloose. There is more hope of the Celtic revival as evidenced by a writer like Neil Munro, whose insight into the Highland character, and sympathy with the weird mysticism of the Celt, give to his writings a depth and reality which his predecessor William Black did not possess. A reaction against the sentimentalism of the Kailyarders was soon to come, and it came with the publication of The House with the Green Shutters, a book of terrific power, in which rural life, character and manners are depicted with a fierce gloominess, a persistent cynicism, and a sustained sordidness that remind the reader of Zola. Not only was the novel very defective from the side of art, but in addition the author neglected to use the opportunity which came to his hand. Modern Scottish life in its commoner aspects has for some time been waiting for adequate fictional treatment. In this respect we are far behind England, where the various aspects of the national development, social, political and industrial, have been worked into fiction. Dickens, as a reaction against the romantic mood, utilized the humanitarian wave which passed over England in the middle of the last century, while Charles Kingsley made capital out of religious scepticism and the social and economic problems of the Victorian period. How comes it that in these fields Scottish fiction has been sterile? Never, surely, was there ampler material for a successful Scottish novel on new lines. In the olden days, when the conditions of life were stable, novelists like Miss Ferrier were limited in their scope of treatment. The reader's interest centred on the development and play of character, the plot being more or less a conventional affair. Under modern conditions the field of the novelist is greatly increased. We are in the midst of an industrial revolution, under which human conditions have lost their stability and assume a seeming arbitrariness which frequently plunges multitudes into poverty and despair. Economic changes at the other side of the globe have greater effect on the happiness of humanity at home than the most destructive of wars. Now more than at any period of history, in consequence of the complexity and instability of commercial and industrial conditions, the deepest feelings of human beings are in a constant state of tragic turmoil. Men's desires have increased at a greater rate than the power of satisfying them. The tragedy is all the greater when it is considered that just when the material conditions of life are so unstable the modern desire for material happiness has become more intense. In old days, when religion was a power in Scotland, material prosperity in the form of accumulated wealth did not wholly absorb the mind, and poverty did not seem to be the one unutterable woe. With the decay of religious belief and of church authority, [See the remarkable volume recently published, Non-Churchgoing, edited by W. Forbes-Gray (Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier).] society has no higher aim than worldly success, which takes the form of an inordinate thirst for wealth and for the grosser pleasures which wealth can buy. Increased leisure, so far as the people are concerned, is mainly devoted to sordid pleasures; and thus we have a social state characterized by great economic inequalities, and to masses of sordid poverty, giving birth to Socialism, with its gospel of discontent. On the intellectual side we have scepticism, with a lowering of ideals manifesting itself in the lower orders in a painful, dreary social life; in the middle classes in sheer Philistinism; and in the upper classes in worship at the shrine of pleasure. Modern Scotland is unfavourable to the rise of literature of the highest kind, whether of the Romantic or Idealistic type. We need a literature which will not flatter our national vanity nor throw a halo round our national materialism, but which will picture Scottish life as it really is. The complexity of modern life, the feverish struggle for existence and success, the thirst for pleasure, the disintegration of religious beliefs, the smug respectability of the middle classes, the Socialistic aspirations of the working classes, the awful contrast between riches and poverty—these things, which characterize the Scotland of to-day, afford ample scope for a Scottish novelist who has the courage not to pander to the sentimental side of his countrymen, but resolutely to paint a true picture of the time.

Such a picture would reveal the extent to which Scotland has fallen below the ideals of the great leaders of the past. The Reformers, Moderates, and Covenanters differed seriously on fundamental questions, but in one thing they were agreed—they sought, according to their lights, to train their fellow-countrymen to face worthily the great problem of life. In order to do that, it is essential that the pilgrim should be provided with a chart by means of which he will have "a clear conception of the journey, and so avoid the pitfalls which exist for the ignorant and the unwary. The Reformers and Covenanters do not commend themselves to the modern apostles of culture, but in their day and generation they did noble work for Scotland, simply because they had a definite theory of life, which satisfied their intelligence and inspired them to heroic deeds. The Moderates, too, though looking askance at what they considered the fanaticism of the "zealots," treated life as a solemn trust, and from their own standpoint, as in the case of thinkers like Hutcheson, were able to construct for their intellectual satisfaction a full-orbed system of philosophy. We have drifted far from the creed of the Reformers and Covenanters, and science, with its stern teachings, prevents us taking refuge in the optimistic Deism which satisfied the Moderates. The modern mind in Scotland, as elsewhere, tends to rest in Indifference, which is the congenial soil, not of heroism, but, according to individual temperament, of sombre stoicism or riotous epicureanism. One thing is plain—Scotland must sink into a materialistic view of life unless it can get beyond this standpoint. Let it be understood that life is an insoluble riddle, man's pilgrimage an aimless wandering among fogs and quagmires, and the result will be materialism in creed and conduct. Science left to itself tends to materialism, but under the magic touch of religion and philosophy it is capable of subordinating material resources to ideal ends. The intellectual task before the Scotland of to-day is the construction of a creed in which the materialism which science brings with it will unite with the idealism of religion, philosophy and literature in so raising the tone of the national life that, in the firmament of history, the Scotland of the future will shine with as great a lustre as the Scotland of the past.


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