Polygon, £16.99, 328pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Scott-land: The Man Who Invented A Nation, By Stuart Kelly
Friday 27 August 2010
The evaluation of a fiction rests on impact not truth," writes Stuart Kelly in a work that evaluates the impact of the many fictions, literary and otherwise, of Sir Walter Scott. Scott's impact was considerable but Kelly is aware of the problems facing this book; nobody reads Scott now, and his surviving legacy is often viewed negatively. Kelly quotes, among others, Irvine Welsh's dismissal of Scott: "Just an arse-licker to the Prince Regent".
Scott-land isn't (or isn't just) a study of the Scotland that Scott invented, nor is it a literary biography. Rather, it's a series of linked essays on Scott's life, literature and legacy. Kelly came late to the Great Unknown's works, resisting them till he realised that "until I read Scott, all my opinions about him would be lazy plagiarisms".
Other readers avoid Scott because of his reputation for conservatism, long-windedness and archaism, or give up after the forbidding first chapter of a Waverley novel. While Kelly is an evangelist for Scott, he stresses that Scott-land is "a plea, a journey, an argument and an analysis".
Kelly engagingly assesses Scott's various works and insightfully sets Scott in his context, but the book is perhaps most successful in its choice anecdotes. Scott received the first ever author's advance (for Marmion), helped to ensure the survival of Scottish banknotes (so that all Bank of Scotland notes still bear his portrait) and has, in Edinburgh, the world's largest memorial to an author.
Scott was a passionate Scotsman but a loyal Unionist; he wanted Scotland to be a distinct but equal partner with England. His literary work played no small role in preserving Scottish distinctiveness, while his stage management of George IV's preposterously tartan-drenched 1822 visit to Edinburgh popularised a new, faux-ancient culture that was much-derided from the first yet which thrives today.
Scott's use of real locations, such as the Trossachs in The Lady of the Lake, sparked a massive increase in tourism and Scott is still invoked to attract visitors, few of whom will have read a word he wrote. Kelly records how, in the 1830s, St Andrews folk complained that their town had never featured in the writings of Scott or Burns or Byron and so lacked any tourism dividend. Saved by the golf, then.
Perhaps more unexpectedly, Kelly shows how Scott also influenced England's view of itself, or its past, through the romantic tushery of novels such as Kenilworth and Ivanhoe. The portrayal of Robin Hood in the latter remains influential in film and TV. And Scott was the first, in Anne of Geierstein, to coin the phrase "The War of the Roses". There are more surprises. Scott's curious manipulation of his anonymous authorship of the Waverley novels, together with the complex and self-referential framing devices he employed, would be regarded as self-consciously post-modern, Kelly suggests, in a contemporary writer.
Scott's antiquated-looking Abbotsford House was his historical fiction in stone. Kelly recalls how his childhood visits there, as with his more recent ones for research, left him disappointed. He suggests that Abbotsford lost its soul and its only conceivable purpose when Scott died in 1832, and that its reinvention as a tourist attraction in the 20th century only draws attention to this. Perhaps it should have been left to moulder like a gaunt ruin in a Waverley novel.
Kelly points out how Scott names litter the Scottish and wider landscape. Streets, buildings and public amenities all over the UK still bear Scottian names, literary standing stones whose significance is often lost. I grew up in one of Scotland's dozens of Sir Walter Scott council estates (in Abbotsford Drive) but never read any Scott until long after I'd moved out.
Kelly attempts to reconnect Scott-land, the surviving physical relics and cultural legacy of Scott, with the the author, and by implication to suggest to Trossachs tourists on SS Sir Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian FC supporters, travellers at Edinburgh's Waverley Station and those who live in Marmion Drive or Ivanhoe Crescent, that it's worth seeking out the works the names recall. The book is let down a little by too-lengthy quotations (by writers other than Scott), but is a fascinating read all the same. I wonder, though, whether it will find a readership beyond the small but doughty band of Scottophiles?
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