Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Golden Age of Scottish fiction - Scott, Galt, Hogg, and Ferrier, plus Carlyle

Robert Crawford, in Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature, calls Walter Scott “the single most influential writer there has ever been in the global history of the novel” (p. 396).  This statement is precisely written - it is exactly right.  If only Scott were better!  Well, I can attest that he's good enough.

Here are the Walter Scott books that are or were recently in print from either Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics. I have read six of them:

Waverley (1814) - the novel read 'round the world.
Guy Mannering (1815)
The Antiquary (1816) - "its longwindedness is unbelievable"*
The Tale of Old Mortality (1816)
Rob Roy (1817)
The Heart of Midlothian (1818)
The Bride of Lammermoor (1818)
Ivanhoe (1819)
Kenilworth (1821)
Redgauntlet (1824)
Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)

There are many, many, many more, plus poems.

The Scottish Challenge is another chance for me to recommend the grossly underrated John Galt. Please try, among his half dozen best novels, one of these two:

The Provost (1822) – narrow but sharp, brilliantly so.
The Entail (1822) – Aside from Austen, the best English novel between Tristram Shandy and The Pickwick Papers.

James Hogg was known, once upon a time, primarily as a naïve poet, but only his one fine novel is now read.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a sinister tale of Calvinism gone wrong, and, like Scott’s and Galt’s best books, a brilliant experiment with the form of the novel, an expansion of what the novel could do.

Quite a period for the Scottish novel! Numerous other authors, inspired by Scott, worked the Scottish vein at this time.  One I haven’t read who sounds quite good is Susan Ferrier, whose 1818 Marriage sounds like a feminist anti-Scott, or a Highland Jane Austen.

I’m going to slide Thomas Carlyle, England's greatest crank, in here, although he’s of the next generation.  Carlyle’s best books - and his best books are something else - are, I assert:

Sartor Resartus (1833, more or less) – Sterne’s only English disciple.
The French Revolution (1837) – a terrible introduction to the subject, but a great introduction to Carlyle.
On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) – lectures on Great Men, featuring some of Carlyle’s best ideas, and some of his worst.
Past and Present (1843) – The Condition of England is not good. A revelatory book, a fundamental Victorian text.
And I'm curious about the gossipy Reminiscences (1881).

Robert Crawford would like me to stuff in Lord Byron as well, which doesn’t seem right. Still, I’m game if you are.

What should you read? Here’s how I would rank the above novels (just the novels, so only one Carlyle book), the ones I have read (so not Ferrier or half of the Scott), by artistic quality:

1. The Entail, Galt
2. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg
3. The Provost, Galt
4. Sartor Resartus, Carlyle
5. The Tale of Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian, Scott
6. Redgauntlet, Scott – although this is best read as a sequel to Waverley
7. Waverley, Scott
8. More Galt
9. More Scott

But the most important novel is unquestionably Waverley.  This is a matter of literary history, not something that is evident in the book itself, which is not uncommon for a "first X novel."  I haven't read a Scott novel that did not require an extra measure of patience.  Read one and we can talk about that.

* Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature (1938), p. 711.


  1. I might read The Provost, because it also would fill a couple of other challenges I'm in. I also was thinking of "The House With the Green Shutters."

  2. If you are interested in Carlyle's "Reminiscences" (now that I know of its existence - thank you! - I am), you might also be interested in William Allingham's "Diaries". He was a friend of Carlyle's (among other celebrities he also knew Lord Tennyson), and it has quite a lot of Carlyle-anecdotes - and since it is a diary and not memoir, they are all "fresh off the press", so to speak.


  3. Oh, I forgot - I'd still say Susan Ferrier (or "Marriage" rather, as it is the only one I've read) is more like Maria Edgeworth than Jane Austen - she isn't quite as focused in her story-telling as JA.


  4. Richard, which challenges cover The Provost? Whatever they are, I'm all for them. I plan to read The House with the Green Shutters sometime, myself.

    LRK - thanks for the recommendation of the Allingham book, and the note about Ferrier. The one Edgeworth novel I have read (Castle Rackrent, of course) is pretty focused, but I know it's not typical Edgeworth.

  5. Someday I'll try Galt because of your recommendations but I think I'm more likely, from this list, to tend toward Sir Walter Scott who is new to me.

  6. I was reading over your challenge and thinking I didn't possess any book that would do for it, when it occurred to me that I was given for Christmas the memoirs of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, who wrote up her life from 1845-1854. I don't suppose it's litt-ra-chure in the same vein as Waverley, but it might do, perhaps?

  7. I'm loving all this. I had no idea there was so much. I'll read Galt someday and Scott too, but since Carlyle made it fourth on your list and you do seem excited to read him again, I'm going to aim for taking him up the end of March between school quarters. A nice rest for my brain. Ha!

  8. Stefanie, Carlyle will definitely keep the brain in shape over Spring Break!

    litlove, thanks for that recommendation. It's just the sort of thing I'm likely to miss. There seem to be two versions of the Elizabeth Grant memoir floating around, the original version, which was an abridgement, and a much-expanded Canongate Classics edition. Scotland's Books says good things about her.

  9. I've been meaning to read Sartor Resartus for years.... now I will. Maybe more Carlyle as well.

  10. A little Sartor Resartus readalong, all right. By the way, Brian, I've been enjoying the Louise Glück posts.

  11. OK, I've downloaded Ferrier's Marriage from Project Gutenberg for my first choice--though with all the other things I'm reading (or supposed to be reading) in the next 2-3 months, it might be a while before I get to it. Next up I think I'll reread The Heart of Midlothian, since it keeps coming up in discussions of Adam Bede and it has been maybe 12 years since I last read it through. And then, The Perpetual Curate--because I've liked the other Oliphant novels I've read. Also, you should read her Autobiography. It's odd, but remarkable. The Broadview edition is good.

  12. it might be a while before I get to it

    Good! Thanks! I do want to read Marriage, but two or three or four months from now sounds about right.

    I do like that people are unable to restrain themselves to one book. I'm only committing to one (each)! I feel that my work on the reading lists is paying off.

  13. You convinced me on Galt a long time ago so I'm signing on for The Entail. And I've never read Scott, which seems like a crime (atleast my Scottish born and bred father would say so!) so I'm adding The Tale of Old Mortality to the mix (unless you convince me to read Waverly first).

    and I think all challenges should be run like yours

  14. The best reason to read Waverley before Old Mortality, besides a chronological neurosis, is that you will then appreciate how Scott fixes some of the flaws of Waverley in the later novel.

    So, yeah, since Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are maybe as good as Scott gets, start there.

    all challenges should be run like yours

    Ha ha ha! Yes, oh yes. This idea is going to spread like wildfire, I'm sure.

  15. Well, I've taken the Complete Walter Scott onto my Kindle (starting to get very addicted to the Complete Works of every- classic-writer-known-to-history for 2.99 on my Kindle...I'm carrying several roomfuls of powerful lit around with me at all times - how reassuring). Will start with Waverly and keep going.
    Found The Entail, not on Gutenberg, but through Google Books...strange.