Sylvan the giant captive Ourang-Outang is only the most spectacular figure in an array of monsters, prodigies, and other anomalous characters who trouble the categories not just of culture, gender, ethnicity and race but of humanity as a species in Walter Scott's late romance Count Robert of Paris (1831). Dismissed by most commentators as a bizarre effusion of Scott’s dotage, Count Robert of Paris sets its scene decisively outside the developmental continuum specified for “the classical form of the historical novel” by Georg Lukács. Eleventh-century Constantinople is scarcely the scene of “our own” past, a setting that may provide “a concrete prehistory of the present” (The Historical Novel 269). It is doubly divided from modern British readers: by the schism between the Greek and Roman churches, which cast Byzantium as the decadent shadow of a more vigorous “western civilization”; and by the Ottoman conquest of 1453, which cut off the Greek empire from the progressive path to modernity. J. H. Alexander’s new edition of Count Robert of Paris (Edinburgh, 2006), restoring extensive passages that were cut by Scott’s executors, allows us to see more clearly than was hitherto possible the novel’s philosophical investment in alien histories, alien origins.
Among the passages published for the first time is a conclusion in which Scott acknowledges the unprecedented, experimental character of what is “probably the last of my fictitious compositions” (362). The quest for “novelty at whatever rate” has driven him to “lay his scene in distant countries, among stranger nations, whose manners are imagined for the purpose of the story – nay, whose powers are extended beyond those of human nature.” Scott’s prime example of a romance that goes beyond human nature is “a late novel . . . by the name of Frankenstein” (363). Scott had reviewed Frankenstein for Blackwood’s in 1818, and a new edition of the novel, revised by Mary Shelley, was published just over one month after he completed Count Robert of Paris (and less than two months before its publication). On Scott’s own authority, then, this essay will read Count Robert of Paris not as a historical novel but as a work of anthropological science fiction. Scott’s late romance reveals the link between the historical novel and science fiction to be more intimate than we might have thought, genetic as well as analogical, soon after the foundation of both genres (Waverley, Frankenstein) in British Romanticism.
The name of that link, “man,” designates the philosophical problematic of Count Robert of Paris and marks the novel’s station not just at the end of Scott’s career but at the end of a century-long project of cultural modernization, the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. In 1739 David Hume had given that project a name, “the science of man.” By the 1770s it seemed as though history had become established as the discipline best equipped to realize the science of man, in conjectural histories of society, of manners and institutions, the arts and sciences, as well as of particular nations. It was the attempt to totalize these projects, to write the history of man as a species that laid bare a fault-line in the secular category of “man”—a fault-line constituted by its biological foundation. “The Human Species is in every view an interesting subject,” wrote Lord Kames in the preface to his Sketches of the History of Man (1774): however, “there is still wanting a history of the species, in its progress from the savage state to its highest civilization and improvement.” “The subject of this volume is the History of Man, by which I mean, not what is commonly called History, that is the History of Nations and Empires, but the History of the Species Man”: thus Lord Monboddo, introducing the fourth volume of his Antient Metaphysics (1795). These best-known of Scottish essays in the history of man as a species are notorious for their disruption of the category they invoke: Kames for his argument that humankind consists of different species (originally unified but then marked with biological as well as linguistic difference after Babel), Monboddo for his insistence that the mysterious great ape, the Orang-Outang, is man in his natural state, lacking only the artificial acquirement of language. For these accounts, it seems, “man” signifies at once too much and too little. By the time Scott was writing Count Robert of Paris, in 1830-31, the trouble with man had blown up into a scandal. Amid a rising tide of mainly French morphological speculation on the transmutation of species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had cited the orang-utan as a human prototype—not just a type of natural man but a figure for man’s animal origins and the mutability of species. Lamarck’s work was diffused across British literature by the controversy that peaked in the early 1830s, in endorsements by “Edinburgh Lamarckians” such as Robert Jameson and Robert E. Grant, as well as in refutations, most notably by Charles Lyell in the second volume of Principles of Geology (published one month after Count Robert of Paris, in January 1832).
Count Robert of Paris finds its imaginative opening in the contemporary crisis of world history and the science of man. Scott’s Constantinople swarms with different creeds, nations, races and species, in which the boundaries between nation and race and species, and between human and non-human species, shift and blur. The main figure for this boundary-flux is the Orang-Outang, who, among his other accomplishments, understands instructions given in Anglo-Saxon and kills off the principal villain of the story. The newly restored text of Count Robert of Paris allows us to see that various forms of biological difference (including sexual as well as racial and species difference) are everywhere in play in the novel. Count Robert earns its place beside Frankenstein, if we understand Shelley’s novel (following Maureen McLane’s analysis in Romanticism and the Human Sciences) as enacting a radical critique of the “specifically anthropological discourse of man” that underwrites the newly-won autonomy of imaginative literature in British Romanticism. Scott’s Constantinople opens a new kind of setting for a new kind of historical romance: the cosmopolis or world-city as conjectural arena for the natural history of man. Within this radically heterodox imaginary space, Count Robert of Paris explodes the monogenetic trajectories of national progress charted in the Scottish Waverley Novels for a fantastic exploration of the multiplicity of developmental paths and forms that humankind might take.