Abstract

Pennant's Guillotine and Scott's Antiquary: The Romantic End of the Present

In this essay, Campbell traces the peculiar re-circulations of Thomas Pennant's 1770s antiquarian description of an archaic Scottish proto-guillotine. These re-circulations culminated in a late-Romantic fantasy that Pennant's antiquarian labors had brought the modern, French guillotine to life. But even in the 1790s moment of the French Revolution, as the fashionable periodical The Bon Ton Magazine makes most remarkably clear, Pennant's prose was mediating the British encounter with the French guillotine in extraordinary ways. As an encapsulation of the antiquarian enterprise, the episode illuminates how the antiquarian fragment (liberated from an originary context) always threatened to belong to new times in uncontrollable ways, and so generated an illicit kind of temporal belonging more familiarly ascribed to fashion's recursive cycles. Campbell turns from the re-circulations of Pennant to the fiction of Walter Scott, where a prominent and simultaneous address of antiquarian fragments and fashionable dress aimed to mitigate precisely the kind of dangers on view in Pennant's unwitting resurrection of the guillotine. Scott's Waverley Novels finally bind fashions and antiquities to their respective times of origin, but the novels nevertheless remain in the shadow of Pennant's old guillotine.