Unvarnished Tales and Fatal Influences: Teaching the National Tale and the Historical Novel in the Romantic Classroom

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Unvarnished Tales and Fatal Influences: Teaching the National Tale and the Historical Novel in the Romantic Classroom

Evan Gottlieb, Oregon State University


  1. When introducing students of Romanticism to national tales and historical novels, I like to start with at least a preliminary discussion of the nature of historiography itself. Many students, especially English majors, assume that they already know what history is: it's what constitutes the background of a given literary work. This is not necessarily a bad starting point for class discussion, as it already implies the recognition that, to interpret a particular text, one needs to know something about its contexts. National tales and historical novels, however, immediately complicate this foreground-background model of the relationship between literature and history, inasmuch as their historical materials are built directly into their narratives. I want to begin this essay by outlining some of the main theoretical issues that instructors may wish to keep in mind when initiating classroom discussion of national tales and historical novels. I then turn to case studies of two of the most accessible historically-minded texts of the Romantic era: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800) and Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor (1819).[1] In each case, my goal is to provide practical strategies for highlighting the ways that both of these texts self-consciously reflect upon the practices by which the Romantics strove not only to make sense of their past, but also to make it relevant to their present.

    I. History in Theory

  2. I like to begin the process of disrupting students' assumptions regarding the so-called normal correlation between literature and history—that is, the abovementioned foreground-background relationship—via Raymond Williams' definition of history in Keywords, in which he notes that "story" and "history" share the same linguistic root: they both derive from the Greek word istoria, which first meant "inquiry" and then developed to denote "an account of knowledge." Moreover, as Williams observes, the distinction between "story" as a narrative of imagined events, and "history" as an account of true or past events, did not even arise in English until the fifteenth century (146). This etymological approach highlights how our concepts of history and narrative were conjoined at birth. Students are then in a better position to appreciate the fact that history is always already textual. On the one hand, this means that we generally have no access to the past except through its documentation, as in Foucault's well-known opening to "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History": "Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times" (76). On the other hand, it also means that every writing of a history is simultaneously the crafting of a story. Accordingly, I ask students to consider the import of Hayden White's formulation that "All historical narratives presuppose figurative characterizations of the events they purport to represent and explain" (94), and I encourage a discussion of the various tropes—especially metaphor, metonymy, and irony—that writers of history and authors of fiction both employ.[2]

  3. Once the fundamental affiliation between history and narrative has been established, students are primed to consider the features that distinguish a specifically Romantic historicism. To move from history to historicism, however, immediately begs the question of the "ism" itself.[3] If history is what we write about the past, I tell my students, then historicism is how we decide what to write and how to write it. For more advanced students, it may also be appropriate to refer them to Paul Hamilton's useful definition: "Historicism is the name given to th[e] apparent relativizing of the past by getting to know the different interpretations to which it is open and deciding between them on grounds expressing our own contemporary preoccupations" (16). Either way, we are always involved in a double cognitive operation: while seeking to uncover or recover those preoccupations that colored the Romantics' relationship to history, we must simultaneously be aware of the grounds of our own investigations. While such self-reflection may come naturally to most instructors and scholars, it is not necessarily automatic in our students, so it helps to remind them that we are no more free from historical bias—understood at least in the neutral senses of motivation or interest—than were our historical subjects. Encouraging students to think of themselves as part of the history they are simultaneously studying can be as simple as reminding them that historical novels continue to be extraordinarily popular with the general public, or as complex as provoking them to recognize that many of the fundamental ideological choices with which we are faced today—for example, the choice between progressive and conservative interpretations of history—have their roots in the Romantic period. If we can get students to see the ongoing relevance of the debate between Paine and Burke on the nature of the state's proper relationship to tradition, for example, then we have successfully historicized the very language that our students have inherited to delineate their own ideological choices.

  4. As many scholars have pointed out, it seems no coincidence that the Romantic era gave birth to the historical novel. The eighteenth century had already witnessed both "the rise of the novel" as a reputable literary form, and the great historiographical enterprises of the Enlightenment, especially Hume's History of England (1754-62), Macaulay's History of England from the Accession of James I (1763-83), and Gibbons' History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88).[4] It is too simple, however, to see the national tale and historical novel as stemming from an inevitable synthesis of historiography and fiction. For one thing, as Everett Zimmerman indicates, the two genres were frequently seen to be at loggerheads: "The critique of history explicitly and implicitly mounted by the novel is related to empiricist assumptions that invaded all aspects of eighteenth-century thought. [. . .] The novel exposed the limits of the verifiable and the inevitability of a narrative perspective (even in history) that is rooted in time, place, and individuality, not in abstract truth and universality" (2, 21). From its very inception, in other words, the novel form was understood to be engaged in a running critique of the assumptions on which traditional historiography was built. What forces, then, were at work that brought these two apparently hostile genres together in the Romantic era? Certainly, I tell my students, the public's sense of history was necessarily both rich and dynamic in this tumultuous period, which bore witness to an extraordinary series of revolutions, literal (American, French, Irish) as well as figurative (Agricultural, Industrial). As a result, as James Chandler has convincingly demonstrated, the Romantic era was veritably obsessed with defining its own zeitgeist. Simultaneously bearing witness to and participating in events that clearly bore world-historical importance, the Romantics were at pains to define their own era, even if only in order to imagine it differently: "An age that has the capacity to conceive of itself as such will do so in order that it may alter itself" (Chandler 240). Equally important to the Romantics' obsession with the spirit of their age is what Chandler, quoting the historian Reinhart Koselleck, identifies as the distinctive feature of Romantic historicism: "the quality and extent of its interest in what might be called 'comparative contemporanaieties.'" (107). In other words, to construct a sense of their own era as a distinct moment in history, the Romantics had also to develop a sense of their relationship to other, previous eras. For classroom purposes, I have found this concept easiest to explain with reference to the expression Chandler subsequently cites: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" (Hartley 3; quoted in Chandler 108). When I ask students to consider the significance of the fact that the second verb is in the present tense, they usually recognize that this conveys a sense of the past as effectively existing alongside and integrally informing the present. When they comprehend this quintessentially Romantic sense of the dynamic relationship between past and present, students are well on their way to appreciating what was at stake in the Romantic flourishing of national tales and historical novels.

  5. If I am feeling particularly brave—or if I am teaching an upper-division class full of experienced English majors—I occasionally encourage my students to pursue these general thoughts on Romantic historicism one step farther. Taking my cue from Ian Baucom's provocative Specters of the Atlantic, I ask students to consider his proposition that Romantic historicism is essentially melancholic in nature; as opposed to the earlier eighteenth-century novel, which Baucom aligns with a belief in progress and speculative reason, Romantic historicism and the historical novel "articulate themselves as antagonists of a globalizing finance capital" (43). In essence, Baucom shares Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre's sense that Romanticism as a cultural movement runs "against the tide of modernity." Before ratifying this conclusion too hastily, however, it is worth remembering that, by demonstrating the inextricability of narrative and history, Romantic historicism simultaneously sets itself against "the epistemic and disciplinary division of 'fact' from 'fiction'" that Matthew Wickman has recently demonstrated was a constitutive element of "many eighteenth-century cultural formations" (7). Accordingly, I ask my more advanced students to consider the possibility that Romantic historicism is in fact very much oriented toward the future—especially toward new social formations and new forms of national belonging. Like Benjamin's angel of history, the national tale and the historical novel move inexorably forward even as they face backward.

  6. Before turning to specific examples, I find it helpful to provide students with some fundamental information about the two genres in question. A good introductory definition of the historical novel can be found in Avrom Fleishman's classic study, The English Historical Novel: "Most novels set in the past [. . .] are liable to be considered historical. [. . .] Regarding substance, there is an unspoken assumption that the plot must include a number of 'historical' events, particularly those in the public sphere (war, politics, economic change, etc.) mingled with and affecting the personal fortunes of the characters." As well, adds Fleishman, "It is necessary to include at least one such [real] figure in a novel if it is to qualify as historical" (3). Of course, as with any generalization, Fleishman's definition is open to debate on several fronts, and students are frequently able to articulate some reservations right from the start: What about novels (like Castle Rackrent) that are set in the past but take place entirely within the private, domestic sphere? What happens when historical fictions (again, like Castle Rackrent) don't contain any "real" characters at all? At this point, if not before, I introduce the distinction between the historical novel and its generic predecessor, the national tale: whereas examples of the former tend to meet Fleishman's baseline requirements, I tell my students, the latter tend to be freer in form—although certain patterns, such as the tour through a foreign country and the marriage plot, are generally recognizable—and somewhat narrower in scope. Furthermore, there is another important deficiency in Fleishman's definition as it pertains to Romantic historical fiction: namely, the misnomer of "English" in his title. As Katie Trumpener has definitively demonstrated, both the national tale and the historical novel are born of the tension between the English center and its Celtic peripheries. Both genres thus articulate a dialectical sense of difference between the nations that form Great Britain: "When late-eighteenth-century discussions of bardic poetry and national antiquities are remembered and revived, in the first years of the nineteenth century, this has an immediate effect on the early nineteenth-century novel, shaping first a new kind of nationalist novel [the national tale] and then a new kind of historical novel" (Trumpener 11). Finally, there is yet another distinction to be made for students specifically studying works by Edgeworth and Scott, for as Sara L. Maurer has observed, whereas the latter "employed the century-long perspective of rebellion and reconciliation since the 1707 Union of Scotland and Britain" when penning his historical novels, the Irish national tale "emerged on the heels of a failed uprising and a bitterly disputed union" (364). With these explanations in place—usually supplemented by a brief historical timeline of the formation of the United Kingdom, from the Union of the Crowns in the early seventeenth century through the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland—students are ready to encounter the fictions themselves.

    II. Castle Rackrent: History as Anecdote

  7. Although Edgeworth's first work of adult fiction is perhaps not as typical of the national tale genre as some of its successors (e.g. Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl [1806]), its compact length and engaging humor make it highly suitable for the Romantic classroom. From the outset, students should be informed that Edgeworth's status as a novelist has changed dramatically over the last few decades, in good part as a result of rereadings of Castle Rackrent itself. Whereas she was previously read primarily as a conservative apologist for the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy—someone who, in Michael Hurst's phrase, evinced a "Colonial Office mentality" toward her subaltern subjects (87; quoted in Mellor 78)—it is now common to see both Edgeworth's politics and her fictions as more complex.[5] In this spirit, I usually begin by directing students' attention to Edgeworth's subtitle: "An Hibernian Tale, Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782." What can we learn, I ask, from the diction here? The use of the adjective "Hibernian" to describe the narrative may simply avoid repeating the "Irish" of the penultimate clause, but its learned elevation also establishes a certain distance between the editorial voice and the text itself (which was initially published anonymously). We are next told that what follows is pointedly not a "history" but rather a "tale," the connotations of which, I tell my students, were multiple; according to the OED, "tale" in the late eighteenth century could merely indicate a narrative, but it could also mean "a thing of the past," "things told so as to violate confidence or secrecy," and "a falsehood." All of these definitions seem potentially significant, and none of them is ruled out by the intriguing mixture of objective "facts" and subjective "manners" subsequently conjured together. Turning to the subtitle's final clause, I inform my students that 1782—the date before which all the action of the narrative is said to take place—is doubly significant: not only was it the year in which Edgeworth first began to live in Ireland, but it was also the year that established the short-lived Irish Independency, in which the all-Protestant Irish Parliament achieved an unprecedented amount of autonomy from Westminster. Accordingly, Castle Rackrent is carefully set in a transitional period when the future of Ireland's national status was profoundly uncertain. Even as Edgeworth wrote the bulk of the novel in the 1790s, it was unclear whether Ireland would remain an independent state, or become part of Great Britain; only after the 1798 Rebellion was brutally suppressed did Ireland's incorporation into the United Kingdom begin to take on the air of inevitability.

  8. It is within this context that I encourage my students to puzzle over the multiple nuances of the novel's Preface, which was most likely written after the bulk of the novel itself was completed.[6] It begins with a defense of the anecdote, a form of historical narration that, according to Edgeworth, is both more truthful and more enjoyable than traditional historiography. By locating truth in the private rather than the public sphere, and by suggesting that the anecdote evokes readerly sympathy more effectively than large-scale history, Edgeworth reveals something important about what she hopes to accomplish in the fiction that follows. I then ask students to consider the imagery informing her statement that "After we have beheld splendid characters playing their parts on the great theatre of the world, with all the advantages of stage effect and decoration, we anxiously beg to be admitted behind the scenes, that we may take a nearer view of the actors and actresses" (2). Students readily see that Edgeworth is invoking the time-honored metaphor of the world as a stage; as such, they begin to understand that her purpose is to take us backstage, so to speak, to reveal what takes place behind the curtain normally separating public from private history. (At this point, students may be interested to learn that Edgeworth drew many of the events depicted in Castle Rackrent from her own family history, which she knew from reading her grandfather's memoirs.) Nevertheless, the very presence of theatrical metaphors should make students pause before accepting at face value Edgeworth's assertion that what follows is a "plain unvarnished tale," a phrase of course adapted from the famous line in Othello.

  9. Subsequently, I ask students to consider whom the novel constructs as its intended audience. The answer can be found a little later in the Preface, when Edgeworth (in the guise of editor) explains that "For the information of the ignorant English reader a few notes have been subjoined" (4). Once this point has been established, a discussion of the Preface's ending can profitably be mounted. When Edgeworth states that "Nations as well as individuals gradually lose attachment to their identity," and follows this by concluding that "When Ireland loses her identity by an union with Great Britain, she will look back with a smile of good-humoured complacency on the Sir Kits and Sir Condys of her former existence" (5), students are usually quick to observe that Edgeworth seems to be soothing the fears of her English readers (who, as Susan B. Egenolf and Ian Haywood have recently shown, were bombarded with anti-Irish literature during and after the 1798 uprising) by reassuring them that the Ireland they are about to encounter in the pages that follow is most certainly a thing of the past.[7] Nevertheless, the displacement into the future of the moment of nostalgia for lost identity ("she will look back") suggests a certain ambivalence on Edgeworth's part. When, if ever, will Ireland finally and fully lose her identity within Great Britain ? I ask students to keep this question in mind as we read forward into the body of the text itself.

  10. That text, of course, is vividly narrated by Thady Quirke, the long-suffering servant of the Rackrent family. Students immediately notice that Thady goes out of his way to identify his family nickname as 'honest Thady' (7)—a designation that recurs throughout his ensuing narrative, which chronicles the misadventures of four generations of Rackrent heirs. Far from explicitly condemning the hapless Rackrents, however, Thady repeatedly insists that he has been always "true and loyal to the family of his masters" (8). This first and paradigmatic protestation of loyalty, however, follows hard on the heels of Thady's revelation that his son has become an attorney "having better than 1500 a-year" (8). "I wash my hands of his doings," Thady continues, but I encourage my classes to see this as the first of many prevarications on Thady's part. To begin, I guide them to read between the lines of Thady's account of how the estate initially came into the current line, paying particular attention to the fact that the family was more than happy to change its original name of O'Shaughlin, as well as to convert from Catholicism (the "one condition" alluded to on page 9), in order to benefit from Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent's unfortunate demise. Although Thady does not admit this explicitly, we understand that the Rackrent estate passes into the hands of the current heirs, not only through a happy accident, but also through an act of opportunism that is simultaneously one of identity-shifting: the Catholic O'Shaughlins become the Protestant Rackrents as the occasion demands. (Such inventive opportunism—what Daniel Hack, following Stephen Greenblatt, calls "improvisation" [Hack 149]—is also arguably the principle of Edgeworth's own ventriloquization of Thady.) Thus, the current Rackrent family, starting with Sir Patrick, approximates the cultural and religious position of the historically Protestant, Anglo-Irish landowning class, which included Edgeworth's own family.

  11. As we read on, we see that each of the Rackrent heirs is cursed with a failing that makes him a terrible landlord: Sir Patrick drinks, Sir Murtagh litigates, Sir Kit gambles, and Sir Condy dithers. In each case, Thady makes superficial attempts to blame their failings on factors beyond their control: Sir Patrick's drinking is congenital, Sir Murtagh's litigating is a matter of family pride, Sir Kit's abusive behavior toward his wife is an attempt to secure her jewels, and Sir Condy's improvidence is generally in the service of trying to shore up the family's fortune and honor. In the cases of Sir Murtagh and Sir Kit, furthermore, Thady blames their misfortunes on their wives: Sir Murtagh's spouse "has Scotch blood in her veins" (13) and so encourages him to be both frugal and litigious, and Sir Kit's is rumored to be Jewish (although she wears a diamond cross—apparently the true object of her husband's desires) and therefore exacerbates his self-destructive tendencies. When Sir Kit dies in a duel and his wife is freed from her lengthy incarceration in her room, Thady disingenuously informs the reader that "all the gentlemen within twenty miles of us came in a body as it were, to set my lady at liberty, and to protest against her confinement, which they now for the first time understood was against her own consent" (35). Whether anyone truly believed that she chose to be locked in her room for seven years, however, is a matter that Thady does not look into too closely. Nor does Thady inquire too minutely into the motivations behind his son's actions. Although Thady tends to downplay this tendency, Jason has a knack for being at the right place at the right time; when Sir Kit dies, for example, it is "my son Jason" who "ran to unlock the barrack-room, where my lady had been shut up for seven years, to acquaint her with the fatal accident" (33). Moreover, in an earlier passage that Thady records without comment, we learn not only that Jason had been carrying on a private correspondence with Sir Kit, but also that he has successfully petitioned to become the Rackrent estate's agent, a position of great power considering how little interest the heirs themselves generally take in their estate's financial affairs.

  12. Jason's power over the estate is consolidated in the second part of the novel's narrative, the "History of Sir Conolly Rackrent." Here, I ask my class to start thinking about how, even as he continues to appear to have the family's best interests at heart, Thady effectively facilitates his son's eventual takeover of the estate. From his childhood, for example, Sir Condy's head is filled by Thady with "stories of the family and the blood from which he was sprung" (39)—tales that Thady continues to retail even after Sir Condy has been forced to sign over everything to Jason (see 80). More damaging still, despite his protestations of undying loyalty to the family, at key moments in the narrative Thady cannot help but reveal his own agency in causing—or at least hastening—Sir Condy's downfall. When the hapless Rackrent heir is running for parliament, Thady ends up not only identifying him to a debt collector, but also introducing the latter to Jason, who not only knows all the details of the estate's debts, but has been waiting for the right moment to put this information to use. Although Thady seems genuinely sorry to see Jason subsequently buy up the Rackrent estate at a deep discount, all his expressions of sorrow don't change the fact that he has helped enrich his son at Sir Condy's expense. Furthermore, as students frequently notice, Thady is at least indirectly responsible for Sir Condy's death, insofar as it is his constant reminders of the Rackrent legacy that inspire the last heir to imitate his ancestors, with deadly results. First, Sir Condy holds a fake funeral for himself, which Thady encourages by telling him "I did not doubt his honor's would be as great a funeral as ever Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin's was" (81); then, after signing over his wife's jointure to Jason, Sir Condy, like Sir Patrick before him, drinks himself to death by attempting to drain his predecessor's enormous horn of liquor. With the connivance of the Quirks, history repeats itself—with the important difference that the Rackrent estate is now firmly in the hands of the rising professional class of native Irishmen represented by Jason. As for Thady, he claims to be "tired of wishing for any thing in this world, after all I've seen in it" (96), but by now students are not likely to take any of Thady's pronouncements at face value.[8]

  13. Edgeworth's "odd and ironic" tale does not end with Thady's final pronouncement (Ferris 50), however, for the editorial voice breaks in one last time to bookend the narrative with an ambiguous question: "It is a problem of difficult solution to determine whether an Union will hasten or retard the amelioration of this country. [. . .] Did the Warwickshire militia, who were chiefly artisans, teach the Irish to drink beer, or did they learn from the Irish to drink whiskey?" (97). The answer, it would seem, is both; moreover, in either case, the results are such that the mingling of customs is inevitable. Accordingly, although some commentators have noticed a gap between the Editor's perspective and Thady's narrative—which Kate Cochran ascribes to "a tension within Edgeworth's consciousness between her loyalty to her own class and her sympathy for the Irish peasantry" (65)—I tend to read both voices as staking the same claim: for better or for worse, the time of an independent Ireland is over. This message is arguably reinforced by the compendious Glossary which, if students have the patience, I encourage them to read for the many examples it provides of (Edgeworth's perspective on) Irish traditions that have deteriorated in recent years. As she says in a note on Irish funeral lamentations, "It is curious to observe how customs and ceremonies degenerate" (101). The only way to prevent such degeneration from becoming total, Edgeworth seems to imply, is via Ireland's assimilation with the rest of Britain; if the preceding narrative proves anything, it is that the Irish are clearly incapable of taking care of themselves. I like to leave my students, however, with the question that Hack asks regarding Jason's future: in the new United Kingdom, what kind of role will a man like Jason play? Will he become a disappeared Irishman, an exemplary colonial subject, or "most dangerous of all possibilities—does his Irishness persist and combine with his education to make him, or enable him to become, an Irish nationalist?" (Hack 161). The impossibility of definitively answering this question speaks to the skill with which Edgeworth crafts her "plain unvarnished tale."

    III. The Bride of Lammermoor: History as Prophecy

  14. Even more than Edgeworth's, Scott's literary fortunes have gone through several incarnations: the most popular novelist of the Romantic era (as attested by William St Clare's recent research on publication numbers in the period), Scott's reputation declined dramatically in the twentieth century, and critics have only relatively recently begun to take his work seriously again. Scott made no secret that he was inspired to begin writing his Waverley novels by Edgeworth's example. As we have seen, Castle Rackrent is hardly a straightforward account of Irish life; nevertheless, Scott seems sincere when he insists, in the General Preface to the Magnum Opus edition of his novels, that "I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland—something which might introduce her natives to those of the sister kingdom, in a more favourable light that they had been placed hitherto, and tend to procure sympathy for their virtues and indulgence for their foibles" ("General Preface" 352-53). As Liz Bellamy points out, this passage indicates that Scott, like Edgeworth, conceived of his readership as primarily English—accordingly, he wrote for an audience that needed to be informed as well as entertained (55). Of course, with regard to England, Scotland was in a very different position from Ireland at the start of the nineteenth century, when Scott began his fiction-writing career (Waverley was published in 1814). The Anglo-Scottish Union had been in place for more than a century, and the two rebellions that followed (in 1715 and 1745) were fading in popular memory. Moreover, not only were the economic benefits of Union finally making themselves felt in the increasingly prosperous Lowlands, but also Scotland's formerly lawless and feared Highlands had become gradually more tamed thanks to decades of rigorous "improvement." When Waverley —a recounting of the second Jacobite Rebellion—ends with the marriage of its English hero and Lowland Scottish heroine, readers could finish the novel secure in the knowledge that Scotland had given up its passionate, dangerous past in favor of a more civilized, solidly British future.

  15. With its wealth of historical detail, large cast of characters, and national scope, Waverley established the formal features of the historical novel that Scott would build upon for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, many of his later novels subtly complicate the patterns Waverley solidified. The Bride of Lammermoor, frequently cited by critics as Scott's darkest novel, may not immediately seem an obvious choice when teaching the historical novel; however, I have found that it works well in the Romantic classroom for several reasons.[9] First, and most prosaically, it is the shortest of Scott's full-length novels; students generally appreciate its relative brevity, especially when they are informed of the lengthiness of Scott's other major novels. Second, although it has its fair share of historical detail, students do not need to assimilate quite as much Scottish history to understand it as they must to read other Waverley novels like Waverley, Rob Roy (1817), or The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818). Third, its inherently tragic approach to the past makes it an especially good counterweight to lighter, more ironic national tales like Castle Rackrent.

  16. Like Edgeworth, Scott begins with an introductory chapter that frames the narrative that follows. (Students unfamiliar with Scott frequently need some help sorting out Peter Pattieson, the novel's "author," from Jedediah Cleishbotham, its "editor.") As Janet Sorensen indicates, the opening debate between an artist, Dick Tinto, and Pattieson on the relative merits of painting and writing can be seen to stand for the opposition elaborated in the rest of the novel between two different forms of representation: one claiming to be natural, immediate, and appealing to the emotions (i.e. painting), the other increasingly understood as arbitrary, mediated, and appealing to the intellect (i.e. writing). Furthermore, these two systems correspond roughly to the older and newer forms of cultural discourse competing for hegemony in Scotland around the time of the Union, when The Bride is set: whereas writing, "the language of business and law," is associated with progress and British modernity, painting (along with other seemingly "natural" media such as "gesture and oration") "became the language of the heart and sensibility, [and] thus central to the discourse of nostalgia" that looked back to Scotland's pre-Union, feudal independence (Sorensen 33). Pattieson's attempts to translate Tinto's fragmentary sketches into the narrative of The Bride can therefore be understood as indexical of the desire—so ably fulfilled by Scott in Waverley —to synthesize past and present into a harmonious whole. The question implicitly posed by The Bride's introductory chapter, then, is whether the text that follows will achieve a similar synthesis.

  17. As we move into the narrative itself, I like to ask students familiar with Edgeworth's earlier novel to describe the parallels they notice between Castle Rackrent and The Bride. Together, we observe that, in some ways, Scott's novel can be said to begin where Edgeworth's ends: the ancient, Tory, Ravenswood family has already lost its estate (with the exception of the tower of Wolfscrag) to the newer, Whiggish family of Sir William Ashton, a lawyer who, like Jason Quirk, has used his skills to benefit from the missteps, both political and financial, of the estate's previous owners. Students may need to be reminded that The Bride is set almost a century before Castle Rackrent, but again, many are quick to note that this places Scotland in much the same indistinct position with regard to England that Ireland found itself in the years before its Union.[10] In this transitional period, when political as well as legal fortunes were available to be made and lost with almost equal rapidity, past and present social orders seem inexorably to be drawn into conflict. The clash between Edgar Ravenswood and William Ashton thus indexes the larger struggle over Scotland's future: whereas the former's family history "was frequently involved in that of Scotland itself," as Scott explains in the first chapter, the latter is "descended of a family much less ancient that that of Lord Ravenswood, and which had only risen to wealth and political importance during the great civil wars" (15).

  18. As the novel begins, any Waverley-like synthesis of old and new historical forces seems highly unlikely; blaming Ashton for his father's death as well as the loss of his estate, Edgar swears revenge. (Unlike the Rackrent heirs—and befitting the new popularity of the tortured Byronic hero—Edgar is a serious rather than a comic figure.) Yet when he travels back to his former estate to confront Ashton, Edgar instead becomes the unwitting savior of both his enemy and his enemy's daughter, Lucy, rescuing them from the attack of a wild bull. This act—instinctive, spontaneous, fateful—seems to open the door for a possible reconciliation between the families. Although Edgar and Lucy are not immediately attracted to one another, Sir William recognizes the opportunity to disarm a potentially dangerous enemy, and encourages the match. At this point, I like to ask students to discuss how Edgar and Lucy, despite their star-crossed pedigrees and differing personalities, are strangely similar. The idea here is to explore how both characters are equally committed to an older, more "romantic" worldview, in which tradition and even superstition take precedence over the modern rule of law. Lucy, after all, is introduced while singing a ballad, while Edgar is from the start associated with the ancient Ravenswood motto, "I bide my time." Perhaps, we are given to hope, it is only a matter of time until the lovers can be brought together, Austen-like, with Edgar renouncing his pride and Lucy overcoming her family's prejudices.

  19. Alas, as students soon discover, this is not to be. I have led lively classroom debates about the extent to which the characters of The Bride create their own destinies or are driven to them by forces beyond their control; for my own part, I tend to agree with Frederick Burwick's observation that, more than any other Waverley novel, The Bride seems driven by a sense of history as fate: "Like the doom or destiny of Greek tragedy, history is a power beyond rational comprehension, beyond the will of the individual to control or resist" (261). More specifically, the rational, Enlightened, law-and-order world represented by Ashton is shown to be not only in inevitable conflict with, but also uncannily permeated by, the irrational forces of Scotland's brutal past. These forces take several embodied forms in the novel. One is Caleb Balderstone, The Bride's version of Thady Quirk, minus the duplicity: loyal to a fault, Caleb perennially attempts to keep up the Ravenswood family's honor and reputation, with frequently comic results. Students often become impatient with Caleb's thick dialect,[11] but his adventures in the village of Wolfshope as he searches for provisions with which to entertain the Ashtons are both highly diverting and indicative of the breakdown of feudal relations in the modern era. Furthermore, Caleb plays a crucial, Thady-like role by constantly reminding Edgar of his family history; indeed, it is Caleb who first retails the prophecy that ultimately prevails at the novel's conclusion:

    When the last Laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride,
    And wooe a dead maiden to be his bride,
    He shall stable his steed on the Kelpie's flow,
    And his name shall be lost for evermoe! (139)

    Although Edgar dismisses this prophecy as "doggerel" and "nonsense," students generally agree that Caleb's words only serve to aggravate the doubts Edgar is already feeling concerning the propriety of a union with his enemy's daughter.

  20. Less comic than Caleb, but equally indicative of the continued influence of the past, is Blind Alice, who lives in a cottage deep in the Ravenswood estate. Devoted to the old family, she explicitly disapproves of the match between Lucy and Edgar, and issues a series of warnings to all involved. Instead of acting as a force for good, however, "her oracles are the doom-laden bans of the old Border ballads, whose spell over the narrative is deadly" (Duncan 142). At the same time, I make a point of stressing in the classroom that Scott goes out of his way to indicate that, appearances to the contrary, Alice is not a straightforward representative of the old Scotland; instead, we learn on her first appearance that she is actually a transplanted Englishwoman who married a Scot and moved with him to the Ravenswood estate many decades ago. Why, I ask my students, does Scott not simply make Alice a Scotswoman, thereby cementing her authority to represent Scotland's feudal past? After some discussion, we generally conclude that Scott purposefully defeats our assumptions about Alice's national identity in order to demonstrate the power of tradition over reality, and by extension that of the past over the present. In this vein, Alice has stayed on the Ravenswood estate long after the death of her husband and children because, as she explains, "It is here [. . .] that I have drank the cup of joy and sorrow which Heaven destined for me" (33).

  21. Destiny, then, is a matter of what one believes. In The Bride of Lammermoor, moreover, Scott makes clear that one's beliefs are determined in large part by one's family history and circumstances. Critics frequently point to the appearance of supernatural elements and prophecies in the novel as proof of Scott's interest in figuring the eruption of atavistic elements into the present, yet the only truly supernatural event to take place in the novel is the appearance of Blind Alice's ghost. Furthermore, even here students can productively argue over whether the ghost is real or merely a product of Edgar's overheated imagination. Either way, as Ian Duncan indicates, Edgar's decision to accept the ghost's reality "occupies the crisis of Ravenswood's destiny, the fulcrum of the plot, marking its turn toward final, fatal resolution" (143). In fact, students can spot this turn taking place in Edgar's mind even before this phantom visitation. Immediately prior to seeing Alice's ghost, Edgar revisits the Mermaiden's Fountain, where he originally brought Lucy after rescuing her, and where, according to family legend, his ancestor had been seduced by a water nymph. I ask my class to consider carefully Scott's description of this moment: "The path in which he [Edgar] found himself led him to the Mermaiden's Fountain, and to the cottage of Alice; and the fatal influence which superstitious belief attached to the former spot, as well as the admonitions which had been in vain offered to him by the inhabitant of the latter, forced themselves upon his memory. 'Old saws speak truth,' he said to himself" (187). Here, then, is the moment when Edgar comes to accept fully the "superstitious belief[s]" he had earlier ridiculed. The past, no longer in the service of the present, now dominates it completely, and Edward's fate is sealed even before he bears witness to Alice's final, spectral admonishment.

  22. From this point on, the narrative takes on the force of inevitability. Lady Ashton, who has never approved of the match between Edgar and Lucy, arranges for her daughter to marry the callow but newly wealthy Bucklaw, and Edgar angrily leaves the country to pursue Jacobitical schemes overseas. When Lady Ashton employs the ominous Ailsie Gourlay to supervise Lucy before her wedding, Scott's macabre descriptions of the peasant woman's "quivering lip" and "shaking head" make clear that her presence bodes ill (240). Although Scott goes out of his way to indicate his Enlightened disbelief in actual witchcraft (239), the fact that Gourlay promotes the belief in her dark powers is enough to cement her influence over the impressionable Lucy. The scene where Edgar bursts into Ravenswood Castle just as Lucy is signing the last of her marriage articles to Bucklaw makes for particularly good in-class reading (247-53); as Alexander Welsh points out, for sheer emotional intensity and violent potential, "There is no comparable scene in the Waverley Novels" (30). Here, students are able to see both how Scott arranges the scene as a pictorial tableau for maximum emotional effect (as per Dick Tinto's advice in the frame narrative), and also how Edgar, despite his threats, is already effectively trapped in the past; indeed, he is described by Scott as an "unexpected apparition" having "more the appearance of one returned from the dead, than of a living visitor" (247).

  23. What follows is well known: Lucy stabs Bucklaw on their wedding night before succumbing to insanity and dying; Edgar rides out from Wolfscrag to duel Lucy's brother but disappears in the quicksand before he arrives. While students tend to be satisfied with the former conclusion—at least Lucy exacts some measure of revenge for her fate—they are sometimes puzzled by the latter (non-)event.[12] Why, I ask them, does Scott make the seemingly anti-climactic decision to deny Edgar even the satisfaction of dispatching the pompous, self-righteous Colonel Ashton? I tend to steer them toward an answer similar to that given by Bruce Beiderwell: "The action of The Bride of Lammermoor represents a series of failed gestures by the hero to establish presence. [. . .] It is appropriate that Ravenswood literally disappears when he dies" (195). In fact, not only Edgar and Lucy, but all of the novel's characters are swallowed by futility and death at its conclusion. There is literally no one left to continue the work of history at the novel's end. Or almost no one—it is ultimately the reader who must venture into the unknown future that Scott has forbidden his characters to experience. Like Coleridge's Wedding Guest, we arise from our experience of reading The Bride of Lammermoor sadder, but also hopefully wiser. If we learn anything from The Bride, I tell my students, it is that we must practice history effectively, as Foucault would have us do, putting it in the service of the present, and not vice versa. Ultimately, like Edgar, we will all be swallowed by the sands of time; nevertheless, reading national tales and historical novels gives us the opportunity to see how our Romantic predecessors struggled to make sense of the histories that perpetually threatened to overtake them. And when our present in turn becomes the future's past, as it inevitably must, we can only hope to have left similar records for future generations.


Works Cited

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Beiderwell, Bruce. "Death and Disappearance in The Bride of Lammermoor." Critical Essays on Sir Walter Scott: The Waverley Novels. Ed. Harry E. Shaw. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996. 194-201.

Bellamy, Liz. "Regionalism and nationalism: Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott and the definition of Britishness." The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1900. Ed. K.D.M. Snell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 54-77.

Burwick, Frederick. "Competing Histories in the Waverley Novels." European Romantic Review 13 (2002): 261-72.

Butler, Marilyn. Introduction to Castle Rackrent and Ennui. By Maria Edgeworth. New York: Penguin, 1992. 1-54.

---. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.

Cochran, Kate. "'The Plain Round Tale of Faithful Thady': Castle Rackrent as Slave Narrative." New Hibernia Review 5.4 (2001): 57-72.

Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent. 1800. Ed. George Watson. Introd. Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Egenolf, Susan B. "Maria Edgeworth in Blackface: Castle Rackrent and the Irish Rebellion of 1798." ELH 72 (2005): 845-869.

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Ferris, Ina. The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.

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Foucault Resources. 13 July 2007. 21 August 2007. <http://www.michel-foucault.com>

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Notes

[1] For a helpful comparison of the oeuvres of Edgeworth and Scott that focuses on issues of national identity, see Bellamy.

[2] Along with synecdoche, the above tropes are all mentioned by White as forming Giambattista Vico's analysis of the "principal modes of figurative representation" (95). See also the discussion of the narrative qualities of both factual and fictional accounts, with specific reference to the anthropological work of Clifford Geertz, in Greenblatt and Gallagher, 22-23.

[3] See the list of critical terms associated with New Historicism in Dino Felluga's Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

[4] The quotation is, of course, from the title of Ian Watt's well-known study. Watt's paradigm has been profitably challenged in recent years; see especially Lynch's work.

[5] Marilyn Butler's self-revising view may be taken as representative: whereas in 1981 she confidently states that Edgeworth's Irish tales "are designed to make the English better disposed toward their neighbours by bringing out the warmth and humor of the [Irish] peasantry" (96), in her 1992 introduction to Castle Rackrent she concludes instead that "Edgeworth may be at her most persuasive as an unabashed critic of the dying feudal Ireland, rather than as the writer the Union made her, the utopian prophet of a new nineteenth-century commercial empire" (15).

[6] Students may also be interested to know that the authorship of Castle Rackrent's Preface is sometimes attributed to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Maria's father, thus complicating questions of authorial intention and introducing tension between the novel and its various editorial apparatuses.

[7] This point seems to have been lost on George III, who after reading Castle Rackrent is reported to have remarked happily that "I know something now of my Irish subjects" (quoted in Kirkpatrick, viii-ix).

[8] For more on the variety of ways to interpret Thady's role in the narrative he relays, see the contrasting essays by Elizabeth Harden and James Newcomer in Owens.

[9] For an incisive reading of The Bride in generic terms as a Gothic novel, see Robertson, 214-25.

[10] In fact, Scott altered some of the historical details of The Bride's later Magnum Opus edition, such that the 1830 text is set just after the Union. For the sake of simplicity and coherence I prefer to teach from the original 1818 edition, available in paperback from Penguin Classics. However, more advanced students can profitably be asked to compare both editions and debate the significance of the differences between them; indeed, the very fact that Scott considered his historical fictions open to such recalibrations is itself significant.

[11] There are many excellent Scots audio files available online that can help students' ears get acquainted with the sound of Scots; see, for example, the pages hosted by the Scots Language Centre and the University of Aberdeen.

[12] In Donizetti's possibly better-known operatic version of Scott's tale, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), the violence is even more sensational: Lucy actually kills her bridegroom, and Edgar stabs himself to death when he learns of her demise.

Published @ RC

August 2008

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