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

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

Timothy Campbell
University of Chicago

Shall your fam'd guillotine
In Old England be seen?

--"The Briton's Song" from The European Magazine and London Review (1801) [1] 

1.        In this essay I trace a Romantic-era alignment between the procedures of fashion culture and the methods of a noteworthy antiquary. I center this discussion around an extraordinary micro-episode in print in 1793 (at the verge of the Reign of Terror), when the Bon Ton Magazine, or Microscope of Fashion and Folly radically repurposed Thomas Pennant's 1772 prose description of an ancient British implement of capital punishment. By transposing Pennant's antiquarian account into the eventful present moment, the Bon Ton Magazine transformed this commentary into a fully adequate dispatch on the ultra-modern guillotine—the signature emblem of the ostensibly unprecedented violence of the French Revolution. This remarkable event in print, I argue, suggests how fashion's characteristic recyclings of past artifacts for present purposes (and fashion's consequent liberations of the objects of its desire from their original contexts) also disclosed destabilizing qualities of the antiquarian enterprise itself. For if in some ways the rise of fashion was adding new danger to antiquarian practice (by putting antiquarian findings to fashion's own purposes), in other ways fashion only exposed dangers that were always inherent in the ways antiquarians managed their objects. While Barrett Kalter calls our attention to the pronounced, contemporaneous sense that the "past was not so much retrieved as manufactured in the present, and therefore artificial," in this essay I emphasize the complexity that an object like the guillotine represents for such an ethos, as the sort of retrieval that is much more evidently a dangerous repetition than the kind of conspicuous artifice that could be readily distinguished from the past in its authenticity (12).

2.        I begin with a retrospective view that will ultimately set the stage for Pennant's reemergence in the Bon Ton Magazine in 1793—namely the more distant scrutiny, circa 1840, of the consequences of Pennant's recovery of these British proto-guillotines. At the later moment both the Quarterly Review and The Court and Lady's Magazine broach a causal link between Pennant's antiquarian labors and the arrival of the guillotine in revolutionary France, with the implication that Pennant's recirculation of the archaic in some sense elicits Dr. Guillotin's infamous engine. These later accounts are striking in their own right; but I further insist, in ways these accounts do not countenance, on the specific revelations of Pennant's adoption within print fashion at the original moment of revolution. The strongest implication of the Bon Ton Magazine's appropriation of Pennant's description, and of the mode of exuberant deformation that prevails in the magazine even amidst the extremity of regicide, is that such bald commingling of ancient and modern is rather more characteristic of the age than deviant, more central than marginal, due to an increasingly general susceptibility to fashion's ways of knowing. In essence what happens to Pennant's prose description in print (via fashion) manifests the structure or form of what actually happened in the world with the instrument. Just as the Bon Ton silently set Pennant's somewhat dusty prose at the unfolding, world-historical scene of regicide, so revolutionary France quietly recast his object-artifacts as distinctively novel emanations of modernity.

3.         I proceed from this particular episode toward an account of its larger stakes by suggesting how a renewed, fashion-driven appreciation for antiquarianism's dangerous liberations deeply shapes Walter Scott's iconic redefinition of the figure of the antiquary in his novel of that title. Here, in a novel where the threat of imminent invasion by French Revolutionary forces (that is, history so-called) never quite materializes, the present itself also never quite obtains as an ontologically distinct location. Rather, in The Antiquary old dress fashions stubbornly persist in ways that point us to the essential ground of Scott's revision of Pennant and his ilk. But while the comic mode of The Antiquary works to stabilize the relics of the past alongside recently obsolete fashions, and persons—so that all these categories speak their time of origin or impressionability with the same, steady persistence—I will also consider how the shadows of Pennant's instruments of execution continue to haunt the long series of Waverley Novels to come.

I. "The novelty of the invention"

4.         In a review essay published in the Quarterly Review in December 1843, and subsequently revised and published in its own right as The History of the Guillotine (1853), John Wilson Croker consolidated a recent flurry of interest in the guillotine's origins with a diagnosis of the peculiar kind of historiographical problem the French Revolution posed. [2]  The "effects of [the] protracted system of Terror" that prevailed, Croker pronounces, have not "yet passed away," for this system "poisoned in its passage the very sources of history." These corrupted historical sources, moreover, continued to impose even on the posterity of Croker's subsequent day, which therefore labored under precisely the "same delusions" the system had "imposed on its contemporaries" (1). Most noteworthy are these sources' unspoken elisions. "It is the fashion," for instance, "to call the Moniteur the best history of the Revolution, and its pages are universally appealed to as indisputable authority," yet the newspaper startlingly omits mention of the regicide of Louis XVI in the issue that appears on the day following the execution (2). [3]  In this context, Croker observes, the question of the early history of the guillotine is a representatively "strange obscurity," for "Little or nothing was to be found" in the "leading journals of the time" "as to when and where this formidable engine made its first appearance, by what law it was sanctioned, and who were the earliest of that innumerable series of victims who perished by it" (4).

5.        Croker's assertion of the inadequacy of official history in this moment has self-conscious historiographical critique in mind. In calling attention to the discursive obscurity around the guillotine, he moves beyond a generalized horror over the Revolution's excesses to paint the broader moment as in need of the special skills of the antiquarian. It is especially "strange," Croker notes, that "persons calling themselves historians—whose attention might have been excited, not merely by the novelty of the machine, but by the moral and legal questions which led to the invention, and by the terrible, the gigantic consequences which followed its adoption—take little or no notice of it" (4). Croker's subjects, it seems, are those the historian has overlooked. And in the example he posits of one particularly revealing narrative of the regicide itself, it is an incapacity to attend to the remarkable machine with sufficient, material precision that elides the essential historical spirit of the event. As Croker reports with frustration, this historian's inadequate "words, 'the descending axe terminated his existence' [...]—there having been no preceding allusion to any machine—would have equally described that of Charles I [in England in 1649]" (6). For Croker, the "poisoned" sources of ordinary historiography remake the epoch into the opaque sort of terrain that had always necessitated antiquarians' outsized dependence upon what might be learned from objects and artifacts, and from these objects' reinsertion in historical narrative that was otherwise inadequate.

6.        Insecure about its own distance from the French Revolutionary moment, Croker's history admits of an uneasy mixture of national pride and anxiety in unveiling the English and Scottish antecedents of the machine that defined the Revolution's excesses. He enfolds the Report on the Mode of Decollation that "M. Louis" offered to the Legislative Assembly in France as part of the process of devising the French machine. Louis, Croker notes, points directly to an English precedent for the instrument while making no mention of the soon infamous Dr. Guillotin himself. [4] 

Poor Guillotin paid dearly for the foolish vanity of affecting to be an inventor, when he was only a plagiary; and it seems very strange how so general an opinion should have prevailed as to the novelty of the invention, when we find M. Louis, in the very first distinct description of the machine, representing it as one already known in England—indeed, his expressions seem to imply [a misconception] that it was then actually and habitually in use amongst us [....] If M. Louis had inquired a little farther, he would have found not only that the implement was not in general use in England, but had not been used for near 150 years in the small district [of Halifax] where it belonged. (34)
This revelation, both of the machine's liability to "plagiarism" and of Louis's failure to register the English machine's present obsolescence—or, to distinguish properly between knowledge of the machine in England and ongoing use thereof (in the way a robust past-present distinction would require)—then prompts Croker's extended recapitulation of Pennant's own detailed description of the earlier British instruments of execution. For Croker, the instability of the distinction between knowledge and use is precisely what is at issue with regard to Pennant's account, for Croker emphasizes how, at the dawn of the French Revolution, the ancient British machines had been "recalled to public attention" in Pennant's "then so recent work" (39).

7.        As part of his second tour of Scotland, published as A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides; 1772 (1774-1776), Pennant's account focuses upon the so-called Maiden, the machine that he had observed closely in Edinburgh, and its direct ancestor the Halifax Gibbet, which had supposedly served as the centerpiece of an idiosyncratic local jurisdiction centered upon the thief-ridden forest of Hardwick in Yorkshire. [5]  During his tour, Pennant first observes the still extant stone platform that had been the site of Halifax's executions (the machine itself is long gone); he then recounts his direct encounter with a machine "of the same kind" in Edinburgh. The Scottish Maiden, he writes,

is in the form of a painter's easel, and about ten feet high: at four feet from the bottom is a cross bar, on which the felon lays his head, which is kept down by another placed above. In the inner edges of the frame are grooves; in these is placed a sharp axe, with a vast weight of lead, supported at the very summit with a peg; to that peg is fastened a cord, which the executioner cutting, the axe falls, and does the affair effectually, without suffering the unhappy criminal to undergo a repetition of strokes, as has been the case in the common method. I must add, that if the sufferer is condemned for stealing a horse, or a cow, the string is tied to the beast, which on being whipped, pulls out the peg, and becomes the executioner. (700)
The direct link between the machines is the sixteenth-century Scottish Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, the tragic figure who "took a model of [the Gibbet] as he passed through Halifax"; introduced it to Scotland; and then "at length suffered by it himself" (700). Notably, the narrative of Pennant's Tour concluded with this description of Halifax and its distinctive "machine of death," and so the tour's very sequence grants the episode a kind of formal privilege and prominence. At the same time, the precise content of Pennant's description of the Edinburgh machine, as I will show, is all the more significant because it was so often repeated. Croker and others like him directly interpolated the descriptive passage again and again within their own accounts of the French guillotine. [6] 

8.        Croker himself concedes in the end that Dr. Guillotin himself, "foolish" as he was, "probably knew nothing" about the English precedents; and Croker dutifully outlines a wider series of Continental precedents to the guillotine beyond the British examples Pennant had named (34). The summary lesson of all these precedents, however, remains the oddity of the guillotine's genuine air of novelty in France: "We conclude from all this that this mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when produced by Dr. Guillotin" (46). Striking here, though not explicitly articulated by Croker, is the extraordinary symmetry of Pennant's recently "recall[ing] the machine to public attention" and the quality of "perfect novelty" the machine nevertheless embodied, as if there is a latent correspondence between "perfect novelty" and at least one mode of antiquarian recovery. The "oblivion" of living or popular memory, in other words, seems precisely the avenue through which the archaic form resurrected by antiquarian enterprise can conduce to the "appearance" of novelty (which in Croker's ambiguous phrasing might equally point to false appearances or to a genuinely sudden, impactful coming into being).

9.        Within the Court and Lady's Magazine for May 1840, an essay nearly contemporaneous with Croker's likewise brought the British prehistory of the guillotine to life while making a more unapologetic case for a direct line of influence between the Halifax Gibbet, the Scottish Maiden, and the later guillotine. [7]  "The Maiden and the Guillotine" dramatically underscores the scandal of this tale of origins: "Sceptical, as the reader may probably be upon the accuracy of this fact, it is nevertheless quite true! –the Guillotine is a machine of English invention, the use of which (singularly enough) was well known during the reign of Queen Elizabeth [...]" (429). Moreover, "The machine invented by Halifax law, was not [...] destined to remain within the limits of a narrow provincial district, but, at a later day to cross the sea and reach Paris by the somewhat circuitous route of Scotland" (431). The Court and Lady's account, which closely resembles Croker's four years later, evinces a similar reliance upon Pennant's antiquarian descriptions (again quoted at length) but dwells more intently upon the specific power of Pennant's reanimation of the old machine:

When Pennant visited Edinburgh, the Halifax machine had [...] entirely disappeared from the public eye. The sole trace of its existence in that city was a model of large dimensions, preserved in one of the halls of the ancient parliament house. This model had become nothing more than a mere object of curiosity—a vestige of antiquity, in the eyes of a new generation; and as the national pride was not interested in its preservation, it fell subsequently into private hands, and is now, we believe, to be seen in the Museum of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries. Pennant was evidently able to examine it in its minutest detail, and he comprehended all its mechanism with peculiar sagacity, as will be seen by the description which we have previously given in his words. (433, my emphasis)
In the intricate comprehension of "mechanism" that marks Pennant's description, we are to understand, one can observe the kind of antiquarian operation that restores the object of the past to the living "public eye" and also shapes its future course.

10.        For my purposes here, I am more committed to the force of this fantasy of Pennant's authorship of the guillotine than to its objective historical accuracy, but I do wish to emphasize the particular qualities of Pennant's modes of observation that seemed to lend themselves to such speculation. At the original moment of the Tour of Scotland, Pennant's first readers already identified the qualities that made his writing especially expropriable. Samuel Johnson, for instance, observed in praise that Pennant was "the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than anyone else does" (Boswell 3:56, my emphasis). For the London Magazine in the same moment, Pennant "communicat[ed] to the world, the knowledge of their country in its present state" alongside "ancient customs and manners, and various antiquities, scarcely known before" ("Impartial Review," 337). The latter assessment makes clear how Pennant's proliferating "things" are set loose in the world as part of a motley assortment of present knowledge, ancient customs, and "various" antiquities, the last of which do not properly belong to those "customs and manners" with which we might expect to align them. James Boswell detected in Pennant a similarly paratactic habit of collection, but Boswell also understood this habit to be a serious detriment: Pennant "traversed a wide extent of country in such haste, that he could put together only curt, frittered fragments of his own" (3:56). Pennant is a "writer, who at best treats merely of superficial objects, and shews no philosophical investigation of character and manners," and who likewise borrows far too much from the real understanding of those local experts who assisted him (3:56). [8]  From the start, something about the mode of Pennant's attention generates fragments, or objects "superficial[ly]" denuded of cultural context, and—perhaps in consequence—has the power to transform objects like the Maiden from mere "curiosities" into things with a life of their own. Such new life depends not so much upon a reanimating context, or the "character and manners" of a place (in Boswell's terms), as upon the intrinsic "mechanism" of the objects that (in the Court and Lady's Magazine's terms) Pennant sagaciously discerned.

II. Fashioning the King's Death

11.        From the distant perspective of the Quarterly Review and the Court and Lady's Magazine, Pennant's consequences for the French Revolution seemed at once evident in retrospect and diffusely unavailable to the original moment, which had labored under the delusion of the guillotine's novelty. But the striking case of the Bon Ton Magazine episode turns this perspective on its head. Here, the pages of fashion quite readily register the peculiarly mobile quality of Pennant's object descriptions in real time, with their own kind of distance. Admittedly, the Bon Ton seems in many ways an unlikely candidate for the kind of perceptiveness I am describing. In Paul-Gabriel Boucé's summation, the magazine is the most prominent of a set of periodicals ("predecessors to Playboy") that "thrive[d] on the sexual content" of trials for criminal conversation and on the "obscene prints" they produced to accompany such tales (Wagner 132). In more pornographic moments, the Bon Ton shuttles between graphic tales of lesbianism (and "the art of tribade") and voyeuristic sadism, as in the "old debilitated Croesus, of Broad-street" who arranges with the mistresses of two boarding schools to observe unseen as girls are "flogged upon their bare posteriors" (April 1792: 56-57). But the remarkable quality of the Bon Ton's exceptionally abandoned pages is that even those moments that would seem like genuine irruptions of the precipitous events of revolution finally bear out fashion's resiliently prurient and promiscuous capacity to traffic in such events on its own terms.

12.        The Bon Ton's strange modulations of the rush of history via its own peculiar priorities and procedures is nowhere more evident than in a seemingly straightforward dispatch on the execution of Louis XVI in the issue for January 1793. As the "Epitome of the Times" for the issue reports in a brief, fashion-saturated shorthand, the French monarch "pulled off his stock, coat and waistcoat, and, with his neck and breast bare, ascended the scaffold with intrepidity, and undaunted fortitude; (it was only 20 minutes after ten o'clock) he wore a clean shirt and stock, white waistcoat, black Florentine silk breeches, black silk stockings, and his shoes were tied with black silk strings" (444). Notably, the outsized proportion of dress description in the abbreviated "Epitome" functions as a hook for the next month's issue of the Bon Ton, where this passage plays a diminished role amidst a more extended narrative of the execution (but presumably continues to serve as a primary anchor of readers' attention). At the same time, the passage is lifted directly from the Lady's Magazine, the leading fashion publication of the moment that was interpellating respectable female consumers rather antithetical to the libertine, male audience of the Bon Ton. Commenting on the original context of just this passage in the Lady's Magazine, Mary Poovey notes the absence of comparable attention to dress in the contemporaneous account of the execution in the Gentleman's Magazine; this gaze for Poovey thus instances women's relegation to a private sphere of "polite conversation" and "sensual" concern rather than rational political judgment (16-18). [9]  But if the dress served readers of the Lady's Magazine as supplemental information that might at least invite a gendered mode of attention to the larger circumstances, the Bon Ton's disproportionate attention to dress at the very moment of regicide gleefully disrupts such a project, by making of the fashionable objects this history precipitated the most salient content of the execution.

13.        As the Bon Ton understood, the "state" of dress, especially in the cycles meted by the royal birthday, was fundamental to imagining the monarchy and its sovereign expression of the social life of the moment. A prototypical issue of the Bon Ton for June 1791, for instance, relayed reports on the celebration of George III's birthday earlier in the same month. The King "appeared in a chocolate coloured silk tabby coat, richly spangled all over with silver spangles, and embroidered on the seams; the waistcoat was of white silk, ornamented in the same manner [...]"; the Queen appeared "in a train of white and silver, with a petticoat of the same, richly embroidered" together with brilliant jewels and "ornaments of silver and foils"; and the Princess "Was in a rich silver silk body and train, a petticoat richly embroidered with silver spangles and pink convolves, with a loose drapery of green and silver in folds on the corners of the hoop, which had a new and beautiful effect" (141-143). [10]  Against this backdrop, the Bon Ton's plagiarized account of Louis XVI's wardrobe takes on a distinctly perverse valence. Even the ostensibly straight reporting on Louis XVI's execution, in other words, makes the scene a grotesque rehearsal of the ubiquitous print fashion scene of the royal ball and of its characteristic mode of description: the "white waistcoat" of Louis XVI is a macabre reflection of George III at the birthday celebration (in his own "white silk" waistcoat). Likewise, a subsequent report in the Bon Ton for September 1792, on the new fashions of the gentlemen of France, sardonically pointed to garments "spotted with a mixture, called the blood of their countrymen—Sans Culottes" (285, my emphasis). The satire most directly puns on the account of the ladies' petticoats in 1791 (and others garments like theirs) which are "spotted with white foil." [11]  But if the satire in part rebukes the revolution, it just as surely makes of the blood-spotted shirts of Frenchmen a grotesque kind of fashion in a way that destabilizes any secure stance of judgment on the bloodshed.

14.        My concern, then, is not with the Bon Ton's abiding plagiarism as such but rather with its fashion-informed mode of appropriation, whereby the objects and events that come within its purview are powerfully recontextualized or remade. This mode is once again borne out in the magazine's adoption of Pennant's guillotine description. The aforementioned issue of the Bon Ton for February 1793 (which expands the initial passages on Louis XVI's dress into a fuller narrative, the "Authentic Particulars of the Last Moments of Louis XVI" ), also turns its attention to the guillotine itself, as an object worthy of visual and verbal attention in its own right. Added to the narrative of the king's execution is a footnote, which promises "a description of the machine by which the king suffered and which takes its name of Guillotine from that of the person who brought it into use." The footnote further references a plate included with the magazine and then repeats Pennant's familiar prose ("It is in the form of a painter's easel, and about ten feet high [...]," etc.)—but does so with acknowledgement neither of Pennant himself, nor of the different machine Pennant was actually describing, so that his prose becomes a kind of fabricated on-the-spot reporting.

15.        In being organized around objects or sites rather than by sustained narrative, antiquarian writing always potentially conduced to this kind of circulation. The Bon Ton's interpolation of Pennant in the 1790s is not unique; and the immediate inspiration for the invocation is likely Richard Twiss's travel narrative, A Trip to Paris, in July and August, 1792 (1793). [12]  Amidst Twiss's wider survey of British and Continental precedents to the guillotine and engravings thereof (in concrete anticipation of Croker's much later essay), Pennant's description characteristically comes to the fore. [13]  In a chapter entitled "Execution of Two Criminals, with a Beheading Machine" Twiss reports on the execution's immediate aftermath, which affords him the opportunity to see the guillotine:

I did not see the execution, because, as the hour is never specified, I might have waited for many hours in a crowd, from which there is no extricating one's self. I was there immediately after, and saw the machine, which was just going to be taken away. I went into a coffee-house and made a drawing, which is here engraven. It is called la Guillotine, from the name of the person who first brought it into use in Paris [...]. In English it is termed a maiden. (32)
Twiss's account conveys some of the nuance of the moment by initially equating the British and French machines (i.e., in Scotland the seemingly same machine "is termed" a maiden) but then subsequently, in a footnote, detailing Pennant's "long account of such a machine," in a phrase that will not quite admit equivalence (32, my emphasis). In the Bon Ton, then, the shift from this analogizing language ("such a machine") to the direct application of Pennant's description to the guillotine itself is all the more striking because the provenance of Pennant's description (its original applicability to an object of antiquity) is available—and therefore deliberately effaced.

16.        The rupture that results in the Bon Ton from the failure of this borrowed description to accord fully with the accompanying illustration, entitled the "Form of the Machine on which Louis XVI suffered Death," partly seems of a piece with the dizzying mix of aesthetics, politics, sovereignty, sex, and costume therein. [14] 

Figure 1: "Form of the Machine on Which Louis XVI Suffered Death," The Bon Ton Magazine (1793) [Facing pg 449 volume 2].  Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Farmington, CT.

Yet if the illustration evinces an aestheticizing distance from the enormity of the event that echoes the unperturbed scrutiny of details of dress in the prior issue, the image also suggests how such distant scrutiny was being sustained from the start by the distance built into Pennant's prose description. The diagrammatic qualities of the image, particularly evident in the more schematic window to the lower left, suggest functional attributes of the blade and stock but also lend them an air of geometric regularity that pushes our sense of the machine's "Form" toward a perversely aesthetic appreciation, one that is further sustained by the architectural regularity of the perfectly centered guillotine's rectilinear form. Likewise, the jarring qualities of the king's floating head (which the perspective has visually separated from his body even before the blade falls) and of the clashing diagonals of background scene (which echo the machine's form in non-representational ways that compete with the scene's narrative meaning) offer the scene as a visual conundrum as much as an obvious occasion for sentiment. Far from signaling the exceptionality of regicide, the unreal qualities of this image are fully consonant with a more overt, visual conjuring of aesthetic dissonance in the Bon Ton in 1792 (and again in 1795), an illustration entitled "Critical Observations Upon Beauty" .

Figure 2: "Critical Observations Upon Beauty," The Bon Ton Magazine (1795) [Facing pg 29 volume 5]. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. Farmington, CT.

17.        In this context, the contingent qualities of Pennant's own mediation of the object come to the fore—most especially the conspicuously aesthetic qualities of his description, which were to some extent elicited by intrinsic qualities of the Maiden but that were also enhanced by Pennant's particular practice of antiquarianism. The image Croker included in his history makes clear that such associations would in some sense have been unavoidable.

Figure 3: "The Maiden," in John Wilson Croker, History of the Guillotine (1853) [page 37].

But the Maiden's unmistakable appearance in the "form of an easel" also made its shape suddenly compatible with both an emerging appreciation of the picturesque (before the letter) and with contemporaneous reenvisionings of governance as art. [15]  Pennant's second tour of Scotland was a noteworthy departure from his first tour in benefiting from the talents of Moses Griffiths, Pennant's "servant and an 'able artist' who produced the many sketches later published as engravings" (Pennant xvi). The odd way in which Griffiths's visual-aesthetic appropriations of Scotland aligned with the "easel" shape of the antique guillotine suggests an added element of the Maiden's interest for Pennant as well as the peculiar "framing" of history the device of the Maiden might conjure as a result. At the same time, as Eric Slauter has shown with particular reference to the early American context, governments of the age were increasingly seen to be aesthetic projects, "works of art," meant to be materialized, in turn, in artful form. [16]  The Maiden itself, on this view, seems both like an instantiation of an antique mode of governance and a means or technique by which to make governance aesthetically meaningful. In all these senses, it is not only Pennant himself but a shifting aesthetic context that irresistibly draws the Maiden into new prominence on the basis of this peculiar form.

III. Scott's Maidens

18.        I now turn from the story I have reprised so far, in which Pennant's resurrection of the antique Scottish Maiden played a role in the emergence of the French guillotine, to what I will suggest is Walter Scott's extended (and perhaps counter-aestheticizing) response to this story. I begin by registering the remarkable ways in which Pennant's encounter with the Maiden anticipated the form or structure of Scott's Waverley itself. Most concretely, perhaps, Croker emphasizes how "Near thirty years prior to Pennant's publication, the execution of the Scotch lords for the Rebellion of 1745 by the axe and block seems to have recalled the obsolete Maiden to notice" (38). Croker points specifically to the London Magazine for April 1747, which mentions a (seemingly abandoned) plan to execute Simon Lord Fraser of Lovat by means of "an Engine [...] like that called the Maiden" (153), and which contains illustrations both of Fraser's execution by axe and block and of the Maiden itself, "as anciently used in Scotland for beheading traitors" (187). In this way, the living local memory and material preservation that enabled Pennant to scrutinize the Maiden in 1772 were extended effects of the Jacobite rising of 1745-1746 that became the subject of Scott's novel.

19.        In another sense, Pennant's counterintuitive account of the Maiden upheld it as an ambiguous icon of progress; it was not a surviving token of archaic brutality but a relatively recent improvisation in response to the growing pains of commercial proto-modernity. Pennant reports the conjecture (which he describes as "very probable") that the Halifax Gibbet arose at a moment when the woolen manufactures—now thriving in Pennant's day—first "began to gain strength." The spectacle of justice the Gibbet created was intended to moderate the "lawless set" who inhabited the "wild country around," and whose Highlander-like "depredations on the cloth-tenters might [otherwise have] soon stifle[d] the efforts of infant industry" (Pennant 699). Such a prehistory of textile production bears an inevitable relevance to the dress-driven art of Scott and the taste he created; and indeed in its 1840 account, the Court and Lady's Magazine cannot resist translating Pennant's sparer fable of commercialization into a more enticingly concrete image of primitive retail exhibition and its temptations: Halifax's "hilly environs were daily seen speckled with pieces of cloth of all colours, suspended from tenters' poles. This display of valuable stuffs was unfortunately beheld by other eyes than those of the honest chapmen of the cloth-market" (430). As such a scene might suggest, and as the Court and Lady's Magazine put it explicitly, the Maiden was itself a kind of prolepsis for the English commercial ingenuity of the eighteenth century. That is, the guillotine's early arrival in Halifax "proceeded from the same mechanical genius, which, in our own days, has given birth to the wonder-working Spinning Jennies" (429).

20.         The actual history of the Maiden also converges with the fictional landscape Scott created in quite direct ways. The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), for instance, is Scott's most extensive meditation on the problem of state execution under the broad dispensation of public interest (and in this case, without proof of crime). The unfortunate Effie Deans, whose newborn child is missing, stands to lose her life for the crime of infanticide; for the law deems her constructively guilty by virtue of her previous silence about her pregnancy. Effie's sister Jeanie ultimately saves her by obtaining a pardon in a royal audience facilitated by the Duke of Argyle. In part Argyle's assistance is consistent with his status in the novel as Scott's great hero of moderation in the period (as an accommodating Presbyterian who "Soar[ed] above the petty distinctions of faction" and softened the tensions between Scotland and England [344]). But Jeanie's solicitation of his aid also directly invokes the memory of the Duke's "unfortunate" grandfather and great-grandfather (350). [17]  Never directly mentioned but always lurking is the fate these Argyle ancestors met on the Maiden itself, in 1685 and 1661, respectively. The present Duke's valorization of modernity, then, as well as his heightened sympathy for Jeanie, bear the special weight of the memory of the Maiden's operation. And if The Heart of Mid-Lothian itself is perhaps Scott's most eloquent intimation of the Maiden's legacy, the machine's fateful operation is similarly implicated in works like A Legend of Montrose (1819), which features Argyle's aforementioned great-grandfather, and both The Abbot (1820) and The Monastery (1820), where James Douglas, Earl of Morton (who had carried the Maiden from Halifax to Edinburgh in the first place and ironically met his end upon it) prominently features as a character.

21.        There is further evidence of the Author of Waverley's quiet intimacy with the Maiden's shadow—and of a secondary mediation of the French guillotine through Scottish history by way of Scott's oeuvre—not only in Croker's general proximity to Scott through their mutual work for the Quarterly Review, but also in the particular pages of Croker's History of the Guillotine. Croker's history directly cites Scott's Tales of a Grandfather (as collected in Scott's Complete Prose Works in 1836) as the source for his most gleaming anecdote on the ancient victims of the Maiden: the moment when the doomed Earl of Argyle in 1685 had "pressed his lips on the block," and "declar[ed] [...] that it was the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed" (39). [18]  At this moment in the Tales of a Grandfather, Scott himself had likewise interrupted his recounting of the execution of Argyle to cite Pennant's description of the Maiden in a lengthy footnote ("in the form of a painter's easel," and so on, once again) and to identify it explicitly as "an instrument resembling the Guillotine of modern France" (280-281). If Pennant had unwittingly circulated the guillotine within actual history in the 1790s, Scott was likely at the root of the late re-appreciation of the British origins of the instrument by way of Pennant's work, as reflected in both Croker's history and The Court and Lady's Magazine in the years to come.

22.        In Scott's carefully chosen wording, the nature of the relation between the Maiden that Pennant described and the French guillotine is "resemblance," which subtly but tellingly consigns each machine to its own moment. In a way that emphasizes how Scott's construction of this relationship (as resemblance) was not inevitable, the Court and Lady's Magazine figuratively construed the same relationship as one of direct, material continuity. Having traced the Maiden's route from Halifax to Edinburgh to Paris, the Court and Lady's pauses to "behold [in the guillotine] the rotten and disjointed members of the Halifax Maiden collected together again after so long a desuetude—the old fragments cramped and repieced, and after complete restoration of all parts and a fresh coat of paint, given forth to the world as a discovery made by French philosophy!" (433). The insistent troping of the guillotine as an archaic object lurking only just beneath the thinnest of restorative veneers reads like an especially fearful accounting of the logic of fashion that treated the past as a reservoir of forms—and so indeed reconstituted old models as new by infusing them with all the allure of novelty and presence. [19]  Scott's opposing insistence on (mere) resemblance, finally, is part and parcel of his fictions' larger project to insist that the true time of origin of historical objects will out—that artifacts and styles alike may often resemble but never quite recur.

23.        In foregrounding the work Scott did to assign archaic or obsolete objects more fixedly to their times of provenance—and in emphasizing that he did so with the peculiar aid of fashion—the remainder of my essay means to intervene in recent debates about the status of the residual in the Romantic moment, when the ominousness of the category seemed far more menacing a problem than it had for Pennant himself. I especially have in mind what Ina Ferris, in the best recent consideration of the problem, calls "the time of the remnant." Ferris rightly draws our attention to a series of persons and objects in Scott whose remnancy "generates a curiously insubstantial existence in the present"; and she describes a special, Romantic genre of the remnant tale, which "retains at its core an experience of disconnection from present energies" (475). In turning to The Antiquary in light of my preceding discussion of the troublingly unbounded objects harvested by the antiquarian enterprise, I want to fill out the range of possibilities for remnancy in Scott by considering the ways in which remnancy might best be thought as a normative, rather than an exceptional, state. That is to say, in part, that the "experience of disconnection from present energies" that Ferris describes is as frequently and as characteristically conjured by Scott's manifold presentations of outdated dress as it is in the more evidently historical disconnections Ferris foregrounds.

24.        In the broadest terms, Scott's antiquary haunts the supposed distinctness of the temporal present with a reminder that attachment to the moment at hand might not be so different from the antiquary's ostensibly aberrant attachment to a favored moment from the past. Ferris herself underscores the distinctness of The Antiquary, as a text that "enfolds all manner of remnants in a generous model of community," in what she sees as a contrast to less harmonious Waverley Novels (475). But that otherwise useful formulation of "community" obscures how much the present, in any strong sense, is displaced by that very different, and not so obviously temporal, conception of unity. If Scott's fiction is instrumental in creating a sense of "connect[ion] to the energy of historical process" (in Ferris's terms), Scott is equally a theorist of enduring provenances (for persons and for objects), of determinations by former moments that are much more compelling than the weak sort of synchronic coincidence that tends to characterize any given "now" (476). "Historical context" on this view may be nothing more than the weak collective product of the idiosyncratic temporal attachments of persons (to many times)—and thus a space wherein historical affiliations rather than determinations may come to the fore.

25.        Ferris's account of remnancy is emblematic of how, in contrast to the way I want to think about Scott, recent secondary work on the antiquarian enterprise has tended to bifurcate the historical specimen between the categories of the "fragment" (which persists as an isolated or residual entity fully cut off from the present) and the "forgery," literal or otherwise (which despite a pretense to pastness finally belongs, in one way or another, fully to the present). But at the literary epicenter of the figure of the antiquary, Scott himself is precisely interested to stage this fragment/forgery division. As a character, Jonathan Oldbuck at least rhetorically presumes a hard and fast division between past and present, classical antiquity and modern times. But Oldbuck's refraction in the person of his sister Griselda points to the fuller complexity the novel has in mind from the start. During the young hero Lovel's initial encounter with her at the threshold of Oldbuck's estate of Monkbarns, Griselda first appears (in the novel's setting of 1794) as the living embodiment of 1770: "The elderly lady rustled in silks and satins, and bore upon her head a structure resembling the fashion in the ladies' memorandum-book for the year 1770—a superb piece of architecture—not much less than a modern Gothic castle, of which the curls might represent the turrets, the black pins the chevaux de frize, and the lappets the banners"; likewise, "An antique flowered silk gown graced the extraordinary person to whom belonged this unparalleled tête," along with "triple blond ruffles" at the elbows, "gloves of a bright vermillion color," and "a short silk cloak, thrown in easy negligence over her shoulders"; and when Lovel pays his respects he is "answered by the prolonged curtsey of 1760" (57-58). As an antique person who takes on the qualities of styles prevailing in the various days of her own making, Griselda's way of adhering to time more closely resembles the lives of objects than the fates of the written texts or dematerialized spaces of historical encounter (e.g., just-discernible traces of Roman-era earthworks in the landscape) that Oldbuck tends to privilege. And if Griselda's seemingly eccentric perpetuation of the past sets the tone for the novel, it finally appears not so much in contrast as in parallel to "the fashion of the day" that adorns Oldbuck's niece, Maria (58); to the "old-fashioned barbering" of Jacob Caxon upon the three wigs still being worn in the parish (48); and to the "ornaments in the taste of a former and distant period" that furnish the foreboding Glenallan House (273). Griselda's dress is the template for the novel's proliferation and preservation of times other than antiquity and the present.

26.         In the last instance, through the French invasion that famously never comes, The Antiquary spoofs the very possibility that presentness could emerge in a strong sense. In retrospect, the novel's most genuine moment of urgency is the clockwork tide best observed via the Fairport Almanack's catalogue of the sea's repetitive motion. (An unusually high tide threatens to sweep the unsuspecting Sir Arthur Wardour and his daughter, Isabella, out to sea.)  [20]  Crucially, the merely calendrical succession of the tides directly displaces the aspiration to cohesive, cultural presentness embodied within the fashionable women's "pocket almanack" of Oldbuck's niece, which would have carried precisely such information as the "dress of the year," in prose description and in visual illustration of the latest styles. Struck with the urgency of the moment, Oldbuck flings this pocket almanac aside to consult the other volume so denominated. ("An almanack! an almanack! [...] not that bauble!" he cries [69].) Maria's ostensibly current pocket book, like her attachment to the "fashion of the day" (58) (as registered within the almanac as well as on her person), has no more essential connection to the urgent situation at hand than does the "ladies memorandum book for the year 1770" (57) that continues to guide Griselda's headdress style.

27.        Scott, whom literary history largely continues to see as the architect of historical presentness, is in a different way a projector of the present's impossibility. In the many times of Monkbarns, Scott recasts the antiquarian idea as the negative image of modernity's naïve faith in a unified present (or moment, or episteme, or crisis) different in kind from the past. Scott's antiquarian counter-vision animates historical specimens but refuses either to relegate or conscript them—and so refuses to concede the ontological privilege of a present that, like all other moments, can finally bear on human existence only insofar as it is called, or loved, or loathed into being by its custodians. A longer perspective on the antiquarian enterprise, then, begins to suggest how modern historical fiction is built against a backdrop of fashion's rival relation to the cultural archive. And as a deep response to Pennant's mobile guillotines, Scott's historical fiction takes shape, in part, through a complex refusal to allow fashions to be present again.

Works Cited

"An Account of the Behaviour, Execution, and Interment of the late Simon Lord Fraser of Lovat." The London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer (Apr. 1747): 155-157, 187. Rpt. Web.

Bennett, Betty T and Orianne Smith, eds. British War Poetry in the Age of Romanticism, 1793-1815. 2004 Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

The Bon Ton Magazine, Or, Microscope of Fashion and Folly (1791-1796). Print.

Boswell, James. Life of Samuel Johnson. 3 vols. London: [n.p.], 1793. Rpt. Web.

"The Briton's Song." European Magazine and London Review (1801): 48. Rpt. Web.

Copley, Stephen. "William Gilpin and the black-lead mine." The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics since 1770. Ed. Stephen Copley and Peter Garside. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Croker, John Wilson. The History of the Guillotine. London: John Murray, 1853. Rpt. Web.

Ferris, Ina. "'On the Borders of Oblivion': Scott's Historical Novel and the Modern Time of the Remnant." Modern Language Quarterly 70 (2009): 473-494. Rpt. Web.

Kalter, Barrett. Modern Antiques: The Material Past in England, 1660-1780. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2012. Print.

"An Impartial Review of New Publications: Article I.." London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer (July 1774): 337-339. Rpt. Web.

Lynch, Deidre. "Counter publics: shopping and women's sociability." Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840. New York: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

"The Maiden and the Guillotine." Court and Lady's Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum (May 1840): 429-437. Rpt. Web.

Maxwell, Richard. "Inundations of Time: A Definition of Scott's Originality." ELH 68 (2001): 419-468. Rpt. Web.

Pennant, Thomas. A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. Ed. Andrew Simmons. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1998. Print.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology and the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.

Scott, Walter. The Antiquary. Ed. Nicola J Watson. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Scott, Walter. Heart of Mid-Lothian. Ed. Clair Lamont. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. Print.

Scott, Walter. Tales of My Grandfather. Miscellaneous Prose Works. 28 vols. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1836. Rpt. Web.

Slauter, Eric. The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

Twiss, Richard. A Trip To Paris, in July and August, 1792. London: Minerva Press, 1793. Rpt. Web.

Wagner, Paul. "The pornographer in the courtroom: trial reports about cases of sexual crimes and delinquencies as a genre of eighteenth-century erotica." Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Ed. Paul-Gabriel Boucé. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1982. Print.


[2] The prose of the Quarterly Review essay and the "revised" History of the Guillotine is often identical. In the interest of consistency, I will cite from the latter throughout this essay. BACK

[3] Le Moniteur Universel was the leading newspaper of the time in France and sometime official journal of the government. BACK

[4] Anthony Louis reported in his capacity as Secretary of the Royal Academy of Surgery in France. Louis's Report on the Mode of Decollation explains how, given the difficult and precise task of cleanly severing the vertebral column and the imperfect skill of human executioners, "there is no certainty but in an invariable mechanism, of which the force and effect can be regulated and directed. This is the mode adopted in England" (Croker 30, emphasis in original). BACK

[5] Pennant's A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides; 1772 was published in two volumes in 1774-1776 and then in a new edition in 1776 that combined A Tour in Scotland with the previously published account of his first tour of Scotland, A Tour of Scotland in 1769 [1771]. BACK

[6] In addition to the examples I discuss in the present essay, Pennant's prose also migrates into the Newgate Calendar, where it becomes the main substance of an appendix entitled "The Maiden, or Scottish Guillotine" in the 1826 edition. The Maiden is more briefly mentioned in the 1795 version of the Newgate Calendar published by William Jackson, where much of the information in Pennant's description seems to be incorporated into an "Account of John Hamilton, Esq." BACK

[7] The Court and Lady's Magazine is a descendant of the prominent Romantic-era fashion periodical La Belle Assemblée. BACK

[8] See also Charles W.J. Withers's introduction to A Tour in Scotland (Pennant 1998). BACK

[9] Deidre Lynch has more recently rectified Poovey's neglect of the "utopian, and feminist" potential of the scene of fashionable consumption as a "counter public" or proto-public. But the more fundamental deformation of the king's execution via fashion in the Bon Ton Magazine, in its libertine, masculine address, speaks of a more unruly and asocial side of fashion (213, 215). BACK

[10] In this issue the Bon Ton's dress description also indicates how fashion-seeking puts special pressure on questions of representativeness, especially as the focus moves from the singular costumes of the royal family to the larger crowd: "The gentlemen's dresses were generally of dark tea green, and chocolate coloured silk, or dark stripes, with white silk waistcoats, spangled, embroidered, or tamboured"; and "The ladies mostly wore white crape petticoats, spangled, and spotted with white foil, corn flowers, and other fancy flowers [...];"The ladies' bodies and trains were chiefly of crape or striped gauze, trimmed with silver fringe [...] The fashionable colour for ribbons was decidedly purple; a great many lilacs were also displayed [...] The caps were principally trimmed with rich blond lace [...]. The caps in general were rather low and broad; they were mostly of white or coloured crape, suitable to the dresses, ornamented with artificial flowers [...]. The hair was almost universally dressed in curls." The language of trend-spotting, and its promise to convey what is "generally," "mostly," "chiefly," "decidedly," or "principally" characteristic amidst a wider set of possibilities, bears a clear resemblance to sifting for more properly historical signs of the times (141-143). BACK

[11] See my previous note. BACK

[12] In addition to A Trip to Paris, Richard Twiss's travel writings include his Travels Through Portugal and Spain in 1772 and 1773 (1775) and his noteworthy Tour in Ireland in 1775 (1776). BACK

[13] Twiss's account is also the occasion for a small ripple of related commentary in the Gentleman's Quarterly. After the magazine reviews Twiss's Trip to Paris in the issue for December 1792, two correspondents supply further context on the guillotine's antecedents in March 1793 and January 1794; and the March 1793 letter also includes an illustration of the Scottish Maiden. (See also the advertisement for Twiss's opportunistic exhibition in London, Execution of the King of France now exhibiting at No. 28, Hay-market. La Guillotine; or The beheading machine, from Paris, by which the late King of France suffered [1793].) BACK

[14] In a further destabilization of any sense of urgency related to the regicide, for instance, this initial account of the death of Louis XVI appeared alongside the unperturbedly salacious account of the "Trial of Mrs. Wilmot," including an illustration entitled The Kissing Scene (in which the male adulterer bends to perform cunnilingus on Mrs. Wilmot, who has lifted her dress to facilitate the act). BACK

[15] Like many critics, Stephen Copley numbers Pennant among those "unsympathetic to the claims of the Picturesque," but such a firm distinction (especially prior to the publication of Gilpin's Observations in 1782) seems dismissive of the complexity of the enterprise of Pennant's second tour, all the more when the illustrations and manifold antique ruins are considered (42). BACK

[16] As Slauter emphasizes, "Political thought not only coincided with aesthetic theory, sharing a few crucial terms like 'distinterestedness,' the self-negating stance of tasteful spectators before an art object and the proper posture of enlightened representatives in the face of party zeal: in the eighteenth century, political thought and aesthetic theory were mutually constitutive" (98). BACK

[17] Jeannie Deans presents the Duke of Argyll with a letter from his own grandfather (bestowed on the grandfather of Jeannie's betrothed in gratitude for loyal service in trying times) that enjoined his friends and family in the future to come to the assistance of the bearer (and his family and friends) in times of need. In the same moment she is remarkably described as dressed "in the style of Scottish maidens of her own class" (Scott, Midlothian, 350, my emphasis). BACK

[18] Notably Scott undertook the Tales of a Grandfather in order to improve upon Croker's own Stories Selected from the History of England (1822), which Scott found overly condescending to child readers. BACK

[19] Perhaps reflecting Pennant's distinctive qualities, these "disjointed members" and "old fragments" from Halifax are not so unlike the "curt, frittered fragments" that Boswell had accused Pennant of producing in print, to be passed off as new in the Bon Ton. BACK

[20] On this scene and its larger relevance, see Richard Maxwell, who suggests that Oldbuck knows "the rules of time and its periodic inundations" (452). BACK

Published @ RC

June 2014