'The International Companion to Scottish Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century', edited by Leith Davis and Janet Sorenson (published by Scottish Literature International)
This collection of essays was published in 2021. Thirty-four years earlier, in 1987, I published Volume 2 in Cairns Craig's The History of Scottish Literature
, covering the period 1660-1800. The 'long eighteenth century' in the Davis and Sorenson volume also turns out to be 1660-1800. The two works prove to be of equal length – each is made up of an editorial introduction followed by 18 essays by individual authors. The differences and similarities between the two volumes shed an interesting light on just how literary criticism has developed in the period between the two publications.
In their introduction, Davis and Sorenson insist on the freshness and originality of their approach to 18th-century Scottish literature. This includes their decision to take account of the period between 1660 and 1700; the decision to consider 'different literary media' as a way of expanding 'the scope of the literature of the long eighteenth century'; the inclusion of previously unacknowledged voices, such as those writing in Gaelic; focusing on oral and manuscript sources, and on women writers in particular.
In addition, rather than a series of chapters on individual authors, the focus of essays here we are told is on 'the various complex cultural fields' within which writers worked.
Well, re-reading my 1978 introduction, I find it has more than a little in common with that of Davis and Sorenson. As well as insisting that 1660 is the appropriate starting point, I write that: 'It is the broad argument of this entire history of Scottish literature that the individual literary work is best understood within the widest possible cultural context – including, that is, all those social, political, economic, religious and intellectual forces which together determine the nature of society at any given time'.
And then again: 'the volume aims to provide a sense of the cultural context within which individual writers worked, themes and topics have been given as much attention as particular authors or literary genres'.
Also, my volume does acknowledge the importance of writing in Gaelic. There is admittedly only one essay, but it is by Derick Thomson, the pre-eminent Gaelic scholar at the time. Equally recognised and acknowledged by Thomas Crawford is what he calls the 'lyric culture' of 18th-century Scottish songs and ballads. So, overall, it is perhaps not unfair for me to suggest that The International Companion to Scottish Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century
is not quite as original as it claims.
Inevitably, some of its essays do reflect the changes that have occurred in literary studies in recent times. The focus on writings by women is particularly striking. Only in the book's opening Part 1, Language, Identity, and History
– which covers the period from 1660 to 1700 – are women wholly absent. Five of the 18 essays are exclusively about women authors, while issues involving gender constantly emerge elsewhere. Four of the essays deal with Gaelic writers, and one of them is entitled Gaelic Women's Poetry
Fashionable ecological criticism is present in two essays: Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry and Ecology
and The Poems of Ossian and the Birth of Modern Geology
. Finally, our current preoccupation with Scotland's role in slavery and the slave trade is reflected in Michael Morris's Ottobah Cuguano and Scotland's Minority Imperialist Culture
The three following sections of the book are entitled as follows: Media and Meditation
, Possibilities of Genre
, and Environments of Space and Time
. I found none of these titles particularly helpful. There are also problems that recur over a range of contributions. One is that it seems to be taken for granted that there is no difference between printed and manuscript sources. In the essay on poetry by women in Gaelic, for example, nearly all the work described existed only in manuscript collections. Printed versions did not occur until at least the early 1900s. But surely in terms of availability and readership, the difference is huge and should be recognised.
Then the term 'literary culture' is widely used but its definition varies in different essays. Occasionally, it means anything printed – including pamphlets and newspapers – but more often it is restricted to what is understood as 'literature'.
I am also struck by what is absent from the book. The approach to Scottish literary history is surprisingly inward-looking. Several contributors use the term North Britain rather than Scotland, but none discuss the significance of the difference.
Then there is nothing here about the impact of 18th-century Scottish writing on an international cultural world. Even Anglo-Scottish relations are neglected. Yet the depth of ill-feeling between the two countries that flared up in the period after the short-lived Prime Ministership of the Earl of Bute in 1762-63, played a major role in the controversy over the authenticity of James Macpherson's Ossianic poems, despite the huge enthusiasm for them across Europe and America. References to Macpherson and Ossian occur in several essays but there is no extended account. The decision to avoid essays devoted to a single author is understandable, but a price is paid here and elsewhere.
Most of the essays in the book are perfectly solid scholarly pieces – Ian Brown's Scottish Theatre in the Long Eighteenth Century
is a model example – and they offer the reader some degree of insight into the literature of the period. But despite the claims of the editors, there is little here that is strikingly original or exciting.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow