SENTIMENTAL LITERATURE AND ANGLO-SCOTTISH IDENTITY, 1745–1820 by Juliet Shields, Reviewed by Richard Cronin

By Juliet Shields
(Cambridge, 2010) viii + 224pp.
Reviewed by Richard Cronin on 2011-04-16.

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Introducing her selection of the British Novelists in 1810, Anna Barbauld recalled a remark by one of the most inveterate opponents of the 1707 Union between Scotland and England: "It was said by Fletcher of Saltoun, 'Let me make the ballads of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.' Might it not be said with as much propriety, Let me make the novels of a country, and let who will make the systems?" Juliet Shields fully shares Barbauld's conviction that novels play a crucial part in the making of nations,  and it is a thought that comes to her, as it came to Barbauld, in a Scottish accent. Shields sets herself two tasks. First, she offers a radical alternative to the narrative, most closely associated with Linda Colley, that treats the birth of nations as a response to foreign threat. For Shields, nations such as Britain spring not so much from xenophobia as from sentimentality.  A heterogeneous state such as Britain, formed by the union of four nations, could come to exist only when its citizens recognized themselves as bound together not by "filiation" but by "affiliation," not by ties of blood but by shared sympathies (115). Second, Shields wants to add her support to the argument that has until now been most closely associated with Robert Crawford, that the construction of a British national identity was principally the work of the Scots.

Both arguments, at least in Shields's presentation of them, are paradoxical. It is counterintuitive to argue that a national identity could have sprung from sentimental literature, which is, as Shields notes, associated with "the politically dispossessed," with women, with feminised men such as Henry Mackenzie's Harley, and with the rural peripheries rather than the metropolitan centre (170-1). It is still more paradoxical to associate the origin of the British nation with the year 1745, when the British state faced the gravest threat ever posed to its continuing existence. But for Shields,  the paradoxical quality of her arguments is rather an attraction than otherwise. She is a critic unusually enamoured of paradox.

Take for instance her reading of Christian Johnstone's Clan-Albin. The novel, we are told,  argues that by enlisting in the British army "Highlanders unwittingly become party" to the English imperial endeavours that the army serves (124). But according to Shields, the remedy  Johnstone proposes, a "rehabilitation of the Highlands,"  is itself  "economically and ideologically interdependent" with the imperialism from which Johnstone seeks to escape (128-9).  By the final chapter the procedure is well established. When Shields identifies the Waverley novels as seeming to offer the strongest support for the thesis that  "pro-Union Scottish writers" were able to imagine Britain only by employing  "discourses of feeling"  derived from "Jacobite culture,"  it is predictable that Scott turns out to be that thesis's fiercest opponent (139).  Scott's organization of George IV's reception when he visited Edinburgh in 1822 (Scott even persuaded the King to wear a kilt) gives Shields the opportunity to offer a climactic display of her gift for paradoxical argument: Scott, she says,  "rendered all Jacobites staunch supporters of the Hanoverian monarchs, and conversely made all Hanoverians into Jacobites" (143).

Shields's other peculiarity is that the thought processes she ascribes to the writers she treats can make them seem as if they had more in common with Cavour than Calvino. Susan Ferrier's project in Marriage, for example, is to envision "a hybrid Anglo-Celtic Britishness formed not through a facile synthesis of Highland and metropolitan values and manners, but through an open-minded and observant toleration of cultural difference" (129). It seems an oddly programmatic way of explaining characters such as Lady Juliana, who thinks "all Scotchwomen" are "vulgar" ("They have red hands and rough voices; they yawn, and blow their noses, and talk, and laugh loud, and do a thousand shocking things"), and Aunt Grizzy, who believes that the English "all drink and game, and keep race-horses; and many of them, [she's] told, even keep play-actresses." And yet Shields is surely right to credit eighteenth-century novelists with an unusually self-conscious interest in nationhood. Their prototype is Swift's Gulliver, who remembers how, when he was in Brobdingnag, he "broke [his] right shin against the shell of a snail, which [he] happened to stumble over, as [he] was walking alone and thinking on poor England."

Shields'  taste for paradox, too, serves her oddly well, particularly when she addresses issues of gender. As Shields points out, both supporters and opponents of the Union between England and Scotland represented it as a marriage in which Scotland took the part of the bride. Sentimental literature is associated with Scotland for the same reason that it is associated with women, because both were disempowered. But that association was very soon complicated; most influentially by Adam Smith, who urged in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the feminine display of sensibility be tempered by a masculine discipline of self-control, and by James Macpherson, who devises for Ossian a voice in which masculine warrior virtues coincide with the feminine voice of feeling that mourns the warriors' defeat. Thereafter Scotland might supply whatever gender England was in need of. It might offer feminine sensibility to an England given over to unfeeling economic self-interest, or to an England feminized by its more advanced civilization it might equally well supply the primitive masculinity embodied in the Highland regiments. As Scott puts it in a song that he included in The Monastery:

Oh, some do call me Jack, sweet love,
And some do call me Gill;
But when  I ride to Holyrood,
My name is Wilful Will.

The song neatly exemplifies the way in which gender ambiguities permeate the sentimental literature of the period.

Shields argues that sentimental literature is particularly associated with Scotland, and she may well be right, but the claim is never tested because she ignores all sentimental literature that derives from elsewhere. She makes not even a glancing reference to Goldsmith or to Sterne. If, as Shields contends, the project of the sentimental novel was to figure and to reconfigure the nation, what does she make of   Parson Yorick travelling through France, or Uncle Toby presiding over the mock-fortifications that at once remind him of and distract him from the mysterious wound that he suffered at the Siege of Namur? But no book can do everything, and this one does much. Shields finds space for Adam Smith and James McPherson, for Roderick Random, and Humphry Clinker, for The Man of Feeling, Anne Grant, and James Boswell, for Evelina¸ Elizabeth Hamilton's Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, Ferrier's Marriage, Johnstone's Clan-Albin, and for novels by Scott, Hogg and Galt, and she scarcely mentions a text without offering a striking new insight into it. This book is an impressive achievement.


Richard Cronin is Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.



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