The Scot of Fiction
Now that “schools ” of novelists have become so numerous, we all get a great many of our ideas from the novels that deal with particular countries and races. Especially do we get our ideas from novels about places that we know nothing about, but we are likely also to accept the ideas put forth in novels even about our own land and people. There is no doubt that the novelists get into a rut of character-drawing, and Scotch or Irish or Yorkshire or Cornish or American character is produced to order, as a pudding is compounded from a recipe. Readers, then, come to believe that the accepted novelist’s conventional presentation is a true picture. For instance, to the untraveled Englishman there is but one type of New England character. This is always represented in the person of an austere old maid, heroic, epigrammatic, frugal, and sorrowful, who sits eternally sewing rag carpets (except when she is going to “ meetin’ ”), and who expends her starved affections on starved cats. Having formed this distinct mental picture of the New England type, the British reader would feel quite wronged if, say, one of the virile heroes of Mr. Hamlin Garland’s fancy were to stray to the soil of New England. “Nonsense ! ” he would exclaim. “ You don’t belong here ; no one lives in New England but blameless maiden ladies. Get to your own main traveled roads, and do not disturb the proprieties of this district.”
Or if the situation were reversed, and some of Miss Wilkins’s meek heroines were to appear in the West among the sombreroed, besashed gentlemen who swagger through the pages of Bret Harte’s tales, the reader would again declare the case to be impossible. But is it? It is the recent insistence upon racial characteristics instead of individual character that forms popular conventions. If one writer describe cleverly the racial traits of any people, there remains no more to be said of these traits without repetition ; to find fresh soil, we must pierce down deep below these outer similarities to the curiously individual mind of each man and woman. Of characteristics, on the contrary, it is very easy to speak with confidence, and this is the reason why the novel of racial characteristics is so often met with and finds such cheap acceptance with the public. We like to find written in books what we have observed for ourselves, and for one man who can read or appreciate character there are twenty who can recognize characteristics, — character being that which is peculiar, distinct, in every man, while characteristics are only what he shares with all his race.
The description of racial characteristics has been in the past, and still is, a great feature of Scotch novels. Some of our most delightful books owe their charm to such pictures, — notably the books of Mr. J. M. Barrie. Now, where one man excels there will always be found a crowd of imitators, and it is they who form the popular conceptions; for popular notions are formed by repetition. The critics have done something to foster an over-nationality in literature by their constant advice to authors to “ write only of what they know,” — a bit of advice which may be followed too slavishly, and which would in time put an end to much imaginative work. I doubt if any conscientious student of local color will write as lovingly of his well-known district as Sir Walter wrote of Palestine after studying its local color in — Castle Street, was it not ? Certainly far from the walls of Jerusalem.
Among the conventional types made popular in novels, none is more thoroughly established in the public imagination than the so-called “ Scotch character ; ” and this not only in Scotland, but all over the world. I hear that the later productions of Scotch fiction are so much appreciated in the United States that Drumtochty teas and Thrums evenings are held, in honor of the authors who created these well-known villages. So, no doubt, any well-read American could now construct a Scotchman to order, and set him up for admiration, clothed upon with dialect as with a garment.
This phenomenal and fictitious Scot would of course begin life as a highly intelligent herdboy ; then he must go to the village school, so that that awful stock figure, “ the dominie,” may a walk on.” (I have counted eight dominies in Scotch fiction, of a curious similarity.) From the village school the herd, having now fallen in love with the laird’s young daughter, migrates to London, in search of a wider sphere for his energies. His extraordinary career begins ; the woolsack looms ahead ; he maintains meantime all the frugal habits learned at home, always grudging a sixpence for his own use, but habitually posting the greater part of his weekly earnings to his saintly mother. Struggles and parsimony are crowned with success, and, unelated by his achievements, the Scot of fiction returns to his native village to marry the laird’s daughter, to rescue the faithful dominie from despair and drink, and to fold his aged parents to his beating heart. Throughout his career the Scot of fiction keeps up church attendance in Babylon the great, and enters upon long discussions of predestination and election, in season and out of season.
This is the generally received idea of the typical Scotch career and character, which from the days of Galt downward has been repeated with many variations ; the aspiring, miserly, dutiful, religious, argumentative hero has in fact become a convention. A difficulty in the matter also lies in this, that there is a foundation of truth in the story, and a plausibility in the characterization ; but these similarities are the very things that should be avoided, and less hackneyed cases should be selected for presentation. In the classical Scotch novelists — Scott, Ferrier, and Stevenson — you never find stock figures of typical Scotchmen ; each portrait is that of an individual; whereas the Scot of fiction, the generally received Scot, is something like a composite photograph, wherein the features of half a dozen men are jumbled together to form one face. Scott’s most brilliant characters, such as Dominie Sampson (how far from the typical dominie !), Poor Peter Peebles, Cuddie Headrigg, and Dandie Dinmont, are such perfect portraits of men, not of racial types, that they might find their representatives in any country quite as well as in Scotland. Their qualities are common to the whole human species, and not only to the natives of North Britain. The same may be said of Miss Ferrier’s irresistible caricatures; Lady MacLauchlan, Mrs. Major Wadell, and Miss Pratt have their counterparts in every land.
But Scott was followed by Galt, and Galt is a sinner above the common in the sin of over-nationality. Galt is very unfair to his countrymen. His vital characters — those that make his books — are singularly unlovely. Those that are meant to be good are very vulgar ; those that are meant to be bad are not credited with a single redeeming quality. In fact, Galt has set himself unflinchingly to display all the racial faults. Greed, meanness, coarseness, are his constant themes. The unpleasant characteristic of “ nearness ” he emphasizes to a quite unnecessary extent. His men and women are all misers : one would gather from these books that no Scotchman ever spent a penny ungrudgingly, or even a halfpenny ; that he grasps by fair means or foul from his nearest and dearest, and goes down into the grave clutching the money bags still. This is an entirely untrue and exaggerated picture of Scotch character; yet there can be no doubt that Galt’s novels have gone far to establish a popular belief in the miserliness of Scotchmen. The belief has deepened by this time into a convention with writers, till any one who should profess to write a “ Scotch ” story, and should make his hero generous or free-handed, would be jeered at as no true portrayer of Scotch character.
Now, I do not deny that our nation is fond of a bargain; but to accuse us of being a nation of misers is unreasonable. Moreover, the heroic side of our frugality might just as easily be turned to view as the unheroic side, and with far more justice and truth. For one miser in Scotland there are twenty men whose frugality is infinitely noble ; and it is well to remember the historic pathos that underlies the racial frugality : poverty was our poor Scotland’s burden for many a century, and if her men and women spend charily now, it is from an instinct inherited through generations of halfstarved ancestors whose heroic struggles never kept the wolf at any great distance from the door. Even Kipling, who avoids the ready-made in character, cannot get over this convention of Scotch meanness : “ O aye, the Scots are near,” says MacAndrew!
The next convention which is firmly established in the popular imagination, and which the novelists also have to answer for, is the predestination and election jest. In “ Scotch ” novels few Scotchmen speak without bringing in some doctrinal allusion, such as, “ Gin ye had cuttit yersel’ wi’ yer ain razor, wad effectual callin’, think ye, be the first word i’ yer mouth ? ” (Lilac Sunbonnet, page 68.) You may travel from one end of Scotland to another, and never hear predestination or effectual calling mentioned.
Not content with making us too bad, the novelists also make us not bad enough, and some of them even make us far too good. If some of the national failings have too great prominence, many of the national vices are almost entirely ignored. There is little or nothing said of the drunkenness in Scotch villages and of the unchastity of our agricultural districts, or of the dirt that disgusts every stranger who visits Scotland for the first time. These outstanding blemishes of our nation find small space among the newer story-tellers. The cottages are so trim and clean, the women wear such spotless mutches, the husbands sit in the ingle-neuk reading the Bible, the ploughmen chastely court the outfield workers with honorable marriage full in view.
The modern convention of “ tenderness,” too, may be justly called in question. It is true that a Scotchman will do his duty to the death, even for the most unworthy parents; but he will not exhibit much tenderness in the process. I scarcely like to quote from Barrie in a seeming spirit of derision, because his books are delightful; but to show the changed attitude of the modern writer on the filial relationship from that of Scott, note the following extracts.
Says Barrie : “ Jamie’s eyes were fixed on the elbow of the brae, where he would come into sight of his mother’s window. Many, many a time, I know that lad had prayed God for still another sight of the window with his mother at it. So we came to the corner, . . . and before Jamie was the house of his childhood, and his mother’s window, and the fond anxious face of his mother herself. My eyes are dull, and I did not see her, but suddenly Jamie cried out, ‘ My mother ! ’ and Leeby and I were left behind. When I reached the kitchen Jess was crying, and her son’s arms were round her neck.”
In Old Mortality we find the mother and son of the elder novelist’s fancy: “ As soon as Cuddie thought her ladyship fairly out of hearing, he bounced up in his nest. ' The foul fa’ ye, that I suld say sae,’ he cried out to his mother, ' for a lang-tongued clavering wife, as my father, honest man, aye ca’ed ye ! Couldna ye let the leddy alane wi’ your whiggery ? And I was e’en as great a gomeral to let ye persuade me to lie here amang the blankets like a hurcheon instead o’ gaun to the wappen-schaw like other folk. Od, but I put a trick on ye, for I was out at the window-bole when your auld back was turned, and awa’ down by to hae a baff at the popinjay.’
“ ‘ Oh, my bairn ’ . . . began Mause.
“ ‘ Weel, mither,’ said Cuddie, interrupting her, ‘ what need ye mak sae muckle din aboot it ? ’ ”
Scott’s is the true, and Barrie’s the idealized, the possible but not the probable view of the subject.
Again, independence, which is always supposed to be at the root of the Scotch incivility, is a good thing, but it may be, and is, bought too dearly at the expense of the ordinary courtesies of life. I think that Miss Ferrier is the only Scotch novelist who has at all shown the boorishness of our nation; and she writes of a bygone time, and the roughness which she describes as existing then among the upper classes in Scotland is of course a thing entirely of the past. The modern writers are merciful in their depictions of Scotch manners among the working people : I fear that the unsuspecting traveler who crosses the Border for the first time, expecting to meet with the usual civilities described in Scotch fiction, will receive a shock.
But why all these suggestions for farther “ Scotch ” novels ? I must ask the searching question, What part of Scotland are the new books to be about ? For our country is already pretty well laid out, after the fashion of gold land, in “claims,” to each of which the owner alone has rights. North of Inverness ? Appropriated by William Black ; it is too soon yet for a newcomer to step upon his claim. Argyle and the Isles ? These are the exclusive property of Mr. Neil Munro and Miss Fiona MacLeod. Ayrshire ? Galt holds undisputed sway here, and the claim of the departed is indeed more sacred than that of the living. Galloway ? A brave man he would be who should set foot there, with the stalwart Crockett defending his claim by right of might! The Lothians ? Shades of Scott and Stevenson ! Forfar? Mr. Barrie is not contentions, I am sure, but still — Central Perthshire ? Mr. Ian Maclaren must be consulted first. Aberdeen? Mr. William Alexander has long ago established his claim here. The novelists of the future—the Scotch future — will have to confine their efforts within a very narrow radius. I think (but I may be mistaken) that the part of Scotland extending between Peebles and Galloway does not belong to any one in especial.
But the Scotch people remain : thousands of men and women, each as different from the others as black is from white, yet each Scotch born and bred, with all the vigor, the intellectuality, the nerve, of their race, and with its vices too ; a strenuous people capable of anything. This should be an inspiring thought for the novelist. He need not limit his Scotchman’s story to the probabilities of the case ; there is that in the composition of the race which makes every man and woman of them capable of extraordinary possibilities, and even of impossibilities, — a sort of outwardgoing force not to be reckoned with or held in check, not to be contained either, be it said, in all the pages of all the novelists put together.
Jane Helen Findlater.