Wherefore, Four Nations Literature

Wherefore, Four Nations Literature

This week, Dr Daniel Cook (University of Dundee) questions the viability of a Four Nations model in relation to 19th century literature. 

Should an English department at a Scottish university ringfence Scottish literature or disperse the material throughout the undergraduate programme? Can we stand Scottish literature on its own, even after the rise of Four Nations scholarship, or can we reasonably group it with, say, Irish literature? To stretch the questions a little further, should we teach Scottish literature across its languages (Scots, English, Gaelic, and even Latin) or in a limited, practical iteration: namely Scottish literature in English? When teaching eighteenth-century Irish literature, after all, we usually mean the Anglo-Irish tradition of Swift, Goldsmith, and Sterne, inter alios. In order to map out a body of writing that extends beyond London, and even Dublin, though, when teaching Jonathan Swift I currently use his Market Hill pieces—poems written in and about the Ulster-Scots of Armagh in the 1720s—and other such works, rather than the more famous choices such as the Description poems or the wickedly subversive and therefore highly teachable “excremental” pieces. Similarly, in my Scottish literature modules we often take in Byron’s ‘Lachin y Gair’—a poem that addresses with delicate grace the English poet’s own Aberdeenshire heritage—rather than Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and other (lengthy, unwieldy) masterpieces.

Such manoeuvres nevertheless risk reducing national bodies of works to their nationhood, and even position them in tandem with England or Britain. From a different perspective, what about diasporic writers in New York, Canada, and elsewhere, who write compellingly about the old countries? What do we do with iconic authors, such as Stevenson and Beckett, who spent most of their careers overseas? To put it another way: should a nation-based module dwell on the sometimes integral, often incidental Scottishness or Irishness, say, of the material or celebrate the writings of authors who happen to be associated with specific countries? Maria Edgeworth was English but her novella Castle Rackrent (1800) reveals much about certain quarters of Irish life at the turn of the nineteenth century. Roderick Random (1748), a novel written by the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett, is largely set in England. But it reveals a lot about the casual ill-will that followed Scots living down south at a time of fervent Jacobitism. Invariably, then, place proves to be one of the most significant if controversial components of any version of a Four Nations module (including a Scottish or Irish literature module more specifically).

Two years ago I established at Dundee a Level 3 (i.e. third year) module titled Scottish Literature before 1900. This filled a gaping hole in our provisions, following the retirement of the George MacDonald scholar, David Robb. When setting up the module I decided to keep it in the “pre-1900” category largely for practical reasons more than for ideological ones. Students at Dundee have to take a quota of pre-1900 modules before they graduate and we have far more options in contemporary literature. And my research attends to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and book history on the whole. Recently, I moved the module up to Level 4, which means it is taken in the fourth and final year of an undergraduate degree and therefore ought to be more closely tied into my research and also look ahead to the modules on the taught postgraduate degree, the MLitt in English Studies. In order to bring my teaching closer to my research interests, I also added Irish literature to the mix in what is now called, matter-of-factly, Scottish and Irish Literature (pre-1900). Much of the material on Scottish literature has migrated from the Level 3 iteration, but now we benefit from placing texts in dialogue. Previously students looked at Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), a work that is often labelled the first historical novel, on its own. Now they read it alongside Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, a novel that Scott cites as a direct influence on his approach to the genre. Robert Louis Stevenson’s highly teachable gothic tales ‘The Body-Snatcher’ and ‘Olalla’ now sit with Bram Stoker’s ‘The Burial of the Rats’, thereby building on our students’ previous work on Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula at pre-honours. And hopefully the Ossian controversy will make a little more sense—or at least gain a more compelling edge—once set astride an Irish context. Regional nationalism, if we can call it that, remains a key component. In addition to Swift’s northern Irish poems, for example, students will spend some time with Robert Burns’s Ayrshire idioms. And Elizabeth Grierson’s ‘Assipattle and the Mester Stoorworm’ takes us into the mythopoeic northern islands.

The issue of place, in short, is not a straightforward one in a nominal Four Nations literature module (pace Scottish, Irish, Scottish and Irish, British and Irish, Celtic Fringe, and such like variations). There is a danger of over-correcting, of deflecting the keenly felt dominance of London, or even Edinburgh or Dublin, on literary history. Indeed, research-led modules might thrive best when they build on, or speak back to, texts that have become familiar to students, typically English literature. Some of the intent might be revisionist: showing the specific ways in which Wordsworth and Coleridge and other English writers appropriate traditional Scottish ballads like ‘Thomas Rhymer’, for example. After all, England and the impact of her writers cannot be ignored in any consideration of Anglophone literature. But really the approach can be an expansive one when it takes in genre. One might explore Four Nations Gothic, for one thing, or the British and Irish Fairytale, or even the Jacobite Novel, in order to make sense of the literary bonds that stretch across our united nations.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English and Associate Director of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).


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