The scholarship on and around Scott is the most distinguished of any novelist of the century. Ian Duncan’s powerful Scott’s Shadow follows (among others) Judith Wilt’s Secret Leaves (1985), Ina Ferris’s Achievement of Literary Authority (1991), Fiona Robertson’s Legitimate Histories (1994), Katie Trumpener’s Bardic Nationalism (1997), Miranda Burgess’s British Fiction and the Production of Social Order (2000), and Susan Manning’s Fragments of Union (2002), along with earlier books, additional brilliant work partly about Scott and his milieu, and more on the way from Juliet Shields, Samuel Baker, and doubtless others. No one, I dare say, has cast so illuminating a searchlight on so many sometimes dusty corners as Duncan. In ten chapters and forty-six subchapters he dissects Hume, Smith, and Reid (along with bits of Blair, Burke, and Stewart); the leading magazines; Lockhart and John Wilson (who emerges as a major figure); Brunton, Ferrier, Galt, Hogg, Christian Johnstone (de facto the first woman to edit a major periodical and author of a novel “unfamiliar even to specialists”  along with a very successful Scott pastiche in the guise of a cookery book), Carlyle, and a lot of Scott--with side glances at Edgeworth, Owenson, Austen (two beautiful pages on “nothing” in Emma), and numerous others. The guiding thread, sketched in the Preface and underwritten by Bourdieu, is a dissent from a “zero-sum accounting” of literary achievements (p. xv). Duncan formulates it late in the book as follows: “Galt’s complaints about the constraints of the market have led commentators to underestimate or ignore the ways in which dominant conventions, and the force of Scott’s example, constituted a creative challenge rather than a prohibition” (223). While this thesis remains rather horizonal in the book, it does imply a characteristically generous response to disparagers of either Scott or his fascinating lesser contemporaries. The first half undertakes portraits of the modern Edinburgh of the magazines in relation to commerce, politics, and letters; of the numerous facets of nationalism (antique and modern, eccentric and normalizing, progressive and nostalgic) in relation to and tension with London; and of the mutual entanglements of fiction and history. The second half profiles the more prominent and successful novelists in and out of dialogue with Scott--overshadowed but also sometimes shaded and protected by him--and with one another. The cultural imagination and the fictional imagination are hardly separable, however, and the cast of writers and books remains dense and overlapping throughout. Auxiliary topics--by no means all of them noted in the inadequate index--include authenticity, intertextuality, masculinity, noncontemporaneity, spatialization, empiricism, realism, taste, aestheticism, romance, pastoral, primitivism, post-modernity, friendship, sentimentalism, the uncanny, incorporation and introjection (via Abraham and Torok), galvanism, magical realism, allegory, metaphor and metonymy, patriarchy, fanaticism, gothicism, speech and writing, dialect, and conversion narratives, not to mention the Caledonian Antisyzygy.
It is as breathless as it sounds. Duncan’s preface says, “it has taken me far longer to write this book than it should have” (p. xvi). I don’t know about the should have, given the daunting reading list--and even Duncan concedes that two of the thirteen Galt novels he encompasses (plus a number of non-fiction works) are “tedious” (220)--but one feels the struggle. Duncan’s Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (1992) and his many essays are intricate, but not as intricate as Scott’s Shadow. Still, readers of these earlier works will be aware that Duncan is incapable of writing a paragraph without assembling pinpoint details in the service of original ideas, and the abstraction quotient is far higher in the new book. He marries Wilt’s density and some of her Freudianism, though only rare flashes of her wit (the best of them, playing off an Edgeworth title, is: “for Ennui to be respelled as Union...” ), with Trumpener’s daring. It is inspiring and daunting: read a few pages, almost anywhere, and your understanding of Scottish fiction, and probably of much else besides, will be raised to a new level.
Reading the whole thing is a different proposition. It has what the French call “les défauts de ses qualités.” One encounters repetitions and, occasionally, sentences like this: “The politically driven challenge to the Edinburgh Review and its tropes of legitimacy in the periodical war precipitated the ideological figure of a secular site of absolute value more radically, if in the end ambiguously, aloof from the arena of social processes defined by political economy” (55). Syntax and semantics are both perplexed, and not tamed by the noun-heavy impersonality. Yet even here the complexity is genuine. The dialectic is at once self-generating (politics leading to ideology), self-transforming (value becoming absolute rather than economic), and self-questioning (the secular remaining ambiguously aloof). The surrounding discussion makes good, impressively, on all these elements.
Still, the forest often feels clogged with trees. With evident affection, Duncan calls Johnstone’s best-known (or least obscure) novel Clan-Albin both “a ramshackle affair” and “ideologically prescient” (100), and there is a definite kinship. Like his novels, Duncan proliferates elements without necessarily integrating them. Never asked is what difference it makes whether a novel is ramshackle or organic. (“Organic form” is a subchapter title, but, for once, not a topic.) What made Scott the power broker, putting so many comparatively ramshackle others into his shadow? Duncan may have decided simply to elide this question as too familiar, but in my view that would be a mistake. While he is magnificently generous in his tributes to many enterprises, without a hierarchy aesthetics loses its rationale. Seeing the novels whole is an essential complement to taking them apart. Duncan is too well-trained and too sensitive to ignore the pervading spirit or ethos of his books, but he does often slight the middle ground of plot, character, and technique. Literature’s strength comes from melding impulse into imaginative vision. Without articulating what makes Clan-Albin ramshackle and Scott structurally sound, we lack grounds to understand literature’s force and to explain what we gain from studying it.
Despite my fanfare for a more critical criticism, it is hard to imagine not being a fan of the book’s awesome succession of brilliancies, especially at discerning ideological impulses that flicker in a scene, an image, a plot motif, an intertextual echo. Specialists have already been reading and citing Scott’s Shadow and will mine it for many years to come. For others I recommend borrowing it from the library as soon as possible and spending an hour or two sampling its riches and its methods. The sections that remain most vividly in my mind are “Dirt” and “Seeing Nothing” (on two striking topoi of realism) and “Organic Form” (a deeply impressive anatomy of the origins of Victorian prose style in the psychodynamics of Wilson’s writing), along with the scattered (and, fortunately, indexed) discussions of the form and functions of the novel. Next read the pages on whichever of the novels here discussed you know best, to witness the remarkable mining of detail and pattern, and then perhaps turn to the closing sections, “The Spirit of the Time” (a sample of Duncan’s cultural history, concerned with the fading of the long novel in favor of more journalistic writing and then with Scott’s posthumous reputation as--in Harriet Martineau’s word--”unconsciously” a man of the people) and “Recessional,” on Carlyle’s dismissal of Scott. As my too brief summary of the penultimate section suggests, the topics come thick and fast, and connective tissue and signposts are often deficient. Sometimes, to discern the collective argument of a subchapter I had to figure out whether paragraphs were to be connected with “and,” “hence,” or “but.” So be prepared to take plenty of notes. But do make this book a priority. You won’t regret it.
Marshall Brown is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington and Editor of Modern Language Quarterly. His most recent book is The Gothic Text; forthcoming is ‘The Tooth That Nibbles at the Soul’: Essays on Music and Poetry.