In Scotland and the Fictions of Geography: North Britain, 1760-1830, Penny Fielding adroitly untangles some of the complex representations of Scotland during the romantic period as she explores the “tensions and instabilities in Scotland’s cultural spatiality” that result from “the very impulse to know the nation in geographical terms” (10). While Fielding’s first four chapters weave together an impressive array of literary, scientific, linguistic, antiquarian, and theoretical texts as she investigates the evolving meaning of the north and North Britain during the Enlightenment, chapter five fruitfully pairs the kenspeckled Walter Scott and less well-known Shetland poet Margaret Chalmers to explore their contemporaneous literature emanating from the northern islands of Scotland. Concluding the monograph, chapter six stretches beyond Scotland’s northern archipelago to the Arctic as Fielding shifts discussion to the “post-Enlightenment author” James Hogg (162) and an “articulation of space…no longer possible through Enlightenment geometries” (183). Fielding’s intellectual analysis of Scotland’s “fictions of geography” (184) and the spatial and stadial boundaries they engage complements other recent additions to the field of Scottish studies, such as Christopher MacLachlan’s edited Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2009); Alexander Moffat and Alan Riach with Linda MacDonald-Lewis’ Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: Luath Press Ltd, 2008); Murray Pittock’s Scottish and Irish Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008); Ian Duncan’s Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007); Evan Gottlieb’s Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing, 1707-1832 (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2007); Kenneth McNeil’s Scotland, Britain, Empire: Writing the Highlands, 1760-1860 (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007); Ian Brown, Thomas Owen Clancy, Susan Manning, and Murray Pittock’s three-volume edited The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006); Caroline McCracken-Flesher’s Possible Scotlands: Walter Scott and the Story of Tomorrow (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005); and Leith Davis, Ian Duncan, and Janet Sorenson’s edited Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004). More broadly, Fielding’s work invites a rethinking of the intertwined terms “Romanticism” and “Enlightenment,” not just from the borders or peripheries, where Scotland is often identified, but with a nuanced understanding of the complicated position Scotland represents and constructs—both through conceptualized space and language—in reclaiming its identity as “North Britain.”
After a valuable introduction, Fielding turns to eighteenth-century poetry, politics, and progress to reflect upon Scotland’s flexible geography and designation as “North Britain.” She begins with Thomas Gray’s evocation of England as a northern location in “Luna Habitabalis” (13), analyzes how Scotland is viewed both as supplement to and origin for Britain, explores the duality of John Pinkerton’s writings that reveal the north’s geography as scientifically precise yet only legible “by the individual narrations of myth or story” (26), juxtaposes Rousseau’s fixed and Pope’s relative positioning of the north, and ends with Anne Grant’s reassertion of “the dominance of the British north, with Scotland as its locus classicus” (32) in Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen. Fielding suggests that North Britain “is always at least two places at the same time: both Scotland and Britain, an ancient or imaginary space and a modern political force, synecdochal for northernness in general and a singular position generating its own national character” (38-39).
In chapter two, “Burns, place, and language,” Fielding looks at romantic notions of creative imagination and topographic function as well as eighteenth-century ideas of location, writing and difference. In so doing, she introduces contemporary debates about climate theory while exploring Enlightenment theories of environmental determinism and analyzes the ways in which Burns toys with the “geometries of space” (50) in a number of poems including “The Northern Lass,” “Tam O’ Shanter,” “The Vision,” and “Caledonia.” Her final section entitled “language” explores the provisional nature of writing, the relationship between the local and the national in language, and Burns’s musical and poetic response to linguistic theories. She argues that Burns’s construction of dialect is “a form of writing that is distinctively local but not tied either to the universality and self-sufficiency of idealised song or to the somatic peculiarities of northern speech” (70). If “literature is the discourse that destabilises Enlightenment spatiality,” she writes, then the Scottish regional literature associated with Scott, Hogg, and Burns is particularly difficult to locate with precision, just as “[n]either Scotland, nor the language of its inhabitants, can clearly be plotted on a global map” (70).
Chapter three investigates narratives of border crossings between England and Scotland, while chapter four “argues for a revaluation of antiquarianism when its focus is moved from the study of objects to that of language and from object-based antiquarianism to the genealogies of toponymy” (102). In the first of these two chapters, “Great North Roads: The geometries of the nation,” Fielding follows the travels of English and Scottish writers as they encounter the emergence of modernity, and she investigates the challenge writers faced as they moved from a global to a national perspective in order to define the local. Her discussion of stadial history, military (and other) roads, Ossianic space, Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, the modern but mythical “North Country,” and Scott’s plethora of writings enriches her argument and maps out the border between England and Scotland as being “the most, and least, geographically determined space in the country” (93). Concluding with a discussion of Rob Roy in chapter three, Fielding moves in chapter four to Scott’s The Antiquary and rival historians George Chalmers and John Pinkerton. Fielding notes that “[d]espite the novel’s references to the place-name arguments between Chalmers and Pinkerton, its contribution to the fictions of Scottish geography is to break down the relationship between locality and nation and to disrupt the lines of topographic continuity that the antiquarians had proposed” (115).
“Ultima Thule: The limits of the north,” my favorite chapter, develops a delightful discussion of Walter Scott’s 1814 journey to Orkney and Shetland in conjunction with Shetlander Margaret Chalmers’ Poems, published one year earlier. Not only does it pay serious attention to Scotland’s (and Britain’s) northern-most region, an important but under-acknowledged cultural and literary treasure, it also offers an intriguing argument about Chalmers’ sophisticated poetry and “sense of spatiality,” which, I would agree with Fielding, is “perhaps the most complex and radical of any in this study” (160). As a local writer, Chalmers situates Shetland within a modern global sphere even as she recognizes an imaginative national context for islands often conceived as peripheral and distant, and, as a woman author, she explores Shetland and spatiality in relationship to women’s cultural representation and experiences. Fielding concludes that while for Scott, “a margin is a place one visits from the centre and discovers that, however much one romanticises that margin as a place of newness and discovery, it will turn out to be inscribed by the centre from which one has left,” Chalmers’ “optical north plays with spatial hierarchies, allowing supposedly distant northern isles to become panoptical positions and central surveying points, but ones that do not exert power over the islands’ population” (160).
Finally, Fielding turns to James Hogg and “post-Enlightenment space” in order to explore the difference between the paradoxical nature of the local and the position of a locality as concepts of spatiality change throughout the period, even as they reflect eighteenth-century roots. She observes that Hogg’s writing contrasts with contemporary national tales by offering alternative narratives unfolding in supernatural worlds and/or familiar yet unrecognizable spaces. Fielding’s analytical trajectory moves progressively north, as do the narratives she chooses by Hogg, and ends with an examination of his Arctic story The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon, situated in the extreme polar north, “a region both of the imagination and of the failure of an imagination confronted by an impossible topography” (175). Fielding concludes with a reflection upon how Scotland resists a “well-worn story about Romanticism…that marks a retreat into local, rural, recuperative places from the stresses of the industrialising nation” (185); rather, Scotland “unsettles the relations of geography and history” (186) even as it “draws attention to the way place is a form of national representation in the period” (187).
Fielding’s wide-ranging study integrates canonical and non-canonical writers, multiple genres (lest a reader think her allusive title refers only to the literary genre of fiction), and a plethora of theoretical perspectives—all in a slim but densely-packed monograph. Even the term “geography” expands in scope as Fielding theorizes geographies of the nation, imagination, space, law, and even discontinuity. While at times the constant movement among different theoretical, literary, and philosophical contexts and lexicons is unsettling, the interdisciplinary nature of her scholarship also proves provocative and refreshing. Scotland and the Fictions of Geography: North Britain 1760-1830 is a welcome addition to studies of the north, as well as an erudite contribution to the scholarship of Scotland, Romanticism, and the many geographical intersections Fielding explores.
Anne Stapleton is a lecturer at the University of Iowa, where she teaches Scottish, Irish, and English literature. Her current book project, entitled Negotiating Scottish Identity: Dance in Post-Culloden Literature, examines the complicated role of Scottish social dancing as an outwardly conforming, covertly subversive, expression of Scottish nationalism.