What does literature say about nations and nationality?
Given recent comments by writer and academic Kirsty Gunn that Scottish literature is in peril from ‘Scottification,’ it would seem a pressing issue. However in reality, this is a question Scottish literature has had to grapple with for a very long time.
Gunn would probably have a thing or two to take from that very English writer, George Orwell. Orwell, in his essay about the English character, The Lion and the Unicorn, regarded nationality as such:
National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connexion with one another.
However, for all his criticism of the English character, Orwell’s own characterisation of England was more rigorously defined than the measurements on a ruler. In the same essay he goes on to define England in the most unambiguous terms as a nation of flower lovers, pigeon fanciers, stamp-collectors, vaguely philistine, of good-tempered bus conductors and police officers, all universally marred by bad teeth. To find all this coming from an essay on Englishness that evokes Scotland’s national animal in its title, there is perhaps some weight behind Orwell’s own prophecy.
Unlike visual art or music, which both enjoy an invaluable freedom, literature is intrinsically linked to place and language – “the only art that cannot cross frontiers,” according to Orwell. Even if a book is set in outer space the cadence of voice still betrays its earthly origins, its humour and frame of reference. Nobody would doubt a British author wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Despite having no concrete setting, actors playing the parts of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot will favour the use of Irish accents over their own.
At a very basic level, nationality revolves around a feeling of empathy – specifically with those around us. Added with the human tendency to see ourselves as generally good people (with the ability to justify even the most heinous actions, if thought about for long enough), national character in literature often feels lacking because of its very idealism – namely, the idealism of the author placed onto their closest kin, so they may feel better about the irrevocable place and time they find themselves a part of.
In Victorian Scotland, this took on the form of the Kailyard School – an immensely popular group of writers who wrote quaint, parochial novels set in rural Scottish communities. Abounding with bonny peasants and other canny characters, Kailyard novels were often formulaic in style, with the Scots leid used more as eccentric colouring than literary tongue. Never mind the growing number of slums as a result of industrialisation or the last of the Highland Clearances still within living memory – life in Scotland was very good indeed, according to the Kailyard.
In direct response to the school, a relatively obscure Fleet Street hack named George Douglas Brown published a novel titled The House with the Green Shutters in 1901. Brown died only a year later from pneumonia at the age of 33, but what he left behind became one of the most enduring works of Scottish literature.
The true bleak house
The world of John Gourlay, the central character of the novel, is a far cry from the modern day Scotland that perpetuates itself as a land of universalism, progressive politics and common weal. Gourlay is the sole merchant carrier in the fictional Ayrshire village of Barbie (based on Brown’s own childhood home of Ochiltree). The novel follows the life of Gourlay who, bitter for his working class background and lack of intelligence, tries in every way he can to assert dominion over Barbie and its residents – most significantly through his financial monopoly and subsequent decadence. His house (the one with the green shutters) is the symbol of his power, strategically placed at the top of a steep bank so it may be seen from all parts of the village – sound familiar?
All men are suffused with that quiet pride in looking at the houses and lands which they have won by their endeavours—in looking at the houses more than at the lands, for the house which a man has built seems to express his character and stand for him before the world, as a sign of his success.
But despite all this, the people of Barbie can never bring themselves to respect somebody as stupid and lowly as Gourlay, regardless of any upper class pretences. As a result, Gourlay’s attempts to achieve the one thing he can never quite grasp become ever more exasperated, ultimately leading to his own demise.
A cast of characters
Often throughout the novel Brown digresses from the main story to write monologues on ‘the Scots character’ – one of keen business acumen, with suspicion of their fellow men, who enjoy democracy not for the belief in an egalitarian society, but because it pits individual against individual. In Gourlay’s world, a man only can only truly win on the condition that others must lose:
To go back to the beginning, the Scot, as pundits will tell you, is an individualist. His religion alone is enough to make him so; for it is a scheme of personal salvation significantly described once by the Reverend Mr. Struthers of Barbie. “At the Day of Judgment, my frehnds,” said Mr. Struthers—”at the Day of Judgment every herring must hang by his own tail!” Self-dependence was never more luridly expressed. History, climate, social conditions, and the national beverage have all combined (the pundits go on) to make the Scot an individualist, fighting for his own hand. The better for him if it be so; from that he gets the grit that tells.
But what really defines the novel is its unrelenting bleakness. Nobody laughs except at the misfortunes of another; the only motive is to get one over the next man at all costs; even sunny days are ruined by the reminder that they will not last for long. It is as such that the novels primary fascination is simultaneously its biggest weakness; by trying too hard to pin down what it means to be Scottish, Brown has presented an image that is just as lifelike as those of the very school he fought against.
However, out of his dogged pursuit to answer what it means to be ‘truly’ Scottish, Brown has come to ponder much wider issues than those merely of his closest kin. Themes on things like selfishness; the shallowness of materialism; inequality and the restraints of social immobility; the follies of intellectual egotism and snobbery; the true meanings behind success and failure. It is for these concerns that The House with the Green Shutters continues to resonate with modern audiences over a hundred years on, and where the seeds of true polemic are planted. In short, they are what make Brown’s novel a classic.
Although from all this is one lesson: that literature can never really portray life as it truly is, but only life as it is through a certain kind of temperament. Bolstered by modernism and two world wars, The House with the Green Shutters set forth a major trend in Scottish letters that remains in place to this day. A trend that wished to deal with grittier, darker topics like poverty, drug abuse, destitution, depression and – most visibly of all – murder. Brown believed Scottish literature painted too bucolic a picture of Scottish life. Have we now, collectively, gone too much the other way? And so the balancing act continues. It is worth stepping back sometimes and realising that the good and bad of life are often inseparable – even if just to be sure we are not mistaking one as, somehow, more real without the other.
Mony a mickle
Thus comes the difficulty of quantifying artistic endeavour, and by extension its patronage; when success is often measured over centuries rather than years, and the terms of that success having changed from those at the outset. The rules required by arts funding will always seem too narrow when there are so many different attitudes towards what the arts should try to achieve. And when dealing with something as amorphous as national identity, whether through attempts to create an accurate picture of place as it stands or by mapping something less physical, the dissonance between attitudes is even more apparent.
Although there does seem to be one thing all artists in Scotland have in common, and that is a deep suspicion of Creative Scotland. Gunn’s criticism only adds her name to the long list of artists who have voiced their dissatisfaction with the institution, alongside the likes of Liz Lochhead, Ian Rankin, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and even the general public. By this point perhaps we should be less concerned about what Creative Scotland is doing wrong, and instead asking: just what exactly are they doing right?