Alan Riach considers the contests and conflicts of the Tavern Sages, JG Lockhart, Susan Ferrier, Joanna Baillie, Mary Brunton, Carolina Oliphant, Lord Cockburn and Marion Reid


WALTER Scott at his most genteel was the legacy taken up by his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), who edited the influential (Tory) Blackwood’s Magazine with John Wilson (“Christopher North”, 1785-1854), caricaturing contemporary literary figures and establishing a popular series of critical reviews to counterpoint the politically opposed (Whig) journal, the Edinburgh Review. Lockhart became embroiled in the Edinburgh literary establishment and together with Wilson, satirised various figures in the pages of the magazine, most centrally James Hogg. It’s an unattractive story of literary exploitation. Hogg saw Wilson and Lockhart as friends and supporters but while they evidently enjoyed his company, they considered him a country buffoon. The satires published in Blackwood’s demonstrate this and have a cruelty about them, yet the comedy of the seventy-one pieces collected as the Noctes Ambrosianae (1822-35) is riotous enough to confirm Hogg’s willing participation.

The scene is Ambrose’s tavern in Edinburgh, the characters include the Shepherd (Hogg), the English Opium-Eater (Thomas de Quincey), North (Wilson), Tommy Tickler (Wilson’s uncle, Robert Sym) and others, and the contest between the genteel and the vulgar is the crux of the humour, demonstrated in Anglified language and the subject of food:

Shepherd: Oh, sir! but I’m unco fond o’ the English accent. It’s like an instrument wi’ a’ the strings o’ silver, – and though I canna help thinkin’ that you speak a wee owre slow, yet there’s sic music in your voice, that I’m perfectly enchanted wi’ the soun’, while a sense o’ truth prevents me frae sayin’ that I aye a’thegether comprehend the meaning, – for that’s aye, written or oral alike, sae desperate metapheesical. – But what soup will you tak, sir? Let me recommend the hotch-potch.

English Opium-Eater: I prefer vermicelli.

Shepherd: What? Worms! They gar me scunner, – the vera luk o’ them. Sae, you’re a worm-eater, sir, as weel’s an Opium-eater?

English Opium-Eater: Mr Wordsworth, sir, I think it is, who says, speaking of the human being under the thraldom of the senses, –

Shepherd: I beseech ye, my dear sir, no to be angry sae sune on in the afternoon. There’s your worms – and I wuss you muckle gude o’ them – only compare them – Thank, you Mr Tickler – wi’ this bowl-deep trencher o’ hotch-potch – an emblem of the hail vegetable and animal creation.

Tickler: Why, James, though now invisible to the naked eye, boiled down as they are in baser matter, that tureen on which your face has for some minutes been fixed as gloatingly as that of a Satyr on a sleeping Wood-nymph, or Pan himself on Matron Cybele, contains, as every naturalist knows, some scores of snails, a gowpen-full of gnats, countless caterpillars, of our smaller British insects numbers without number numberless as the sea-shore sands –

Shepherd: No at this time o’ year, you gowk.

When the Opium-Eater pontificates about Robert Burns, the Shepherd interrupts him: “Dinna abuse Burns, Mr De Quinshy. Neither you nor ony ither Englishman can thoroughly understaun three sentences o’ his poems – ” The Opium-Eater protests: “I grant that most of them are uncouth and barbarous, to English ears – even to those of the most accomplished and consummate scholars.” And the Shepherd interrupts again to ask pointedly: “What’s a gowpen o’ glaur?” and he answers his own question: “It’s just tua neif-fu’s o’ clarts.” He concludes that “kennin’ something o’ a language by bringin’ to bear upon’t a’ the united efforts o’ knowledge and understaunin’ – baith first-rate – is ae thing, and feelin’ every breath and every shadow that keeps playin’ owre a’ its syllables, as if by a natural and born instinct, is anither – ”

Hogg wins the argument but the prevailing sense remains of the superiorism of English and the Anglicised. Lockhart’s Tory and Christian biases left a long legacy and were most powerfully scorned in the 20th century by DH Lawrence. When Lawrence heard in the 1920s that his friend the novelist Catherine Carswell was going to write a new biography of Burns, he wrote to her husband Donald and commended her, noting the need for a different view of the poet than the one commonly held:

“I read just now Lockhart’s bit of life of Burns. Made me spit! Those damned middle-class Lockharts grew lilies of the valley up their arses, to hear them talk. My word, you can’t know Burns unless you can hate the Lockharts and all the estimable bourgeois and upper classes as he really did — the narrow-gutted pigeons. Don’t for God’s sake, be mealy-mouthed like them – No, my boy, don’t be on the side of the angels, it’s too lowering.”

Lockhart, alas, was all too determined to be on the side of the angels. A more complex writer was Susan Ferrier (1782-1854), whose novels Marriage (1818), The Inheritance (1824) and Destiny (1831) were admired by Scott and evidently effected a bridge from his northern context to that of Jane Austen’s southern one. Like Austen, Ferrier was genteel and never married. Scott described her as “full of humour and exceedingly ready at repartee”. Later, though, she became a devout member of the Free Church, stopped writing fiction and repented of what she now considered her frivolous career as a novelist. The angels got her in the end.

Marriage is centred in the domestic and interior world inhabited by Juliana Glenfern, revealing the conditions of women in this patriarchal society. It is memorably funny and begins like this:

“Come hither, child,” said the old Earl of Courtland to his daughter, as, in obedience to his summons, she entered his study; “come hither, I say; I wish to have some serious conversation with you: so dismiss your dogs, shut the door, and sit down here.”

Lady Juliana rang for a footman to take Venus; bade Pluto be quiet, like a darling, under the sofa; and, taking Cupid in her arms, assured his lordship he need fear no disturbance from the sweet creatures, and that she would be all attention to his commands – kissing her cherished pug as she spoke.

“You are now, I think, seventeen, Juliana,” said his Lordship, in a solemn important tone.

“And a half, papa.”

“It is therefore time you should be thinking of establishing yourself in the world. Have you ever turned your thoughts that way?”

Lady Juliana cast down her beautiful eyes, and was silent.

His Lordship having no fortune to bestow, Juliana is promised to be married to an “odious Duke” but by the opening of Chapter Two, she is eloping with the dashing Captain Henry Douglas and travels to his Highland castle: “Many were the dreary muirs, and rugged mountains, her Ladyship had to encounter, in her progress to Glenfern castle...” Her companion “expatiated...on the wild but august scenery that surrounded his father’s castle” but then the scene is revealed: “a tall thin grey house... A small sullen looking lake... a few dingy turnip fields... A dreary stillness... ‘What a scene!’ at length Lady Juliana exclaimed, shuddering as she spoke; ‘Good God, what a scene! How I pity the unhappy wretches who are doomed to dwell in such a place! And yonder hideous grim house; it makes me sick to look at it. For heaven’s sake, bid him drive on... what is the name of that house?’” And the driver replies: “‘Hoose!... ca’ ye thon a hoose? Thon’s Glenfern Castle!’”

Ferrier’s two later novels continue the vein of forthright satire and ironic comment. If the scenario in her novels resembles that of Austen, her robustness and clarity, her eye for wild and wayward angles of approach, suggest the almost surreal humour of Smollett, and point forward to that of Eric Linklater. The irreverence of her humour is suggested by the bold and cheeky first line of The Inheritance, with its eyebrow raised over Austen’s first novel, which had been published only five years earlier, in 1813: “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that there is no passion so deeply rooted in human nature as that of pride.”

CONTEMPORARY with Ferrier were the Lanarkshire-born playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) and the Orcadian Mary Brunton (1778-1818), the titles of whose novels Self-Control (1810) and Discipline (1814) suggest her chief co-ordinate points. For both, Christian morality leads the way but humour leavens the priorities of proto-feminism, the need to recognise and protest against the prevalent conditions of society. Indeed, there is a distinct tradition that runs forward from Ferrier, Baillie and Brunton to Margaret Oliphant, Catherine Carswell, Dot Allan, Nan Shepherd, Elspeth Davie, Joan Lingard, Janice Galloway and AL Kennedy.

Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne (1766-1845) came from a staunch Jacobite family. Her father and grandfather both were with Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the rising of 1745 and were consequently exiled from Scotland. Her songs were memorised and sung throughout the world, including “The Land o’ the Leal”, “Wi’ a Hundred Pipers” and the Jacobite favourite “Will ye no’ come back again?” addressed to the Prince “over the water”. After Walter Scott masterminded King George IV’s 1822 visit to Edinburgh, some Jacobite properties and positions, which had been in forfeit after Culloden, were restored, and Lady Nairne’s husband was instated to the family Barony.

Looking back over the whole complex period from the Enlightenment to the Romantic era, the memoirs of Lord Cockburn (1779-1859), published as Memorials of His Time (1856), and his Journal (1874), reflect on the Edinburgh of Scott and his contemporaries, its characters, contexts and contradictions, with forensic precision and infectious relish. They remain among the richest accounts of the era. Yet as we’ve noted, there was another growing movement in this period. The fiction, plays, poems and songs represent this to some extent, but it was taking explicit form in the world at large, through and beyond the literary works and playful shenanigans of the relatively well-off.

Marion Kirkland Reid (1815-1902) was one of the earliest explicitly feminist writers, whose book, A Plea for Woman (1843) was especially influential in America, where it was reprinted in 1847, 1848, 1851 and 1852 under the title Woman, Her Education and Influence. After her husband Hugo’s death in 1872, she lived with their daughter in Hammersmith, London, where she had attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, outraged at the exclusion of female American delegates. This was what prompted the polemical Plea for Woman. The book argues for emancipation in the context of both patriarchal domesticity and conventional Christianity. Chapter Five begins with a quotation from Talleyrand: “To see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government, is a political phenomenon which, according to abstract principles, it is impossible to explain.”

Reid says that the disadvantages under which women are currently suffering are threefold: (1) Want of equal civil rights. (2) Enforcement of unjust laws. And (3) Want of means for obtaining a good substantial education. She states her case: “The ground on which equality is claimed for all men is of equal force for all women; for women share the common nature of humanity, and are possessed of all those noble faculties which constitute man a responsible being, and give him a claim to be his own ruler, so far as is consistent with order, and the possession of the like degree of sovereignty over himself by every other human being. It is the possession of the noble faculties of reason and conscience which elevates man above the brutes, and invests him with this right of exercising supreme authority over himself. It is more especially the possession of an inward rule of rectitude, a law written on the heart in indelible characters, which raises him to this high dignity, and renders him an accountable being, by impressing him with the conviction that there are certain duties which he owes to his fellow-creatures. Whoever possesses this consciousness,

has also the belief that the same convictions of duty are implanted in the breast of each member of the human family. He feels that he has a right to have all those duties exercised by others towards him, which his conscience tells him he ought to exercise towards others; hence the natural and equal rights of men.

“We do not mean to enter into the question of the claim of all men to equal rights, but simply to state the foundation on which that claim rests, and to show that the first principles on which it does rest apply to all mankind, without distinction of sex.”

Reid’s book is not fiction but it is a masterpiece of controlled literary rhetoric and heartfelt passion and as such it warrants full notice in any literary account of the era.