Donald Mackenzie (University of Glasgow)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘The Questionable Failure of Catriona

The paper will locate Catriona in historical fiction after Scott. It is Stevenson’s one essay at the kind of Scott novel which meshes the story of its protagonist with the history of their society and culture in a phase of transition or at a point of crisis. Where Kidnapped fines down Scott motifs and interests in a fashion that might align it with Pushkin, Catriona deploys them frontally. Its ‘Tale of Tod Lapraik’ is seeded from Redgauntlet.  Prestongrange offers a realpolitik analysis of the Highlands six years after Culloden as Fergus MacIvor on the retreat from Derby had analysed the Jacobite catastrophe. The netting of justice in law, and law in politics, recalls The Heart of Midlothian. David’s detention on the Bass finesses on the Scott protagonist (Waverley, Ivanhoe) sidelined from action at a key moment. And both Catriona and her opposite, Miss Grant, are pared from Di Vernon. In so aligning itself systematically with Scott Catriona foregrounds a fundamental difference. “Wandering Willie’s Tale” is meshed with its novel and that novel’s probing of history: ‘Tod Lapraik’ is an inset piece, a bravura exercise in Scottish diablerie that thrusts away from history towards the ontological. It offers a proleptic parable for David’s rejection of politics and history, a rejection which aligns Catriona with Esmond and Romola and shrinks decisively what a Scott novel can achieve. In Part II that shrinking works itself out, not in failure to render adequately a sexual relationship but in the failure of the sexual and the familial to carry the historical significance they carry in Waverley or Rob Roy. Such failure opens into questions about later nineteenth century responses to history. But Catriona also mounts its rejections with a concise and systematic (a Pushkin-esque?) intelligence which leaves its “failure” questionable in a different sense.

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