chapter  7
18 Pages

‘Earth and Stone’

Improvement, Entailment and Geographical Futures in the Novel of the 1820s
WithPenny Fielding

In her chapter, Penny Fielding diagnoses a crisis in the relationship between history and geography in the Scottish novel of the 1820s, expressed partly by a breakdown in the symbolic potential of land. She argues that, increasingly alienated from the ‘national tale’, the generic tradition of the historical novel comes to diminish the ‘instructional capacity’ of the present, with corresponding disconnections to both geographical space and specificity. Thus land, at once material resource and national motif, ‘becomes unstable or unavailable as a canvass for historical representation, measure of historical progress, or the substrate for the improvement of the future’. This is demonstrated in works by Susan Ferrier and then Walter Scott, the latter of whose novels in the period inhabit a vividly ‘unanchored present’. Disclosing a newly commercialized modernity that erases the local, this pattern involves a temporal disruption in which narrative—both literary and historical—loses its cohesive agency. By a kind of historical irony, responses to modernity render the linear quality of improvement itself—as a story of historical progress—less available. And so, ‘as a way of imagining and controlling a future’, improvement is muddied along with the landscape that is its prime object. A key figure for this historical moment is the legal fiction of the entail, which as Fielding explores in John Galt’s novel The Entail (1823), captures these disruptions in both time and space. Situated within a tradition of legal thought in Scotland, Galt presents the entail as a method of administering inheritance that perverts relationships to both land and history, in a novel that is a highlight of this period in Scottish fiction.