The Tartan Connection
- Elizabeth Waterston (Author)
Rapt in Plaid: Canadian Literature and Scottish Tradition. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sharon Alker
Rapt in Plaid combines an extensive literary analysis of the Scottish influence on Canadian writing with a memoir of Elizabeth Waterston’s personal experience as a graduate student, professor, researcher and editor within the field of Canadian Studies as it developed from the 1940s. The result is a refreshing and engaging work, a good read for both academics and the general book lover. The substantial range of Canadian and Scottish works Waterston compares is impressive. Familiar texts are re-contextualized. Marginalized works and genres are unearthed and shown to be important links to understanding how Canadian literature has embraced and transformed Scottish forms, themes and sentiments. Examples include the work of James Barrie, whose "Kailyard" novels have been harshly treated by Scottish critics, and the work of Catherine Sinclair, a Victorian Scot whose fiction has been bypassed by twentieth-century readers and critics.
The book is divided into four parts, each with introductory and conclusive material that generally blends personal memoir with a critical context for the chapters in that section. The chapters trace the influence of specific Scottish writers on their Canadian counterparts. The first section explores various ways in which Canadian poets, such as Robert Service, Pauline Johnson and Isabella Valancy Crawford, adapt the poetic forms, dialect and themes of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Shifting genres, Waterston then considers the response of Canadian fiction to Scott’s novels, covering work by authors from John Richardson to Timothy Findley.
The second section traces the influence of two distinct modes of discourse on Canadian writing. Writers from Susanna Moodie to Carol Shields are seen as inheritors of the pragmatic realism and episodic structure of John Gait. The tumultuous rhetoric and explicit symbols of Thomas Carlyle, in contrast, have also influenced writers such as Northrop Frye and Margaret Laurence. The third section foregrounds marginal genres. Connections are drawn between the children’s poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and that of Dennis Lee; James Barrie’s novels and the writings of his long-time fan, L.M. Montgomery; and John Buchan’s violent thrillers and the novels of David Walker and Hugh MacLennan.
The final section compares the work of Scottish women writers to that of Canadians such as Margaret Murray Robertson and Sara Jeanette Duncan. Scottish women’s literature is a relatively new area of scholarship, made accessible only recently by A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan. Waterston effectively uses this material, not only to shed light on Canadian literary tendencies, but also to counter the commonplace claim that there was no worthy Scottish literature between Scott and Stevenson.
It would have been easy, in a book of this nature, to simply identify areas of intersection in form, narrative patterns and general themes. However, Waterston’s methodology is not trans-historical. She traces the complex blend of historical forces and national influences that shape Scottish works and the factors that contribute to their transformation in Canada. At times, the sheer range of literary material she covers makes it difficult to engage in extensive historical analysis. She makes a number of tantalizing references to a geo-political comparison between Scotland and Canada, suggesting both northern nations were uneasy with their overbearing southern neighbours, a contrast that would have been fascinating to explore further. Waterston is also aware of the dangers of her decision to "focus attention on a single, imported strand in the national fabric," as she notes in the preface. Yet, the strong and complex understanding of this Scottish strand that she provides can only contribute to our overall comprehension of the heterogeneity of Canadian literature.
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MLA: Alker, Sharon. The Tartan Connection. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 192 - 193)
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