Five Questions: Daniel Cook on Walter Scott and Short Fiction

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Daniel Cook is Reader in English Literature at the University of Dundee. His research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, book history, authorship and appropriation studies, the gothic and the fantastical, the history of the novel, poetic genres, and Scottish and Irish writing more broadly. He has worked extensively on authors including Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, James Hogg and William Wordsworth. His first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760-1830, was the subject of the first BARS Five Questions interview. In the past twelve months, he has published two new monographs: Reading Swift’s Poetry (with Cambridge University Press) and Walter Scott and Short Fiction (with Edinburgh University Press). We discuss the second of these books below.

1) How did you first become interested in Walter Scott?

I first read Scott as an undergraduate, about twenty years ago. On an introduction to fiction course we looked at Redgauntlet, with a particular focus on one of Scott’s best inset stories, “Wandering Willie’s Tale”. The form of the book fascinated me, perhaps more than the characters, at the time. That said, the minor villain Dan Cooke has stayed with me, for sure. He barely gets a line or so, but he plays a crucial role in the plot (sort of). Since moving to Scotland my interest has deepened. I’ve written essays on Scott the poet (Lay of the Last Minstrel and Improvisatory Authorship”), Gothic Scott (“Walter Scott’s Late Gothic Stories”), and even Scott the editor (“Publishing Posthumous Swift: Deane Swift to Walter Scott”). With Lucy Wood I co-edited a special issue for Studies in Scottish Literature titled “Reworking Walter Scott”, which takes a historical look at Scott’s legacy among writers and artists. In the past year or so I’ve even scripted my own comics adaptation of three of Scott’s short stories (“Wandering Willie’s Tale”, “The Highland Widow”, and “The Two Drovers”), which is in production with Dundee Comics Creative Space, thanks to funding from the Stephen Fry Public Engagement Awards.

2) In your introduction, you write that ‘Scott the short story writer is and is not The Author of Waverley’.  How would you characterise the major similarities and divergences between these aspects of Scott?

When I embarked on the project I had the assumption that Scott the novelist loomed over Scott the short story writer, that the novels came first, and the short stories were byproducts. Put simply, my aim was to pull out the short stories and read them as a collective, thereby demonstrating a new side to Scott’s authorship. But I now think the opposite is true – the short form informed and even shaped the novels. Looking at the seventeen shorter pieces in great detail I’ve been struck by the persistence of very specific techniques across the entire body of Scott’s works, both prose and verse. Despite their obvious lengthiness, Scott’s novels rely on the same skill exhibited in the short stories and narrative poems: elliptical narration. By that I mean the narrator leaves telling gaps in the story, skips around the story’s setting, briefly focuses on the less relevant details then suddenly jumps forward, and so on. I still think of Scott as an historical fiction writer de rigeur, but really he is a master of misdirection – he’s a teller, not a show-er. Nowhere is this skill better showcased than in the smaller pieces, despite their compressed space. Short story historians tend to locate the modern short story in the late nineteenth century, when the “condensed novel” structure of earlier works gave way to economical precision. I think Scott’s case complicates this, but in a conflicted way: Scott’s shorter works thrive on their “shortness” but they are condensed in other ways, such as characterisation and scene-setting. The best and most elaborate example is “Donnerhugel’s Narrative”, which is taken from Anne of Geierstein. We appear to be reading a cautionary fairy tale, but the story rapidly becomes a fable of prejudice. The seemingly demonic sorcerer and his equally mysterious daughter are not the villains. The gossipy neighbours are. In delivering the tale, Donnerhugel keeps second-guessing his audience, altering as he goes, dropping key elements, and so on. The narrators of the short stories are not the masterful narrator of the Waverley novels. Many of the short stories, and certainly the novella The Surgeon’s Daughter, thrive on the multi-chapter, multi-location structure used in the Waverley novels. But the execution differs.

3) Your book takes a chronological approach to Scott’s briefer prose productions.  To what extent do you see Scott as honing his craft as a writer of short fictions over the course of his career, and to what extent is the picture more complicated than that?

Scott experimented in the shorter form early on, at around the same time he began work on what would become his first novel in 1814, Waverley. In some ways these early pieces mimic the fashionable periodical pieces they shared space with – in the Edinburgh Annual Register and Blackwood’s Magazine, among other places. But they’re also very metafictional. “Christopher Corduroy”, in The Sale-Room, is a character sketch (itself a fashionable genre) of a bibliophilic uncle of a bibliophobic narrator. The editorial voice intervenes to pass judgement on the nephew. It doesn’t quite work. Two early Blackwood’s pieces show more promise – “Alarming Increase of Depravity Among Animals” is at turns an animal fable and a real-crime story, while “Phantasmagoria” is a downbeat Gothic story delivered by the ultimate Gothic narrator, a sentiment shadow. Here, we see Scott’s fascination with authors as characters develop. “The Inferno of Altisidora”, his very first short story (Edinburgh Annual Register, 1811), displays similar ideas but it’s more wedded to a single genre. With Chronicles of the Canongate (1827), Scott’s first and only short story collection, the author really hits his stride. Chrystal Croftangry himself is a fascinating, flawed man, and the stories he weaves (from various fictional storytellers) take in a full range of genres, modes, and forms. The stories examined in my book were produced in a fairly compressed period, from 1811 to 1832, but the developments are quite stark to see. It’s a joy to see the inner workings of an author we take for granted.

4) In making clear the range and interest of Scott’s short fiction, your book presents a range of fascinating alternatives for scholars constructing syllabi.  How have your experiences of teaching this material been, and are there works you’ve examined for this book that you haven’t yet taught, but are excited to explore in the seminar room?

One of my main objectives in writing the book was to consolidate and promote further a wide interest in Scott’s most famous short stories – “Wandering Willie’s Tale” remains one of the most widely anthologised pieces. I would assume that is the Scott short story assigned in classes, if any are. “The Two Drovers” and “The Highland Widow” are ideal for a variety of syllabi, whether on Scottish literature or Romantic studies courses, or even courses on the short story. Another motive was to get Scott on other types of courses, such as Gothic literature, fantasy literature, and the like. “The Tapestried Chamber” and “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror” have been staples on my postgraduate modules (The Gothic Tradition and Gothic Legacies) for the past three or four years. They sit well with Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window” and Charlotte Riddell’s “The Open Door” – they are all tales of terror (in the softest sense), rather than horror stories. “The Tapestried Chamber” is a ghost story without a ghost (that is, we focus on the aftermath of the experience on the haunted general). “The Library Window”, similarly, is not a ghost story per se (or is it?), but the unsettling effect is the same. “Donnerhugel’s Narrative” would pair well with Walter Sholto Douglas’s (Mary Diana Dods’s) “Firouz-Abdel: A Tale of the Upas Tree” in a course interested in early Scottish fantasy. Bizarro (unpublished until 2008) has been virtually ignored by critics – it’s a really clever expose of cultural prejudice masquerading as an old-fashioned rogue tale, so I would be intrigued to see how that works in the classroom. Usually I place Scott in a period- or national-survey type of module, but I really think he’s ideally suited to a more genre- or form-based style of teaching.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

In addition to the Scott comic (Walter Scott’s Scottish Tales), I’ve just finished editing a tie-in selection of texts. Simply titled Walter Scott’s Five Short Stories, this will be produced by UniVerse, with illustrations by Faye Williams, and made available for free online. Very soon I’ll be wrapping up a long gestating volume for Oxford World’s Classics, Scottish Literature, 1730-1830, which I am very excited about – it will be the first book in the series to feature Gaelic texts (in the original and in translation), and scores of newly recovered authors working in an array of genres and styles that no one will be expecting to see. I’m hoping it will open up completely new vistas of research for other people, as well as being a handy teaching tool. The old favourites are there, of course – but even the Robert Burns section has a surprise or two in store. Beyond that, my focus in 2021 has been on, and will continue to be on, Gulliver’s Travels. I’m back working with my old collaborator Nicholas Seager on another essay collection for Cambridge University Press. This one is The Cambridge Companion to Gulliver’s Travels, which features some amazing and innovative work by leading scholars from around the world – each essay packs a punch, just as we hoped. For Norton I’m editing a brand new edition of Gulliver’s Travels itself. And later this summer I’ll be starting my next book project – also on Gulliver’s Travels! – as soon as I can get into the archives. Beyond that, I’m editing a collection of essays on Austen (Austen after 200), alongside Kerry Sinanan and Annika Bautz. In the mid-term I’ll be returning to one of my favourite novels – Frankenstein. And I’d love to explore Scott in a European context – alongside Nodier, Gautier, Nerval, Hoffmann, and Fouqué, among other short-form authors.