14 August 2010

R L Stevenson contrasts Scotland & England...

At the moment, between more fustian tomes, I'm reading Dreams of Elsewhere, a volume compiled and edited by June Skinner Sawyers. Containing selections from the travel writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, in its pages we follow the Edinburgh-born author to Scottish islands, manses, south to England and over the water to France and Belgium, up snow-peaked Swiss mountains and back down, flowing out and across the Atlantic ocean, to the Americas, Hawaii and Stevenson's final resting place in the islands of South Seas of the Pacific. In a essay entitled 'The Foreigner at Home', first published in May 1882 in the Cornhill Magazine, Stevenson discusses divergences in the mores and manners of the Scots and the English of his day. What strikes me most in the piece are the rough-edged continuities and discontinuities that it discloses, the frayed familiar references, side by side with unfamiliar observations which time and change has closely unpicked and unravelled. In particular, this paragraph - as well as being pleasingly and gently ironic - emphasises just how unrecognisable in contemporary Scotland is Stevenson's description of childhood's Presbyterian pieties of his day.

"Sabbath observance makes a series of grim, and perhaps serviceable, pauses in the tenor of Scotch boyhood - days of great stillness and solitude for the rebellious mind, when the dearth of books and play, and in the intervals of studying the Shorter Catechism, the intellect and senses prey upon and test each other. The typical English Sunday, with the huge midday dinner and plethoric afternoon, leads perhaps to different results. About the very cradle of the Scot there goes a hum of metaphysical divinity; and the whole of two divergent systems is summed up, not merely speciously, in the two first questions of the rival catechisms, the English tritely inquiring "What is your name?" the Scottish striking at the very roots of life with, "What is the chief end of man?" and answering nobly, if obscurely, "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

Scots lawyers might appreciate this vignette from another paragraph. Some things don't change, I'm afraid. Even in the course of 128 years  ...

"In is so, perhaps, in all countries; perhaps in all, men are most ignorant of the foreigners at home. John Bull is ignorant of the States; he is probably ignorant of India; but considering his opportunities, he is far more ignorant of countries nearer his own door. There is one country, for instance - its frontier not so far from London, its people closely akin, its language the same in all essentials with the English - of which I will go bail he knows nothing. His ignorance of the sister kingdom cannot be described; it can only be illustrated by anecdote. I once travelled with a man of plausible manners and good intelligence - a University man, as the phrase goes - a man, besides, who had taken his degree in life and knew a thing or two about the age we live in. We were deep in talk , whirling between Peterborough and London; among other things, he began to describe some piece of legal injustice he had recently encountered, and I observed in my innocence that things were not so in Scotland."I beg your pardon", said he, "this is a matter of law." He had never heard of the Scots law; nor did he choose to be informed. The law was the same for the whole country, he told be roundly; every child knew that. At last, to settle matters, I explained to him that I was a member of a Scottish legal body, and had stood the brunt of an examination in the very law in question. Thereupon he looked me for a moment full in the face and dropped the conversation. This is a monstrous instance, if you like, but it does not stand alone in the experience of Scots."

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