I’ve never been a fan of E.M.Forster, but over the years I’ve pondered from time to time (in idle moments) what the ‘Only Connect…’ which sits provocatively resplendent on the title page of my ancient Penguin copy of the novel means.
These days one can find answers at the click of a mouse and so I went online to see if I could get any joy. I discovered the full quote from Chapter 22 (I admit, I may have lost the will to live by that stage in reading the novel all those years ago) and here it is:
‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’
I certainly like the suggestion that ‘prose and passion’ should be exalted. I also like the invective to ‘live in fragments no longer.’ But I suspect the meaning I make from this quotation isn’t that close to the meaning Forster was intending to be derived from it.
One of the good things about a post post-modernist world, is that we are all free to have our own opinions on things and can make commentary (and argument for discussion) without fear of being plain ‘wrong.’ Of course the author’s intention may not be what I ‘read’ into the piece, but my ‘reading’ is also valid. Sometimes I am uplifted by this and sometimes I fear it’s the start of a slippery slope. However, taken all in all, I find that making meaning in the field of literature is something best undertaken with a degree of free spiritedness. Post-modernism may tend towards a nihilistic stance or suggest a level of ‘meaninglessness’ about fiction, but if you take it as part of a dialectic from thesis Modernism, antithesis Post-Modernism and synthesis post post Modernism (I don’t know another word for where we are – critical reflection maybe?) then it need not be so damning.
Further online research about ‘only connect’ suggests that Forster is talking about the connection of personal relationships. All well and good. But before I go much further, I shall point out that this article is not about Forster. And in so far as it is about ‘connections’ it is about my own interest in connections.
We are pattern-makers. Meaning-makers. We find patterns in any and everything and then we attribute meaning to them. But whether the meaning is personal or universal, that’s often debatable.
So here I am, about to start a series of explorations in which I find patterns and make meaning from them. And why I have to ditch Forster here, because this is about Scottish writers. I am going to explore two sets of ‘connections’ and in doing so I hope to say something interesting and different , perhaps thought provoking if not profound, about the history of Scottish literature. I also have, to some extent, to ditch my own dialectic. After all, I’m substantially looking at the period immediately preceding modernism – a period that is generally thought of as a ‘dark age’ in Scottish fiction. This in itself is false.
The fiction of the 1880’s through to the First World War (which is the period I shall concern myself with) is actually an incredibly rich and vibrant one. It is a time when publishing changed fundamentally (and I think for the better!) Authorship was no longer the province of the gentlemanly classes. It became a viable career. Reading was no longer the privilege of good breeding or high class, but became a mass pastime, with mass-market publications available for all classes and tastes. Of course, this presented something of a challenge to the established order. I submit that in the same way as the Romantic poets posed a fundamental challenge to the 18th century Enlightenment, so the writers of the fin de siècle (especially may I say the 1890s) offer a substantial slap in the face to the old way. Modernism was the rebound and the triumph in Scotland of modernism via the manufactured Scottish ‘Renaissance’ has cast a long shadow on too many of Scotland’s writers. It’s time to throw away the dark age perception and start to draw other patterns – make other meanings. And that’s what I’m going to do in the next few months.
I shall start by posing you a question. What connects the following authors? Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, S.R.Crockett, J.M.Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan? You may come up with many answers. The one I’m looking for (and at) is their Edinburgh Connection.
Let me explain the link: Robert Burns had his poetry published as ‘The Edinburgh Edition’ ( in 1787 ) and Robert Burns met Walter Scott around that time. Walter Scott was a boy of 15. Walter Scott attended Edinburgh University (in 1783) as did Robert Louis Stevenson (1871) S.R.Crockett (1876) J.M.Barrie (1876) and Arthur Conan Doyle (1876). John Buchan was Chancellor of Edinburgh University (1937-40).
So one area of interest, at least for me, is ‘The Edinburgh Boys’ – particularly the class of ’76. Within this subset (and including RLS and John Buchan) I see another connection. That of being blighted by bestsellers.
Stevenson is best known for ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Kidnapped,’ often dismissed as children’s novels; Crockett for ‘The Raiders,’ ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’ and ‘The Stickit Minister’, damned as ‘Kailyard.’ J.M.Barrie is hog-tied by ‘Peter Pan,’ Conan Doyle couldn’t kill off ‘Sherlock Holmes’ quickly enough and John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ dogged him for his entire publishing life. In each case the books were bestsellers and brought wealth and fame for their respective writers. But in no case are these the apogee of the writer’s talent or ambition. This suggests to me that there is some mileage in considering the double edged sword of publishing success.
So over the next few months I’m going on a journey, to explore some of these connections and I hope you’ll come with me. We might all learn something.
This is just a brief heads-up. Why not reconnect with some of these writers – especially some of their lesser known work – in advance of the series commencing for real next month? You can obtain all their work in digital format these days. Let’s start a new revolution and get reading the ‘forgotten Scots from the dark ages!’
Stevenson, Barrie, Conan Doyle and Buchan’s ‘Complete Works’ are all available as ebooks from Delphi www.delphiclassics.com and well worth the £3 a pop that the ‘parts’ editions cost.
For Crockett the place to go is The Galloway Raiders and/or the ‘unco’ store. There is as yet no ‘Complete Crockett’ and many of the works you can find online as digit al downloads are poorly scanned documents, but Ayton Publishing Ltd are in the process of bringing his work back into print. You can get about half of his oeuvre via The Galloway Raiders in paperback and ebook formats. www.thegallowayraiders.co.uk is the place to start your quest.
Or if you know which book you’re looking for go direct to http://www.unco.scot/store/c26/S.R.Crockett.html
There’s plenty there to get you started.
And if you really can’t splash the cash – why not see what your local library has in stock. Venture beyond the current bestsellers list and start exploring bestsellers of a byegone era. You may be pleasantly surprised.
It’s time to join the reading revolution! See you next month for Part One of ‘The Edinburgh Boys: Class of ‘76’
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