Acts of faith and commemoration
Stuart Kelly on the land of Walter Scott, and the murderer who became a minister.
There is a pith and melancholy to the books of Stuart Kelly. A literary critic and author, he is drawn, as he tells the spiked review, to that which has been lost or is in the process of being so. Books, reputations, even faith itself. Anything haunted by its obsolescence seems to exert a pull on Kelly. This is evident most obviously in The Book of Lost Books (2005). But it is there, too, in Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation, a witty, erudite exploration of Walter Scott’s one-time cultural power and its dissipation. Or, as Kelly puts it, citing Irvine Welsh’s curt judgement: ‘Scott’s reputation is a story which begins with being compared to Shakespeare and ends with being called a cunt: or worse.’
And it is there in Kelly’s latest offering The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths, a personal, theological and philosophical inquiry into the long forgotten case of James Nelson, a murderer who became a minister. But The Minisister is as much about both the nature of the Church of Scotland – the Kirk – which granted Nelson’s wish, and Kelly’s own relationship to his once-lost Presbyterianism, as it is about Nelson. And it is quite brilliant.
The spiked review decided to catch up with Kelly, and discuss his two most recent acts of retrieval: Scott’s role as the maker of a national identity; and the Kirk’s remarkable attitude to a murderer. Here’s what he had to say:
spiked review: As you illuminate so well in Scott-land, it does seem as if Scotland as an idea today, as a national identity, is almost unimaginable without the contribution of Walter Scott, from, as you point out, the significance of tartan and the existence of Scottish banknotes to, perhaps more profoundly, the sentiment of Scott-land, rich as it is in imagery and myth. But to what extent was this creation and preservation of an idea of Scotland a conscious objective of Scott?
Stuart Kelly: It was always part of Scott’s aesthetic programme that Scotland, as a distinct cultural space and history, should be retained in the post-Union settlement. In Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border – note the singular, not ‘Scottish Borders’ – he was adamantine that he was preserving traditions, ballads, folklore, myth and story that might be ‘daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally’. Scott’s idea of the Union was of an equal partnership; indeed, he praised the Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth for creating Irish characters who were neither comic relief nor caricature, as having done more to cement the union with Ireland than any act of parliament. Scott, to use a metaphor, was a marriage guidance counselor and not a divorce lawyer. When Scott felt that Westminster was over-reaching itself – as with the currency crisis later in his life – he was strident and sarcastic in defence of the Union, but made especially sure to stress that the Union entailed obligations as well as benefits (so those at Westminster restricting the Scottish banks ability to print currency was a clear breach of ‘their’ Treaty of Union).
There has been a long tradition of seeing Scott as quintessentially Scott-ish – and I am guilty of that – but let’s remember he set novels in India, Palestine, France, England, Byzantine Greece, Wales and the Swiss Cantons. Good fences, as Robert Frost said, make good neighbours; but Scott was more neighbourly than others in the period in reaching out to other Anglophone areas to give a depiction of his ‘native heath’. In The Minstrelsy’s copious notes he mentions 1603 as more significant than 1707 – the point where the periphery became the centre as a Scottish King (James VI and I) now controlled (intermittently) the entire archipelago of Britannia.
review:You mention Scott’s praise of Maria Edgeworth, which comes in ‘A postscript, which should have been a preface’ to Waverley. He writes there also of facing a Scotland that had undergone such change in the ‘sixty years since’ the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 that he wanted ‘to preserve this alteration in manners, politics, economy and improvement’ (my emphasis). Do you think Scott was just as much interested in historical change, in historical movement, as he was in preserving a sense of Scotland as a ‘distinct cultural space and history’? And is it unfair to say, as some tend to, that Scott traps Scotland in an imagined past?
Kelly: Firstly, I would point out that Scott’s first published works were translations of contemporary German writers such as Goethe and Schiller. So he was always outward looking and, to use an anachronism, ‘avant-garde’.
Secondly, Scotland’s transitions in this period – and even more pronouncedly later (Glasgow was the swiftest industrialisation in Europe) – are immense. It does mean that Scott is battling against the tide in some ways as the pace of change is so rapid.
Thirdly, his historiography is sometimes characterised as a kind of proto-Hegelian philosophy – Normans and Saxons are reconciled into something better; Cavaliers and Roundheads clash but find a common future, etc, etc. I’ve slightly reviewed my position on this from Scott-Land. It is curious that almost every version of Scott’s public thesis/antithesis/synthesis plot arcs also include an excluded (Fergus in Waverley, Rebecca and Isaac in Ivanhoe), So he does believe in historical progress as predominantly meliorist, but has a care, for want of a better word, for those who are not subsequently enfolded into the new norm.
I think to say Scott traps us in an imaginary past is poppycock. He offers quite radical possibilities in terms of re-invention as much as invention. If one were to point the finger of blame, I’d be looking at Burns Clubs, the emerging tourist trade (Cook’s Tours first went to Scotland) and to a kind of self-confidence that makes us think we can ape ourselves and still get away with it. Look at the rugby manager [the Englishman Richard Cockerill] who had to wear a ‘See You Jimmy’ hat on the front of the Scotsman earlier this year because he lost a bet.
Scott’s tragedy, in some ways, is he thought that history was pretty much over with the defeat of Napoleon (he did, after all, tour the battlefield at Waterloo in 1814) and the peaceable settlement with America. So when the Reform Act comes along, it is terrifying for him. He thought the engine of history had stilled and it is somehow cranking into life again.
review: With regards to Scott’s historiography, is it fair to say then that he saw the Union of England and Scotland as progress?
Kelly: Scott saw the Union as both necessary and regrettable.
review: We’ve talked a lot about Scott’s creation and preservation of a sense of Scottishness, but, given you’ve mentioned Ivanhoe here, what was his relationship to Englishness as a national identity? Did his work also contribute to the way in which the English imagine themselves?
Kelly: The Scottish influence on the creation of English identity has long fascinated me. Given characters like Peter Pan (JM Barrie), Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), James Bond (Ian Fleming – and Bond is of course, half Swiss and half Scottish), even John Bull (John Arbuthnot) – or even Scott’s invention of some of the Robin of Locksley myths, or coining the phrase ‘War of the Roses’ – England seems to rely on Scotland for creating its self-image, unless it’s just going to be Falstaff.
review: Now, your new book, The Minister and the Murderer, explores another aspect of Scottishness, namely the Church of Scotland, using the case of James Nelson as something of prism. Nelson was a man who, having caved in his mother’s skull in 1969, was ordained a priest in the Church of Scotland 16 years and one murder sentence later. You write that the case of Nelson had always fascinated you, but I was wondering why you decided to write about it now? Was there something in the social, political air that gave an exploration of forgiveness and judgement an added urgency? Or was it a simply a longstanding personal motivation?
Kelly: I had always felt that I wanted to write a book about the church, and about God, and Nelson seemed to me to be the ideal way into a much bigger, stranger story. I was concerned that the Kirk’s deliberations over same-sex partnerships were rather hysterical – it is church law that we acknowledge only baptism and communion as sacraments, and all else is a matter for the state – and when I mentioned that I didn’t think what two consenting adults did in a room was the same as murder, nobody remembered the case. So although there was a polemical side to writing it, it was also an act of commemoration.
review: There is a stubborn opaqueness at the heart of ‘The Minister and the Murderer’, namely, Nelson himself. You spoke to his congregants, had contact with his first wife, and immersed yourself in the case and church judgement, but even after all this you admit to being unsure about whether his conversion was sincere: ‘Every emotional part of me wanted him to be a genuine convert, and every intellectual part of me whispered he was a clever fake.’ Like the church itself concluded when approving his ordination, you seem to be saying that you cannot say he was not genuine. So, to push you a little, if you were part of the General Assembly in 1984, knowing what they knew, which way would you have voted?
Kelly: How would I have voted? Yes to his being allowed to proceed. Unconditionally. There are various theological reasons that we could discuss, but the chief thing – and the phrase ‘stubborn opaqueness’ delightfully captures this – the only person I can judge is myself (and I find myself wanting, in all the meanings of that word).
review: Given we tend to think of murder as, well, a sin, that 1984 decision does seem remarkable. What was the assembly’s reasoning for allowing Nelson to become a minister? And do you think other churches would have made the same decision?
Kelly: In terms of the first point: there is not a minister in the church that in good conscience would not admit to being a sinner. (James 2:10 is useful here). Not only are we told not to cast the first stone, but Jesus is actually even more theologically radical – see Matthew 5:28. I think that the Church was brave in holding itself to its own standards, difficult though that must have been for many. I wouldn’t like to comment on other churches, which have different views on the purpose if not the nature of confession, but I think the Church of Scotland had sufficient integrity to realise that it couldn’t bend its own rules (and being Calvinist is important here). No one in that Assembly could say with any certainty whether Nelson was forgiven by God – and by God, not by man – and therefore it had to proceed in a particular way. Also, look at Matthew 18:22. My own feeling is that all the virtues are vertical – each leads to another – so I cannot be kind without being courageous and cannot be forgiving without being humble – but the vices – with one exception – are horizontal. I could easily be an an adulterer but not a thief. The only ‘ur-sin’ is lying.
review: You write that ‘those who meddle with darkness make themselves known to darkness’ – do you feel more cognisant of evil, of the nature of evil, than you did before you started writing The Minister…?
Kelly: There is real darkness around us – humans corrupted and beleaguered and damaged – but also a genuine evil. Much of the church today tends to stress its social conscience, its support of freedoms (particularly in liberation theology), its good to community. All of that is true and all of that is good. But there is not just evil but the viral nature of evil. I bet the Devil is glad that we invented the internet for him. My own theology is rather complex on this matter – I do not think that even the worst is denied salvation &8211;
but that doesn’t mean there are not interventions in the real world of malign intent. Whenever I read the various sick and wicked cases in the press, nowadays my overwhelming feeling is not anger but a deep and cutting sadness.
review: And finally, how do you conceive of the relation of The Minister and the Murderer to your other work’?
Kelly: Scott-Land, The Minister and the Murderer and Lost Books are all part of my ongoing ‘lostology’. Loss of reputation, loss of faith, loss of texts. I’m working on a series of new books, and that theme is there as well. I suppose I am naturally not just melancholic but elegiac. Writing, to me, is preserving traces of what was but now is not. The Church of Scotland’s emblem is the burning bush by which God spoke to Moses and the phrase ‘It is not consumed’. The Church does still persist, but there is a great deal of ash around its trunk and roots.
Stuart Kelly is a literary critic and author of Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation, published by Polyglon, (buy this book Amazon(UK)); and, most recently, The Minister and the Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths, published by Granta, (buy this book Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Only Alice, published under a creative commons license.