Scotland: Literary Land of Multiple Personalities and Perspectives

09/11/2014 05:50 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014
FILE - This undated photo showing an oil painting released by the Silverado Museum collection shows Scottish novelist, poet,
FILE - This undated photo showing an oil painting released by the Silverado Museum collection shows Scottish novelist, poet, and essayist Robert Louis Stevenson, painted by French artist Ernest Narjot. Stevenson is the author of "Treasure Island" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," some of the most thrilling stories in literary history. But he was often bored by the fiction of his day. Stevenson's criticisms appear in a brief, long-lost essay published this month in The Strand Magazine, a quarterly based in Birmingham, Mich. that specializes in the rediscovery of obscure texts by famous authors. (AP Photo/Silverado Museum, Ernest Narjot)

With so much else going on this summer, it's taken a while for people outside the United Kingdom to realize that an important national referendum is about to happen. But inside the UK, and especially in Scotland -- where I've been living for the summer -- everyone has been talking about it for some time now. On Sept. 18, the people of Scotland will decide whether they should remain part of the United Kingdom or become independent. If they choose the latter, Scotland will end the political union with England that began on May 1, 1707, and re-embark on its own national narrative.

I won't weigh in here on the question of which side I think has the better case; there are cases to be made for both sides, and anyway I don't get a vote. But in thinking about the choice voters are facing -- to remain Scottish within Britain, or to become solely Scottish -- I was reminded that Scottish writers have been thinking about the themes of split personalities and multiple identities for the past few centuries. Even when not explicitly political, Scottish authors since the Act of Union have been fascinated by both the promises and perils of seeing and even being more than one thing at a time.

Faced with the task of trying to square multiple perspectives, can it be a coincidence that the most important Scottish fiction writer in the century after 1707, Tobias Smollett, wrote an entire novel in letters penned by five different main characters? The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) challenges readers to compare the points of view of various members of the Bramble family as they tour around 18th-century Britain. For example, the irascible hypochondriac Matt Bramble describes London as a crowded, chaotic mess, but his young and impressionable niece Lydia Melford is awed and inspired by the city's glamor and energy. It's up to readers to decide for ourselves with whose perspective we agree, since there are merits (and demerits) to both.

Along with multiple perspectives, Scottish authors have been veritably obsessed with tales of multiple personalities. Easily the most famous of these is Robert Louis Stevenson's classic late-Gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), whose title has entered the language as an expression for behaving differently in different circumstances. In fact, the situation in Stevenson's tale is more complicated than this, since it turns out that the eminent physician Dr. Jekyll has been indulging in unseemly behaviors even before he discovers how to turn himself into the amoral Hyde; only when his transformations become spontaneous and uncontrollable does Jekyll truly begin to regret what he's done. Popular versions have smoothed out these rough edges, but Stevenson's original narrative actually complicates the idea of totally independent identities.

Although Stevenson's version of the split-personality thriller is canonical, an earlier Scottish version also makes for fascinating reading: James Hogg's oddly compelling The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). Hogg's great gamble is to tell the same story twice: first from a supposedly objective, editorial perspective, and then in the words of the titular "justified sinner" himself, a young man named Robert who shadows and then eventually appears to murder his older, estranged brother George. To complicate matters further, in his version of events, Robert claims also to have been shadowed and sometimes impersonated by a mysterious, charismatic figure who calls himself Gil-Martin. But is Gil-Martin actually the devil? Or is he just a figment of Robert's imagination? Hogg's text purposefully asks more questions than it answers, condemning fanaticism and poking fun at our credulity as readers at the same time.

For a much more recent Scottish novel that returns to many of these themes, consider Complicity (1993) by the late, much-lamented Iain Banks. Banks uses the unsettling technique of grabbing readers' attentions with a second-person narrative: "You hear the car after an hour and a half," the novel begins, and it takes us a few more sentences to realize we are experiencing a home invasion from the invader's perspective. The novel then toggles between scenes of this sort and first-person scenes narrated by a dissolute Edinburgh reporter, Cameron Colley. But what is the connection between them? Is the novel more like Jekyll and Hyde, with one person becoming two, or Justified Sinner, with one character (Gil-Martin) apparently acting out the innermost desires of another (Robert)? Banks creates a genuine page-turner, laced with real ethical seriousness, out of this ambivalence

No doubt there are other examples of multiple perspectives and split personalities in Scottish literature; the titular character of Muriel Sparks' The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), for example, combines sparkling wit and a penchant for fascism in a manner that is unsettling, to say the least. And of course the Scots don't have a monopoly on the genre: Joseph Conrad, Patricia Highsmith, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edgar Allan Poe have all made terrifically entertaining and thought-provoking uses of doubles, doppelgängers, and multiple personalities in their fictions. Regardless of the outcome of the Sept. 18 referendum on Scottish independence, however, I suspect that Scottish authors will continue to be particularly interested in questions of perspective identity -- whether split, doubled, or independent once more.