Friday, March 31, 2017

Cabbage patch kids: contemporary romance novels, Scottish Kailyard literature, and Annie S. Swan

For those unfamiliar with late-nineteenth century Scottish literature - a group that would have included myself until a few months ago - the term Kailyard might not mean all that much. A term coined by the poet Ian Maclaren in 1894, kailyard, literally means ‘cabbage patch’ and describes works published at that time set in "isolated rural communities whose dramas revolve around the doings of the minister or the dominie, tracing arrivals, departures, weddings, funerals and the pitfalls of petty presumption.” (Watson, 2007, p. 339).

Ian Campbell in his book Kailyard (1981) writes that Kailyard fiction was prominent between 1880-1900 and was characterised by: rural setting and concerns; transport featuring prominently (primarily the railway); class distinctions; a lack of change (although people can change their lives through education or self-help advancement; Christian values; and realism (pp. 12-16). Hugely popular at the time, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that Kailyard defined Scotland at the time for many readers of popular fiction both in the UK and elsewhere; "for a six-year period from 1891 until 1897, Kailyard authors ranked in the top ten annually in the American best- seller lists” (Cook, p. 1054).

Why have I been reading about Kailyard fiction? I'm conducting a research project, Romancing Scotland, looking at early-twentieth century romantic fiction written by Scottish women authors. The National Library of Scotland has a whole collection of novels by authors like Annie S. Swan (1859-1943), D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973), and Jean S. Macleod (1908-2011) whose works have been practically erased from the history of Scottish literature.

Annie S. Swan, arguable the most famous of the three authors, was probably one of the most well-known and prolific (she wrote at least 162 novels under her own name) authors of her time, but her name is routinely left out of anthologies and discussions of Scottish literature. Even when critics discuss the Kailyard (not always appreciatively) they are more likely to associate Kailyard with the male authors J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) or S. R. Crockett. (NB: Barrie actually wrote to Swan on several occasions to admire her work and fame).

Why is Annie S. Swan so often overlooked? It's obviously partly because she is a woman, although other Scottish woman writers of her time retain their place in Scottish literary history (e.g. Catherine Carswell or Margaret Oliphant). I think that a key reason Annie S. Swan is so ignored by the 'literary establishment' is because for much of the twentieth century she wrote romance novels.

Kailyard fiction contains many elements which were also present in early-twentieth century romance - mainly, people-centred emotional drama. It's also undoubtedly true that Swan influenced later writers such as D. E. Stevenson whose first novel, Peter West (1923), contains many of the elements also present in Swan's writing, such as a romance between a laird and a lower-status woman (or vice versa), a small community described in minute detail, long passages of dialogue, and descriptions of travel and landscapes of Scotland.

In turn, D. E. Stevenson's works were republished later in the twentieth century, likely informing the work of later authors like Jean S. Macleod, who wrote more than 100 romance novels for Mills & Boon, many of them set in Scotland and sharing many of the same elements as Swan and Stevenson's works. Jean S. Macleod wrote all the way up to 1996 - incidentally five years beyond the publication of Gabaldon's Outlander (1991), a book that claims (not erroneously) to have influenced much of the subsequent craze for Scottish-set romance fiction in North America.

So, for me, there is a clear line that can be traced from the Kailyard fiction of Annie Swan all the way through to today's popular Scottish romances. While today' authors are more likely to cite Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson as influences (both mainstays of Scottish literature) I wonder if the writings of women like Swan, Stevenson, and Macleod, themselves drawing on Scott and R. L. Stevenson, might also have a (mostly invisible) role to play in the development of Scottish popular romance. In short, are today's Scottish popular romances literary cabbage patch kids? 

I'm going to be giving a paper on this topic at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego next month so I'll write a follow-up post after that with more about these three Scottish women authors. 


Ian Campbell, Kailyard: A New Assessment (Edinburgh: Ramsey Press, 1981).

Richard Cook, "The Home-Ly Kailyard Nation: Nineteenth-Century Narratives of the Highland and the Myth of Merrie Auld Scotland", ELH, Vol. 66, No. 4 (1999), pp. 1053-1073. 

Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland Since 1914 (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 


The photograph of Eilean Donan Castle is by Sorin Tudorut (@sharpixdigital) from the free-for-use website 

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