Embracing a ‘new mode of culture’

Investigating the decisive part played by learning and reading German in the career of Walter Scott, one of Britain’s most internationally significant authors.

Walter Scott and the German Dramatists

portrait of Walter Scott
Henry Raeburn's portrait of Walter Scott

What is this research about?

Embracing a 'new mode of culture' is a three-year project, funded by the British Academy. It started in September 2016 and runs until August 2019.

Walter Scott (1771-1832) - author of "Waverley", "Rob Roy", and "Ivanhoe", among many other novels, poems, and indeed plays - is regarded as one of the most successful and internationally significant British authors to have ever lived. In the nineteenth century alone, his works were translated into numerous languages, sold across the world, and even imitated in works pretending to be by ‘The Author of Waverley’. On top of that, he’s regarded by many as the originator of the genre of the Historical Novel.

While Scott’s significance was - and still is - international, so too were his beginnings as a writer and his engagement with literature and culture throughout his life. As a young man, Scott learned European languages; then he maintained them throughout his life and made every effort to persuade his sons to learn them. As this project seeks to show, Scott’s interest in new works of German drama in particular was both feverish and left a very clear mark on the novels for which he is famous.

Starting out with Scott’s unpublished translations of German plays in the final years of the eighteenth century, then moving on to study his own plays (of which he wrote five in total throughout his career) and his novels in the context of his ongoing interest in German drama, this project studies the impact that reading and studying the works of another culture in another language can have on one’s own culture. It is therefore a case study of what can be gained from encountering other cultures as well as learning foreign languages.

Who is working on Embracing a ‘new mode of culture’?

Photo of Michael Wood
Michael Wood, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in LLC

This project is carried out in its entirety by Dr Michael Wood, who is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the German section of European Languages and Cultures, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) at the University of Edinburgh.

The real work on this project started when Dr Wood was the Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh in 2015-16. Up to this point, Dr Wood’s research had specialised in recent and contemporary German drama and performance (and especially the work of Heiner Müller).

As a native of Edinburgh, Dr Wood decided in 2013 that it was about time to start reading Scott’s novels so that he could impress his girlfriend (now his wife), who was doing a PhD on Scott at the time. Then, when a colleague directed his attention to the presence of Scott’s translations of German plays, he found a real connection to the material and wanted to know more.

His hope is that the project will be able to go on beyond 2019 and to culminate in further research sharing some of the core questions. Thus far he has plans for a number of academic articles and essays on the topic, as well as a book that he hopes to complete by the end of 2010.

Research from this project published to date includes:

  • 'An old friend in a foreign land': Walter Scott, Götz von Berlichingen, and Drama Between Cultures, Oxford German Studies 47/1 (2018): 5-16
  • Notes on a Scandal: Robison, Scott, and the Reception of Kotzebue in Scotland, Notes & Queries 65/3 (2018): 314-16
  • On Form and Feeling: German Drama and the Young Walter Scott, German Life and Letters 71/4 (2018): 395-414

Currently in press:

  • A volume of essays edited by Michael Wood and Sandro Jung on the topic of Anglo-German Dramatic and Poetic Encounters: Perspectives on Exchange in the Sattelzeit, appearing with Lehigh University Press in 2019
  • Of German Genres and Scottish Sentiments: Walter Scott, Henry Mackenzie, and the German Schauspiel, appearing in the above book
  • Introduction: Traditions and Genres in Dialogue, opening the above book
  • An Elusive Manuscript of Scott's House of Aspen at the National Library of Scotland, Notes & Queries 66/2 (2019)

What activities are linked to this research?

Front cover of The Wards
Scott's translation of The Wards

Dr Michael Wood hopes to hold a number of events related to the project, providing both academic and non-academic outlets for his research. Given that he is working on Scott’s relationship with German drama and has access to Scott’s plays and translations, he is hard at work devising ways of bringing them to the stage!

Previous activities related to the project have included:

June 2016 A two-day conference, jointly organised with Professor Sandro Jung (Ghent) and held at IASH, on the topic of ‘Anglo-German Encounters with Drama and Poetry, 1765-1835’; at present, Dr Wood and Professor Jung are in the process of putting together a volume of essays based on the conference.

March 2018 A performance of Scott’s first translation of a German play, "The Wards" (original: "Die Mündel") by August Wilhelm Iffland, adapted by Edinburgh playwright and adapter Laura Witz and directed by Caitlin Skinner.

This took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Wednesday 28th March 2018.

Upcoming events include:

June 2019 Dr Wood will be hosting a two-day conference on the topic of ‘Configuring World Theatre: Gaining Global Perspectives on Transnational and Intercultural Drama and Performance’ with Dr Julia Prest (St Andrews) to take place in Edinburgh. This conference is being generously funded by the British Academy and the AHRC's Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) funding.

Find out more about the Configuring World Theatre conference

2019 Dr Wood is also planning to look into the possibility of organising a performance of Scott’s first play "The House of Aspen" (1800) at a theatre in Edinburgh, to be accompanied by an exhibition looking at intercultural literary exchange.