A Death in the Cottage: Spiritual and Economic Improvement in Romantic-Era Scottish Death Narratives

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Sarah Sharp’s chapter examines the relationship between economic and spiritual improvement in politically conservative Scottish fictions of the early nineteenth century, focusing on depictions of death-bed scenes. The death-bed scene played an important role in the Evangelical tract tradition, where the details of a death were used to indicate a protagonist’s spiritual state. Looking at works by Elizabeth Hamilton and John Wilson, Sharp argues that both authors draw upon the conventions of these religious publications, but also use the final moments of life to reflect on the relationship between morality and its economic context. In doing so, they take part in a debate about the position of rural life in a rapidly modernizing Scotland. As urbanization and agricultural improvement challenged traditional social structures, the ‘cotter’ became a symbolic figure that could be used to map the successes and failures of the country’s rapid transformation. The deaths of cotters in Hamilton and Wilson’s texts thus function to pass judgement on the moral state of the new Scotland. In Hamilton’s The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808), the death of Mr MacClarty counteracts the idea that economic improvement alone will be the salvation of the unreconstructed village of Glenburnie, as MacClarty’s exemplary death is predicated on his status as a humble cottager. Wilson amplifies this approach to the death-bed, depicting resignation to economic hardship as a condition of religious perfectibility in his short story ‘Moss-side’ (1822). In both texts the trials of life in rural Scotland function to improve the spiritual state of their protagonists, casting economic progress as a challenge to traditional religious and social values.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCultures of Improvement in Scottish Romanticism, 1707–1840
EditorsAlex Benchimol, Gerard Lee McKeever
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781351056427
ISBN (Print)9781138482937
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

Publication series

NameThe Enlightenment World: Political and Intellectual History of the Long Eighteenth Century


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