Neo Antiquarianism: The Walter Scott Phenomenon in Virtual Building Building

To English Department scholars skeptical of virtualizing in three-dimensions historical structures and wondering whether there is literary merit here: there is. In digital humanities projects like Victoria’s Lost Pavilion, What Jane Saw, and Virtual Paul’s Cross Project emerges the enthusiasm, research methods, and collaboration not unlike the project of the Walter Scott novels. We can look in particular to Waverly, a kickstarter event.

Place consumed Scott. He wanted to inhabit as much of it as possible in one instance, especially when he was confined for illness as child, which motivated his appetite for “desultory” reading, and building in his mind. Besides fiction, he read: “histories, memoirs, voyages and travels,” and the truth that he derived from them were as “wonderful” as the fiction. From the memories of his readings, and the memory of how (disorderly) he studied in his young adulthood in the Edinburgh library, he researched for Waverly. Part of the fiction, Scott also claims, comes from an excavation of his past writing. But much of it was collaboration. He wandered the Highlands. Veterans told him war stories. He immersed himself in a culturally preserved society. What came out was a bumbling protagonist whose wanderings “permitted [him] to introduce some descriptions of scenery and manners, to which the reality gave an interest which the powers of the Author might have otherwise failed to attain for them.”

In the 21st century the bumbling protagonists are ourselves as we navigate the virtual terrains of the internet. But they are also, for example, Fyfe and his collaborators. For the Pavilion Project, a conference paper, primary architectural data, the actual remains of the structures on the earth, some art historians, some research assistants, some English Literature scholars, some money, and some management skills, a dynamic project, an object very Scott-like emerges. The Waverly novel becomes the Waverly series, and the Waverly series grows into a fictional oeuvre.

Victoria’s Lost Pavilion and similar projects are operating together to form a flexible, living, rhizomatic genre, very much like what was happening in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Though Scott embraced the romance qualities of Waverly, romance meaning the idealized, the legendary, the incredible, the emotionally charged, Scott takes the pains in his general preface and the voluminous meticulous description to justify the credibility of the history in this work. And after about 185 years and countless prefatory appeals like Scott’s, we now we retroactively (perhaps also conveniently) call Waverly and other like objects a “novel.”

Perhaps the credibility of virtual structure building projects and other such geospatial outgrowths as an emerging genre comes in the embracing of the romance of it. In the same way the novel, on its way to being established as “literature,” utilized the tactics of the romance.


One thought on “Neo Antiquarianism: The Walter Scott Phenomenon in Virtual Building Building”

  1. First of all, who are these skeptical English department scholars? I need to have a talk with them. Secondly, I’m fascinated by what you’re proposing here: a) that the idiosyncratic construction of collaborative digital humanities projects is itself an emerging genre, which b) can (even should) be related to the heteroglossic baggy monstrosities we’ve learned to call nineteenth-century novels, particularly those which, through whatever professional or bibliographic contingencies, endeavor to “build” virtual worlds. Great fodder for thinking. Thanks!

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