Paper 16 Duncan
From Robert Irvine
‘A King who reigns and does not rule’: Weak sovereignty in The
Fortunes of Nigel
My paper addresses a distinctive feature of Scott’s novels of the 1820s, the entry of the historical monarch, hitherto an absent or marginal figure, into the narrative scene. Ivanhoe and the novels that follow it, writes Judith Wilt, “rely to a greater or lesser extent on the charismatic presence of the source of authority, the king”; “Kings – so weak or remote in Waverley – are now truly sovereign presences in [Scott’s] fiction,” asserts John Sutherland.” The novels are preoccupied, however, with the failure of charismatic authority and the precariousness of sovereignty both as a political condition (in the role of the historical monarch) and a characterological one (in the role of the narrative protagonist). The Fortunes of Nigel (1822) yields an unexpectedly comic treatment of the accession of forms of “weak sovereignty” in modern life. Scott casts James VI and I – the first, self-styled “King of Great Britain” and royal exponent of Divine Right ideology – as the unwitting prototype for what Thomas Babington Macaulay calls “the pure idea of constitutional royalty,” whereby “the prince reigns and does not govern.” James reigns over the affections (ranging from irritation through amusement to fondness) of his readers, in a novel in which all the characters are minor characters.