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According to the OED, the revenant, that which returns, entered the English language in the 1820s. This essay examines two early usages to claim the revenant who returns from the dead as a Scottish innovation, introduced by the Blackwood’s author Henry Thomson in 1827 and Walter Scott in 1828.
In Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth (1828), the “brute Bonthron”, apparently executed for murder, is reanimated by the corrupt physician and anatomist Henbane Dwining. Recalling a similar case in Paris where “my revenant” was indifferent to his near death and resuscitation, the physician favours the novel term borrowed from the French over the awkward but evocative English compound “dead-alive”, which he had used previously (Scott, XXIV). Scott’s neologisms draw attention to the revived body’s transgression of the boundary between life and death, but rather than aligning the revenant with the supernatural undead who transgress that boundary with such regularity and enthusiasm in Romantic literature, Scott sets the undead body in the medical context that was rendering the boundary porous. Bonthron’s revival is written in a similar vein to the tales of terror in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that emphasized physiological and psychological extremity over supernatural horror. It owes a particular debt to Thomson’s tale of execution and resuscitation, “Le Revenant”, which appeared in Blackwood’s in 1827. Thomson imagines the trial of a young forger, his psychological decline in the period leading to his execution, and the contraction of awareness in his final moments. By some undefined method involving the collusion of anatomists, he survives his execution and is able to write of his psychological pain and his confusion after resuscitation.
Taking its cue from the sanguinary subtext of The Fair Maid of Perth, which is fascinated with the shedding of blood and transfusion of fluids, this essay locates the Scottish revenant in the context of contemporary advances in medicine that sought to restore life in cases of sudden, recent death. The emergence of the Scottish revenant is contemporaneous with reports of experimental blood transfusion in medical writing. In 1816, John Henry Leacock successfully defended his dissertation on the transfusion of blood at the University of Edinburgh. Although Leacock’s work was later overshadowed by the experimental work conducted by James Blundell in London, which was more widely disseminated in the form of reports in the Lancet and collections of essays on midwifery, Blundell fully acknowledged Leacock’s influence. Based in London at the time of his investigations into transfusion, Blundell had also received his medical degree from Edinburgh. Following his observation of a death from postpartum haemorrhage, Blundell was inspired by Leacock to attempt to use transfusion on patients as a method of last resort. The first case in which his patient’s recovery and survival can be attributed to the transfusion is recorded in 1825. Blundell’s experiments and publications on transfusion are concentrated in the period from 1818 to 1829, though important summaries of his methods and conclusions would be published in his texts on obstetrics and the diseases of women in the 1830s. Transgressors of the borderline between life and death, corporeal not supernatural, human sufferers not monsters, the fictional revenants of Scottish literature, this essay suggests, originate in the case histories and experiments of Leacock and Blundell.
|Title of host publication||Scottish Medicine and Literary Culture|
|Subtitle of host publication||1726-1832|
|Editors||Megan Coyer, David Shuttleton|
|Publication status||Published - 15 Jun 2015|
- blood transfusion
- history of medicine
- Walter Scott
- Henry Thomson
- Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine
- The Fair Maid of Perth
- Le Revenant