The Magazine

Edinburgh Rhapsodies

The lives and loves of Scotland's intellectual gentlefolk.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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Real politics is absent, however, including terrorists and, indeed, foreign faces. Unlike his fellow Scots writer Ian Rankin, McCall Smith does not do evil. Instead, his novels concern contemporary manners, with the characters constantly engaged in the kind of reflection Scarry advocates. In her professional capacity, reviewing scholarly articles on the ethics of obesity, sexual morality, lying, even taxation, Isabel has much to chew on. That includes taxation, for a special issue of the Review on the subject:

Why should the wealthy pay more tax than the poor? They did, or at least they did in most systems, but on what grounds was this defensible? Should taxation be used as a tool to redistribute wealth? She thought it should, and many others thought so as well, but it was not so clear that taxation was the most appropriate way to achieve that. Should governments perhaps be honest and say that they intended simply to confiscate assets over a certain level? She gave some thought to that, wondering how she would feel if the government started to take her capital away, beginning right now, appropriating her funds, turning them into military equipment and welfare payments and new roads, as governments tended to do.

Mostly characters are absorbed in frequent ruminations on the everyday unequal distribution of beauty, social gifts, and old-fashioned unfairness, and by their own unaided struggles to correct their judgments and behavior. As Isabel reflects, the old Scotland offers few guidelines:

Old Edinburgh had been so sedate, prissy even--like a maiden aunt--and it had been an easy target. But had the correction gone too far? Old fashioned manners, courtesies, had been swept away everywhere, it seemed, to be replaced by indifference, by coolness. And yet that had not made people any more free; in fact, the opposite, surely, had happened, as the public space became more frightening, more dangerous.

McCall Smith is not a postmodernist, and his novels shine when he debunks political correctness. As an old-fashioned moralist he is of the opinion, as one character puts it, that all that is required to increase "the sum total of human happiness" are "little acts. Small things. A word of encouragement. A gesture of love. So easy."

The Scotland Street novels are a pageant of situations in which a community of souls extend such acts of kindness or reprimand themselves when they fall short. Their behavior is almost Christian; but this Edinburgh, confirming what we know about Europe, is a postreligious city, one characterized by the absolute absence of religious observance in the characters' lives. Among people who think all the time, religion is one subject that seldom enters their thoughts. Well, Edinburgh was home to David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.

The loss of anchoring in traditional values has a corollary in the powerful role of women in these novels. Most of the virtue, with a single exception, resides with them. Indeed, one character, reflecting on the contemporary devaluation of beauty and feeling, opines: "If things were to change, then the culture itself .  .  . had to become more feminine."

Well, maybe. Still, these specimens of advanced moral consciousness do have a shortcoming: Despite longings for a soulmate, they are invariably attracted by male physical beauty over the qualities that suggest solid, dependable mates. Thus, their relationships with men are unstable. Of course, none of them is pressed to find a husband or a protector (who needs one in a well-policed, well-regulated Western city?).

The independence of women correlates with the irrelevance of men, some of whom are treacherously handsome, some downright saps, but few matching the moral seriousness of the women. This uneven situation has led to a rather serious lapse on the part of ethics scholar Isabel Dalhousie. Despite wealth and evident attractiveness, Isabel has apparently had no relationships with men since being dumped years earlier by a caddish (but handsome) Irishman while she was on fellowship at Cornell.

Throughout the first three Philosophy Club volumes, her many reflections concerned the beauty of Jamie, a man in his mid-twenties who was once the boyfriend of her niece Cat. Reflection fueled desire, proximity led to action and, in a not-untypical postmodern turn of events, pregnancy. In this fourth installment she is a single mother of 40-plus while Jamie, a freelance bassoonist 20 years her junior with only a moderate income, seems (to me, anyway) in a somewhat untenable position. Isabel scarcely reflects on this uneven distribution of power while doing what is necessary (and, some might think, ethically questionable) to rout her academic opponents. As for baby Charlie: well, there is the full-time housekeeper.