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Scot on the Rocks

Why readers should rediscover Sir Walter Scott.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BARTON SWAIM
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As recently as a century ago, Sir Walter Scott was known all over Europe and America. In life he had been the original literary celebrity, called “the Great Unknown” because his novels were published anonymously, although everybody knew their author’s identity. By the time of his death in 1832 his works were available in French, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Danish, Russian, and Hungarian. Scott was as influential as any writer of his age could be. Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo, among many others, all attested to his greatness. Mark Twain’s claim that Scott caused the American Civil War was intended as provocative hyperbole, but the fact that he had a point at all is itself a remarkable testimony to one man’s influence.

Painting of Sir Walter Scott reading a paper

Sir Walter Scott by Sir William Allan (1831)

And now Scott is forgotten. Not utterly forgotten: His best novels (though not his long poems) are still in print, and there is still a small but highly competent circle of British and American scholars devoted to Scott’s work. But whereas Jane Austen is read by undergraduates and filmed endlessly, Scott is known rather than read, studied rather than loved. The fate of Sir Walter Scott over the last 50 years, as the English critic Jonathan Keates has observed, is the worst kind of literary demise: “Some writers are fortunate enough to attain instant classic status, others are recovered from oblivion with an almost over-compensatory degree of enthusiasm, while death deservedly topples some from the pinnacles of international significance and adulation.”

Scott, by contrast, “has been banished forever, as it must seem, to the purgatory of a cold, incurious respect, to the shadowland of literary history, in which his importance (the word itself is a sort of dead hand) is suffered rather than examined.”

The accuracy of that assessment was reinforced, to my mind, recently when the Edinburgh University Press published the last in its 28-volume series of Scott’s Waverley novels. This is the first critical edition of Scott’s novels to make substantive use of the author’s manuscripts. Earlier collections have relied on first editions, which contained many errors owing to the speed with which publishers hurried them into print. The new critical editions are prefaced with intelligent essays, and historical and textual notes are kept to an unpretentious minimum. It is a stupendous scholarly achievement—and yet it has been remarked by virtually no one on either side of the Atlantic, outside a few scholarly journals. W. E. K. Anderson’s quip, made 40 years ago, that the “Great Unknown” has become the “Great Unread” is now almost literally true. 

There are practical reasons why this should be so. Many of Scott’s most famous works contain long passages of Scots dialect that tax modern readers (Ye maunna gar muckle o’t = You mustn’t make much of it). The glossaries contained in paperback “classics” editions are helpful, but consulting a glossary is cumbersome. Even in his own day Scott assumed a high level of historical knowledge among his readers; today that knowledge is largely absent.

But there’s more to Scott’s demise than that, and I suspect Keates’s allusion to “changing cultural and social attitudes” gets to the truth. James Bowman, in his excellent Honor: A History (2006), credits Scott with doing more than any other figure to adapt the old notions of honor to the new historical circumstances of 19th-century Britain. Honor had until then referred to a man’s standing among his equals—his reputation, what he was known for doing or not doing—but the spirit of the age demanded that inward qualities be considered equally important, if indeed not more so. It was Scott’s achievement, says Bowman, to meld these two conceptions into what became the basis for the Christian Gentleman: a compromise between inward goodness and outward reputation, between Christian humility and worldly aggression.

Scott wrote for an age in which the literati had grown skeptical of honor, but in which most people still instinctively felt its claims. His ability to define a new kind of honor is a large part of what gave Scott’s novels their spectacular appeal in Britain and America for at least a century after his death. But it’s also what makes him seem dated and unserious now. Scott traded in a currency that has lost its purchasing power: The tormented decisions made by Henry Morton or Edward Waverley are apt to seem to us like the harmless hooey of chivalric lore, the make-believe of period romance.

But in a sense, Scott’s books were out of date as soon as he wrote them. It’s not simply that he had the antiquarian habit of celebrating the past for its pastness; his novels represent the rejection of the idea—central to life in a modern commercial society—that individual identity can be altered for the purpose of achieving desirable ends. Scott’s heroes achieve great things by becoming the people they were meant to be. Henry Morton in Old Mortality fights with the Covenanters not because he thinks they’re right in every point, or even most points, but because he is the son of Silas Morton and because he is a Scot. Edward Waverley joins the Stuart cause because the uncle by whom he was raised, Sir Everard, was a Jacobite. Rebecca in Ivanhoe refuses to renounce her faith and save her life because, she says, “It was the law of my fathers.” Scott’s most memorable characters can say, with Moses Herzog in Bellow’s great novel, “Myself is thus and so, and will continue thus and so.”

Scott’s harshest ridicule, by contrast, is reserved for those who try to move higher than what their talents, education, or breeding will allow. Bartoline Saddletree, the pedantic shopkeeper who wants to be known as a legal scholar in Heart of Midlothian, nearly ruins his family by spending all his time at the Court of Session and consequently away from the shop. Indeed, whereas Scott’s most loathsome characters tend to be members of the “middle ranks,” his peasants and provincials almost always possess good humor, common sense, and—as with Cuddie Headrigg in Old Mortality or Edie Ochiltree in The Antiquary—penetrating insight. To borrow Roy Jenkins’s observation about Winston Churchill, Scott always rooted for the underdog against the middle dog.

So pronounced is Scott’s hostility to the ambitious bourgeoisie that he has been honored from time to time among Marxists. Seventy-five years ago the Hungarian Communist Georg Lukács portrayed Scott’s conception of historical development as Hegelian dialectic. Lukács, though spectacularly wrong on literary-critical matters unless one happens to be a Marxist, was nevertheless right to see in Scott’s fiction a fundamental opposition to the forces shaping modernity: the expansion of wealth, the middle class, and democracy. This can’t be said about the other great 19th-century novelists, none of whom harbored aristocratic pretensions the way Scott did, and even the most conservative of whom came to terms with democracy’s forward march.

Scott’s fame is a leatherbound memory now. But in his day Sir Walter Scott was the most famous name in literature. The Waverley novels were loved by great men as distant from each other as William Gladstone and Alexander Pushkin. They were to 19th-century literature what Haydn’s symphonies were to its music: not so much a model to be imitated as an achievement to be enjoyed. That such an author has been almost completely forgotten tells us as much about him as about ourselves.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1771, the son of a solicitor. Throughout his young years he read widely—his mother supplied him with all the latest works of polite learning and French novels—but like so many imaginative geniuses, he had poorly organized mental habits, and he was a mediocre student. He hated the drudgery of having to study what he was told to study. His grasp of ancient and modern literature was impressive and his memory phenomenal; he could quote Latin lines verbatim years after he had read them in school. But Scott would always feel that his education had been less than what it should have been.

It is with the deepest regret that I recollect in my manhood the opportunities of learning which I neglected in my youth; that through every part of my literary career I have felt pinched and hampered by my own ignorance; and that I would at this moment give half the reputation I have had the good fortune to acquire if by doing so I could rest the remaining part upon a sound foundation of learning and science.

That sense of his own ignorance infused his treatment of the past with an element of humility that distinguishes it from other works of history, fictional and otherwise—a deep appreciation of history’s complexity and man’s limited capacity to understand it.

Scott left Edinburgh University to become an advocate, but he had no great talent for law, and consequently plenty of free time. That was in 1792. The revolution was at its height in France, British opinion about it was hotly divided, and the two countries were on the brink of war. Yet Scott, in sharp contrast to contemporaries such as William Wordsworth, said and wrote little about it. Instead he went rambling around Scotland playing the role of amateur anthropologist and antiquary, visiting ruins, collecting artifacts, drinking with country folk, and listening to their stories. In 1800, on one of his “ballad raids” in northern England, Scott heard Coleridge’s unpublished poem “Christabel” recited by a friend of the poet. Either Scott was given a copy of the poem (which wouldn’t be published for another 16 years) or was able to memorize it after one hearing. In any case he recognized in Coleridge’s poem a major metrical innovation—what Gerard Manley Hopkins would later call “sprung rhythm,” lines that are scanned according to stresses rather than syllables.

Scott put Coleridge’s rhythmic innovation to work in his first metrical romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). A four-stress sprung rhythm gave the poem two special qualities. First, the freedom of counting by stresses rather than syllabic feet allowed his lines to say much more than they could have in strict iambic tetrameter (eight syllables per line). Second, using only four stresses instead of the traditional five (pentameter) gave the lines a driving pulse that pushed the narrative forward at a riveting speed.

Here, for instance, is the meeting on horseback between two rivals, Sir William Deloraine and Lord Cranstoun.

In rapid round the Baron bent;

He sigh’d a sigh, and pray’d a prayer:

The prayer was to his patron saint,

The sigh was to his ladye fair.

Stout Deloraine nor sigh’d nor pray’d,

Nor saint, nor ladye, call’d to aid;

But he stoop’d his head, and couch’d
his spear,

And spurred his steed to full career.

The meeting of these champions proud

Seem’d like the bursting thunder-cloud.

 

Stern was the dint the Borderer lent!

The stately Baron backwards bent;

Bent backwards to his horse’s tail

And his plumes went scattering on the gale;

The tough ash spear, so stout and true,

Into a thousand flinders flew.

But Cranstoun’s lance, of more avail

Pierc’d through, like silk, the Borderer’s mail;

Through shield, and jack, and acton, past,

Deep in his bosom broke at last.

 

The Lay of the Last Minstrel is the tale of a 16th-century feud in the Scottish Borders, told by an aged minstrel, a man who made his living by telling tales. That’s precisely what Scott wanted to be, a simple teller of tales. The minstrel’s poem wasn’t written down; he told it from memory. And Scott’s metrical romances possess an entrancing aural quality that almost forces the reader to read aloud.

For the same reason, however, none of Scott’s long poems is flawless. They are a pleasure to read, but Scott was more craftsman than artist. Sometimes he contorted his lines for the sake of the rhyme—a defect more pronounced in the later poetry than in the earlier, but one that a more conscientious poet wouldn’t have allowed at all. When a friend urged him to pursue literary greatness, he replied that it simply wasn’t in him: “As for poetry it is very little labour to me; indeed ’twere pity of my life should I spend much time on the light and loose sort of poetry which alone I can pretend to write.”

New poems came quickly. Marmion in 1808, The Lady of the Lake in 1810, Rokeby and The Bridal of Triermain in 1813. Scott was also a competent scholar, editing a massive edition of John Dryden, another of Jonathan Swift, as well as a 13-volume Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts. By this time he had become one of the most famous men of letters in Great Britain. With the publication of his first novel in 1814, however, he became an international celebrity.

The old story that Scott began the novel but abandoned it, then a few years later found it in an old drawer while looking for fishing tackle, is almost certainly false. What is true, however, is that Scott labored very little on Waverley. Like all Scott’s literary works, this one was, if not an afterthought, an experiment undertaken in his spare time. And yet it is a masterpiece. Waverley is the story of Edward Waverley, a young English soldier and aristocrat whose talents and intelligence have as yet been given no direction. Through coincidence he falls in with a band of Scottish Highlanders just as they’re preparing to mount an insurrection and attempt to restore the Stuart monarchy. The year is 1745—the novel’s subtitle is ’Tis Sixty Years Since—and the Jacobite cause has yet to die. (Jacobites, of course, were those who believed that the removal of James II from the English throne in 1688 had been unjust, and that the subsequent Hanoverian monarchy was therefore illegitimate.) Edward has no wish to be an insurrectionist, but he has been ill-treated by the Hanoverian government, and there is the fact that well-loved ancestors had been loyal to the Stuarts. He chooses to fight for the son of the exiled James II, Charles Edward Stuart, “The Pretender,” “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” for the excellent reason that he has no honorable alternative.

Waverley is, among other things, a sustained reflection on the meaning of a deadly conflict. By placing his hero in such a momentously ambivalent position, Scott gave his readers a sense of how morally perplexing human conflict can be. Waverley—and the same is true of Scott’s other great war novel, Old Mortality—reminds its readers that honorable motives can exist on both sides of a desperate upheaval, and that the dissension producing it is not, for that reason, foolish or illogical.

It was also new: Scott hadn’t merely set his story in the past; he had dealt with the historical through fiction, and done so in a way that held the attention of everybody from chambermaids to the king. Print runs sold out one after another. Scott had published the novel anonymously, and speculation over its authorship (so recalled the Scottish jurist Henry Cockburn) “occupied every company, and almost every two men who met and spoke in the street.” In due course the secret was discovered; but Scott, who wished to be known as a “man of affairs” rather than a “man of letters,” would never allow his name to appear on the title pages of his novels. Most of them were billed to “the Author of Waverley,” hence the “Waverley novels.”

From 1814 until the end of his life in 1832, Scott published 28 novels. For a time, each one seemed to exceed the last in popularity and profits. Some, such as Ivanhoe and the Elizabethan romance Kenilworth, were blockbusters. When Quentin Durward appeared in 1823, fashionable women in Paris wore gowns made of Stuart tartan as a mark of solidarity with the novel’s Scottish hero. His productivity was staggering: In addition to writing his own major works, Scott wrote essays and reviews, edited the works of past authors, edited an historical journal, and wrote prefaces for new books. Once he even reviewed his own book—unfavorably. But in addition to all this, and on top of his professional duties, he had become (secretly and, as events would show, foolishly) a partner in his publisher’s firm. He had a major financial stake in his printer’s firm, too, and in 1808 he took a leading part in founding a London-based Tory journal, the Quarterly Review, for which he often reviewed books. For a time, therefore, he could write a novel, have it printed, have it published, and have it reviewed, all at his own discretion.

By the mid-1820s, his fame at its zenith, Sir Walter Scott’s finances had reached a breaking point. His publisher Archibald Constable was financing the company on the strength of future bestsellers and neglecting to shore up capital; for his part, Scott had spent far more than he could afford on Abbotsford. The crash came in 1826 and Scott lost everything—on paper, at least. He was allowed to keep much of what he owned, on the condition that he pay back his massive debts. He himself insisted on that condition; his were debts of honor, and he intended to pay them without benefit of charity.

“My own right hand shall do it,” he recorded in his journal. Friends and admirers from all over the country offered to help, but “a penny I will not borrow”—a vow he kept almost literally.

From the time be began publishing fiction in 1814, Scott published, on average, a novel every nine months. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that they lack substance. The Waverley novels were never predictable or formulaic, and Scott rarely wrote the same novel twice. He was an innovator. He originated not only the historical novel but also the perverse heroine, the sage lackey, and the sequel novel. The Bride of Lammermoor (1819)—dictated while Scott suffered from gallstones—amalgamates genres and time sequences in ways that make postmodern fiction seem derivative (which of course it is). And Scott, like his contemporary Jane Austen, was no Romantic: He did not believe himself to possess, as a writer of Literature, some mysterious access to Truth. Authorship was, for him, a pastime—with the virtue of being highly remunerative. His reluctance to take himself too seriously is what makes Scott attractive as an author, what makes his prose so warm—and what made his productions less than what they might have been. He was too preoccupied with civic duties and business interests to perfect his novels, and it shows. Some of his books were insufficiently researched, a fault arising from his old aversion to schoolwork drudgery, and his plots sometimes depend heavily on improbabilities, some of which are complex to the point of convolution.

But formal deficiencies don’t begin to explain the oblivion into which he has fallen. Scott is quite as consistently readable as Dickens, and infinitely more sophisticated than the Brontë sisters. The reasons for Scott’s demise are cultural rather than aesthetic: He spoke in a moral language that is now, for the great majority of Anglophone readers, indecipherable. His fictional world was defined by honor, loyalty, and blood lineage. His heroes and heroines did not change the world by hard work and persistence; they satisfied the demands history and circumstance placed on them by becoming the people they were meant to be.

So there is no hope of reviving Walter Scott. Which is precisely why he’s worth reading.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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