Monday, May 21, 2012

Sir Walter Scott: The Antiquary (1816)

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Scott wrote in the “Advertisement”: “The present work completes a series of fictitious narratives, intended to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods...” ...“I have been more solicitous to describe manners minutely, than to arrange in any case an artificial and combined narrative...” These remarks are not usually taken seriously, and they are nonsense as applied to Waverley. But they might reflect the author’s thinking at the time of writing The Antiquary.

“Minute description of manners”, considered as a novelist’s modus operandi, sounds insufficiently propulsive. Some foundering is inevitable, and this duly occurs in those middle chapters that are preoccupied for far too long with the uninteresting matter of Dousterswivel. And later the aged Elspeth, when she suddenly turns into an eloquent narrator who uses expressions like “I need not tell you” and “I was unhappily permitted to add”, has an inconsistent voice*. But these are rather small criticisms.

The Antiquary conspicuously lacks a central thread. One looks for it in the genteel hero and heroine, but their story is spot-lit only at moments. Lovel has just the one reported conversation with Isabella Wardour, who herself never quite manages to take stage-centre, except perhaps as the author of the tale of Martin Waldeck. Lovel disappears altogether at the end of Ch XXI, to make only the briefest of reappearances in the final chapter. “Artificial and combined narrative” does, inevitably, have a place in the book; for example Lovel, staying in the Green Room at Monkbarns, doesn’t know that the lines of Chaucer embroidered on a border of the tapestry were chosen by his mother. But it is un-combined narrative that matters in The Antiquary. Scott had the example of Tristram Shandy to hand, but he was no great theorist and perhaps the novel emerged intuitively.

When Steenie Mucklebackit is unexpectedly drowned, you would swear that it comes as a surprise to the author himself, so utterly does he resist any hint of a foredoom. This is one of the episodes, like the post-office scene and the storm at Halket Head, that arise with great integrity from Scott’s imagination. Though they appear unplanned, their relevance is never in question, for Scott’s themes involve every aspect of the society he describes.

The book begins with a chance meeting and with good conversation, and every reader soon perceives that conversation is one of its central values. The chief, though not the only, purveyors of this life-enhancing tonic are Jonathan Oldbuck and Edie Ochiltree – one is a gentleman with a hobby-horse; the other a beggar who likes his way of life. Neither, however, is abused as a drone, and though the various plots do not seem to concern them directly they are conceived as agents for good.  (For this is a portrait of a good society; one that passes muster, though comically, when its members misguidedly arm against the French.)

The image of the dilletante, of someone not quite engaged with the engine of his world, is there from the start. In the splendid opening paragraphs, Lovel (and later Oldbuck) are waiting for a coach. Scott, writing with that casual grasp of detail that came so easily to him, throws out a volume of information about the Hawes Fly, but Lovel, in the slightly absurd posture of a traveller, knows nothing of all this. Oldbuck, who complains vehemently of the coach’s lateness, is not taken seriously by Mrs Macleuchar, nor by himself. Rejecting the return of his fare, he asks: “Will it requite the damage I may sustain by leaving my business undone?” But this plea of business is not very convincing; he is a consumer, and more leisured than he pretends.  It won’t be long before he himself is delaying the coach’s progress, “observing that one of the horses had cast a forefoot shoe” – as it luckily happens, within a hundred yards of the site of a Pictish camp. Scott allows no satire of Oldbuck. He can, we soon learn, subsist without a career; he is “in correspondence with most of the virtuosi of his time” – what a pleasant life it sounds!

The world of Oldbuck’s conversation, which occupies so much of the text, is very carefully fenced off from the world around him; but it would be a hard judge of personality who did not acknowledge the imaginative and philosophical enlargement that his talk supplies; Snuffy Davie, Aldobrand Oldenbuck, John o’ the Girnell, and all the rest. Yet he is not an unworldly man, and the faint suggestion of Don Quixote is defused in Ch III. In so subtle a book, there are plenty of hints that, in fact, his engagement with his household is far greater than he wishes to claim in his talk, which expresses an idea of himself as a detached scholar. As Griselda tells Lovel, “nobody thinks any thing of what Monkbarns says”. Oldbuck resorts to behaviour that expresses his detachment; when Oldbuck is eating or drinking in his sister’s company, he always reads a book to “evince his contempt for the society of womankind” (Ch VI). But “womankind” also stands for a large slice of the practical activity of his household. “Let womankind alone for coddling each other,” he announces in Ch IX. Oldbuck has his genuine incapacities; he cannot bargain for fish – on the other hand he takes a larger view of Maggie’s “dram” than his sister is able to do. His main structural function is to relegate Scott’s astonishingly detailed vision of Monkbarns and Fairport to small corners of the book.

Oldbuck (and one hears Scott behind this) does not overflow with respect for the Mucklebackits. That coolness, a land-owner’s judgment of feckless peasantry, is partly what makes the fisher-folk scenes at times so powerful; one can idyllicise the poor or expose their abject misery – and be a sentimentalist either way. We feel that what humanity Scott attributes to Maggie Mucklebackit is, as it were, forced out of him. The scene in which Saunders (the father) is found by Oldbuck attempting to fix the boat an hour or two after his shattered son’s funeral is one of Scott’s greatest – and let anyone who reads this scene consider if the author is “tame”. Conversation cannot cancel bereavement, yet what Oldbuck can do – in honouring the funeral, and in funding a carpenter – is much. 

Oldbuck’s “caustic” manner hides a vulnerably tender heart, as we find out when his nephew is dangerously wounded, or when his old love Eveline Neville is spoken of. But Oldbuck’s refusal to discuss the matter of “womankind” expresses a sincere lack of interest in the lower orders, too. Caxon is expected to supply social gossip to Oldbuck’s ears as he fusses around the wig, but Oldbuck will not countenance a single word about what most occupies Caxon’s thoughts, namely his daughter Jenny.

Scott sees further than Oldbuck. With surprising economy, he manages to tell, in dispersed and indirect glimpses, something of Jenny Caxon’s love for her lodger Lieutenant Taffril. Just as compressed is the story of Jenny Rintherout , the “dirty barefooted chambermaid” passingly seen in Chapter III – making herself scarce, of course, before the wrath of Oldbuck. She is part of his household, along with his spinster sister Griselda, his niece Maria M’Intyre, Caxon who often sleeps over, Davie Dibble the gardener, a ploughman and “an old superintendant, a sort of female butler”. (Oldbuck considers that, aside from “two idle hussies of womankind” he is a perfect Caenobite, i.e. a monk in an enclosed order. He would no more think of mentioning his servants than his cat.)

Griselda’s emotional life revolves around the minister Blattergowl and his sister Beckie at the manse. Jenny herself has only one scene (Ch XXVI) in which she shares the foreground – a vigorous conversation with Maggie Mucklebackit. Despite Jenny’s denials it’s clear she has an interest in Steenie, who gallantly sees her home, perhaps returning late; the next morning he is drowned. Servants, of course, are not permitted (and perhaps really do not feel) such exalted emotions as heartbreak. But while Oldbuck is enjoying his self-satisfied conversation with Caxon (Ch XXX), we remember that somewhere in the same household an intense grief is being lived through. Eventually we will hear of it, but with no fellow-feeling in the prose: “Jenny Rintherout, scarce recovered from the hysterics which she had taken on hearing of poor Steenie’s misfortune, chased about the turkeys and poultry, cackled and screamed louder than they did, and ended by killing one-half too many” (Ch XXXIV). Griselda hardly takes her seriously: “that silly fliskmahoy, Jenny Rintherout...” (Ch XXXV), and nor does Oldbuck – “Has Jenny come to her senses yet?” (Ch XXXVI). Both are kindly souls, but only Maggie Mucklebackit in the end treats Jenny as a human being – and even she, in the presence of Hector and Oldbuck, is somewhat apologetic: “I want to see what that hellicate quean Jenny Rintherout’s doing – folk said she wasna weel – She’ll be vexing hersell about Steenie, the silly tawpie, as if he wad ever hae lookit ower his shouther at the like o’ her!” (Ch XXXIX). But Steenie still runs in Jenny’s mind when we catch a last sight of her: “Hech, sirs! – he’ll be missed the morn wha wad hae served king and country weel!”  (Ch XLV)

Jenny’s attachment and bereavement are allowed no more than these few widely separated sentences. Their economy barely ripples the fabric of good-natured, easy comedy, and why should they? The book is not about the chambermaid. But Scott knew what was going on around the house, all the same; it’s this awareness that gives The Antiquary its wonderful sense of realism, its sense of taking place in a fully imagined society. Here Scott has a breadth that Jane Austen cannot match.

There is, by the way, a third Jenny (a daughter of Maggie’s), first seen “paddling in a pool among the rocks” (Ch XI). Oldbuck’s cat is black, and he is concerned that the spaniel imported by Hector (whose name is Juno) may worry her. The word caenobitium pleases Oldbuck, who (without a hint of authorial manipulation) refers to it several times. The public houses in the neighbourhood are the Grames’-arms, the Four Horse-shoes, and (near the seat of Glenallan) Ailie Sims’. The labour involved in drawing this information out of the book is notable: Scott lists nothing and describes nothing; people mention the pubs, as if they were real places, when they have a reason to. The same may be said of Mussel-crag, Craigburnfoot, Glen-Withershins, Kittlebrig etc. It is not the luxuriance of the topography that astonishes but the way in which each element meets us with perfect naturalness as it comes into use, like an old penny.

* Elspeth’s inconsistent voice. The inconsistency was not inadvertent but something that Scott emphatically draws to our attention; he even provides a speculative psychological explanation. Something quite similar had occurred in Guy Mannering, when Dominie Sampson begins to be eloquent; both characters, prior to their transformations, had seemed in their different ways to be people you could hardly get any sense out of. Neither transformation is well handled and we are apt to suspect that Scott did it to suit his own convenience, throwing in a hasty rationalization to cover the join. But there may be more to it.  


 (The Antiquary, Chapter 6.)

Scott and Oldbuck (in league, as it were, to shut things out) contrive to exclude report of all conversation between the "womenkind", and of even a glance between Lovel and Isabella Wardour. Of course I wrote about this exclusion above, but there's much more to say about it. The account of Lovel at the start of Chapter 5, walking alone and talking to himself, says much about how the book squeezes him out to its margins.
The elderly lady rustled in silks and satins, and bore upon her head a structure resembling the fashion in the ladies' memorandum-book for the year 1770—a superb piece of architecture, not much less than a modern Gothic castle, of which the curls might represent the turrets, the black pins the chevaux de frise, and the lappets the banners.

This is Griselda Oldbuck. The sexism inherent in Scott's and Oldbuck's presentation of the latter's sister is obvious. It is part of a then-popular comedy at the expense of older women, especially if unmarried - there's lots of this in Dickens, too.

I'm always struck by how male novelists of this period are so scornfully able to point out when one of their characters (male or female) is dressed in an out-of-date fashion. Balzac talks constantly about this.  I kind of don't expect male writers to be so clothes-aware. It seems they were. Fashion, no doubt, was more slow-moving. Few could afford to update their clothing very often. Nevertheless, I feel that something larger has changed in our perceptions or in our way of dressing. "Chevaux de frise" = medieval bristling defensive barriers, that indeed do look rather like combs. "Lappets" = decorated hanging strips of fabric - typically lacework -, worn on either side of a head-dress. 

We do, of course, hear of Lovel's blush, which the skilled reader immediately imputes to Isabella's presence. This is in the middle of a torrent of theatrical raillery. (Oldbuck conjectures that Lovel is a gentleman-actor). Oldbuck is the kind of person who cannot introduce a friend without making fun of him.At the same time, because Sir Arthur is a bit slow, and Lovel isn't, there's also the suspicion of a little mockery at the expense of the person addressed.Sir Arthur is instinctively jealous of this new friend of Oldbuck's - (because of the friendship, not because of Isabella..)

"...grave, wise, courtly, and scholar-like, well seen, deeply read, and thoroughly grounded in all the hidden mysteries of the green-room and stage, from the days of Davie Lindsay down to those of Dibdin..."

Sir David Lindsay is included here as author of "Ane Satyre of the Thre Estaitis", thus representing the earliest days of drama.

Charles Dibdin, on the other hand, was in his heyday as dramatist, producer, actor and patriotic lyricist. He may have bequeathed us the expression "Little Britain", (from that song about the "right little, tight little island"). He died a year or two before Scott wrote these words.

A green-room is a room near to the stage where actors wait when not needed on stage.It often developed a social dimension as a place where actors would entertain friends before and after performances. The phrase, of disputed origin, arose towards the end of the seventeenth-century. Perhaps the most famous green-room was in the (second) Drury Lane theatre, burnt down in 1791. This was where Macklin killed a fellow-actor in 1735, also the location of Johnson's visits to Garrick (and the memorable remarks recounted in Boswell). 

Rigid in his economy, Mr. Oldbuck kept no male servant. This he disguised under the pretext that the masculine sex was too noble to be employed in those acts of personal servitude, which, in all early periods of society, were uniformly imposed on the female. "Why," would he say, "did the boy, Tam Rintherout, whom, at my wise sister's instigation, I, with equal wisdom, took upon trial—why did he pilfer apples, take birds' nests, break glasses, and ultimately steal my spectacles, except that he felt that noble emulation which swells in the bosom of the masculine sex, which has conducted him to Flanders with a musket on his shoulder, and doubtless will promote him to a glorious halbert, or even to the gallows? And why does this girl, his full sister, Jenny Rintherout, move in the same vocation with safe and noiseless step—shod, or unshod—soft as the pace of a cat, and docile as a spaniel—Why? but because she is in her vocation. Let them minister to us, Sir Arthur,—let them minister, I say,—it's the only thing they are fit for. All ancient legislators, from Lycurgus to Mahommed, corruptly called Mahomet, agree in putting them in their proper and subordinate rank, and it is only the crazy heads of our old chivalrous ancestors that erected their Dulcineas into despotic princesses."

Miss Wardour protested loudly against this ungallant doctrine; but the bell now rung for dinner.
This is Oldbuck talking comically. The line between joke and seriousness isn't easy to trace exactly. (We've already seen him exasperated, yet laughing at his own exasperation, with Mrs Mcleuchar and with Edie). Evidently Tam's behaviour is far from proving Oldbuck's chauvinist point, and he knows it. But does Oldbuck, in fact, see Jenny as anything other than a machine for ministering? Maybe. His awareness is extremely suppressed in his own conversation. (This was another thing I wrote about before.)

In the early stages of the meal Oldbuck and his sister are mainly concerned with the "female superintendent", who gets rough treatment from both. I think she is different from the housekeeper who does the cooking, and whose first dish, the Solan Goose (gannet), isn't a success. Scott's remarks about preparing it outside appear to be amply justified, according to this Guardian article:

Dinner proceeds with discussion of the military. Here the Tory but residually-sentimental-Jacobite Sir Arthur and the anti-militaristic Whig Oldbuck are on rocky but just about sustainably shareable ground. Volcanoes seethe but do not erupt. It's only a matter of time.  Probably a good moment to point out that sometimes Oldbuck's caustic views are absolutely not those that the author would sympathise with - Scott was an enthusiastic troop-musterer.

"Take care, Monkbarns! we shall set you down among the black-nebs by and by."  - says Sir Arthur Wardour."Black-nebs" was a contemptuous expression used at this period for radicals, political reformers, revolutionaries - it means "Black noses", (though you can also talk about the nebs of the fingers, meaning fingertips) and referred originally to the Covenanters; alluding to the stains of  the blackberries and bilberries that they ate while on the run. Johnson's Dictionary (1755) glosses it as "Democrats; factious revilers".

 The expression has been used to mean plenty of other things, too.  In the Scottish collieries it meant black-leg, strikebreaker. It is a local name around Loch Lomond for a finnock or small sea trout. Among birdwatchers it distinguishes Bewick swans with black beaks, etc....

We also hear, after dinner, of Lovel's abstraction, " either on account of the abstruse erudition..., or for some other reason....". This arch evasiveness, so familiar in Dickens, was a novelist's code for signalling young love. Perhaps especially, bluff manly avuncular novelists. I don't think you would find it in Austen or the Brontes.

Lovel's woolgathering takes place during a dispute about the lineage of Pictish. Scott simplifies the broad lines of the debate, making Sir Arthur argue for Celtic and Oldbuck for Gothic. In the subsequent two centuries, the Celtic theory has gained ground over all the others, without quite vanquishing them - apparently it was Brythonic (i.e. like Welsh, etc), rather than Goidelic (like Irish/Scots Gaelic).


You'll gather I've been on Librivox again. The Antiquary is read by the American S. Kovalchik. At first, this feels like it might not be such a great idea. S. is hard to understand at first; she drops or swallows consonants at will and - to my ears - seems to pronounce "attended" as "a tendon", "The Iliad" as "The Ilion", "wanted" as "wanton". The frequent bursts of Scots dialect come out sounding vaguely Irish. But they'd probably be even harder to understand if they were being read by a native Lallans-speaker. Anyway, she's completely won me over now, with her energy, ear for dialogue and relish for both the subtler and the blunter aspects of Scott's social comedy . In fact I've now listened to the whole of it twice, and strongly recommend it as a rare opportunity to hear one of Scott's finest novels in full - which is to say, one of the finest European novels tout court.

An aspect that S. brings out particularly well is the dialogue between Oldbuck and his nephew Hector. (You sort of get the impression that Hector is her favourite character.) Whereas Lovel in the early chapters, (Oldbuck's Phoenix), is characterized by being a silent listener, a person in danger of not having a voice, Hector is pointedly a poor listener who finds himself incapable of pretending to be interested in Oldbuck's topics of conversation. Despite this, they converse very well; Scott reveals all of their long acquaintance, and this is a much harder and rarer thing than describing conversation between people who have just met.

Andrew Lang points out that The Antiquary is, contrary to first impressions, a remarkably well-structured novel. Lovel's far from inactive absence is eventually fully explained, and the family conversation between Oldbuck and Hector is there to provide a brilliant, uncomfortable dissonance with the Mucklebackits' tragedy.

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