Monday, June 30, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: The Black Dwarf (1816)

The Black Dwarf was published as the first volume of the first series of Tales of My Landlord; the other three were occupied by Old Mortality. Scott doubted if the Black Dwarf material was up to scratch, allowed a friendly reader to confirm his own suspicions, and so brought the curtain down more quickly than he'd originally planned. Here the classic Scott gear-change is more jarring than thrilling.

This, at any rate, is Scott's account of the matter in the final paragraph of his 1830 Introduction. But the Edinburgh University Library page gives a different impression. According to this page the ending was rushed because Scott was being pressured by his new publishers Blackwood and Murray. It also seems to suggest that the original plan for Tales of My Landlord was four one-volume tales. That could be reconciled with Scott's own account only if this plan was a short-lived idea that was already on the scrapheap by the time Scott was composing the The Black Dwarf.  Anyway, Old Mortality was surely conceived on spacious lines from the first.

The main deficiency that Scott talks about is the Black Dwarf himself, and certainly this static creation (Note 1) doesn't convince as a realistic portrait. Nevertheless I'm sure that Scott's insights into the anguish of being cursed with a monstrous appearance must have influenced the young Mary Shelley, who was just starting to write Frankenstein when The Black Dwarf appeared*.

Besides the deficiencies of the lead character, the book has a perfunctory insurrection (how unlike the one in Old Mortality!) and a double kidnap that incomprehensibly fizzles out. So reading the book is more a matter of salvaging lovely details than committing to the tale as a whole. But the details are worth your trouble. This is Scott in 1816, after all!

For a start there's the opening few pages describing the April snow and the sheep-farmers' glorious conversation at Pattieson's village pub (with self-serving intrusions from Jedediah) (Note 2) And that segues very nicely into Hobbie Elliot returning across Mucklestane Moor after an unsuccessful day's deer-stalking, his meeting and conversation with Patrick Earnscliff. Scott is brilliant at evoking the open moor, though he forgets to tells us the time of year (it must be autumn, however).

This excellent start is slightly troubled by a premature jump of nearly a year; when we pick up the action again, with Elshie being now well established in his hovel, it's the following August (the heath is in full bloom).

Elshie's first meeting with Isabel Vere is a moving if rather emblematic scene. Willie of Westburnflat (in conversation with Elshie) is a brief firework.

After the fizzled-out kidnappings, the second half of the book begins - with a clumsy flashback. Nevertheless the scene between Isabel and her father Ellieslaw is good, until it's baldly interrupted with "At this moment four ruffians rushed upon them". The unprincipled Ellieslaw is a pleasing character and so is the attractively quixotic Mareschal, but part of the failing of this second half of the book is that Scott has little definite conception of the third rebel Sir Frederick Langley. This character, we feel, needed to be a straightforward but formidable bad guy. But Scott skimps on devoting any time to introducing Sir Frederick and, when he does bring him on-stage, immediately exposes him to Ratcliffe's unjust accusation, which rather wrong-foots us. Langley does not seem a nice guy, but now he's been blatantly traduced.  Soon afterwards he's heard describing Earnscliff as "a sprightly young fellow". Surely a solidly bad villain ought to hate the hero?  The plot's supposed to turn on Ellieslaw's abject fear of Langley, but what, we wonder, is so fearful about him?  The rebellion never gains momentum; it falls apart at a touch, and we're mainly impressed by the instant willingness of the participants to use treachery as a bargaining tool.

Despite these defects the book achieves a certain dignity in its final pages. Part of that is to do with the Black Dwarf's disappearance and death; no Dickensian conversion here from misanthropy to domesticity. I also like the distorted account of events in Ellieslaw's complacent letter from abroad.

Note 1. I call him static because the early chapters all take place at his croft and because he claims to be too immobilized to think of going to warn Hobbie Elliott about the raid; he has no horse and perhaps his legs are too short to ride one. But towards the end he shows up suddenly at Ellieslaw and I suppose we must assume he was transported there by Ratcliffe.

Note 2. This opening should be understood as following on from Jedediah's splendid "Introduction to the Tales of My Landlord", which these days is usually found prefixed to Old Mortality.

I'm not sure if Scott in the end didn't intend the whole of The Black Dwarf as a sort of fancy portal to OM, with which it is so incommensurate. A recurrent theme in BD is that insurrections, violence, duels and feuds don't really matter; they're all treated lightly and seem to be without serious consequence. In that respect its presiding genii are the reiver Willie of Westburnflat and the wild but honourable rebel Mareschal.

This inconsequence is, of course, in marked contrast to the deadly outcomes of its greater companion.


By the way, how on earth could Elshie fail to be recognized as Sir Edward Mauley, given his highly distinctive appearance?

* This is not the first time that The Black Dwarf has been claimed as the source of some better-known book, In 1937 Florence Swinton Dry argued that it lay behind Wuthering Heights. She didn't convince most other scholars, but maybe this is worth further consideration (time for an inter-library loan, maybe?). From what I've heard , Dry's chief argument has to do with The Black Dwarf being "a moorland novel of revenge", which it isn't, really. She also finds some parallels between the misanthropic speeches of Elshie and Heathcliff'; e.g. a not very persuasive parallel in which "worms" and "writhe" are used in close proximity.

When I say it's worth further consideration, I don't mean because Scott's influence is a matter of interest per se. The Brontes had Scott's novels on their shelves and there was no doubt influence of a sort. Dry also proposed that Nelly Dean's name came from Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian - well, who knows, and who cares?

And then Ian Jack spent most of an amiable but perplexing preface arguing that Lockwood derives from the various incomer heroes of Scott's novels (Introduction to Wuthering Heights, Worlds Classics edition). Which only reinforces the conclusion that Lockwood is a very insignificant frame figure who has no role in the action (unlike Waverley, Lovel, or Roland).

The question that matters about Wuthering Heights is its startling originality. How did that come about? And the only reason why it might be worth looking again at Scott (or George Sand, or James Hogg...)  is because it's possible that some ingredient from them might shed light on the mystery of how Emily came to imagine her scenes. Some ingredient that Emily absorbed and worked over in the unconscious. (Because, consciously speaking, the whole atmosphere texture and method of Wuthering Heights is flagrantly un-Scott-like.)

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