Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sir Walter Scott's novels, a brief guide

Those dusty, dull-bound, heavy books lie like pre-Cambrian bedrock on the lower shelves of pubs and hotels. Such is the fate of the former best-seller, the man who popularised tartan shortbread tins, the man who speckled the suburbs of Birmingham with houses called Loch Lomond in streets called Waverley Crescent and Lammermoor Close, where the daughters were once named Rowena, the sons Nigel. 

Scott is the most under-rated writer in the canon of British literature, second only to Dickens among our great nineteenth-century novelists, readable, fertile, vivid, profound, a master. Like every great novelist, he has huge faults. His English prose style is clumsy and slipshod; he “sows from the sack, not from the hand” and the impact of his best work, essentially poetic, is hard to represent from quotations. His output is vast and many of his novels fail. He inaugurated, if he did not cause, the curious Victorian literary convention that sexual feelings don’t really exist; his scenery and weather are often perfunctory, his heroes and heroines are for the most part as stiff as bookmarks. He was also a Tory and a Unionist, which meets with little favour here. But his massive humanity, comedy and invention are triumphs: once discovered, he is never abandoned. So here goes: 25 novels in six pages, a lifetime of reading. 


Although these are his earliest novels, they are not beginner’s work. When he published Waverley anonymously he was already 40, a celebrated man of letters thanks to his sensationally popular narrative poems. The novels of this period include his greatest achievements. Some of the later novels are deeply immersed in (lowland) Scottish culture too, but here it’s a continuous presence, the lifeblood of the books.

1.  Waverley (1814)

Seminal, and deeply pondered over many years, this is the first historical novel worthy of the name in world literature. Perhaps his masterpiece, although subtler achievements were to follow. Here are all his great themes: the process of change in society, adolescence, humour, outcasts, ideals, compromises, progress and extinctions. Every adventure, every western movie, every sci-fi fantasy adventure you’ve ever read is indebted to this brilliantly innovative book; not to mention Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot... A great place to start.10 out of 10.

2.  Guy Mannering (1815)

Scott with a head of steam up, this is frankly an improvisation. Despite its many wonderful scenes and characters, it’s carelessly executed and doesn’t run very deep. The Victorians loved it, but in our severer times: 7 out of 10.

3.  The Antiquary (1816)

On the surface this is even more chaotic and heterogeneous than Guy Mannering; but this time it all works out. This is Scott’s supreme book about conversation, conviviality and human company: a little-known delight. 9 out of 10.

But his sister understood these looks of ire (rescued from drowning, and no food in the house). “Ou dear! Monkbarns, what’s the use of making a wark?”

  “I make no wark, as ye call it, woman.”

  “But what’s the use o’ looking sae glum and glunch about a pickle bains? – an ye will hae the truth, ye maun ken the minister came in, worthy man – sair distressed he was, nae doubt, about your precaurious situation, as he ca’d it, (for ye ken how weel he’s gifted wi’ words,) and here he wad bide till he could hear wi’ certainty how the matter was likely to gang wi’ ye a’. He said fine things on the duty of resignation to Providence’s will, worthy man! that did he.” (The Antiquary, Ch 9)

4.  The Black Dwarf  and  5.  Old Mortality (1816)

Old Mortality is Scott's most exciting and perhaps greatest book, one of the best-imagined stories in English. A profound meditation on violence, fanaticism and repression; pick it up at Chapter 2 (as the Calders advise) and watch how Scott’s insidiously slack-limbed narration sucks you in. 10 out of 10. (Longer Note.  Follow-up Note.)

The Black Dwarf, a short novel published alongside OM, has some fine pages but never gets far off the ground. 5 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

6.  Rob Roy (1818)

A brief, fiery and penetrating book lies hidden inside a baggier, more uneven one. In no book does Scott come closer to a critique of the conventional ruling class that he approved, in no book is the fact of the Highlands more challengingly posed. But we have to wade through a lot of idling and Gothic plotting in Northumberland to get to the serious heart of this, so all in all: 7.5 out of 10.  (Longer Note.)
7.  The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

In the early 20th century, as the Waverley novels fell out of fashion, Heart of Midlothian acquired an undeserved reputation as Scott's one real masterpiece. For the first 200 pages, indeed, Scott is at his highest pitch (but hardly his uniquely highest pitch): this Edinburgh is like Balzac’s Paris with all the gaps filled out. Yes, it should have been his best book. But it goes disastrously out of its way in the third volume thanks to Scott’s always excessive fascination with royalty, and never completely recovers. Badly flawed though it is, I give it 9.5 out of 10.

8.  The Bride of Lammermoor (1819)

Rumoured to have been dictated in delirium and subsequently unremembered by its author (whose life was a catalogue of sicknesses), this is the most un-Scott-like of his masterpieces: a brilliant, bleak, secretive tragedy that operates with intense restraint. Beautifully structured, it shows (along with Old Mortality, Kenilworth etc) that Scott was the most naturally gifted designer of a novel in our tradition. (The French equivalent, in this respect, is Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire.)  9 out of 10.

9.  A Legend of Montrose (1819)

This is Scott’s book about war; but that scarcely does it justice. It's a book about violence of peculiar ferocity; a book about war crimes might be nearer the mark. The topic is pondered via unmitigated highland blood-feuds and, in very fertile contrast, the amoral mercenary Dugald Dalgetty.  The book is seriously under-rated. A bit thin and creaky in places, certainly, but fully deserving of 8 out of 10. (Longer note.)


It’s commonly supposed that the unprecedented success of Ivanhoe, his first book set outside Scotland, turned Scott’s head, and led him away from the true sources of his inspiration (with the anomalous exception of Redgauntlet). The reality is more complicated. Scott’s books always occupied the borderland with romance anyway, and the best books of this period (e.g. The Abbot, Kenilworth) are as good as all but the very best of his earlier novels – and arguably stranger.

10.  Ivanhoe (1820)

Anyone who wants to understand the Victorian imagination needs to start with this. England went Ivanhoe-mad; this is the public-school boy’s book par excellence. And today? Well, it’s a rich and humane adventure with a few deeper chords (Rebecca, the greenwood...). But when all’s said, only half of Scott’s greatness is on view here. 6 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

11.  The Monastery  (1820)

This was considered a failure even at the time of its first publication, so is now never read. The November weather, the Tweed and the reformation period suit Scott well, and though the story doesn’t quite add up he’s in easy spirits throughout. 6 out of 10.

The river was not in flood, but it was above its ordinary level – a heavy water, as it is called in that country, through which the monk had no particular inclination to ride, if he could manage the matter better.

  “Peter, my good friend,” cried the sacristan, raising his voice; “my very excellent friend Peter, be so kind as to lower the drawbridge. Peter, I say, dost not hear? – it is thy gossip, Father Philip, who calls thee.”

  Peter heard him perfectly well, and saw him into the bargain; but, as he had considered the sacristan as peculiarly his enemy in his dispute with the convent, he went quietly to bed, after reconnoitring the monk through his loop-hole, observing to his wife that “riding the water in a moonlight night would do the sacristan no harm, and would teach him the value of a brig the neist time, on whilk a man might pass high and dry, winter and summer, flood and ebb.” (The Monastery, Ch 5)

12.  The Abbot (1820)

Characteristically, Scott’s response to his first avowed failure was to write a sequel to it.  Roland and Catherine are Scott’s most lively young couple, and the tension of the theme (Protestantism outlawing Catholism) make this a romance with an edge. 8 out of 10.

  “You talk riddles, my lord,” said Mary; “I will hope the explanation carries nothing insulting with it.”

  “You shall judge, madam,” answered Lindesay. “With this good sword was Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, girded on the memorable day when he acquired the name of Bell-the-Cat, for dragging from the presence of your great-grandfather, the third James of the race, a crew of minions, flatterers, and favourites, whom he hanged over the bridge of Lauder, as a warning to such reptiles how they approach a Scottish throne. With this same weapon, the same inflexible champion of Scottish honour and nobility slew at one blow Spens of Kilspindie, a courtier of your grandfather, James the Fourth, who had dared to speak lightly of him in the royal presence. They fought near the brook of Fala; and Bell-the-Cat, with this blade, sheared through the thigh of his opponent, and lopped the limb as easily as a shepherd’s boy slices a twig from a sapling.” (The Abbot, Ch 21)
13.  Kenilworth (1821)

Perhaps his most under-rated book, this tragedy of ostentation and gorgeous surfaces is a not unworthy companion to The Bride of Lammermoor, the extended description of the revels at Kenilworth unmatched in moral and dramatic intensity. Scott’s sixteenth-century England is utterly unlike what we expect, a nightmare of fortune-hunters and trapdoors that unfolds with a dreadful logic and expires like a thunderclap on the last page. 8 out of 10.

14.  The Pirate (1822)

Scott had loved visiting the Shetlands, but he couldn’t raise a good novel out of it. The things that had moved him were untranslateable into any fiction even he could imagine. Dreary, tame and unconvincing. 3 out of 10.

15.  The Fortunes of Nigel (1822)

Like all the other books he set in the seventeenth century, Scott’s London novel suffers from the inevitable comparison with his own Old Mortality, and in a different way with the Jacobean city comedies from which he plundered so much material. Nigel is colourful but inadequately felt, and dead from the waist down. 4 out of 10. 

16.  Peveril of the Peak (1822)

Much derided, this long book is good for about half its length before finally coming apart at the seams. The prelude is excellent, and Peveril’s journey across England beautifully poised, but Scott abandons his most arresting characters and the ending turns into a wearisome game of chess. 4 out of 10.

17.  Quentin Durward (1823)

Often considered the best of the costume dramas, this architectural, expansive adventure is finely conceived but often feebly written, and the European setting too often recalls Balzac, a fatal comparison when Scott is short of his best. 5 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

18.  St Ronan’s Well (1824)

Strange book. Often seems remarkably un-Scott-like: What's with those chapter titles? ... Or the scene with the tableaux from Shakespeare? Set nearly, but not quite, in the present day (some "twenty years" ago, a similar time-gap to The Antiquary). Compared to Durward or The Talisman, the author's sharp intelligence seems to have sprung to life; it's comparable even to Redgauntlet in that respect. But I keep getting the feeling that I ought to enjoy it more than I do. Scott as satirist, his lack of  sympathy for most of the characters, is maybe part of the problem. And then there's the very damaging suppression of the most shocking element in the plot, insisted on by James Ballantyne. So all in all, 5 out of 10. (Longer note.)

19.  Redgauntlet (1824)

For many, his greatest book. Beneath its casual surface is a profoundly poetic meditation on romance itself, intuitive, mature and brilliantly imagined. Its innovative structure incorporates, along with much else, that supreme short story, “Wandering Willie’s Tale”. The closing chapters in Cumberland, alas, fall a bit short. 9 out of 10.

20.  The Betrothed  and 21.  The Talisman (1825)

The first of the “Tales of the Crusaders” is indisputably minor, a book that can be read (like The Pirate) only for the pleasure of hearing its author’s voice. 3 out of 10. The second is intermittently lively, and Scott's excursion into Palestine is an intriguing record of western conceptions of Islam. 5 out of 10. (Longer Note.) 

RUIN AND DECLINE (1826-1832)

In 1826, the fragile financial system of the printing and publishing trade collapsed. Scott, who was a secret partner in his own printing house, was brought down with it. Rather than plead bankruptcy, he offered to pay his creditors off with the proceeds of future writing. It was a decision that saved his honour and his home, at the cost of literally writing himself to death. (Apart from the novels, these last years produced such daunting monuments as his gigantic Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, now never seen or read: also, his private Journal, a grievous and brilliant book.)

22.  Woodstock (1826)

This intricately rotating microcosm in the unsettled backwash of the English civil war was half-completed when financial ruin, bereavement and illness dropped on its author in quick succession. But in the finished novel it doesn’t show; Scott was a stoic at noon and midnight; the full but sombre palette is there from the start. 6 out of 10. (Longer Note.)

23.  The Fair Maid of Perth (1828)

The best novel of his last period, this warm and wintry adventure, full of incident and humour, shows that Scott had lost none of his inner wisdom and imagination, if only circumstances would allow him to deploy them. 7 out of 10.

24.  Anne of Geierstein (1829)

Haven’t read it. The drudgery of writing it drove Scott to distraction, but this tale of medieval Switzerland is reputed to be no worse than run-of-the-mill. A presumed 4 out of 10.

25.  Count Robert of Paris  and 26.  Castle Dangerous (1832)

Haven’t read them. Embarrassments, these, the former set in eleventh-century Byzantium, the latter in medieval Scotland. Described, by those few who have ventured in, as the worst novels he wrote. Presumably 1 or 2 out of 10.

27.  The Siege of Malta

Desperately ill, Scott went on a recuperative trip to the Mediterranean, collapsing during his return and dying in his own bed. While abroad, he wrote this book and also a novella called Bizarro. Lockhart decided they were not publishable and when they eventually appeared (in 2008) you could see why. No amount of tidying up broken sentences can disguise the calamitous decay of the author’s mind. These spasms of compulsive writing are fascinating from a medical point of view. The imaginative faculty is the first thing to go, and the second half of The Siege of Malta is a bare-bones re-telling of history with no fictional characters at all.

(The Walter Scott Digital Archive, produced by Edinburgh University Library, will give you graphics of Lambert & Butler “Waverley” Straight Cut Cigarettes, engravings of Catherine Seyton, links to all sorts of interesting material that you won’t know about – for example, the aging Mark Twain’s extraordinary letters about the Waverley novels – and a more comprehensive guide to all Scott’s works. Also, a link to Carlyle’s review-essay on Lockhart’s biography: I must admit, I don’t find it an easy matter to read Carlyle on any subject. But it’s well worth persisting, if only for the salutary effect of a view that resolutely declines to idealize its subject. Carlyle is unenthusiastic; he argues that what we call “greatness” in Scott is something less than what he thinks greatness in the absolute sense (Goethe is his touchstone). It must be admitted that nearly all writing about Scott is characterized – I will not say vitiated – by a vein of reverent idealization, from which my own notes are by no means exempt. Carlyle was also prescient in anticipating that Scott’s phenomenal popularity would be temporary. As it happens his own work is now in even deeper eclipse, and that of his hero Goethe too, at any rate in the English-speaking world.)  



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