Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott, The Abbot (1820)

[Catherine Seyton, engraving after Landseer, 1833. "As they put off, Roland thought he could discover the face of Catherine Seyton... peeping from a loophole to view his departure" (Ch 25). Image from The Walter Scott Image Collection at Edinburgh University Library.]

“By Heaven, Catherine, your tongue wears as many disguises as your person!” Roland Græme complains of the girl he loves. He’s mistaken, for the “audacity” that we admire in Scott’s most entrancing heroine is not deceptive at all, though admittedly she does try to take advantage of the Lady of Lochleven’s belief in a supposed poisoning. The circumstances are a bit unusual. Normally Catherine is, whatever Roland thinks, perfectly sincere and direct. Her games are the spiritedness of youth, and “in sad earnest” she hardly troubles to hide even her love for Roland, and certainly never her unalterable commitment to the Catholic faith. Scott’s most attractive women (Flora MacIvor, Rebecca) are for some reason often committed to a creed he disapproves.

The Abbot is indeed a book full of even more than the usual quota of people in disguise. In the village of Kinross, Roland encounters four in very short order: Henry Seyton as a country maiden, Magdalen Græme as Mother Nicneven, Father Ambrose as a “mean and servile” retainer, and Father Boniface as the gardener Blinkhoolie. All are of course adherents to the “ancient and only road” (Mary’s phrase) that the ruling Protestant party is trying to suppress.

Disguise has the potential of allowing someone to assume a character that expresses their inner selves more openly than their everyday identity does, and here this might be claimed (in their different ways) of both Magdalen-as-Nicneven and Boniface-as-Blinkhoolie.

Pursuing that line of thought as regards Henry is intriguing, but the truth is that whenever Roland tries to treat Henry femininely he walks into a wall. This seems maybe like a crude device for nourishing an artificial mystification in Roland’s mind; he keeps mistaking Henry-as-maiden for Catherine, his supposedly “identical” twin, and there seems no good reason why the real Catherine doesn’t enlighten him. (Roland is apparently unaware that Catherine has a twin at all, even though Henry Seyton is a prominent noble.) The upshot is an androgynous tangle that links the three in features of their personalities. But what is “audacity” in Catherine is impulsiveness and violence in the two young men.

[Boy-and-girl twins are never “identical” twins, of course. But Scott had ample literary precedent, e.g. Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. There is a suggestive train of connexions between Shakespeare’s play and The Abbot, e.g. Sebastian’s violence, the puritan restrainer, and this whole matter of being a page – or eunuch.]

Father Ambrose provides the most telling commentary on these disguises. Roland, though backsliding fast from his own Catholicism, is appalled to see his former spiritual guide in “the dress of a poor sworder”, and then critical of the unworthiness of these shifts. Ambrose rebuts him powerfully:

“The heretics have played their usual arts on you, my son... they would willingly deprive us of the power of acting wisely and secretly, though their possession of superior force forbids us contending with them on the terms of equality. They have reduced us to a state of exhausted weakness, and now would fain proscribe the means by which weakness, through all the range of nature, supplies the lack of strength, and defends itself against its potent enemies. As well might the hound say to the hare, use not these wily turns to escape me, but contend with me in pitched battle, as the armed and powerful heretic demand of the down-trodden and oppressed Catholic to lay aside the wisdom of the serpent, by which alone they may again hope to raise up the Jerusalem over which they weep, and which it is their duty to rebuild...”

It’s a justification that still resonates disturbingly.

Roland treads a dangerous path, seemingly entrammelled by loyalties to both sides, and seemingly always fated to end up as a lady’s page. His own agenda is personal; he wants to be free to be himself, and his childish image for that is to be a soldier. He is deeply frustrated, and his violence and rudeness issue from this. What ultimately unites Roland and Catherine is a modern desire to be themselves; in Roland’s case that amounts to a frustration with his times; Catherine, more solidly grounded, is able to live as herself by committing to an  unwavering allegiance and accepting its misfortunes.


Roland wants, as he thinks freely, to do great deeds for women. Impelled by his love for Catherine and his loyalty to Mary, he understands his own position in terms of knight-errantry and the imagery of medieval romance. The Lady of Lochleven uses a different (Protestant) kind of imagery to talk about this. She speaks of her son’s/grandson’s attempt to liberate Mary from Lochleven as evidencing Mary’s malignly seductive powers, the “snare of the Moabitish woman”. Both types of thinking are based on myth. Scott is unwilling to resolve the conundrum so far as Mary is concerned, but in Roland and Catherine it’s clear that he portrays a relationship in which the girl’s goal-setting and the lad’s courage are the natural and instinctive moves of courtship.


Mary was in fact only 25 at the period of The Abbot, but the dramatic part of her reign, the marriages and murders, already lay in the past. As usual, Scott likes to set his book in the vaguely fine weather of summer, and this was more or less historically accurate – the earlier chapters occur around the time of Mary’s imprisonment (16th June 1567) and abdication (August 1567), while the later chapters surround her eventual escape the following year (it actually took place on 2nd May 1568). Mary when we see her is in a lull between the sensational events of the years after her return to Scotland and the nineteen years of captivity in England that eventually ended with her execution. She in no way dominates the book, but sits within it as a kind of potent presence.


Scott is confusing about the relationship between the Lady of Lochleven and George Douglas, who betrays his own side by attempting to liberate Mary. George Douglas was in fact her youngest son but in The Abbot Scott is inconsistent about this and sometimes thinks of him as her grandson. [The mistake may have arisen from conflation of the Lady’s husband and son, both named William; Scott might have remembered that George Douglas was the son of Sir William Douglas, and also that the Lady was the mother of Sir William Douglas, and thus ended up with three generations instead of two.] In any case Scott decided to keep his composite Sir William Douglas offstage and away from Lochleven so as to create a society dominated by forceful but unattached women. Perhaps, also, he was doubling the grandmother/grandson relationship of Magdalen and Roland. He wanted his older women to be free agents and was wary of introducing the more explosive relationship of mother/son. In general Scott in his novels steers clear of nuclear families*; they are too complicated, and romance (like dreams) has a tendency to eliminate siblings, parents and children. It’s something of the same wariness that persuaded him to avoid the more obviously sensational material of Mary’s marriages and the murders of Rizzio and Darnley, which he portrays only indirectly and by allusion. Mary’s marriage to Bothwell preceded her imprisonment by only a month but in the novel Bothwell is rarely mentioned and he too seems to belong to a distant past.


The Abbot is not inappropriately titled, for though it surprises us by its centre of interest being co-located with the novel’s young lovers (very unusual in Scott’s novels), its priests are important. They are themselves victims (at least on the Catholic side), but we cannot forget that it is their harangues on both sides that fuel the wars of religion under which this society suffers. Ambrose and Henderson represent each side at its best, while each has his comic variant (respectively, Boniface and Warden) who adds distinctive complications to the picture. For Scott the matter of Catholicism against Protestantism was still a live issue, and he emphatically speaks out at times in favour of the reformed church. But his story directs most of our sympathy towards the Catholic side. We side with the underdog, and if Ambrose is potentially an apologist for terrorism, the Protestants are uncompromising extirpators.

The Abbot is a book whose triumphs are atomised, verbal and ideological. Roland’s consciousness has difficulty concentrating. He is thus quite untroubled in his pursuit of Mary’s freedom, but we cannot forget Henderson’s earlier words to him:

“...but first, my good Roland, look forth on the pleasant prospect of yonder cultivated plain. You see, where the smoke arises, yonder village standing half hidden by the trees, and you know it to be the dwelling-place of peace and industry. From space to space, each by the side of its own stream, you see the gray towers of barons, with cottages interspersed; and you know that they also, with their household, are now living in unity; the lance hung upon the wall, and the sword resting in its sheath... What would he deserve, who should bring fire and slaughter into so fair and happy a scene – who should bare the swords of the gentry and turn them against each other – who should give tower and cottage to the flames, and slake the embers with the blood of the indwellers?...”

Roland rejected this imputation at the time, but in the end he does exactly what Henderson fears. As Catherine and Mary anticipate their escape, they sing the praises of the “merry soldier”; not long afterwards we will see Mary lead her own soldiers into a bloody rout. The feelings that spring up in this imprisoned and inactive society are inevitably warped by the circumstances; the lady’s page has a share in them too.

But aside from his allegiance to Catherine, Roland has another reason for wanting Mary out of prison. Roland ignores Henderson’s warning because his real motive, as he confesses to his grandmother, is a deep desire for clarity, even at the expense of violence. So long as secrets are mewed up and sovereigns immured (Adam Woodcock’s hawking imagery is potent), Roland cannot be himself, cannot know his own mind, and cannot act with the free will that every side seems determined to deny him. Roland wants to be out of his century.   

*Compare e.g. Edith Bellenden (parents dead, lives with grandmother) and Henry Morton (parents dead, lives with uncle) in Old Mortality.



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