Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality (1816)


[Image from www.forgottenbookmarks.com]


With Tales of My Landlord, Scott took the opportunity to break free from the already-palpable constraints of being "the author of Waverley" and travelled back a lot further than 60 years; Old Mortality takes place 127 years since. Nevertheless, of all his novels it was the one that stirred most political debate in Scotland. When Scott put the Covenanters stage-centre, he was writing about a historical group who had in recent times become a political symbol of resistance to government tyranny, e.g. for the textile workers who assembled at Loudon-hill in 1815 to celebrate Napoleon's escape from Elba.

The recently-restored title, The Tale of Old Mortality, reminds us that the narrative purports to be based on stories told by the latter-day Covenanter "Old Mortality", as adapted by the author Peter Pattieson,  who writes:

My readers will of course understand, that, in embodying into one compressed narrative many of the anecdotes which I had the advantage of deriving from Old Mortality, I have been far from adopting either his style, his opinions, or even his facts, so far as they appear to have been distorted by party prejudice...

In fact the narrative that follows certainly does not look as if it could have had any basis in such tales as Old Mortality might have spun, except very sporadically, as perhaps in the heroic account of MacBriar's torture and execution; Scott, once he starts to write the story, doesn't attempt to make it reflect the complicated provenance that he has imagined for it in the frame.


Nevertheless, he did intend to write as fairly as he could about a movement to which he was unsympathetic, and Old Mortality is one of Scott's most liberal books. Thus, introducing the later part of the tale (set in 1689, when the Stuarts and their persecutions had ceased), he says:

This party, therefore, remained grumbling and dissatisfied, and made repeated declarations against defections and causes of wrath, which, had they been prosecuted as in the two former reigns, would have led to the same consequence of open rebellion. But as the murmurers were allowed to hold their meetings uninterrupted, and to testify as much as they pleased against Socinianism, Erastianism, and all the compliances and defections of the time, their zeal, unfann'd by persecution, died gradually away, their numbers became diminished, and they sunk into the scattered remnant of serious, scrupulous, and harmless enthusiasts, of whom Old Mortality, whose legends have afforded the ground-work of my Tale, may be taken as no bad representative.

But sometimes liberalism - the relative liberalism of a solid Tory - can seem more infuriating than outright hostility. At least, though it is evidently much better to live in a liberal climate, it can create more fury in the reader. The fury is to do with perceiving the author's insidious manipulation, his desire to have it both ways and to entrap unwary readers into embracing with him what purports to be consensual centre-ground (i.e. absolutely not "distorted by party prejudice") when really it is continuously, though gently, slanted towards an emasculation of opposing views.

Possibly the highly vocal objections to Scott's well-intentioned but subtly weighted "fairness" (initially McCrie, and cf. the later ripostes in novelistic form by Galt and Hogg) actually hastened the hardening of Scott's attitudes. Three years later, in the wake of Peterloo, he wrote an angry article in the Visionary; there was nothing here about being soft on civil dissent; he rejected the lessons taught by his own earlier novel. The highly vocal objections were in a way a compliment. Old Mortality was instantly seen to be a deathless masterpiece, a book that would shape conceptions of Scottish history for ever; hence, itself a battleground where it was absolutely necessary to strike soon and forcefully.

McCrie and the others were, after all, quite right; the coolness of Scott's attitude to the Covenanters is unmistakable. If we compare his portrayal of them with, e.g. the Jacobites in Waverley, we notice two things missing: first, there is no beautiful maiden on the Covenanters' side, to present their cause to us in ardent and seductive terms. Secondly, Morton does not have any companion on the Covenanter's side with whom he is in sympathy, hence we overhear no conversations in which we are invited to participate without prejudgement in the Covenanting cause. Morton indeed speaks powerfully (and with his author's consent) about government persecution and his duty to resist it. But Morton never says one enthusiastic word about the cause that is being persecuted.

What I mean specifically by a "companion" with whom he is "in sympathy" is, let's be frank, a "person of quality". Social class, in Scott's imagination, runs far deeper than ideology. As both the gentlefolk and most of the Covenanters instinctively realize, Morton has taken a perverse stand on what is (from the point of view of his social class) the "wrong" side - he is really much more at ease with Evandale and Claverhouse, and his heart lies with the "Midianitish woman". Morton's awkward position is both what makes the book thrilling and what makes it open to objection; Scott is not willing to imagine an organized working-class.

Perhaps that last sentence needs qualification: he is not willing to imagine a self-organized, quietly ordered, effective working class. He imagines them as requiring a leadership which is either unstably inspired and half-insane (Mucklewrath, etc), or else brutally fanatical and inspirational by virtue of terror (Burley), or else belonging to the ruling class (Morton).

There is a bifurcation in the book. At Tillietudlem we see the classes working together in what Scott conceives as the natural order. Consider the great passages in which the rulers Major Bellenden, Lord Evandale, Claverhouse etc debate Morton's case; they do so with subtlety and acumen, here is the ruling class (each one in his way an admirable character) ordering themselves, discussing the difficult matter of one who has fallen away.

"And considering the usage which he has received, and the suspicion under which he lies," said Lord Evandale, "what other course is open to him? For my own part, I should hardly know whether he deserved most blame or pity."

"Blame, my Lord? - Pity?" echoed the Major, astonished at hearing such sentiments, "he would deserve to be hanged, that's all; and were he my own son,..."

Within this orderly social construct the workers too have an important social role; I am thinking especially of the admirable - that word again - Jenny Dennison. For after all the ruling-class characters have each one their frailties and unreasonable (but not irrational) eccentricities; once their basic right to power has been silently conceded, a wise, comic, critical, corrective commentary can flow cheekily from the servants. It all works perfectly, comfortably, and admirably.  

But now swing over to the Covenanter's campfires, and all this order is (in Scott's vision) nightmarishly perturbed. Here leadership is grotesque and what the narrative highlights is its power to do evil, its irrationality, and its insecurity (the very things that Scott doesn't want us to notice about the rulers of ordered society). And here the followers are a rabble; instead of a delightfully "irrepressible" critical voice like Jenny's, the relationship of the ruled to the rulers is uncritical adulation that may quite suddenly transform into uncritical trampling.  

The problem for the scrupulous reader is that when you immerse in Old Mortality Scott's word is law. The world of the book that we very properly want to experience to the full is after all a fictional world: we can say of the history to which he alludes, "Well, it probably wasn't quite like that": but in the fiction, that's exactly how it is; and for most of us now the fiction is much more significant than the history. The more fully we plummet into identifying with Morton's experience the more the book is likely to influence our political thinking in ways we may not want. Such are the limits of dilletantism. A cautious conclusion might be: of course you must read Scott, but don't read only Scott. The profound truth in this vision - mobs and demagogues and feeling frightened and overwhelmed by them, yes, it convinces us, this is just what it's like - well, profound truths can be tyrannous if left to roam unchecked among the feebleness of our common perceptions. Great books are dangerous.



Note

"To Fairy-knowe? - no; alone I could not protect them. - I must instantly to Glasgow." (Ch 43)

Thus the instant decision taken by Mjr-Gnrl Melville, formerly known to us as Henry Morton. Of course, we are meant to accept this; but surely Morton gets it wrong. A forewarned Evandale, the formidable Morton and the ever-useful Cuddie could surely have stood firm against any such forces as Olifant could muster (they turn out to be only four men). 


(2008)

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