Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward (1823)



When I wrote my mini-critiques of Scott’s novels, I was rude about this one and I still think I’m right. The praise accorded it in the book by Angus and Jenni Calder seems inexplicable to me, unless they were dazzled by its reception in Europe. For all that, it’s a book that can be read, just. The awful judgment of a critic - was it Taine? - that Scott is “tame” is not easily shrugged off, yet  the critic perhaps didn’t fully appreciate Scott’s anti-heroic instincts.

It occurs to me too that Scott’s interest in royalty is associated with a determination to view the behaviour of a human being when untrammelled by institutions. In the Duke of Burgundy and King Louis he has his chance. These were exceptional lives in their own time, but ours have more in common with them than with the merchants and soldiers. We don’t have all the wealth, but we do have nineteen parts of the freedom. We too can become our own personalities.

C.L Bennet’s (of Dalhousie University) comatose 1967 introduction to Quentin Durward betrays how unrewardingly Scott has been read for at least a century, and what an increasingly ungrateful task popular publishers found it to present Scott classics. This copy, “specially selected for the Airmont Library from the immortal literature of the world”, appears as usual never to have been read.

There are after all considerable obstacles in the path of one who may have been attracted (or whose gift-buying relative was attracted) by the front cover, with its muscular hero (in an astonishing costume of Ivanhoe-meets-Rob Roy) posing heroically while a pitched battle engages furiously a few yards away. After Bennet there is Scott’s 1831 Preface which, with some seriousness and some dullness, and a full page of quotation in French, moralizes over King Louis XI, dispiritingly adding: “It will be easily comprehended, that the little love intrigue of Quentin is only employed as the means of bringing out the story” (as poor a piece of salesmanship as Henry James’ remarks on the mechanism of The Ambassadors). This is one of the later Prefaces that ought now to be relegated to an appendix, because it destroys the effect that Scott first aimed for. He was not one of those rare artists (like Brahms) who could add new material so seamlessly that we are convinced the whole work was built around it.


This is followed by another Preface (originally, the beginning of the book), which very slowly introduces a few of the book’s themes, chiefly that of Europe. It is not one of Scott’s best ideas anyway – he invents a persona for the “author of Waverley”, at first jocular, mannered and cynical, then fading uncertainly into his own voice (as if, by explicitly pretending not to be Sir Walter Scott, he had only managed to confuse himself). But “Chapter I”, which follows it, must once have been more inspiriting, though now it has lost most of its quiet momentum because its material instead of moving us sharply forward has been too much foreshadowed by the 1831 Preface. Finally in Chapter 2 we reach narrative, of a rather wooden sort. The archaic presentation of manly beauty in the point-by-point description of Quentin should appear to us as a sudden flash of colour, like when the credits have finished rolling. Unfortunately, the absurd contrivance of the king being the first human being that Quentin encounters at Plessis-les-Tours, and the more absurd staginess of the king concealing his identity, forestall any possibility of a touch of nature. This is indeed relevant to Scott’s aims, for he wants to make this court an unnatural, dangerous place, but he seems not to recognize the technical problems he has set for himself, and in fact writes very badly. Louis’ personality, already outlined to us, is now jerkily put into motion. First the deviousness, then the love of low escapades, then the punitiveness, then the superstitiousness, then the paranoia – it’s painting-by-numbers narrative. Quentin’s Scottishness (“they will get little by me but good Scottish knocks”) is presented nearly as baldly. Add to that a dash of “by my halidome” and “God wot”, and some characteristic clumsiness (“The young stranger, comprehending in one glance the result of the observation which it has taken us some time to express...”), and you will gather that the approach to this novel is strewn with obstacles requiring some tenacity and some charity. Even the scenery is rubble: “The trees in this secluded spot were chiefly beeches and elms of huge magnitude, which rose like great hills of leaves into the air. Amidst these magnificent sons of the earth, there peeped out ..” etc. And things do not quickly improve; it’s more than 100 pages before we start to settle and to walk about in the reading without constantly putting our elbows through the scenery. And the author himself is careless; is it Cunningham, or Guthrie, who is twitted with a gipsy lover? Is the princess Joan’s hair light brown, or so flaxen as to have almost a bluish tinge? To be precise, the point where our settling is palpable is the beginning of Chapter 10, when there is a quiet three-handed scene between Quentin, Le Balafré, and Oliver Dain; comedy, intelligence and excitement begin to interact, and for the first time the author is a step ahead of us. 

What I’ve written here is what every non-aficionado reports about Scott’s books. It’s a shame that Quentin Durward doesn’t really work, because Scott did have serious themes that he wanted to explore, in particular what he perceived as a crucial cultural development in which the plainsong of chivalry was manipulated into the counterpoint of policy. But I don’t think Scott was equipped to understand what “policy” was; the novel’s presentation of Louis the politician consists largely of such immemorial (or medieval) narrative tropes as trusting in dreams, meddling in arranged marriages, and variations on “the biter bit”. Scott even resorts helplessly to making Louis use his own favoured tag, “Patience, cousin, and shuffle the cards”. He saw “policy” (as a romancer, and as a firm believer in good Scottish knocks) only from the outside; as a sinister black hole in whose deceptive neighbourhood romance and therefore life itself were mysteriously dissipated. So the book is constantly falling back into fringe situations and company (Scots or Bohemians or merely young) that avoid the issue of "policy"; instead of illuminating Louis and his world, they judge it. Quentin comes before us not as a naive innocent, or rather not only as a naive innocent, but as the novel’s representative of the values that Scott himself really upheld; Quentin is not a brilliant representative, but the main problem is that since he is already a moral touchstone he cannot learn anything. He cannot, as Scott could not, perceive “policy” from the point of view of someone who lives it from the inside; as a new form of perception, a new psychological acumen, a new means of getting by. This might seem an odd thing to claim, since we are talking about developments that were centuries old in Scott’s own time; the problem may be that his themes required a European, not a British, imagination.

But what Scott could do, and intermittently does well, is write a romance that has its own way irresponsibly with some of the materials of Commynes’ history. The book begins to breathe freely when Quentin and the ladies set off on their journey to Liège, and it gets even better at Peronne. The romance has now gathered its own momentum. Scott works with a surprisingly small cast of characters, considering his tapestry. If a guard is needed, the Balafré is always ready to hand; a low villain will always be Hayraddin. It stretches credulity, but Scott can produce good effects from putting characters who are all well-known to us into the same room; the best example is the night in the tower when Galeotti so nearly meets his doom. As Petit-André and his friends prepare a lynching, Scott can be taciturn about the Balafré’s thoughts, yet we are vividly concerned with them. The introduction of Galeotti into this tense situation, and its unexpected outcome, are transformations that matter to us.

I have heard it said that Hayraddin Maugrabin is the first gipsy to appear in a European novel. (I wish I had noted where; one need look no further than Scott’s own Meg Merrilies to disprove it.) Scott’s presentation is of course ignorant and framed in the conventions of literary villainy (he has to resort to Epicureanism to fill up the vacuum in his comprehension), but nothing can prevent him unleashing a powerful literary idea. (Hayreddin is an Arabic honorific name; Scott doubtless had read about the Ottoman Corsair Hizir Hayreddin Barbarossa.) Hayraddin’s villainy is consistently modified by the author's unconcealed interest in him and indeed a frustrated desire to sympathise; in the end, this issues in the strange little matter of the pony, Klepper, that Hayraddin bequeaths to Quentin. But the gipsy intrinsically resists the sympathy that Scott would like to give him; he does not accept any of the cultural axioms from which that sympathy springs. The poems that Wordsworth wrote about gipsies register the same unease.      

The scene with the pony has another function; to keep Quentin away from Maugrabin’s execution. Scott wants to maintain a spotless image of his hero.  Later, it requires another piece of clever handling to ensure that it is the Balafré, and not Quentin himself, who decapitates the corpse of William de la Marck. Less adroitly, Isabelle has been required to faint in order not to witness the killing of the bishop. At such moments one sees the limitations to what Scott has been able to achieve. Quentin and Isabelle could have remained morally upright in a close confrontation with evil, but they could not have remained figures of romance with an “innocence” that extends to their imaginations as well as to their deeds.


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