Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy (1818)


(Above: Jacket of Rob Roy, illustrated edition in Coleccion Historias, Editorial Bruguera, Barcelona 1960 - currently for sale.)


I have finally re-read Rob Roy, and found myself pronouncing it a failure (albeit one written in the midst of Scott’s best period). If so, it’s an interesting kind of failure.

The author of Waverley was, as that book sufficiently shows, an innovator by nature. Rob Roy’s failure is the sort that only innovations are prone to.

It‘s a travelling book, the locale shifting as the book proceeds. In that respect it’s like Waverley or Guy Mannering. This is familiar from picaresque novels, but Scott’s novels are not picaresque novels; they seek a unity of purpose that is different. Or, one could speak of a “narrative logic” - and therefore, potentially, a failure in that “logic” -  that is not courted by picaresque novels. Besides, in the picaresque novel the travelling is a device. The stage backcloth moves but the hero never gets to a new country. When Scott began to make Scotland seem Scottish, that was the end - for the moment, anyway - of the picaresque novel.


The topographical structure of Rob Roy is roughly as follows:

First (and longest) part (Chapters 1-18). In England,  the first 4 chapters in London and moving northward, the rest in Northumberland.

Second part (Chapters 19-26). Journey to Glasgow; episodes in Glasgow.

Third part (Chapters 27-36a). To the Highlands; in the Highlands; leaving the Highlands.

Fourth part (Chapters 36b-39). This is presented more summarily; time speeds up; Glasgow, London, Northumberland.

Considered baldly, the problem can be defined as the long delay before the Highlands are reached. It’s only in the third section that Scott writes, a bit fitfully but for longish stretches nevertheless, as a modern novelist. The book lives. 

The delay is inordinate, but can be partly justified by the narrative momentum of gradual discovery. In Waverley, this was much better handled. In Rob Roy, our interest is aroused in the early chapters on the Great North Road, but it slackens off when we get becalmed in Osbaldistone Hall. Not until the hero is summarily shaken up by a letter and tacks uncertainly for Glasgow does the book become vivid again.

The reason for Scott’s difficulty is that his hero’s main concern is with the Rashleigh/Die Vernon plots (and plots, rather than stories, is what they are).  But when the Highland scenes arrive, they are soon dominated by the vastly more interesting matter of Rob Roy, with whose dealings the hero has no vital connection. (By contrast, Edward Waverley’s involvement with Fergus MacIvor is perfectly achieved - the “narrative logic” is beyond question.)

It’s unfortunate that the Osbaldistone Hall material is so lifeless by comparison.  Hildebrand’s sons are an unfortunate group, a set of five dummies always trooped out in succession as if to supply a spurious comic life; this is wearisome. There is also a lot of reliance on Gothic motifs in this section - mysterious secret entrances and so on. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but the effect is of inert copying not personal creation. (Contrast Osbaldistone Hall with the amazing home of the hero in The Bride of Lammermoor - which might be described as Gothic but only with an awareness that this term quite fails to express the uniqueness of setting and incident, the extent to which Gothic motifs are absorbed into a personal imagining.) Scott’s interest in Rashleigh is of a flickering type. At first he seems disposed to explore Rashleigh’s villainy, but in the end he just relies on it to initiate movements in the plot. 

Unsatisfactory as all this is, its main effect (apart from putting off readers) is merely to obscure Scott’s deeper thematic interests. They are there all the same, but they do not come naturally before the reader as they should do.

Frank Osbaldistone is the key figure in the book. He is not a “sneaking imbecile” of the kind Scott more often deployed as formal hero. In fact he has quite a definite character, not an especially amiable one. He is essentially a member of the ruling class and (despite, apparently, a fondness for poetizing which does not run very deep) he is suitable material; effective, confident, worldly. He knows how to deal with servants, and with gentlemen too. He will be a competent administrator, and can put personal feeling aside, as is desolatingly portrayed in the ease with which, in the end, he takes over the reins of that same Osbaldistone Hall in which he was once a minor and troubled guest.

Scott himself doubtless admires Frank, and endows him with plenty of generous feelings which, on the whole, don’t threaten him very deeply.

He is, in various ways, “challenged” by the more interesting characters in the book, those who fail in some way to fit his conventional world-view.

Die Vernon is one such, and he quite frankly misunderstands her and acts badly towards her. Unfortunately there is a lack of particularity in this writing (it clusters around the “Gothic” scenes). Scott falls short (as he does with Rashleigh) of exploring Diana’s individuality (it would have called for powers he doesn’t possess), and in the second half of the book she is a seldom-seen symbol. 

Andrew Fairservice challenges Frank in a different way, by being an unruly, self-interested, whippable-yet-rarely-whipped servant. Sometimes useful and sometimes obstructive, his cowardice and eccentricity make him too easily placed. He is too companionless to matter and, though entertaining, remains a servant. The limitations of the author’s own attitude to servants, his essentially complacent idea of what it means to be a landowner and a gentleman, prevent Andrew in the end from being deeply troublesome.

The Bailie, too, falls short of making a fundamental challenge. His mercantile wisdom and deeper (because broader) morality ought to knock Frank out of his stride more than it does. But his self-importance, a certain ridiculousness, a certain tendency to parrot repetitively about his father and his lineage, all undercut his potential significance. Like Andrew, he is too apt in the end to be that easy thing, a colourful character.

Rob Roy, and his more scarcely seen wife, are a different matter. Here the cultural challenge (deeply felt by Scott) strikes deeper. Rob Roy is, in some sense, a greater man than Frank or any of his society; he is a romantic hero, fit for the title of a book. If that seems a rather paltry and literary way of analysing the realities of highland life, I do not think it seemed so to Scott. (He did not write for Rob Roys but for Frank Osbaldistones.)

Frank acknowledges - and we acknowledge - that in Rob Roy he has met his superior. Perhaps one could say that in the Highlands he meets a superior place, a wider sphere of life. When (in that genuinely moving scene) he encounters Die Vernon in this unlikely place, he - for the only time in the book - can’t handle it. Unresponsive to her half-embrace, he sees her move off, breaks down and cries.

After that key moment, Frank’s highland sojourn becomes a long and brilliant valediction. The precise question that the book has raised at that moment cannot, perhaps, be reduced to words. Here is one attempt: can a man such as Frank Osbaldistone deserve the romantic experience? Perhaps once in his life, yes. That’s his reward for the sensitivities, rather tepid as they are, that motivate his poeticizing. But can he live the romantic existence that, we believe, is lived (with all its accompanying sufferings) by Rob Roy? Clearly, no. If we are prepared to accept - I think I am - Frank’s marrying Die Vernon - and how adeptly and confidently he goes about this when the occasion offers - the woman he marries is nevertheless not the Die Vernon that  comes before us as part of the question. She is not the deeper reality of that mysterious night. Perhaps they have children; we are not told; it is all just “joys and sorrows”, the sort that do not challenge a conventional existence.

Despite the soft-hearted Bailie, Rob Roy is not a genial book, and its hero is not an especially congenial man. Frank and Rashleigh may fight a cardboardish duel in Glasgow, (and there’s a comic playfight at the Clachan, too) but in the background the violence is real: the death of Morris, the troopers cut to pieces, the unlovely deaths of the cousins, Rashleigh’s death-wound filling the bottom of the coach with blood. Scott “places” all of this in a colourful past, but his serious concern is with a manner of life that dominated the present; the capable, immensely effective, life of a modern ruling class. In its inadequacy before the aspects of life that Scott gathers under the umbrella of romance, he discovers a failure that had its own violent consequences. He will not quite accept what he sees, and puts it all down as an adventure. 

[In an earlier note I accepted the view of contemporary critics, and of Scott himself, that the ending of Rob Roy is shamelessly “huddled”. This, along with various other conventional judgments, I no longer hold. For example, that the highlights of the book are the colourful characters (the Bailie, Andrew Fairservice), and that Helen MacGregor is a Gothic harridan who arouses incredulity. It’s nearly 25 years since the reading that accepted those judgments, perhaps no less valid than what I think now, but inevitably reflecting a different reader.]


[A puzzling but surely important feature of Scott’s novels is their “re-readability”. I have not seen this discussed, perhaps because it seems rather subjective and intangible. However, it’s probably what is meant when Scott is called a “poetic” novelist - which in certain obvious respects he isn’t. When I finished Rob Roy I would have been quite prepared to turn the book back and re-read the superb confrontation with Frank’s father in the opening chapters. The scene is in some way elevated to a perennial or mythic or “epic” stature, though its texture is in most ways unlike a Shakespearean confrontation, for example. Its pages do not seem to exist only as a phase through which the story is advanced. There might be a connection with what I have written somewhere else about the picaresque novel. Alternatively, it may be the directness with which Scott’s material engages with his theme, so that the scene continues to signify in the memory. But then again, the re-readability is not limited to certain big scenes. “Small” Scott  (in prefaces, transitional episodes, and passim in weak novels) also has this quality, absent from many better books. It might be connected with the impression the author himself makes. The turns of his mind, even on trivial material, are unusually fascinating; unusual, at any rate, considering the absence of brilliant expression. One is apt to put it all down to his personality, to call him “great” or “good” or “noble” - but if this is true it is by no means a simple truth; a catalogue of Scott’s less enchanting actions and beliefs would be easy to compile. Perhaps there is an unusually guileless revelation of the author’s personality in Scott’s books; he doesn’t know how to perform. When we read him we seem to be beside the author, sharing his zest and his inventions, his tameness and conventionality, his good-heartedness and his clumsiness. We do not feel that he is addressing an audience.]  

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