Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott, Woodstock (1826)

[Frontispiece of 1871 edition, image from Russell Library, McMaster University

The action of Woodstock is extraordinarily concentrated on its titular location; we are mainly inside the Lodge, almost as often in the grounds, sometimes in the town, but the only time we get any further afield during the main narrative is when Wildrake meets with Cromwell at Windsor (Chs VIII-IX). This scene (which Lockhart ridiculously called better than Macbeth) is certainly a fine one and it sets up a touch of menacing expectation; at some point we know we will see more of Cromwell.

But the novel’s strength is already there and it is fugal in nature.  Woodstock persistently and often literally goes over the same ground. The most speedily revolving cogs are e.g. Wildrake the disguised cavalier gving vent to his royalist feelings or having a drink, motifs that recur incessantly. At a more stately pace, consider the number of substantial scenes that occur while approaching the Lodge:

Approach 1: Trusty Tomkins, then Joceline (Chs 2-3)
Approach 2: Everard and Wildrake (Ch 5)
Approach 3: Everard, Wildrake, Mayor, Holdenough (Ch 10)
Approach 4: Everard, Wildrake, then Tomkins, Harrison (Ch 14)
Approach 5: Everard, Charles, Sir Henry Lee (Ch 25)
Approach 6: Charles, Alice, Rochecliffe (Ch 28)
Approach 7: Cromwell, Pearson and soldiers, Everard, Holdenough, then Rochecliffe, Joceline (Ch 33)

Somewhere at the back of the reader’s mind is the persistent feeling of “I’ve been here before”. Thus when we attend the planned duel of Charles and Everard in Chapter 28, we feel the weight of accumulated combat: this very pair have already crossed swords at the end of Ch 24, Wildrake has mimed a combat with Harrison, Henry Lee has fenced with Tomkins. These clashings have always come to nothing, but the sensation grows that someone, sometime, is going to get themselves killed out here. And that is in fact what’s about to happen, when Joceline’s quarterstaff smacks into Tomkins’ temple.

This is just when we’re not expecting it. Scott has set up a pattern by which the natural climax of a section is followed by a trip to Rosamund’s spring for water. But just as the earlier visit encountered a sinister predator (Alice and the disguised Charles in Ch 18) so this one (Phoebe and Tomkins) blows up into a nasty squall and proves uncontainable. In the end it is not the gentlemanly sword that does the damage, nor does it ever in Woodstock, with the minor exception of Everard’s scratched throat.

I  am writing this for people who have already read Woodstock. Thus highlighted, the incessant patterning is bound to seem mannered, but in the actual reading we are only distantly haunted by it as it underlies a seemingly natural flow of conversation and incident. Such formal aspects do however play a more significant role in Scott’s fiction as his career proceeds.    

Woodstock is a novel about uneasy peace. The civil war is over, but only recently over, and thus motifs of constraint and haunting and suppressed violence predominate. There is comedy in the superbly extended – and fugal - scene with the Mayor and Holdenough in Chapter 10 – (Approach 3 above, when the wordy account of one approach takes place during the course of another, but outruns it so the speakers have to turn about for a while). The comedy concerns accounts of – largely imaginary – hauntings, and it’s a theme that returns in an apparently endless flood of talk  through Chapters 15-17; but in the last of these, we become aware of an un-comic chill. Holdenough’s story of the apparent loss of Albany suddenly opens up the full horror of the war that has just passed – it is not ghosts and devils who terrify us, but human beings. It’s clear that Scott understood how such memories are traumatic and are only spoken of in distress.

Woodstock could have been a darker novel. Cromwell more or less lets go of the reins in Ch 37, and you feel that Scott draws back from the brink, as Balzac in Une ténébreuse affaire did not. At the same time a punitive ending might have blanked out the discursive subtleties that had been broached. Besides these two (so different) scenes with Holdenough, it would be good to mention the dinner scene where Charles, passing himself off as an embarrassingly loutish Scot, is himself embarrassed by a drunk and oblivious Wildrake (Ch 20), or Albert and Alice’s various gymnastic efforts to direct royal behaviour, or the beautifully delineated arc of Henry Lee’s adrenalin after his authority has been called on to halt the fight in Ch 25.

All of these scenes are at some level about controlling feelings. With civil war so recent, the fear is that people can’t change the feelings that recently meant war and therefore war will resume; this is the darker aspect of those fugal repetitions. (When Wildrake thinks to control his own drinking, the comic result is the “modest sip” at the end of Ch IX.)


“Thou hast a wonderful memory, friend,” said the Colonel coldly, “to remember these rhymes in a single recitation. There seems something of practice in all this.”

Thus Everard most unjustly accuses Tomkins in Ch 14. We have difficulty shaking off the positive judgement of the dog Bevis, and Tomkins’ early awareness of Phoebe is so subtle that it is likely to go unremembered. As we read through the book we keep pondering what kind of literary stereotype Tomkins will eventually reveal himself to be – saviour or villain?  We are sure he’s in disguise. But in the end Tomkins doesn’t resolve into that kind of simple stereotype; unmasked, he remains masked. The effect is curiously impressive: Tomkins always eludes us, his wisdom and resource continue to echo positively though he dies casually, a mere brute. 


When Woodstock was published what most impressed its admirers was the even-handedness with which it portrayed both sides; Cromwell and Charles, specifically. That is less evident now, Scott’s own royalist sentiments seeming much more prominent than any real sympathy for the other side, Charles’ irritating faults being made completely pardonable by his eventual good behaviour, while most of Cromwell’s strong points, his leadership, sacrifice and religious dedication are repeatedly sniped at. What we miss is the extent to which, in 1826, these issues of the distant English civil war still aroused vehement party feeling; for a royalist to express anything other than pure hostility towards Cromwell was considered striking. In this case the author’s Scottishness perhaps allowed a more tempered analysis.  


One element of the fugue’s uneasy recapitulations is that they can sometimes wear down the novel’s certainties. When the hauntings begin in Ch 12 we are told:

Colonel Everard was incapable of a moment’s fear, even if anything frightful had been seen....

It is manifestly true that compared to the panic-stricken – Desborough and Bletson, for example – Everard stays pretty cool. However, this what you might call “official” view of the hero’s courage is in subsequent pages progressively undermined.

Markham Everard was by no means superstitious, but he had the usual credulity of the times... he could not help thinking he was in the very situation... Under such unpleasant impressions...

The fear of death, which Everard had often braved in the field of battle, became more intense... Large drops of perspiration stood upon his forehead; his heart throbbed, as if it would burst from its confinement in the bosom; he experienced the agony which fear imposes on the brave man, acute in proportion to that which pain inflicts when it subdues the robust and healthy.

Even when Everard regains his self-possession he remains distracted, embarrassed, affronted, disgraced. His adrenalin is still at the flood and it’s this, more than a reasoned judgement, that has him riding off so precipitately to the ranger’s hut.

It is pleasant to discover that the supposedly nerveless hero is in fact so highly impressionable, such a mass of passions. We aren’t therefore surprised when later the unwelcome Cromwell, eyeing him closely, says: “Is there not moisture on thy brow, Mark Everard?” What perhaps is a little more surprising is that Everard in this same scene says nothing to contradict Wildrake’s madly courageous claim to Cromwell “that he [Everard] knew not a word of the rascally conditions you talk of”. Within a few hours of Wildrake’s return to Woodstock Everard had really known all about those conditions (Ch 14), but he doesn’t at this moment think it necessary to set the matter straight. Difficult times, of course.  


The Introduction and Preface to Woodstock are dull antiquarian things and for ordinary purposes they should be ignored. The story sidles into view with Chapter 1 (this is not always the case with Scott’s novels), though an otiose modern narrator still lingers on through the first paragraph, like a candle guttering as the windows lighten.  



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