Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sir Walter Scott: St Ronan's Well (1824)


Clara Mowbray, hand-coloured lithograph by M. O'Connor, 1833

[Image source: The Walter Scott Image Collection at Edinburgh University Library. Clara seems to have plenty of bloom here, in contradiction to what is stated in the passage being illustrated.]



This is a strange one.

According to the great John Diamond, Scott's prose is, like his verse, cantillatory. (See A Book of Cantillatory Poems, 1985). I have not muscle-tested, but I should imagine that St Ronan's Well is Scott's least cantillatory novel.

Something expected is missing.  Maybe the fundamental good-heartedness we depend on to carry us through such otherwise mediocre performances as, say, The Pirate or The Betrothed.

As a first-time reader, an admirer of other Scott novels, I found St Ronan's Well sour, unenchanting, bizarre, and rather well-written (i.e. in sharp contrast to its predecessor Durward).  I found the plot somewhat confusing and distinctly unbelievable (it is based on arbitrary injunctions in a will),  and I thought the novel spent far too many pages on those almost indistinguishable young gentlemen Francis Tyrrel, Lord Etherington (Bulmer), Harry Jekyl and Mowbray. (Distinguishable morally, certainly. But only morally.)  Unusually for a Scott novel, I thirsted for a bit more digressiveness, anything to get us away from these stereotypical rakes.  -- Actually,  I wouldn't so much have minded a bit more of the good Francis Tyrrel, who almost drops out of view after the early part of the book, along with the excellent Meg Dods.

I read the book in its traditional form, and this leaves a sense of vague puzzlement around Clara Mowbray. Why exactly is she quite so deeply ashamed of having been tricked into a fraudulent marriage? And how to account for the anti-climax of Hannah Irwin's confession when it seemed to contain nothing we didn't already know? But I don't suppose my vague puzzlement would really have solidified into a conscious question - I just set it down to Clara's morbid sensibility or disturbed mind - had I not read about James Ballantyne's insistence on Scott changing his original story-line.

Lockhart mis-remembered that original story-line, and it wasn't until 1893 that the true details emerged. Tyrrel and Clara (in the tempting situation stage-managed by Hannah) had anticipated their intended marriage. Thus Etherington's impersonation at the altar was a cruel one; it left Clara high and dry, dubiously married to one brother, having already yielded her virtue to the other.

The recent Edinburgh edition restores the original text, on the reasonable grounds that Scott had been extremely reluctant to alter it and believed the novel weakened as a result. Doubtless Scott was right. Unfortunately, at £80 a shot it's most unlikely that any reader will discover St Ronan's Well for the first time in this edition!


*

Since I've been a Scott fan for many years I had of course heard a good deal about St Ronan's Well, but I hadn't really taken it in. And I had developed certain misconceptions.

*

The first misconception was that it's the only Scott novel set in "the present day".

Now in fact that was Laidlaw's suggestion, in the 1823 conversation reported by Lockhart as having supplied the germ of Scott's next novel.

But Scott didn't entirely stick to this suggestion. It's true that it's his only book set in the 19th century, but the setting is, nevertheless, some years before the date of publication. The introduction implies that the story is set around 20 years before the present day. At the end, a mention of Tyrrel's departure for the Peninsular War suggests a date of around 1809, i.e. about 14 years prior to the date of composition.

Compare that with The Antiquary, which was composed in 1815-16 and set in 1794; a gap of 21 years.

Not much to choose between them, really. Scott had described Edie Ochiltree, the licensed mendicant, as the type of a once-familiar character who had now disappeared from Scottish life. Here he uses similar expressions of Meg Dods, that good-hearted tyrant of a landlady.

The potential of this particular arrangement; a novel set in the past, but emphatically in living memory; was attended to very closely by Balzac...

Yet the impression left by these two books is very different. Ultimately, St Ronan's Well is, like its characters, singularly uninterested in history. It contains a student of the past (Cargill) but Scott is not in the mood to enliven us with his pedantries, so we never get to find out what interests him. No other book by Scott is as indifferent to the ground it walks on.

Nevertheless, there's a number of things in St Ronan's Well  that do recall The Antiquary in particular. These include: the amazing disappearing hero; the challenge and fighting of a duel; the dubious practices of the local post office; the deathbed confession of an ancient servant complicit in a past crime.

*

My second misconception was that St Ronan's Well is a satiric comedy. It does seem at first as if the book is going in that direction, but Scott found it difficult to sustain a narrative in that mode, and the later part of the book is almost entirely confined to the Mowbray/Etherington plot which culminates in the tragic death of Clara Mowbray. So St Ronan's Well has certain, rather faint, connections with Scott's two other tragedies, The Bride of Lammermoor and Kenilworth.

It is shocking to read that part of Scott's intention in St Ronan's Well was to try his hand at the kind of thing written by his admired Jane Austen. His novel only escapes this most damaging comparison because he fails so comprehensively that we never think of Jane Austen at all.

*

The legend communicated by Andrew Lang, of a group of distinguished gentlemen who each wrote down the name of his favourite Scott novel, only to find on comparison that they had all written the same name: St Ronan's ... Completely unbelievable, but you can see why the legend came into existence. It expresses the baffled feeling that St Ronan's Well ought to be the outstanding novel that it so plainly is not. It has all the ingredients. Scott was still at the height of his powers, as his subsequent novel Redgauntlet would amply demonstrate. And yet... it's a strange one all right.
















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