Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A sentence in Rob Roy

Coin of Gelimer, king of the Vandals and Alans (530-534 CE)

[Image source: ]

This post is about just one sentence in Sir Walter Scott's 1817 novel Rob Roy, but I'd better quote the passage leading up to it. Young Frank Osbaldistone,  sent to his uncle in Northumberland, has encountered the gardener Andrew Fairservice, and a silver coin has changed hands. ...
“Ye maun ken, then, young gentleman, since it imports you to know, that Miss Vernon is”—
          Here breaking off, he sucked in both his cheeks, till his lantern jaws and long chin assumed the appearance of a pair of nut-crackers; winked hard once more, frowned, shook his head, and seemed to think his physiognomy had completed the information which his tongue had not fully told.
          “Good God!” said I—“so young, so beautiful, so early lost!”*
          “Troth ye may say sae—she's in a manner lost, body and saul; forby being a Papist, I'se uphaud her for”—and his northern caution prevailed, and he was again silent.
          “For what, sir?” said I sternly. “I insist on knowing the plain meaning of all this.”
          “Ou, just for the bitterest Jacobite in the haill shire.”
          “Pshaw! a Jacobite?—is that all?”
          Andrew looked at me with some astonishment, at hearing his information treated so lightly; and then muttering, “Aweel, it's the warst thing I ken aboot the lassie, howsoe'er,” he resumed his spade, like the king of the Vandals, in Marmontel's late novel.

(Rob Roy, end of Chapter VI)

If I'd been reading an annotated edition, I would probably have glanced at a dry little note at this point (something like: "Jean-François Marmontel's Bélisaire (1767)") and then thought no more about it.  But as it happened, the Rob Roy I was reading was a very clean-limbed one. It was one of a number of classic books that were originally published under the imprint of "Penguin Popular Classics",  I suppose with the idea of appealing to no-nonsense readers by being cheap and doing without flimflam. But when it turned out that no-nonsense readers had much better things to do than read books like Rob Roy, these publications were misleadingly re-clothed as true Penguin Classics, despite lacking all the usual accoutrements of the latter series: no editor, no account of the text, no introduction (not even Scott's own), no Scots glossary and scarcely any footnotes.

I relish all those things, but I must admit the simple presentation does make an attractive change, and there's even something liberating about the absence of reader aids. Do your own work if you want to, it seems to say...

So I paused over that last sentence -- how to weigh its meaning? What king, what novel, who was Marmontel, and why mention them at all, why append this insouciant flourish? Not all those questions can be answered, but here's my journey.


Let's jump straight to that king. (Belisarius, the anonymous 1774 English translation of Bélisaire, is happily available on Google Books.)

[Belisarius says:] Now all is over; and, thanks be to Heaven, I have but a little time to crawl about, blind and wretched. --- Pass that time with me, says Gilimer: here, under my roof, close an illustrious life. --- That, returned Belisarius, would have something soothing in it ; but I must give myself to my family, and I now go to expire in their arms. Farewell !
      Gilimer embraced him, bathed him with his tears, and could hardly quit his hold. At length he let him go with a parting pang, and straining his eyes after him, O Prosperity ! says he, thou cheat Prosperity ! who can confide in thee ? The warlike hero, the great, the good Belisarius ! --- Now indeed he may think himself happy who digs his garden. With these words, the king of the Vandals resumed his spade.

(Belisarius, Chapter II)


Gilimer, more usually spelled Gelimer, was the last of the Vandal kings. After his defeat by the Byzantine general Belisarius in 534 (for these two had once been foes) he surrendered all claim to sovereignty in North Africa, in exchange for large estates in Galatia (central Turkey). [Most of what we know about him comes from Procopius' contemporary history of the Vandalic wars.]


The story of Rob Roy takes place in 1715. Its narrator is the now-old Frank Osbaldistone, looking back to the times of his youth. Scott, often so careless, is quite attentive to the date implications of this framework. When for instance the narrator has occasion to speak of eminent poets, his example is Pope. The reference to "Marmontel's late novel" is attentive too. It means that the narrator (aged twenty in 1715) is writing his memoir a little after 1767 (or 1774); so is now at least 72, maybe as old as 80. That fits. In the opening pages he says that his life has been prolonged but that the end cannot now be far off; in the closing pages we learn that his wife (yes, the Jacobitical papist Diana Vernon) has predeceased him, after a long and happy marriage.

 Scott himself was 46. He was shuttling between the experience of someone much younger, and the reflection of someone much older.


Jean-François Marmontel (1723 - 1799) was an encyclopédiste, historian, writer of opera librettos, and novelist. Bélisaire was published in 1767, eight years after the book Gilimer is evidently thinking of, Voltaire's Candide.

Bélisaire is based on the legend that in old age the renowned general Belisarius was unjustly blinded, at the orders of his Emperor Justinian. The earliest source is a 12-century Byzantine poem. (Procopius tells us only that Belisarius was temporarily disgraced and lost half his estates.)

You couldn't be sued for describing Bélisaire as a historical novel, but it would be misleading. Certainly, the narrative does take place in the mid-6th century and it features historical characters. But after some brief introductory episodes (including the encounter between Belisarius and Gilimer), the book settles down to being an earnest discussion of virtue, patriotism, government, justice and the sovereign. Most of this is put into the mouth of Belisarius, still the staunchest and most loyal servant of the Empire and its Emperor.

It might surprise you, from that description, that the Sorbonne attempted to ban Bélisaire from being published. The professed reason was the Deistical chapter in defence of religious toleration, but surely it was also because Belisarius' account of Byzantine despotism sounded uncannily like the court of Louis XV.  Bélisaire was just as evidently about the politics of the here and now as, say, Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel.

"Marmontel’s novel was widely seen at the time as a condemnation of the unjust execution in 1766 of the French general Lally-Tollendal for the French defeat in India. " ( .)

Be that as it may, it was impossible to read such passages as the following without thinking of Versailles:

Of sovereign authority the highest act is the distribution of favours and marks of grace : this partakes of the nature of beneficence, and is therefore a pleasing exertion of power ; but in the exercise of it, it is requisite that the Prince should be guarded against seduction. The whole of his intelligence must arise from those who approach his person ; and of that number there is not one who does not for ever inculcate, that the seat of majesty is in the court ; that all regal splendour derives from the brilliant appearance that enlivens the palace ; and that the most valuable prerogative of the crown displays itself by a profusion of favours, which are stiled the munificence of the sovereign. Gracious Heaven ! the munificence ! It is the substance of the people he bestows ; the spoils of the poor and indigent ! Thus the Prince is deceived by words: Adulation and Treachery besige his throne ; Assiduity for ever pays its court ; and the habit of refusing nothing, gains upon the credulous sovereign, who little thinks of the tears extorted from the poor by the extravagance of the court : exultation fills the palace, and every room echoes with praise of the royal munificence. That munificence assumes the mien of Virtue, and wealth is squandered, without considering whence it came. Alas ! would kings reflect how their splendour grows out of the misery of others, and for the sake of an ungrateful crew, what a number groan in wretchedness !

(Bélisaire, Chapter X)

Over the course of the novel Belisarius' disquisitions persuade the Emperor (attending in disguise) both of his injured general's probity and of the urgent need for drastic reform of his court and government. All seems about to be set in order. But the novel ends with an abrupt deflation.

The hero continued to support the same modest reserve that adorned him in disgrace. He never deigned to recognize any of his accusers; and honoured to his death with the Emperor's confidence, he made it his study to obtain an amnesty for the passed, and to inspire his master with a vigilant attention to the present, and an awful severity to controul all future crimes. But he did not live long enough for the good of mankind, and the glory of his master. The Emperor, quite enfeebled and dispirited, contented himself with shedding a few tears to his memory, and the counsels of Belisarius died with himself. 

(Chapter XVI)

The radical challenge to the novel's readers is palpable: If these things concern you, don't just shed tears! 


The blinded Belisarius became a popular subject for paintings in the Revolutionary era.

Belisarius, by Vincent (1776)

[Image source: .]

François-André Vincent, 1746 - 1816. The painting is in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Belisarius receiving hospitality from a peasant, by Peyron (1779)

[Image source: .]

Jean-François Pierre Peyron, usually known as Pierre Peyron (1744 - 1814).

This painting is in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse. It illustrates another of the early scenes of Bélisaire (Chapter IV), in which the hero is invited to stay with a family of peasants, ever grateful to him for having turned back the rampaging Huns.

Belisarius begging for alms, by David (1781)

[Image source: .]

Jacques-Louis David, 1748 - 1825. This painting, an important early success for David, is in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille.

Belisarius by Gérard (1797)

[Image source: .]

François Pascal Simon Gérard (François Gérard), 1770 - 1837. This painting is in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Gérard invents an episode in which Belisarius' boy guide is bitten by a snake, and the blind hero carries him to where he can receive treatment.

Frank Osbaldistone and Andrew Fairservice

[Image source: .]


But after all this high-mindedness and revolutionary intent, what to make of Scott's (or Frank's) off-the-cuff comment, that Andrew "resumed his spade, like the king of the Vandals, in Marmontel's late novel"?


Scott, be it noted, uses the exact phrase that appeared in Belisarius, the English translation of Bélisaire. Arguably, his sentence should be re-punctuated, thus:

.... he "resumed his spade", like the king of the Vandals, in Marmontel's late novel.

The phrase had lodged in his mind. When Scott was composing his novels, he often found phrases coming to hand that he had read somewhere. He welcomed them into his book. He believed, and perhaps wasn't wrong, that his readership would relish the enlarged horizon for its own sake; it's a highly poetic device.

Compare this:

[Dougal] ran to the boatmen to show them the prize, and a small gratuity made them take part in his raptures. He then, to use a favourite expression of the dramatic John Bunyan, "went on his way, and I saw him no more."  (Chapter XXXVI)
Bunyan isn't much to the purpose (though he and Dougal both knew the inside of a prison), but the little bit of meta-narrative makes us pause on the phrase, and think about how quickly some people vanish.

But it's one thing to remember an author's distinctive and frequently-used catchphrase. Why would Scott remember these words of Marmontel -- or rather, his translator? Was there anything bizarre or intrinsically memorable about the phrase resumed his spade?

The OED doesn't lend much support to this hypothesis. "Resumed his spade" may indeed seem a bit odd to a modern reader, who anticipates the resumption of an activity rather than an implement. But this way of using "resume" is well attested throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (OED resume, v.1, 5b. : "To take or pick up (something) to use again..."). A Google search reveals that Scott used "resumed his spade", without further comment, in The Abbot (1820). H.G. Wells used it in The War of the Worlds (1898); and there are plenty of other examples.

Nevertheless, the passage in Belisarius stuck in Scott's mind.


Apart from having both resumed their spades, there's no other obvious point of resemblance between the captious gardener and the philosophical ex-monarch; nor between their respective interlocutors, the bumptious, over-energized Frank and the elderly, blinded Belisarius. Is part of Scott's intention, indeed, to underline the incongruity of the comparison -- to supply a dash of the mock-heroic?
Remembering the high-minded conversation between Belisarius and his former adversary, overflowing with virtuous sentiment, isn't this to be struck anew by the distinctly worldly nature of the exchange we've just been witnessing between Frank and Andrew? Or is it, perhaps, to admire the naturalness, the elbow-room, the scope for surprise in Scott's fictions, in contrast to Marmontel's neoclassicist conte moral , abounding with high ideals, yet -- perhaps comically, and perhaps dangerously -- lacking in realism?

Yet this latter interpretation, inferring from Scott's own politics his likely disapproval of a proto-revolutionary encyclopédiste, strikes me as out of tune with the way Scott operates, especially in his novels; he's habitually humble about his own work, and habitually respectful of other authors, his political adversaries in particular. So I don't think there was any mockery in the Marmontel reference. (And, incidentally, I reflect how widely read Scott was in European literature, and not only in his obvious Romantic predecessors.)


Let me put forward one more view that, if not entirely satisfactory, is at least congruent with how Scott goes about things in Rob Roy.

Our sentence exemplifies a certain quality of skittish randomness in the early pages of Scott's novel. There's a surplus of energy in them, we certainly have a story boiling up but the randomness rather emphasizes that we don't know what kind of story it's going to be. The energy is, as it were, carried within Frank himself. It will evidently find a way to come out, but what way?

Young Frank is in most respects deeply out of sympathy with the life he finds at Osbaldistone Hall. There is nothing he can profit from, nothing that he approves, about a narrow round of field sports and copious alcohol; his uncle and his cousins are boorish rustics. But in spite of these firm opinions he senses, even so early as this scene, the breath of romance, a premonition, excitement, alertness. It has a lot to do with Die Vernon, of course, but not only with her; some of it is about Frank having cut the traces, of having no real business, and only the vaguest kind of mission, but a growing sense of adventure and change. (We already see that Frank's early aspirations to poetizing are fast ebbing away.) It's that pervasive excitement, that excess of  response, that are perhaps expressed by the narrative's incongruous shafts of light:  Osbaldistone Hall as ancient Athens (Chapter XIII), for example; or Andrew Fairservice as St Paul  (his own idea) or as king of the Vandals.

Well, it's time to talk about Andrew. Frank's first encounter with the gardener, which ends with our sentence, is comparatively rudimentary. And it's the last we hear of him for the next hundred pages; the first-time reader might begin to wonder if he had been introduced, after all, merely to convey a rumour. Far from it, of course. Scott was lighting a long fuse, which explodes into life twelve chapters later, in a torrent of Andrew's kailyard Scots, with transformative impact on both the novel and its hero.

And siclike dung as the grieve has gien me!—it should be wheat-strae, or aiten at the warst o't, and it's pease dirt, as fizzenless as chuckie-stanes. But the huntsman guides a' as he likes about the stable-yard, and he's selled the best o' the litter, I'se warrant. But, howsoever, we mauna lose a turn o' this Saturday at e'en, for the wather's sair broken, and if there's a fair day in seven, Sunday's sure to come and lick it up—Howsomever, I'm no denying that it may settle, if it be Heaven's will, till Monday morning,—and what's the use o' my breaking my back at this rate?—I think, I'll e'en awa' hame, for yon's the curfew, as they ca' their jowing-in bell.
Andrew is imperturbably taunting Frank. This "crafty knave", this "tiresome rascal", this "meddling fellow", unlikely as it seems, will be the first of the hero's three substitute father figures. Andrew is obstinately alive and real, the possessor of himself. As often in Scott's novels, kings may be seen to be commoners and commoners may be seen to be kings. And that, perhaps, is why Scott remembered Marmontel's sentence: the happy encapsulation of that theme in a king handling a spade.

And after all, if Andrew has no obvious resemblance to Marmontel's king of the Vandals, he does have one rather subtle one. Both are plying their spades in a foreign soil, a pursuit they have long accepted, but not altogether a voluntary one. That will turn out to be important, as the novel restlessly turns its gaze northwards.


Other literary parallels in Rob Roy

Scott was very fond of drawing a parallel from out of the vast databank of his reading. Maybe it originated as an advocate's habit, a sort of ornament to his speeches, to entertain and persuade. Scott read widely and with sympathy, and he had an incredibly retentive memory. I suppose you could also connect these literary parallels with another practice in the novels, of affixing literary epitaphs to chapters.  Anyway, here, without further commentary, are a few other "literary parallels" taken from the later chapters of Rob Roy.

"The waur, the waur -- just sae muckle the waur, Robin," replied the Bailie, averting his eyes from the money, though, like Caesar on the Lupercal, his fingers seemed to itch for it -- "Rebellion is waur than witchcraft, or robbery either; there's gospel warrant for't."  (Chapter XXXIV)

[The relevant passage in Julius Caesar is Casca's "I told you, he put it by once; but for all that, to my thinking he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again; but to my thinking he very loath to lay his fingers off it. ..." (I.2)]

[Diana's] name was written in every book which I attempted to peruse; and her image forced itself on me in whatever train of thought I strove to engage myself. It was like the officious slave of Prior's Solomon, --
                           Abra was ready ere I named her name,
                           And when I call'd another, Abra came.   (Chapter XXXIX)

Rashleigh was our first object. He groaned when I approached him, as much through spite as through pain, and shut his eyes, as if determined, like Iago, to speak no word more.(Chapter XXXIX)


An informative account of Belisarius, his changing reputation, and Byzantine strategic thinking, by Iskander Rehman:


This post supplements and apologizes for the jejune waspishness of my older note on Rob Roy (I wrote it in about 2001), just as that note claimed to emancipate itself from earlier and even more critical views, slavishly absorbed from what then passed as orthodoxy.


* Scott recycled this hasty response, many years later:  “Ha!” said Arthur; “so young, so beautiful, and already in league with the destroyer of mankind? It is impossible.” (Anne of Geierstein, Ch X)

Scott's novels: A brief guide

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