Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Quentin Durward again

Isabelle  (Marie-France Boyer) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0233096/mediaviewer/rm276835840 . All the images come from the Franco-German 1971 TV adaptation of Quentin Durward directed by Gilles Grangier.]

So for the second time recently, I've found myself re-reading a Sir Walter Scott novel about which I was somewhat critical in the past (though I said some good things too); and found myself, as before, feeling how wrong and trivial those potshots were. This time I saw only the originality and colour, the stark fact of Quentin Durward (1823) landing the fully-fledged historical novel firmly in mainland Europe and throwing open a new paintbox for any who cared to dip in: as Vigny, Mérimée, Balzac and Hugo immediately did. It's true that Scott was already famous in Europe (and his fame, unlike Byron's, resulted from genuinely being read and relished). But Quentin Durward, more than any of its predecessors, acted as a starter-pistol.

Even in recent times, Quentin Durward has left behind deeper traces of its existence in Europe than in the English-speaking nations. Of course it makes a difference that Louis XI and Charles the Bold are as vivid historical characters to French audiences as Henry VIII is to British ones.  It's symptomatic that the Hollywood swashbuckler The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), with Robert Taylor, is only interested in the romance of the story, but the ample 1971 Franco-German TV series that I've used to decorate this post is absorbed with the historical details; the producers made changes, but in an expansive way rather than a reductive one; they also invented a loyal servant (Bertrand, played by Philippe Avron) so that fight scenes could be intercut and to give Quentin someone to confide his thoughts to. (Those with WiFi may like to know that most, or perhaps all, the episodes are on YouTube. I watched the first one; Louis XI is astounding.)


Not that I was in any way alone in criticizing Quentin Durward, or Scott's novels in general. I was fascinated to come across an anonymous 1823 piece in the London Review that dismisses Durward as a mere rehash of earlier novels, and dismisses Scott himself as an author whose reputation was diminished by every new publication, and whose older books were no longer much read, an ephemeral entertainer. The reviewer's prediction that Scott would soon be forgotten by the reading public proved correct (eventually). It isn't very easy to defend Quentin Durward against this kind of broadside. The novel's themes are so absorbed into its adventure story that it may seem to have none. (I wonder what modern novels this slashing reviewer did admire. Only Fielding receives any praise.)

In my older note I started at the very beginning: in the case of Quentin Durward, it isn't a very good place to start. Anyway, this time I'll go to the very end, at the point when Scott  dramatically cuts away from the crowded action, in mid-conversation.

   “Nay, if it be young Durward,” said Crevecoeur, “I say no more.—Fortune has declared herself on his side too plainly for me to struggle farther with her humoursome ladyship—but it is strange, from lord to horseboy, how wonderfully these Scots stick by each other.”
   “Highlander shoulder to shoulder,” answered Lord Crawford, laughing at the mortification of the proud Burgundian.
   “We have yet to inquire,” said Charles thoughtfully, “what the fair lady's sentiments may be towards this fortunate adventurer.”
   “By the mass” said Crevecoeur, “I have but too much reason to believe your Grace will find her more amenable to authority than on former occasions.—But why should I grudge this youth his preferment? Since, after all, it is sense, firmness, and gallantry which have put him in possession of WEALTH, RANK, and BEAUTY!”
   I had already sent these sheets to the press, concluding, as I thought, with a moral of excellent tendency for the encouragement of all fair haired, blue eyed, long legged, stout hearted emigrants from my native country, who might be willing in stirring times to take up the gallant profession of Cavalieros of Fortune. But a friendly monitor, one of those who like the lump of sugar which is found at the bottom of a tea cup as well as the flavour of the souchong itself, has entered a bitter remonstrance, and insists that I should give a precise and particular account of the espousals of the young heir of Glen Houlakin and the lovely Flemish* Countess, and tell what tournaments were held, and how many lances were broken, upon so interesting an occasion; nor withhold from the curious reader the number of sturdy boys who inherited the valour of Quentin Durward, and of bright damsels, in whom were renewed the charms of Isabelle de Croye. I replied, in course of post, that times were changed, and public weddings were entirely out of fashion. In days traces of which I myself can remember, not only were the “fifteen friends” of the happy pair invited to witness their Union, but the bridal minstrelsy still continued, as in the “Ancient Mariner,” to “nod their heads” till morning shone on them. The sack posset was eaten in the nuptial chamber—the stocking was thrown—and the bride's garter was struggled for in presence of the happy couple whom Hymen had made one flesh. The authors of the period were laudably accurate in following its fashions. They spared you not a blush of the bride, not a rapturous glance of the bridegroom, not a diamond in her hair, not a button on his embroidered waistcoat; until at length, with Astraea, “they fairly put their characters to bed.” But how little does this agree with the modest privacy which induces our modern brides—sweet bashful darlings!—to steal from pomp and plate, and admiration and flattery, and, like honest Shenstone
   “Seek for freedom at an inn!”
To these, unquestionably, an exposure of the circumstances of publicity with which a bridal in the fifteenth century was always celebrated, must appear in the highest degree disgusting. Isabelle de Croye would be ranked in their estimation far below the maid who milks, and does the meanest chores; for even she, were it in the church porch, would reject the hand of her journeyman shoemaker, should he propose faire des noces, as it is called on Parisian signs, instead of going down on the top of the long coach to spend the honeymoon incognito at Deptford or Greenwich. I will not, therefore, tell more of this matter, but will steal away from the wedding, as Ariosto from that of Angelica, leaving it to whom it may please to add farther particulars, after the fashion of their own imagination.
   “Some better bard shall sing, in feudal state
   How Bracquemont's Castle op'd its Gothic gate,
   When on the wand'ring Scot, its lovely heir
   Bestow'd her beauty and an earldom fair.”

(Quentin Durward, Ch XXXVII)

The final lines are Scott's own (Isabelle's castle Bracquemont is mentioned as early as Ch XVIII), but he also looses off a firework display of cultural references that post-date the action of the narrative (a habit he had almost entirely held in check during the actual course of the narrative, except in the chapter epigraphs); so suddenly we get Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pope on Aphra Behn, William Shenstone and Ariosto, the long coach and the souchong.

The Shenstone line is hardly a quote. It refers to this delightful poem from 1735 (apparently inspired by the White Swan Hotel in Henley in Arden, Warwickshire):

Written at an INN on a Particular Occasion

To thee, fair Freedom! I retire,
From flattery, cards, and dice, and din;
Nor art thou found in mansions higher
Than the low cot, or humble inn.

’Tis here with boundless power I reign,
And every health which I begin,
Converts dull port to bright champagne;
Such Freedom crowns it, at an inn.

I fly from pomp, I fly from plate,
I fly from Falsehood’s specious grin;
Freedom I love, and form I hate,
And choose my lodgings, at an inn.

Here, waiter! take my sordid ore,
Which lackeys else might hope to win;
It buys what courts have not in store,
It buys me Freedom, at an inn.

Whoe’er has travell’d life’s dull round,
Where’er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome – at an inn.

(Carol Rumens wrote a lovely post about the poem in The Guardian:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/nov/26/poem-of-the-week-written-at-an-inn-at-henley-by-william-shenstone )

Shenstone's poem is about the liberating atmosphere of commercial establishments, about flight from pomp and circumstance, society and family. Scott's postlude is also about that, and much more. He pretends that public weddings are out of fashion and that his women readers will be offended by the account of one, but of course there's a broad wink to the men readers, who certainly don't want to hear about a wedding now there are no more fight scenes to look forward to. Still, it was true about the change of custom, to some extent. "Honeymoon" (in the particular sense of the bridal couple going on a journey straight after the wedding), was first attested in 1791; it was an idea that had arisen in Britain, but Scott is joking about its being now a universal practice; in 1823 it was still a novel and genteel idea, and no milkmaid would have contemplated a honeymoon.  He must have been right, though, in sensing a new aversion to the rather un-private consummations of the bridal couple in old-fashioned wedding festivities. The sphere of the private and personal, of what is not said and not seen, was dramatically expanding. It was a topic of acute concern to both Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen.

This acknowledges that the historical romance in which we've been engaged wasn't, of course, exactly an accurate account of the way things were done in fifteenth-century Burgundy. Quentin has a nineteenth-century sensibility, as well as sense (at least according to Crevecoeur), and is rewarded -- but a twinkle's already apparent -- with a "moral of excellent tendency": that is, to impoverished Scottish emigrants seeking a living and respectability on foreign soil.

Louis XI (Michel Vitold) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: https://www.steffi-line.de/archiv_text/nost_serie/a_quentin_durward.htm .]

At the same time, the slightly premature dropping of the curtain (neither Isabelle nor even Quentin are present for that final conversation)  afflicts us with a momentary sense of loss and of how vivid and solid the world of Quentin Durward had become to us, in spite of its indirectness and discretion -- or perhaps because of it. This conversation follows one of Scott's strongest battle-scenes, the punitive expedition against Liège (the other, I'd say, is in A Legend of Montrose); here are a few extracts:

For a long time the cries of the soldiers repeating their signals, and seeking to join their several banners, sounded like the howling of bewildered dogs seeking their masters. But at length, overcome with weariness by the fatigues of the day, the dispersed soldiers crowded under such shelter as they could meet with, and those who could find none sunk down through very fatigue under walls, hedges, and such temporary protection, there to await for morning—a morning which some of them were never to behold. A dead sleep fell on almost all, excepting those who kept a faint and wary watch by the lodgings of the King and the Duke. . . .
   The scene was now become in the utmost degree animated and horrible. On the left the suburb, after a fierce contest, had been set on fire, and a wide and dreadful conflagration did not prevent the burning ruins from being still disputed. On the centre, the French troops, though pressed by immense odds, kept up so close and constant a fire, that the little pleasure house shone bright with the glancing flashes, as if surrounded with a martyr's crown of flames. . . .
   But at this moment the column which De la Marck had proposed to support, when his own course was arrested by the charge of Dunois, had lost all the advantages they had gained during the night; while the Burgundians, with returning day, had begun to show the qualities which belong to superior discipline. The great mass of Liegeois were compelled to retreat, and at length to fly; and, falling back on those who were engaged with the French men at arms, the whole became a confused tide of fighters, fliers, and pursuers, which rolled itself towards the city walls, and at last was poured into the ample and undefended breach through which the Liegeois had sallied. . . .
   The confusion was general in every direction. The shrieks and cries of women, the yelling of the terrified inhabitants, now subjected to the extremity of military license, sounded horribly shrill amid the shouts of battle—like the voice of misery and despair contending with that of fury and violence, which should be heard farthest and loudest. . . .
   Her call was agonizing, but it was irresistible; and bidding a mental adieu, with unutterable bitterness of feeling, to all the gay hopes which had stimulated his exertion, carried him through that bloody day, and which at one moment seemed to approach consummation, Quentin, like an unwilling spirit who obeys a talisman which he cannot resist, protected Gertrude to Pavillon's house, and arrived in time to defend that and the Syndic himself against the fury of the licentious soldiery.
   Meantime the King and the Duke of Burgundy entered the city on horseback and through one of the breaches. They were both in complete armour, but the latter, covered with blood from the plume to the spur, drove his steed furiously up the breach, which Louis surmounted with the stately pace of one who leads a procession. They dispatched orders to stop the sack of the city, which had already commenced, and to assemble their scattered troops. The Princes themselves proceeded towards the great church, both for the protection of many of the distinguished inhabitants who had taken refuge there, and in order to hold a sort of military council after they had heard high mass. (Ch XXXVII)

What Scott didn't say: "The next day, Liège surrendered, and at the command of Charles the Bold, hundreds of Liègois were tied together and thrown into the Meuse river. The city was set alight and is said to have burned for seven weeks." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_Li%C3%A8ge)

I wonder if that was the fate of Hans Glover,  the "stout young man" who was "bachelor to Trudchen Pavillon". Gertrude, the Syndic's daughter, is a character whose importance far outweighs the few paragraphs in which she appears. Here was her conversation with Isabelle, the last time we were in  Liège:

   No sooner had the Syndic and Quentin left the room than Isabelle began to ask of Gertrude various questions concerning the roads, and so forth, with such clearness of spirit and pertinence, that the latter could not help exclaiming, “Lady, I wonder at you!—I have heard of masculine firmness, but yours appears to me more than belongs to humanity.”
   “Necessity,” answered the Countess,—“necessity, my friend, is the mother of courage, as of invention. No long time since, I might have fainted when I saw a drop of blood shed from a trifling cut—I have since seen life blood flow around me, I may say, in waves, yet I have retained my senses and my self possession.—Do not think it was an easy task,” she added, laying on Gertrude's arm a trembling hand, although she still spoke with a firm voice, “the little world within me is like a garrison besieged by a thousand foes, whom nothing but the most determined resolution can keep from storming it on every hand, and at every moment. Were my situation one whit less perilous than it is—were I not sensible that my only chance to escape a fate more horrible than death is to retain my recollection and self possession—Gertrude, I would at this moment throw myself into your arms, and relieve my bursting bosom by such a transport of tears and agony of terror as never rushed from a breaking heart.”
   “Do not do so, lady!” said the sympathizing Fleming, “take courage, tell your beads, throw yourself on the care of Heaven, and surely, if ever Heaven sent a deliverer to one ready to perish, that bold and adventurous young gentleman must be designed for yours. There is one, too,” she added, blushing deeply, “in whom I have some interest. Say nothing to my father, but I have ordered my bachelor, Hans Glover, to wait for you at the eastern gate, and never to see my face more, unless he brings word that he has guided you safe from the territory.”
   To kiss her tenderly was the only way in which the young Countess could express her thanks to the frank and kind hearted city maiden, who returned the embrace affectionately, and added, with a smile, “Nay, if two maidens and their devoted bachelors cannot succeed in a disguise and an escape, the world is changed from what I am told it wont to be.”
   A part of this speech again called the colour into the Countess's pale cheeks, which was not lessened by Quentin's sudden appearance. He entered completely attired as a Flemish boor of the better class . . . . (Ch XXIII)

(Scott gave his future dramatizers splendid opportunities to display their attractive leads in a variety of costumes!)

I hope those sentences from the sack of Liège will demonstrate that the tapestry of Quentin Durward is by no means only a matter of colourful characters. But at its best it is characters, action and locale all interacting, as in this midnight departure:

Avoiding all conversation with any one (for such was his charge), Quentin Durward proceeded hastily to array himself in a strong but plain cuirass, with thigh and arm pieces, and placed on his head a good steel cap without any visor. To these was added a handsome cassock of chamois leather, finely dressed, and laced down the seams with some embroidery, such as might become a superior officer in a noble household.
   These were brought to his apartment by Oliver, who, with his quiet, insinuating smile and manner, acquainted him that his uncle had been summoned to mount guard purposely that he might make no inquiries concerning these mysterious movements.
   “Your excuse will be made to your kinsman,” said Oliver, smiling again, “and, my dearest son, when you return safe from the execution of this pleasing trust, I doubt not you will be found worthy of such promotion as will dispense with your accounting for your motions to any one, while it will place you at the head of those who must render an account of theirs to you.”
   So spoke Oliver le Diable, calculating, probably, in his own mind, the great chance there was that the poor youth whose hand he squeezed affectionately as he spoke, must necessarily encounter death or captivity in the commission intrusted to his charge. He added to his fair words a small purse of gold, to defray necessary expenses on the road, as a gratuity on the King's part.
   At a few minutes before twelve at midnight, Quentin, according to his directions, proceeded to the second courtyard, and paused under the Dauphin's Tower, which, as the reader knows, was assigned for the temporary residence of the Countesses of Croye. He found, at this place of rendezvous, the men and horses appointed to compose the retinue, leading two sumpter mules already loaded with baggage, and holding three palfreys for the two Countesses and a faithful waiting woman, with a stately war horse for himself, whose steel plated saddle glanced in the pale moonlight. Not a word of recognition was spoken on either side. The men sat still in their saddles as if they were motionless, and by the same imperfect light Quentin saw with pleasure that they were all armed, and held long lances in their hands. They were only three in number, but one of them whispered to Quentin, in a strong Gascon accent, that their guide was to join them beyond Tours.
   Meantime, lights glanced to and fro at the lattices of the tower, as if there was bustle and preparation among its inhabitants. At length a small door, which led from the bottom of the tower to the court, was unclosed, and three females came forth attended by a man wrapped in a cloak. They mounted in silence the palfreys which stood prepared for them, while their attendant on foot led the way, and gave the passwords and signals to the watchful guards, whose posts they passed in succession. Thus they at length reached the exterior of these formidable barriers. Here the man on foot, who had hitherto acted as their guide, paused, and spoke low and earnestly to the two foremost females.
   “May heaven bless you, Sire,” said a voice which thrilled upon Quentin Durward's ear, “and forgive you, even if your purposes be more interested than your words express! To be placed in safety under the protection of the good Bishop of Liege, is the utmost extent of my desire.”
   The person whom she thus addressed muttered an inaudible answer, and retreated back through the barrier gate, while Quentin thought that, by the moon glimpse, he recognized in him the King himself, whose anxiety for the departure of his guests had probably induced him to give his presence, in case scruples should arise on their part, or difficulties on that of the guards of the Castle. (Ch XIV)

Ludovic Lesly ["Le Balafré"] (Noël Roquevert) and Quentin (Amadeus August)

[Image source: https://www.steffi-line.de/archiv_text/nost_serie/a_quentin_durward.htm .]


*When I watched that first TV episode, I was surprised to see the lands of Isabelle de Croye briefly displayed on a map of northern France; they were shown as consisting of, approximately, the western half of Picardy, from Amiens to the coast near Dieppe.

In Quentin Durward Isabelle and Hameline are fictional characters. But the noble house of Croÿ did exist (and still does), and Scott would have come across the name (as "Croy") very early in his reading of Philippe de Commines; the house rose to prominence under the Dukes of Burgundy.  (In fact the pronunciation is disyllabic, something like "Croo-ey".) The dynastic name was adopted from the château of Crouy-Saint-Pierre, which is just to the west of Amiens. Then there was the name that Scott gave to Isabelle's castle, Bracquemont, which was another noble family name of the period (Robert de Bracquemont became Admiral of France in 1415), and is also a place-name, a commune just east of Dieppe. So you can see how the TV producers came up with their map.

Scott himself avoids specifying the location of Croye's domains, but as you can see in his Epilogue he calls Isabelle "the Flemish Countess" and my general impression from e.g. Hameline's reminiscences is indeed of a more easterly location. (For instance her favourite topic, The Passage of Arms at Haflinghem; the latter is a name Scott may have found in the Abriss einer allgemeinen Historie der Gelehrsamkeit of Johann-Andreas Fabricius, there spelled "Haflingem" and associated with Liège.)


The Glaswegian piano virtuoso Frederic Lamond (1868 - 1948), wrote a concert overture called From the Scottish Highlands / Aus dem schottische Hochlande (Op. 4), inspired by Quentin Durward's adventures. Lamond's career, like Quentin's, was very much a European one. 

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger