Sir Walter Scott | Matthew Wardour
Sir Walter Scott was so influential that the modern world cannot banish him. Many certainly try: time and again you will find Scott’s writing dismissed as florid, slapdash or antiquated (as if these were defects). You will hear it said that “no one reads Walter Scott anymore.” You will hear people mock the chivalric nostalgia of the medieval novels or Scott’s propensity for elaborate and antiquarian narration.
Yet no matter how unfashionable Scott becomes, his influence remains unavoidable. Many people around the world today, whether they know it or not, live in Scott-land: from Waverley, Nebraska to Ivanhoe, Melbourne. Many famous musical works were inspired by Scott’s novels and poetry, such as Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and even “Hail to the Chief”. Anyone excited by legends of Jacobites and Highlanders and Merry Men in old English forests will unknowingly, but inevitably, draw on Scott’s work. Those who enjoy historical novels such as War and Peace or The Betrothed have to acknowledge the essential influence of Scott on these works. Indeed many of the great men and women of the last two hundred years, from Ho Chi Minh to C.S. Lewis, were enthusiasts of Scott’s work.
Yet many today will open up a Waverley novel and wonder why they were so popular. The pace and style of the novels are contrary to modern tastes. It is often better to begin with Scott the man, as one usually does with Samuel Johnson (in fact I would rate John Gibson Lockhart’s monumental biography of Scott second only to Boswell’s Life of Johnson). To understand the life of Scott it is perhaps best to begin with his death. The year was 1832, and Scott had experienced several strokes brought on by overwork in a valiant attempt to pay off his colossal debts. The printing company in which he was a partner collapsed in 1825, and Scott was left with the bill. He refused to declare himself bankrupt; he even refused to accept financial assistance readily offered by his friends and acquaintances. His health, never perfect, got worse and worse. A year into his debt his wife died. His last few years were therefore his most difficult, and we see in his Journal his noble determination to fight melancholy and survive:
“My mind to me a kingdom is.” I am rightful monarch; and, God to aid, I will not be dethroned by any rebellious passion that may rear its standard against me.
Come his sixty-first year it became apparent that he had exhausted what life he had left. Having just returned from Rome (one of his few reluctant trips abroad), his health forced him to stay indefinitely in a London hotel. During this time he longed for one thing: to return to Abbotsford, the extraordinary quasi-feudal “flibbertigibbet of a house” (as Scott described it) that he had built with the unprecedented financial success of the Waverley novels. Eventually his physicians consented. He had been in a listless and pathetic state, but as the carriage neared Abbotsford “his excitement became ungovernable,” according to Lockhart. Upon entering, his health seemed much improved and he begged to be wheeled through the various rooms. Scott repeatedly exclaimed, “I have seen much, but nothing like my ain house—give me one turn more!” This was the last burst of great energy before his death two months later. He died in a makeshift bed in his dining room, placed by the bay window so that he could look upon the Tweed in his final days.
Such wonder and love is Scott’s gift to us. I feel as if I ride through his novels; a love of adventure is everywhere. I feel his almost unique generosity—an inviolable love of the world he inhabits. “I have rarely, if ever,” wrote Scott in his Journal, “found any one out of whom I could not extract amusement or edification.” Scott enchants the world in a way few but great novelists can.
Unsurprisingly this aspect of Scott also appealed to Chesterton. In his essay on Scott (perhaps the most perceptive essay ever written on the great novelist) Chesterton describes how Scott not merely inspired fascination in people and history, but in things:
One of the profound philosophical truths which are almost confined to infants is [the] love of things, not for their use or origin, but for their own inherent characteristics … Like a true child, [Scott] almost ignored the distinction between the animate and inanimate. A two-handed sword might be carried only by a menial in a procession, but it was something important and immeasurably fascinating—it was a two-handed sword.
This explains many of Scott’s peculiarities—for example why, despite being an unabashed antiquary, he felt he must be the first man in Scotland to fit his home with an ultra-modern gas lighting system (so extravagant and temperamental that it required the employment of a labourer for five hours each day). It is perhaps childish, but in the best Chestertonian sense.
Naturally battles and other “big set pieces” are something Scott does well. One can feel every blow, every charge, hear the horses gallop, the men shout, feel the rain pounding, the storm coming, the mud splattering. None who have read it will forget the doomed Battle of Prestonpans or the magical opening chapters of The Talisman, where Crusader and Saracen meet near the Dead Sea.
Generally Scott paints best with broad strokes. The dialogue in Scott’s novels is often oratorical. The comparison many made in his time was to Shakespeare (not least by John Henry Newman, who called Scott “a second Shakespeare”). Characters often speak in an improbably noble way, sometimes in lengthy soliloquies, yet Scott seems to touch upon the truth of the characters far more than were he to use supposedly realistic speech. As a result Scott’s characters possess a now-uncommon heroic quality—most curiously in those characters who are not heroes. It is, for example, a characteristic of Scott that, for all his many strong opinions, he is able in his novels to show the virtues of even those factions and beliefs which he constitutionally loathed. The Covenanter fanatic Ephraim Macbriar is therefore given an awesome speech when tortured to death by Royalists:
Flesh and blood may shrink under the sufferings you can doom me to, and poor frail nature may shed tears or send forth cries; but I trust my soul is anchored firmly on the rock of ages.
Then there is the wayward romantic spirit of Edward Waverley, an unremarkable young man in many ways, someone inclined towards idleness and with few firm political opinions. He is seduced by the novelty and passion of Jacobitism, and becomes an unlikely hero. Through his adventure, we see the way in which a person can become swept up in a cause, realising only too late the extent of what this means:
It was at that instant, that, looking around him, he saw the wild dress and appearance of his Highland associates, heard their whispers in an uncouth and unknown language, looked upon his own dress, so unlike that which he had worn from his infancy, and wished to awake from what seemed at the moment a dream, strange, horrible, and unnatural. “Good God!” he muttered, “am I then a traitor to my country, a renegade to my standard, and a foe … to my native England!”
I find myself admiring Scott as a philosopher without a philosophy. His worldview is so natural, so encompassing, so imperfect, that it can hardly be called a philosophy. Yet there is a vision of how we should live and how society should be structured. It could be described as a High Tory imagination. Interestingly, one finds in it a much greater and more encompassing generosity than among the vast majority of egalitarian or radical writers. There is no condescension, but genuine respect for the labourer or the mendicant. He recognises that there must be kings, but this does not mean that a king is more honourable than a peasant (indeed his monarch’s can be at once his most noble and most petty characters).
Some modern readers might find it hard to reconcile Scott the reactionary (who wrote dismissively of the noisy and undignified supporters of the Reform Bill he encountered: “these unwashed artificers are from henceforth to select our legislators”) with Scott’s empathetic portrayal of the poor and lowly. But anyone familiar with Richard Oastler’s great battle on behalf of factory workers, for example, will be well acquainted as to how High Toryism could inspire deep and profound concern for the poor, and how the liberal progressive sentiment of the Whigs caused many to be pro-industry, pro-free market and numb to Christian and humanitarian arguments for regulation. Scott shared Oastler’s High Tory anti-industrial worldview, lamenting its effects on the moral habits of the nation:
We have accumulated in huge cities and smothering manufacturies the numbers which should be spread over the face of a country and what wonder that they should be corrupted? We have turned healthful and pleasant brooks into morasses and pestiferous lakes; what wonder the soil should be unhealthy?
Scott understood, as Claverhouse says in Old Mortality, that “habit, duty, and necessity reconcile men to every thing.” But there are many things to which we ought not reconcile ourselves. In showing us the past, both in its virtues and vices, its nobility and madness, Scott is inviting comparison with the modern, industrial and supposedly Enlightened age, which though he in some ways belonged to practically and intellectually, he did not belong to sentimentally. There is often a quiet melancholy in Scott’s novels as a result, a love of a past that is irretrievably gone, a sense even of anticlimax as time and again we find ourselves hoping for the success of those we know are destined to lose. In Ivanhoe we know that the Saxons will never reclaim their country. We know that the fictional third Jacobite rebellion in Redgauntlet is doomed before it has ever started—the last pathetic embers of a noble fame. We see in Quentin Durward that the Age of Chivalry is dying, to be superseded by the Age of Politics.
Scott’s own age has been superseded by one that does not appreciate him, and moreover does not know or care about what it has lost. Imagine this counterfactual: what if Beethoven were rarely performed? We celebrated the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth last year, and now we celebrate (or should be celebrating) Scott’s this year. They died within a few years of each other and achieved comparable levels of cultural influence. If Beethoven became a neglected composer, one programmed as seldom as Dussek or Reicha, it would be a sign that we would have lost something profound, something greater than even his music. Yet this is what has occurred with Scott. The difficulty is that, once such a decline has occurred, it is extraordinarily hard to explain to those who do not know these works why they are so great, and why they are a foundational part of our culture.
One reason for Beethoven’s enduring popularity is that he is commonly celebrated as a revolutionary artist, while Scott is not. At least, if Scott was a revolutionary he was a backwards, necromantic kind: reanimating the past, from chivalry to Highland culture. Whether true or not, Beethoven is portrayed as having changed convention and strenuously fought for new sounds, driven by a wild and individualist temperament. Scott tried to revive convention, to hear again old sounds of which we had lost all but the echoes, and he did all this in his gentle, selfless and heroic way. He revived and reinvented a neglected history; now we must revive for ourselves his neglected works. More than ever, we need to turn men’s minds back towards the past. Not with scorn or dismissal as happens too often, but with the illuminating power of imagination.