Sleepwalk into popularity

The Life of Sir Walter Scott:
April 7, 1995

One of the reasons why Sir Walter Scott is not more read today is given obliquely by John Sutherland when he is well into this admirably sustaining "critical biography'', in which the criticism is as suggestive and original as it is unemphatic. He is discussing one of Scott's far from well-known novels, The Monastery, in which "the story is not brisk''.

Sutherland writes: "It seems that Scott designed his novel round a set of dualisms; Protestantism and Catholicism; Father Eustace and the heretic preacher Henry Warden; Halbert and Edward Glendinning. The last of these was clearly intended to make up the main romantic plot. Halbert, the elder of the two, has 'hair as dark as a raven's plumage' and is a born fighter. His brother Edward is light-haired, blue-eyed, and scholarly. One is destined to be a soldier, the other a monk. Scott may have been thinking of the different temperaments of his own sons, Walter and Charles. While Walter had joined the Hussars, Charles, who was clever but idle, was clearly designed for university. Both brothers (in the novel) love Mary, the ward with whom they are brought up. This was evidently intended to come to fratricidal pitch . . . but the tension is never drawn tight, and indeed Scott seems as a narrator to avoid the more painful aspects of the brothers' rivalry. The result is a romance largely devoid of romantic interest."

So much about the Waverley novels is neatly and soberly said here that pages could be devoted to the implications. Almost all Scott's novels - Waverley itself is the clearest example of all - possess a clearly thought out dualistic structure of this type, together with built-in dramatic contrasts which might have been developed in mordantly striking and possibly sensational ways. That does not happen; and the reason why not only goes deep into the nature of Scott's genius, but connects him at the profoundest and least demonstrative level with the genius of Shakespeare. Shakespeare too forswears, in his own ways and for his own purposes, too evident and artificial a dramatic clash. It is in the bumbling nature of ordinary human psychology to blur such clear-cut awareness of drama, to deflate it by counter-interests and accidental forays into incongruity. That is on the whole the way life goes: not the way a Schiller thematises and intellectualises it in his plays, or a modern novelist in his fiction.

Two more general points of equal significance emerge from this, and from the way in which Sutherland's critical intelligence embraces so complex an area. One is a point frequently made today on a basis of "literary theory": that the writer's discourse ceases to be under his control when it reaches the reader, and is diffused into anonymity by the reading process. This need not concern us as a dogma, but as a pragmatic perception of what can go on in writer-reader relations it is as self-evidently as it is unoriginally true. Scott depends on the kind of sympathetic rapport he can set up, in his reader's dreamy and yet greedy indolence, to do the job for him. To insist too strongly on his own intelligence and powers of perception; to lecture or demonstrate to his reader, or force him into the discomforts of excessive realisation, would jeopardise the unspoken but cordial relation that the novelist has involuntarily managed to establish.

Even more important, Scott was well aware of the ways in which a reader of his time fitted the novel world into his or her consciousness. It must neither make demands nor be too instructive; and yet at the same time its invisible powers of suggestion and instruction could be as massive as they were widespread. The contrast with the ways a reader reads fiction today could hardly be greater. The reader now expects to get the message in unmistakable form, and to be told what he can do with it. The student reader, above all, reads novels because there is something there to be made use of, to be annexed for his own purposes, usually academically self-promoting. Nineteenth-century fiction can be made to fit the bill fairly well here - we know what is to be done with Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, and what new lines might possibly be taken. The process will not work with Scott. He must be read purposelessly and with relaxation, even with a kind of emptiness. He can insensibly join the pictorial consciousness, just as Shakespeare insensibly joins its vocabulary and inner ear. But he is not a project: there is no use to be made of him.

Sutherland understands this very well. By making Scott, as it were, a character among his own characters he softens and rounds off any need for "interpretation''. He is a brilliant investigator - his detective work on Lady Scott's strangely obscure and unrecorded origins is highly interesting, as well as convincing - but he never attempts any modish or ideological demarches, and here he falls in with the psychology of his own author. Apart from the obscurely nourishing placidity which Scott's undulant paragraphs spread around him and us, his confrontations dissolve without the need for any searching of hearts and minds. He is the most unBrechtian of authors. Not only the solace but the wisdom of history suggests that we do not have to make up our minds about it. As Sutherland points out, The Monastery begins with an essay on the position of Catholicism in Lowland Scotland in the 16th century, and on the demoralisation of the nation that followed the battle of Pinkie (an English victory which no Englishman is even expected to be aware of), but Scott then merges his narrative insensibly into the human and picturesque aspects of religious controversy. Not that he is a Panglossian, but he is too well aware through his subconscious creative channels of what people confusedly thought and felt at the time about which he is writing, to wish to sum up from an external standpoint.

None the less this sixth sense of his could have odd consequences and repercussions in the contemporary scene. Sutherland points out how deeply the account of Mary Queen of Scots, the unwanted queen, raised an echo in the bosoms of English readers in 1820, when George IV's wife, Queen Caroline, was on trial at Westminster for sexual and social misbehaviour. The Abbot, which was a sequel to The Monastery, was published that year, and was clearly topical, although Scott's sense of topicality is as unpositive as the other ingredients which sleepwalked their author into popularity. Popular feeling was with the touchingly unedifying figure of Queen Caroline, just as it was and would continue to be, with the more tragic but equally inconvenient figure of the Queen of Scots. And Scott helped to make it so, in both cases. Neither The Monastery nor The Abbot had success by the illustrious novelist's normal standards, and Blackwoods and the Edinburgh Review were unimpressed, but as Sutherland says, "in the long term, The Abbot glamourised posterity's image of Mary Queen of Scots to the point where it can now never be deglamorised".

Moreover in its quiet way it helped to start a new fashion: it was the first "sequel'' novel in English. Thackeray's consanguineous fiction, Trollope and his Barchester and Palliser series, Margaret Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles, can all be traced to the Monastery-Abbot combination - a pair which most readers of this later Victorian fiction have never even heard of. And of course, blotting all these out, is the giant corpus of Balzac, which but for Scott (one of Balzac's earliest, Les Chouans, is pure Waverley) might never have come into being.

Poor Scott's financial debacle, almost uncomfortably contemporary as it seems in our time of bankruptcy and bank collapses, was probably due, in Sutherland's view, to his lack of knowledge of what money was about, except, of course for the purpose of building dream castles like Abbotsford. As a partner in James Ballantyne's printing firm he was probably more directly responsible for its enormous debts than previous biographers have wished to believe; but that in no way diminished his heroic achievement in paying off half the £120,000 - a gigantic sum in those days - before dying worn out six years after the crash, in 1832. Like Balzac, although much more inadvertently, he had made novel writing into a form of capitalism, and novel readers into rentiers. Those days are all gone by, and so, alas, is Scott's large, peaceful and satisfied audience. Contemporary readers are more apt to pursue the financial antics of best-selling novelists through the media than to read their novels.

John Bayley was formerly Warton professor of English, University of Oxford.

The Life of Sir Walter Scott:: A Critical Biography

Author - John Sutherland
ISBN - 1 55786 231 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £19.99
Pages - 386pp

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