Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy


Opening Passage:

You have requested me, my dear friend, to bestow some of that leisure, with which Providence has blessed the decline of my life, in registering the hazards and difficulties which attended its commencement. The recollection of those adventures, as you are pleased to term them, has indeed left upon my mind a chequered and varied feeling of pleasure and of pain, mingled, I trust, with no slight gratitude and veneration to the Disposer of human events, who guided my early course through much risk and labour, that the ease with which he has blessed my prolonged life, might seem softer from remembrance and contrast. Neither is it possible for me to doubt, what you have often affirmed, that the incidents which befell me among a people singularly primitive in their government and manners, have something interesting and attractive for those who love to hear an old man's stories of a past age. (p. 5)

Summary: Francis Osbaldistone is a young man raised to a mercantile family who very much does not want to go into the family business. In response, his father sends him off to his cousins in a kind of exchange -- since Frank won't take up the accounting ledger, he will go to Osbaldistone Hall, and one of his cousins, Rashleigh, will come to work in the London offices. Frank finds his cousins an uncouth lot, but living with them is the beautiful Diana Vernon, with whom he immediately falls in love; but she seems to be destined for another, or (since she, unlike Frank, is Catholic) a convent. When Rashleigh betrays the family, Frank in his attempt to make things right will find himself in Scotland, in desperate need of the help of others -- the cowardly servant, Andrew Fairservice; the shrewd Bailie, Nicol Jarvie; and the outlaw, cattle rustler, con man, blackmailer, patriot, Robert MacGregor. It is a sticky situation; tensions are high as the opposition between Highland Scotland, which is Catholic and Jacobite, and England (as well as its Protestant collaborators in the Lowlands), steadily makes its way toward the Jacobite rising of 1715.

Mr. Jarvie at one point makes an interesting comment that I thought shed a great deal of light on the themes of the novel; in response to Frank's asking him for advice about the best way to act for his honor: "Honour is a homicide and a bloodspiller, that gangs about making frays in the street; but Credit is a decent honest man, that sits at hame and makes the pat play." From the comment you can gather that Mr. Jarvie is very much a partisan of Credit; so, indeed, is Frank's father. But the novel itself does not denigrate honor, because it is the combination of the two -- Credit and Honour -- that make Scotland what it is, and the line between them is not a line between factions but something that runs through all the characters. Mr. Jarvie himself is an honorable man, as we see in comparing him to the MacVitties; mercantile credit and industry may have the upper hand, but honor has a voice, and, indeed, the two aspects of Scottish life, represented by bustling Glasgow and the bonnie Highlands, are not as unrelated as they might seem, just as the credit-shrewd Mr. Jarvie turns out to be cousin to the honor-shrewd Rob Roy. Rashleigh's betrayal is an attack on both, Credit and Honour; victory over him will require both.

It's a sign of Scott's literary genius, incidentally, that he is able to take two very negative stereotypes of Scotland -- the profit-minded, pinchpenny, accounting-book miser Scotland, and the sulky, touchy, kilt-wearing backwoods clan Scotland -- and turn them around to create an attractive picture by putting them in rapprochement, united in a just cause.

Like most of Scott's work, the story is slow-building, but it never lags in pace; it is interesting all the way through. Rob Roy is only occasionally on the scene, in the same way that the troubles building up to the Fifteen are merely an occasional element of the background, but the tale actually benefits from this, since it allows room for a suggestiveness that a plainer telling would miss. It is also a very character-oriented tale; with the exception of Rashleigh, whose good qualities are merely cleverness and charisma, and a few scattered minor characters, all of the characters are presented as very flawed but often admirable nonetheless.

Favorite Passage:

The attack which he meditated was prevented by the unexpected apparition of a female upon the summit of the rock.

“Stand!” she said, with a commanding tone, “and tell me what ye seek in MacGregor's country?”

I have seldom seen a finer or more commanding form than this woman. She might be between the term of forty and fifty years, and had a countenance which must once have been of a masculine cast of beauty; though now, imprinted with deep lines by exposure to rough weather, and perhaps by the wasting influence of grief and passion, its features were only strong, harsh, and expressive. She wore her plaid, not drawn around her head and shoulders, as is the fashion of the women in Scotland, but disposed around her body as the Highland soldiers wear theirs. She had a man's bonnet, with a feather in it, an unsheathed sword in her hand, and a pair of pistols at her girdle.

“It's Helen Campbell, Rob's wife,” said the Bailie, in a whisper of considerable alarm; “and there will be broken heads amang us or it's lang.” (p. 369)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, Penguin (London: 1995).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.