Saturday, May 05, 2018

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley


Opening Passage:

The title of this work has not been chosen without the grave and solid deliberation which matters of importance demand from the prudent. Even its first, or general denomination, was the result of no common research or selection, although, according to the example of my predecessors, I had only to seize upon the most sounding and euphonic surname that English history or topography affords, and elect it at once as the title of my work and the name of my hero. But, alas! what could my readers have expected from the chivalrous epithets of Howard, Mordaunt, Mortimer, or Stanley, or from the softer and more sentimental sounds of Belmour, Belville, Belfield, and Belgrave, but pages of inanity, similar to those which have been so christened for half a century past? I must modestly admit I am too diffident of my own merit to place it in unnecessary opposition to preconceived associations; I have, therefore, like a maiden knight with his white shield, assumed for my hero, WAVERLEY, an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it. But my second or supplemental title was a matter of much more difficult election, since that, short as it is, may be held as pledging the author to some special mode of laying his scene, drawing his characters, and managing his adventures.

Summary: Waverley is often criticized for having a very gradual build-up, but I think Sir Walter Scott knew what he was at. He is trying to tell a story sympathetic to Jacobite Scots without drawing on sympathy for the Jacobite cause. Scott, of course, is a very pro-Union author, and he is writing for an audience that would itself have largely been pro-Union. So how does one convey the events of the Forty-Five in such a way that the reader can love the characters even when thinking them seriously wrong? So we start with Waverley, an Englishman, and we get a sense of why he would eventually throw his lot in with the Jacobites: the peculiarities of his education that lead him to be a more idealistic sort, his romantic reading and poetic sensibilities, the strongly traditional character of his family with its Anglo-Saxon traditions that are in some ways so very like Highland traditions, the association with a harmless bunch of mild pro-Jacobites. This provides a bridge whereby a reader, if only they share some of this, may get a line of sympathy regardless of their actual view of the politics. He is then put in a situation in which he has an apparently serious grievance against the English army that he has joined for treating him unreasonably simply due to his family connections. And of course we get the usual sweeteners -- funny and goofy characters, beautiful and marriageable women, Highlanders acting with honor and rough charm, depictions of unshakable loyalty. The slow build is exactly what the story needs.

The Highlands, and, indeed, all of Scotland, are at the opening of the novel in considerable disarray. The British attempts to pacify the Highlands and disarm potential troublemakers have, of course, backfired, with the result that Scotland is basically run by organized crime. The disarmament has left Lowland Scots relatively defenseless against the Highland Scots. And attempts to enforce it and other laws has in essence just turned the Highland clans into a tartaned mafia, with an extensive network of smuggling operations and protection rackets, as well as outlaws roaming about making temporary alliances with clan chiefs who are each half warlord and half magistrate, scraping by but having dreams of more. On the Lowland side, there are the Lowland gentry, preserving the tatters of honor that have been left to them. And into the mix comes Charles Edward Stuart, the charming Prince Regent, waving the banner to restore the Stewart throne and the pride of Scotland. The Forty-Five will fail, of course, but it will be effective enough to frighten the English like few other things could have, with the result that the aftermath will be an extraordinary crackdown on Scotland. The Scots will be disarmed, systematically this time. The tartan plaid will be banned. The military will press down hard on the Highland chiefs to comply until they have only a choice between that and death. And for all the talk of Scotland as benefiting from the Union, it is a partner under continual suspicion, as is seen when Scottish requests much later to build a militia like that of England are denied. To be sure, real benefits did accrue. But part of Scott's intent in this novel is to suggest to all involved that perhaps things should be done on a more amicable principle than the national prejudices that governed 'sixty years since'.

The characters, of course, are the great attraction, especially the pedantic Baron of Bradwardine, who can hardly go a sentence without throwing out a Latin quotation or classical allusion. In the eighteenth century, a bit after the time of which Scott is writing, a number of literary Scots went to great lengths to purge their written English of Scotticisms, and several of the most successful, like Hume and Beattie, published lists of expressions to avoid, for the benefit of those who were also trying to crack into the English literary market. If you look at those lists, it's noticeable that the difference of the Scots was not due to the influence of Gaelic, as we might naively expect, but to the influence of Latin and French. Scots English was massively more latinate than the English of England, Latin still retaining more of its place as the language of learning; and because law had a much more central place in Scottish life than in English, it was also threaded throughout with all sorts of legalese, which itself was largely adapted forms of Latin and French. Thus the Baron's elaborate and complicated form of Latin-English is, while certainly exaggerated for comic effect, very much what you would expect from an educated member of the gentry, immersed in the law of his country. And I, at least, found the most charming and endearing scene in the book to be the Baron, homeless after the failure of the Forty-Five, but still with a sort of resigned good cheer, curled up in a tiny cave, reading Livy and collecting loci communes. That, more than anything else in this very Scottish book, says 'Scottish' to me.

Favorite Passage:
'We poor Jacobites,' continued the Baron, looking up, 'are now like the conies in Holy Scripture (which the great traveller Pococke calleth Jerboa), a feeble people, that make our abode in the rocks. So, fare you well, my good lad, till we meet at Janet's in the even; for I must get into my Patmos, which is no easy matter for my auld stiff limbs.'

With that he began to ascend the rock, striding, with the help of his hands, from one precarious footstep to another, till he got about half-way up, where two or three bushes concealed the mouth of a hole, resembling an oven, into which the Baron insinuated, first his head and shoulders, and then, by slow gradation, the rest of his long body; his legs and feet finally disappearing, coiled up like a huge snake entering his retreat, or a long pedigree introduced with care and difficulty into the narrow pigeon-hole of an old cabinet. Waverley had the curiosity to clamber up and look in upon him in his den, as the lurking-place might well be termed. Upon the whole, he looked not unlike that ingenious puzzle called 'a reel in a bottle,' the marvel of children (and of some grown people too, myself for one), who can neither comprehend the mystery how it has got in or how it is to be taken out. The cave was very narrow, too low in the roof to admit of his standing, or almost of his sitting up, though he made some awkward attempts at the latter posture. His sole amusement was the perusal of his old friend Titus Livius, varied by occasionally scratching Latin proverbs and texts of Scripture with his knife on the roof and walls of his fortalice, which were of sandstone. As the cave was dry, and filled with clean straw and withered fern, 'it made,' as he said, coiling himself up with an air of snugness and comfort which contrasted strangely with his situation, 'unless when the wind was due north, a very passable gite for an old soldier.'

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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