Sunday, May 29, 2005

BOOK: George G. Napier, "The Homes and Haunts of Sir Walter Scott"

George G. Napier: The Homes and Haunts of Sir Walter Scott. Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1897. xvi + 216 pp.

Sometimes I have the impression that Scott’s popularity in the nineteenth century was such that it occasionally began to exhibit some of the characteristics of a cult. Well, if there was such a thing as a cult of Sir Walter Scott, this book must surely be one of its fetishes. A book is the union of a text, which is a kind of immaterial platonic entity, and an object, the material thing which we hold in our hands and the leaves of which we turn when we read. In most books, the object is relegated to the background; we don’t really think about it much and focus on the text only. This book, however, is one of those where the object is very much more in evidence than usually; it’s a fairly heavy volume, printed on vellum in an issue limited to 550 copies (admittedly not a very strict limitation), illustrated by a large number of plates and engravings; turning the thick, cream-coloured pages and cursing the uncut fore and bottom edges, one cannot help thinking of this book as somewhat bourgeois and ostentatious, and being somewhat embarrased by it.

This book tells the story of Scott’s life and literary career with particular emphasis on the places he inhabited or visited. Occasionally the author goes into more detail about some bit of architecture or furniture or something else of that sort that I was not really interested in, but overall the book was pleasant and interesting reading. To enliven the book there is some illustration on almost every other page: drawings, paintings, photographs, etc. There are also many short quotations from Scott’s works and from various things written about Scott by others.

I haven’t read very much Scott so far; only Waverley and about half of his poetical works; but I enjoyed both the novel and his poems immensely. I certainly have a long-term intention to read the rest of his poetical works and the rest of the Waverley novels, as well as Scott’s diary. One thing that I especially enjoy about Scott’s works is that the reader is never thrust curtly, coldly and unkindly into the beginning of a story as is so often the case in the works of many other authors (especially the modern ones). No, Scott is like a kind friend who always begins with a greeting, an introduction, a prologue, and then starts to weave his tale slowly and carefully, giving you time to accustom yourself to your new surroundings; and along the way he always provides a helping hand in the form of innumerable notes. Anyway, in these introductions, prologues, and dedications, Scott often mentions various small bits from his life, various places where he lived, and various people who were until now mere names to me. Thus it was nice to read a bit more about these things in this book; in particular, it tells us quite a bit about various Scott’s friends and collaborators.

I was particularly touched by the story of John Leyden, who worked together with Scott on the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and eventually died of a fever in Indonesia; there’s a picture of his tomb near Batavia, present-day Jakarta, on p. 61; I found this episode a touching reminder of those days when the world was very much larger than it is now, when Indonesia truly was on the other side of the world, and when life expectancy was much shorter, with unconquerable diseases lurking around every corner, in the tropics even more so than in moderate climes.

Another person of whom I was glad to learn a bit more is James Hogg, “the Ettrick shepherd” (see the chapter on Yarrow); Scott mentions him in a note to Marmion; his curiously titled Confessions of a Justified Sinner are still waiting unread on one of my shelves.

Scott dates his introductions from such places as Ashestiel and Abbotsford; finally I have learnt something more about them: this book has a chapter about each.

In the chapter on Glasgow we learn more about Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and biographer.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, however, was the story of the famous financial collapse of Scott’s publishers, following which a huge debt fell on Scott; to repay the debts, he wrote even more copiously than before and eventually ruined his health through overwork. This is told on pp. 178-184, and the chapter ends with the interesting story of the fate of Scott’s copyrights.

The story of his last months is also quite touching. He travelled to the Mediterranean to improve his failing health, but the beautiful Italian scenery didn’t mean anything to him, and he hurried home full of homesickness and arrived in worse condition than when he left (p. 195). He died not long afterwards.

In short, although this book would perhaps be somewhat uninteresting for someone indifferent to Scott, it is delightful for a Scott enthusiast such as myself.

One of the downsides of the book is perhaps that it does not say much about his family life. But after all there is probably nothing particularly exciting about that.

Another perhaps more annoying downside is that the author never cites his sources. There are many quotations, some probably from well-known sources (e.g. Scott’s works), some from more obscure publications or even from unpublished letters, but almost none are in any way documented (with the exception of a quote from Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera on p. 89, where the volume and page number are given); there are no footnotes or endnotes in this book. Of course it was not meant to be a scholarly work, and its intended readers would probably be more likely annoyed than pleased by the footnotes, nor would I really follow up any of the footnotes if they had been included, but nevertheless I am always slightly annoyed when a book does not cite its sources carefully.

Curiously, Goethe’s name is spelled Goëthe. I remember that I once saw the same spelling in Poe’s note to Al Aaraaf. However, what is it supposed to mean? Are o and e really supposed to be pronounced as separate vowels? Do Germans really ever spell it that way?

Another thing which somehow attracts me to this book is that it comes from the sunset of the Scott cult. The stolid, self-satisfied, vaguely pompous Victorian age was an eminently suitable period for the veneration of such a sane, wholesome, non-problematic, indeed conservative author as Scott. No wonder that his works, both the poetical works and the novels, were reprinted over and over again in countless editions by all sorts of publishers in a number of countries. No wonder that his uncomplicated view of the middle ages went so nicely with the fetish for sterile medievalism that was popularized by Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. And no wonder, likewise, that when the nineteenth century died in the trenches of Flanders and nerve-wracked modernity entered the scene, Scott fell completely and irredeemably out of favour. How could anybody in the twentieth century take seriously an author that merely told stories which make the reader keep turning the page; one who did not continually obsess about the psychology of his characters; one who naively hoped, by dint of hard work and study of the manners of the ages in which his stories are set, to make up for his inability to write incomprehensible prose; one who, for god’s sake, was actually kind and friendly to his readers and took the trouble to make his works accessible rather than merely shitting out his precious words all over their heads like all the modern authors do? Of course such an author can only be taken for a naive simpleton nowadays; nor would his readers fare any better if anybody spared them a thought. And thus, naturally enough, nowadays anyone would agree that what Scott wrote was essentially merely a better class of pulp fiction of his day; people give him a nod as the innovator who brought, first with The Lay of the Last Minstrel and later again with Waverley, two quite new and hugely popular phenomena into English literature, but that doesn’t count for much; in narrative poems he was eclipsed by Byron, and as for historic novels — he is surely still an undisputed master of those, but historic novels hardly count as literature. And thus Oxford University Press stopped reprinting their standard edition of Scott’s complete poetical works some time in the 1970s, and as for the Waverley novels, who knows when they stopped being easily available otherwise than in second-hand bookstores (not counting the fiendishly expensive Edinburgh University Press edition that is being published since the early 1990s). And this perhaps is one of the reasons I am charmed about Scott: given the turn that literature has taken since the early 20th century, one cannot help thinking of Scott as a bit of an underdog; and I always feel sorry for underdogs. Reading Scott is always a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, the dirty secret of a person who is ashamed of being completely unable to understand modern literature. And thus, although I of course realize that the Victorian age was in almost every sense utterly abominable, and although I hate most of its values and opinions, I cannot help sometimes looking back on it with something like a nostalgia: for a time when the world could still have seemed stable, when it was still possible to believe in progress, when people could still believe in concepts such as right and wrong — and when it was still possible to think of a novel or a poem as a good one even though it merely told a story in a coherent and sensible way. And this book, with its sturdy cloth binding, its solid, heavy, hard vellum pages, their dark colour evocative of sunset, is surely a perfect expression of this ridiculous nostalgia for a vanished stable world.


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