Old Mortality

February 11, 2017

He’s not fashionable. Almost forgotten in the sense that few people read him these days. He has a Main Terminus Railway Station named after his first novel-writing success; a central monument in his home metropolis; and even an eponym known by people all over the world: The Wizard of the North.

In his own times he was phenomenally successful as a writer; after his death his books continued to sell, be translated, and massively widely read, for the extent of the nineteenth century; and when movies came in his works were put on the big screen.

Today I cannot recall the last time I saw a TV dramatisation of one of his novels; nor even a movie of any kind in the past 40 years. The original of the hero to zero guy indeed.

Yet Walter Scott baronet, remains at his best one of the very best who even penned narrative stories. He was the Father of the Historical novel, and heir to the writers of those rather curious and engaging but extensive and quaint prose romances such as Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynd; this last a romance on which Shakespeare is said to have based his comedy drama As You Like It.

Walter Scott took this prose romance form, which was essentially a medieval genre of literature which in Elizabethan times was in its last iterations; and to it he added that other format which is the English novel, a format founded most likely by Daniel Defoe and used in works of his such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders; Scott added into this blend his special feature of colourful and high romance; a romanticised version of history; a blend which at first took Edinburgh and thereafter most of the reading world by storm.

Scott’s earliest, and generally considered his best, novels were for the most part romances on quite recent Scottish history; Scottish history of a century or so before his times; from the time of the end of the English Civil War of the 1640s to a series of events which became know as The Highland Clearances and which occurred in the early to mid years of the 18th> century.

Romance and romanticism in Scott’s terms was not primarily writing stories about love affairs; although love interest generally finds a place in his novels. Rather, the romance in Scott’s novels is that romance to be found emanating from a great, late, and lost cause: and Scott, himself a lawyer and antiquary, made much of a pungent nostalgia for such a cause which was peculiar to Scotland during Scott's lifetime; and to the historical context of Scotland. He took certain liberties with this history, but in the main he held true to its spirit, as this spirit was experienced and filled with a patriotic pride and a glamorous tincture by his Scottish contemporaries

This great, late, lost cause is perhaps expressed best as having been the change manifested in that great and swift historical transition of Scotland from it being an independent and proud, warlike nation; into a newly urbane and cultured high civilisation; and administered from London; a brilliantly stellar intellectual hothouse which was able to earn for its capital city Edinburgh the rootPage: / title: "‘The Athens of the North’. Within three generations of The Highland Clearances, which marked the end of the independence and prowess of The Highland Scots’ Clans, who up until these times of their brutal subdual by English and ‘North British’ soldiery, were living a style of life which remained reminiscent of medieval ways of life; reminiscent in texture perhaps more of Homer and of Troy than of Georgian London and of Pepys.

One cannot easily exaggerate the sheer strength of emotion Scots men and women of Scott’s own times enjoyed and suffered when they considered and looked back on those days some generations before their days. There was mingled with an intense nostalgia a fervent patriotism and a lingering admiration and desire of love for their country and countrymen as they appeared to look like when looking back from the vantage point of Georgian Edinburgh. One memorable phrase coined to describe this metamorphosis of Scotland inthis 60 or 70 years and to label what was necessarily left behind in the dark backward and abysm of time, was that the loss of independent nationhood, and Scotland induction into fusion with England, for Scotland was ‘the end of an old song’.

There was indeed a schizoid quality to this tremulous pride of the Scots in their past, and in what they were once. At the same time as this quite recent Scottish history was being elevated to a mythos, to a sacredness almost, in the national psyche; schoolmasters were working hard to ‘iron-out’ the Scotticisms being expressed by their charges in their writings and speech.

The old language and even the accents in which Scots was yet being spoken had become for the aspiring and educated to be felt unfashionable, uncouth even; and the Standard English accent and manners of speech, of writing, and expression appeared to them to be the things to be spouses and to become accommodated to. There is a story about the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan's father, a brusque and heavily-accented speaker of a broad Irish brogue, teaching classes in Edinburgh to young men and women on how to speak English so as to be acceptable guests at fashionable London houses.

During Scott’s later life the king (one of the Hanoverian Georges of England) made a visit to Scotland and was escorted by Scott around the region of Lothian within which Edinburgh lies. The king is said to have worn a kilt at some of the events he witnessed here. Not only was it considered a great honour for Scott and for the Scots to have as their guest the English king; but it was also the beginning of an age in which all things Scottish were to become the very thing of high fashion and great desirability.

Thus then, there was in vogue at this time a mutual reciprocity of admiration for one another between the English and the Scots upper social echelons

As I have mentioned, Edinburgh and much of Scotland had metamorphosed rapidly in the space of 50 years into what we today would recognise as being early modern times.

The French Philosophes and The Enlightenment which these French thinkers ushered in; Rousseau; Voltaire; Diderot; Rousseau, and others; by their written works had in the closing years of the 17th century changed the intellectual temper of France radically so that by the early to mid 18th century France was laying the intellectual mileau which allowed in 1789 their own civil eruption of Revolution. By the time generation Scott’s generation was active Europe as a whole had also been utterly changed temperamentally by having intellectually absorbed these writings of The Philosophes and by their adumbrations for human society. Scotland had been ever the ally of France against the hated English; ‘the auld alliance’ against ‘the auld enemy’; and Scotland quickly and avidly had embraced the prevailing ideas of this French Enlightenment and very soon had been seen to have out-Heroded-Herod in its emulation of French thinking and of French thinkers.

Scott had been born, in 1770, into the very epicentre of this earth-shaking phenomenon; a sea change for Scotland bringing with it a huge and quite sudden wrench out of a relatively backward remote nationhood and into a place at the forefront of the nations; and to huge international acclaim the names of its foremost subjects were on the lips of all the furnished bourgeoisie sittingrooms and salons of Europe. Adam Smith; John Reid; David Hulme; Lord Monboddo; Henry McKenzie; James MacPherson; John Home; Robert Burns; Hugh Blair; Robert Fergusson; and very many more names being amongst them.

Scott had been trained up in the law; and in Scottish law, which, as it remains today, has always been based on Roman law; whereas English law originates out of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French precedents. Latin therefore was an essential for any Scots lawyer. Scott was related by family to the Scott’s of Harden, whereat the Clan Chief held his seat. Thus Scott was minor gentry; and later a baronet, carrying the title Sir Walter Scott.

There is a story I believe in his memoirs of an illness which debilitated him for many months, perhaps longer, in his youth; and whilst in bed recuperating he tells of how he spent all his waking hours every day devouring books on the great miscellany of interests and topics he picked up and developed; and which later he was to call upon to use as materials in his novels. Throughout his life Scott was a formidable reader and acquirer of libraries-full of antiquarian and other knowledge.

His first forays into published literature which were to bring him to public notice were in narrative poetry. Over a course of ten or so years, in the last decade of the 18th and the first of the 19th centuries, he produced say a dozen long narrative poems; Marmion; The Lay of the Last Minstrel; Rokeby; and so on; which mined mostly from the stocks of his knowledge on Medieval affairs of the British Isles.

He had begun, and maybe before these poems; maybe during their issue, a prose narrative which he had titled speculatively ‘Twas Sixty Years Since’; and he had reached near halfway into what was to become in time its full length, before he had put it to one side and left it in a drawer for a good number of years. Around 1810 a friend or colleague was able to get sight of the manuscript by some means, and commended it so well and and argued to Scott that he ought to attempt to complete the novel with a view to publishing it.

Perhaps poetry was seen by Scott as a pursuit for a gentleman; and prose, indeed novels, a rather more mercenary and tradesmanlike affair? In Britain; both in Scotland and in England (and in Wales indeed) poetry historically had been the preserve of the higher classes of society, those who needed not to go into trade so as to be prominent; so that even (in the late 1570s) a son of a City Alderman; of a family which had a right to a gentleman’s coat of arms; had been considered by the ‘university wits’ of his age to have been nothing else than ‘an upstart crow’ and as thinking himself ‘the only Shake-scene in a country’. This was in the days of Elizabeth I; yet it remained historically some two hundred years later and for that generation of ‘wits’ writing at the time of Scott’s birth in 1770, to be the very first generation of British authors who found themselves actually able to make a living by depending upon a popular readership, thus upon trade, as opposed to being of private means themselves or else dependent upon Patronage from a High Society Patron; usually a nobleman or their ladyships.

Indeed Samuel Johnson who had died just a few years after Scott’s birth had made use of both Patronage and of popular demand, so as tobe able to eke out a living in the world of polite letters.

Something rather inbetween Patronage and Trade had also surfaced during this transition period from noble sponsorship to the popular demand of Trade; and this had been publication by way of subscription. This subscription was carried out thus: an author or his publisher would seek out well-to-do citizens of prime place in their communities so as to have them agree to buy a copy of a work prior to it being printed and published. Once the number of subscribers had risen to a secure level the book in question would then be readied for printing and publication. Thus a book became underwritten in this way, with a sort of insurance policy, and so became able to be sure of realising sufficient money for it to be considered worthwhile economic proposition to be published.

Of course in Elizabethan days when the stellar Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, Spenser, Sidney, and so many others whose achievements belittle most of ours today, bookseller publishers had always had a weather-eye to the popular marketplace and had taken whatever advantage they were able to from an estimate on a calculated risk of launching a work in anticipation of popular demand. Yet with poetry even in these earlier days, most writers of any quality took great care to secure, had to secure, the protection of a noble Patron.

Indeed Shakespeare’s Company of Players were patronised by the monarch of his later lifetime - James 1st and 6th himself (First of England; Sixth of Scotland; more on this to come). They bore the title The King’s Men (they were all male companies those days, men and boys). Shakespeare indeed had been called on some years earlier by James’ predecessor Queen Elizabeth to write a drama depicting ‘Falstaff in love’. Shakespeare had created to immense acclaim the antihero larger than life figure of Sir John Falstaff, and had then ‘killed off’ this fantastical character. Falstaff had ‘starred’ in the Henry IV plays and in Henry V (posthumously). Hence Shakespeare had been commissioned by the queen, to write the drama ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ depicting Falstaff as romantic lead. James I and VI some years later and into the 17th century also commissioned a play from Shakespeare: ‘Macbeth’; because witchcraft and Scottish affairs were the great passions of that first Scots monarch of England.

(I include dramas amongst the category of poetry hereabove since in the days of Elizabeth and James I dramas commonly were written in verse; and they continued to be made so right up until the triumph for the ubiquity for prose for serious literature overtook us perhaps first during the days of Queen Victoria in the mid to late 19th century)

So Scott was a gentleman, by birth and by nature, and he was a strongly Tory person in politics and by sympathies; although this having been claimed for him, he did share in common with Shakespeare, but of course not to such a degree, but yet a lot when compared to you and me; a facility for the abnegation of himself from his literary writings; thus allowing him to express close sympathies with persons and with historical events with whom he himself would not have sided nor in fact would have liked to have made acquaintance. This gentlemanly side of Scott I believe perhaps had something to do with his choice, after having completed the prose novel that he had left in his drawer for so many years, and after having published it with a subtitle ‘Twas sixty Years Since’ and with a main title of ‘Waverley’, to keep the authorship of this new venture anonymous.

Scott used pseudonyms; pseudonyms which were obvious clowneries with his public; and which probably fooled no-one in so far as their being the names of the true authors of his novels. One such pseudonym he used was Dr Dryasdust; a slightly pompous and bird-brained antiquary figure clearly poking some fun at his own taste for olden times and ancient things. Another pseudonym he used was the name Jedediah Cleishbotham; a pedagogue dominie (schoolmaster) of a little out of the way place, possibly fictional, called Gandercleuch; and another eccentric verbose and amusing pendant-type fusspot. This time maybe Scott was mocking his own propensity for learning and for giving detailed and informative historical notes to the fictionalised historical episodes found in the plots of his novels.

Scott wrote voluminously; not just novels and long narrative poems. He wrote amongst other works a vast output; a Life of Napoleon in several large volumes; Tales of a Grandfather, being Scottish history stories for children; his memoirs; volumes of Lives of the Poets; he edited collections of Border Balladry, of which he was an avid peripatetic collector; in days when these ballads were losing their traditional place amongst unlettered persons who by oral transmission had for ages passed them from generation to generation. He wrote in ancient metrical styles as well as in more contemporary formats – he is one of those writers whose collected works never quite stop being added to even today; since he wrote such a colossal amount of occasional work for journals and for magazines; prefaces; monographs; and other sundry stuffs all over the place in a host of intellectual publications.

For many years, then, few excepting a narrow inner circle of trustworthy friends knew the name of the author of that body of work which was to become, and to be blazoned famously forth across the world as, ‘The Waverley Novels’. This first in the series, the long time in gestation novel ‘Waverley’ was an overnight sensation in Edinburgh upon its appearance, and soon after whad become the latest delight of all of the reading publics of Britain. Phenomenally successful, it was sold out of its first printing within days. The great work of this Wizard of the North had begun.

‘Waverley’ is a novel with an Englishman as its hero. Here comes in perhaps that canny lawyer part of Scott’s personality? For ostensibly the novel Waverley was a celebration of and a delightful conjuring up of those mythical days of the ‘45; when the last Stuart Pretender to the English throne mounted the very final attempt ever by his House to dethrone the then ruling Georgian Hanoverian occupier. You might know the rhapsodic lullaby-like song titled ‘The Skye Boat Song’ - ‘Flee bonny boat like a bird on the wing/Over the sea to Skye’ etc, which goes on lyrically as ‘Carry the lad that’s born to be king/Over the sea to Skye’. It is a song with all the power of sentiment packed into it which The Jacobites (Latin name for the English name of James = Jacobus) felt, and fought for, against the ‘auld enemy’ English in 1715 and again under Pretender to the throne James’s son Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) in 1745. The Skye Boat Song is about Charles Stuart’s final attempt on the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

The story of the novel involves the eponymous hero Edward Waverley, a young English gentleman, taking a tour to Scotland and inadvertently getting caught up in the struggle between The Jacobites and the British Establishment; and in the war being planned and battles fought out there by Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his followers. Edward Waverley manages his way through this turn of events most diplomatically; managing to stay out of things via his trademark attitude of and aptitude for a disinterested neutrality.

He meets the romantic heroine, archetype almost of the ancient Celtic warrior queen, named Flora McIvor; a figure who existed in history and who indeed played a role in the rising of the ‘45 by The Jacobites.

(You must remember all the time whilst reading this article that great swindling mass of popular and broad sentimental nostalgia and pride felt by contemporary Scots of Scott’s days about this period in their history. His Scots readerships saw in their view a dramatisation into fiction of a recent and glorious past (‘twas sixty years since’). It was sentiments like these into which the novel ‘Waverley’ not only tapped deeply; but also inflamed and helped to propagate across sympathies and into new boundaries of thought and adherence.)

It is worth noting here that The Jacobites were of Roman Catholic faith; and that the Established faith of Britain was Protestantism; yet even so Protestantism itself had had, and continued to have, its factions and conflicts, especially in Scotland over the period of which Scot treated in his Scottish novels; and which we are talking about here. But Protestants of almost all persuasions forgot their differences for the most part when there came from North Britain in The Highlands a threat of a Roman Catholic incursion with intent to conquer Britain. Scott does not amplify nor even bring to the fore at all any such stress on religious differences between the warring parties as they are treated in his novel Waverley. The religious differences between The Jacobites and the Defenders of the Realm even in Scott’s times and for many years afterwards, even perhaps right up to the present day, are live and thorny issues in Britain yet. For Scott to have chosen to emphasise these religious quarrels would have damped severely that surge of enthusiasm and marvellous reception of this his debut novel.

Thus Scott’s novels; the Scottish group of them, being approximately those in the series written in the ten or so years after Waverley’s publication; had seen him shift from those narrative poem topics of medievalism to take up in novel format quite recent times of Scottish history, but a history which in texture and substance emanated a vastly distanced and different ambience to that of contemporary Scottish urban life. It was perhaps a shift then from narrative poetry on medieval romance topics to prose narrative on recent Scottish medieval-like romance topics.

Scott, perhaps like most of his Scots readers at the time, had no real love of Jacobite ideals and issues; and would not have entertained a wish for them to have been revived or to have been successful. Their attraction to him and to his society was in the very nature of them having failed politically and religiously; thus having become very quickly distant history; the issues they raised were hence now ‘safe’ enough as political ‘cold’ potatoes for Scott to be able to used them and to be appreciated by his readers as being a ‘dream that sadly and gladly did not come true’. Waverley and the novels which followed on from it then were a dreamlike re-creation of a mythos of history; one which congratulated in many ways contemporary Scots readers on their heritage and on the quintessential Scottishness of that heritage. A little bit of doublethink consciously and indulgently enjoyed but understood to be ‘dreams, mere dreams’ at bottom.

As I have written earlier Scott had a keen sense of human sympathy, enabling in him a loss of self by his engaging with peoples of quite other, quite antagonistic to his own, loyalties and persuasions. The Jacobites are a very good example of this empathetic metamorphism of his.

I mentioned as well that the Protestants themselves had held to fierce and divided factions amongst themselves; in Scotland no less than in England; and very much so in both countries during the years of The Civil War (approx 1640-50) and subsequent Interregnum in England (1650-1665); and again but later on during in the years of persecution of Protestant sectarians in Scotland (1665-1688) which ensued after the Cromwellian Interregnum had collapsed a few years after his death.

The big divide in Protestant belief was a major cause for the outbreak of Civil War and later also was central to the subsequent Scottish persecutions of Protestant dissenters in Southern Scotland which followed on for the twenty or thirty years after Cromwell’s death. This divide separated Protestants over the issues of Bishops or no Bishops; and a fundamental issue of disagreement was to the degree in which Scripture as an individual interprets it in a light of personal conscience ought to determine ones conduct. Politically-speaking the issue might have been fundamentally a question of establishing the authority of the Head of the Church in Britain. This was of course the monarch. Thus all Protestant Christians in Britain were obliged to, and indeed were compelled to acknowledge this fact by swearing an oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch.

Of course for those who are Chrisians among my readers this is no new thing. Certain Emperors of Rome had demanded likewise an Oath of Alleigiance from early generations of Christians; with an addtion sometimes that they curse their Lord; or else at least acknowledge His authority as subordinate to the Emperor’s. Once again a political issue and not a religious one.

There had occurred a brief period of 30 or more years after the victory of the Puritan dissenters under Cromwell in The English Civil War, wat a time when Cromwell had died and the monarchy had been restored; and the descendants of King Charles I had again took up their title to rule Britain. Charles I had been executed by the victorious Puritan dissenters upon their victory in The Civil War.

These newly-restored to the throne descendants of James I and Charles I of the House of Stuart (Charles II and James II) were to a man Roman Catholics. Thus those freedoms won from the bitter and bloody struggle of Civil War and for the enjoyment of the people were felt by the people to be in danger of being lost to these Stuarts who were once again, but even now largely as mere figureheads, ruling the nation. The House of Stuart maintained a penchant favouring absolute rule by The Doctrine of The Divine Right of Kings; and this penchant was ever showing its ugly head in popular dealings with these Stuarts of late restored to the throne. Thus this 30 years known as The Restoration, was like a bad hangover after a binge of furious bloodletting.

One might imagine how the importance of unity amongst protestants was an important issue in the face of any threat of an attempt at a reassertion of absolutism, and also of Roman Catholicism, by way of a fresh power-grab coming from the House of Stuart. Charles II and James II, The Restoration Stuart kings, like all the Scots monarchs previous to them, were able to count heavily on assistance from France (‘the auld alliance’ against ‘the auld enemy’). (The Jacobites under the Stuart Pretenders; Prince Charles The Old Pretender in 1715 and Prince Charles Edward The Young pretender in 1745; had launched their desperate attempts to conquer England from bridgeheads on the French coast and with French aid and collusion)

That certain Scots Protestant dissenters refused to bow and scrape the knee to The House of Stuart was no surprise; nor even would many accept a level of toleration offered and allowed to them and to their ‘extreme’ religious views. This toleration allowed, provided they agreed not to oppose the ruling Establishment, a certain freedom of worship to them. The dissenters however were fiercely motivated and held to their understanding of Scripture and religious principle to the very letter, and even unto death. As a matter of highest importance or as the other side saw it, as a matter of stubbornness and recalcitrance, these Covenanters, as these groups of dissenters were named and known by, put their God’s word a long way ahead of any political allegiance and wel before any expediency of any kind.

The Covenanters were so called because of their adherence to what was called ‘The Solemn League and Covenant’. They abhorred Bishops and also that administration of church affairs which a hierarchy Bishops represented. They were enthusiasts. Rigid, volatile, entirely committed. Their own form of Church government used presbyteries; wherein no man was ordained and seasoned groups of elders held most influence. Their hope was perhaps for self-government under these conditions; but The British State felt itself strongly threatened by The Covenanters’ ‘stiffnecked independence’ and great fears arise in ruling circles about the loyalty to the State of these wayward and obstinate men. Thus arose on the government side a bitter and fierce persecution of these men during the years of The Restoration of The Stuarts to the throne. (I say men because most were men; some women but women were not prominent in the setup of Covenanting ideas).

Now Scott, had he been alive at this time of persecutions and he had been able to choose; and he yet holding the actual views and loyalties as he in life did; he would have sided with the Bishops and perhaps also with the king. Lukewarmly on a basis of good order and on a revulsion against the means used by his allies to keep it; yet here I believe he would have pitched his tent. Yet it remains a literary fact that one of his very best novels; a novel which ranks with the Russian greats of half a century on from Scott, and with the Latin American greats of the late 20th century; remains a novel which commemorates with passion and with great insight and sympathy the memories of those times, and of those men who were hunted like wolves and who died at the hands of government militias in the lowland hills of the east of Scotland. A period known in Scotland by the common people, and yet known even today, as The Killing Time.

Scott’s novel, Old Mortality, then, is a human record, bearing all insight and sympathy; and in its way is as large and as generous as Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. For all its romance and romanticism, its potted and playful abuses of factual history, Old Mortality stands in the line of treatment of persecutions with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and with Calderwood’s monumental History of the Scottish Kirk. In Old Mortality Scott was able to show both sides, as opponents and also as social units, in the religious and political disputes of those days. He shows either side as being made up of men, and not angels; but as men, some of whom possess a great valour and a sound love of truth and justice in their fairdealing; and having a faith above and beyond that which most of us are likely to attain to.

Scott’s skill and ability was to conjure up in the opening chapters and without partiality, a solemnity and an awesomeness by which he surrounds the history of the period and those events he is about to relate; a solemnity touched with the gold of human tenderness, and finished with the pearl of eloquent, discursive and sensitive writing.

Scott needs time given to him to get the best from his novels. He needs a broad vocabulary; and of course access to a recondite human sympathy. His style is exact, for many moderns maybe also exacting, and his sentences are long by today’s standards. He requires commitment from a reader. In his narative position it was usual for him to stand back and to attempt a relation of events rather than to attempt a steer or a position on a reader. It’s not about politics or about the religion; it is about human earnestness and human endeavour; seen from the bad and the good angles, the highs and the lows, and takingin also now and then the indifferent between.

I have taken some pains here, being no historian myself, some rare pains, to give you something which might act as a background to Scott’s now almost lost achievement as a novelist; particularly some historical background; but social mileaus also; so that a reader having perhaps come with me thus far will, should she choose to pick up, say, Old Mortality, or Redgauntlet, or The Heart of Midlothian, or The Anitquary, four of Scott’s very best, and give one of these remarkable achievements a go, she has had from me I hope some bearings upon her whereabouts and on what fictional world she is entering herself into.

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