Tuesday, 24 January 2017

'Waverley'

I've been meaning to read Sir Walter Scott for years, decades in fact.  Ever since I read Sir John Betjeman's richly evocative essay 'Winter at Home'.  Scott and Cowper were his favourite winter reads, ones he returned to year after year.
     'And as the great rumbling periods, as surely and steadily as a stage coach, carry me back to Edinburgh, the most beautiful city in these islands, I feel an embarras de richese.'
 Recommendation enough.
 And then Scott slipped from my memory, until the end of last year - but then how often do you see Scott's work for sale? - and our trip to Birmingham.  There I bought 'Waverley', Scott's first novel.  The novel of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, a fitting book to read too after so much enjoying 'Kidnapped' (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886) Thankfully my trust in Sir John B's taste was amply rewarded.  Do not be put off my the book's great length - some 600+ pages - or by the inordinately slow start; this book is a marvel - and that isn't the closet Jacobite in me talking.  It is a beautifully written book.  A friend said it was like a giant snowball rolling downhill and picking up speed as it went, and Scott himself in 'Waverley' writes about how, as a child, one of his chief pastimes was rolling a large stone down a hill - very slow and awkward heavy work at first before the stone gained momentum and went rushing and tumbling to the bottom - either metaphor is apt. 'Waverley' has a narrative drive and sweep that push all, including the reader, before it in to the heart of the fire.  The style is conversational, rather intimate.  The picaresque names suggest some sort of influence on Dickens; and like a Dickens novel there is a great panorama of characters.  They surround the eponymous and, at times, frankly naive hero like the characters that surround the hero in an early Evelyn Waugh novel.  The portrayal of Bonnie Prince Charlie is very flattering; Dr Johnson once met him in London and was not impressed.  Anyway Edward is serious, scholarly and often purblind to what is actually going on around him.  He is, to begin with, as much acted upon as he has himself agency.  He is however a decent, good man, and this novel is partly about the discovery of goodness in others, even our enemies, and it is partly through those encounters that Edward grows as a character and enters into his own agency. It also evoked in me the 'Lord of the Rings', Tolkien's sprawling novel; in particular in the character of the ardent Jacobite Flora I see an antecedent of Galadriel, the Lady of the Wood.
I am fascinated by the idea of Tory culture, and Scott is a prime example of the Romantic Tory tradition.  'Waverley' set in the heart of the '45 - the last Civil War experienced on the UK mainland - is often depicted as offering to the reader a simple contrast between a traditionally ordered society - the Highlands clans - and the Early Modern society of Protestant Lowland Scotland and England.  An almost manichaen clash of civilizations.  Scott, I think, is perhaps subtler than that: he recognizes poverty when he encounters it; he allows space for his characters to be sympathetic regardless of political position, to be kind,  We feel frustration, even annoyance with some of the Highland customs. One has a sense of the utter futility of it all - the heroic against the prosaic but implacable enemy marshaling all the order and resources of the Modern state - and how dreadful is the end of it all when the snowball crashes apart.
Robert Burns once described the great Late Gothic church of St Michael, Lintlithgow as fitted for Presbyterian worship "What a poor pimping business is a Presbyterian palce of worship - dirty, narrow and squalid, stuck in a corner of old Popish grandeur...." I suspect that, like Yeats after him (and another Romantic Tory), Scott's argument was as much about the breadth and grandeur of vision, ie culture, as it was about politics.

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