Two views of Walter Scott, of his third novel, The Antiquary (1816). Virginia Woolf, first, picking out her favorite Scott:
I can’t read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favorites). (Sep. 12, 1932, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, p. 104)
By heart! Her favorites! A strong recommendation. Woolf, throughout decades of letters, is effusive about Scott, sometimes casting herself as his only remaining reader (see Aug. 12, 1928).
Now, Ford Madox Ford, from his eccentric literary history, The March of Literature (1938):
The Antiquary is a more serious attempt at novel writing [than Ivanhoe or Rob Roy], but its longwindedness is unbelievable and its insistence on assuring the reader that Scotland is a historically important and gentlemanly kingdom, not to be born...
His literary merits are almost undiscoverable… [The Antiquary] takes exactly forty pages of the closely printed pages of the 1837 edition of the “Waverley Novels” before anything like an adventure is so much as adumbrated. This is a damning defect.* (711)
But when Ford includes only two Scott novels in his “essential reading” list at the end of his history, they are Ivanhoe and The Antiquary!
Someone, here, is wrong (preview: both are wrong). Since I have been paying attention, I have noticed as many references to The Antiquary by Victorian writers as to any Walter Scott novel. For readers who took Scott as the center of great literature – George Eliot, for example, or Robert Louis Stevenson, The Antiquary was at the center of the center. They can make off-handed references to The Antiquary because of course everyone has read it.
Now I’ve read it, too, as has Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings. I’ll just speak for myself in saying that Ford’s description of the novel is accurate, but if I replace “adventure” (a rescue from a fast-rising tide) with “story,” I then have to replace “forty pages” with “a third of the book.” And even then, I wish Scott had taken more time to get to the plot as such, since it is terrible – “a fearsomely predictable long-lost-heir plot,” Rohan calls it.
No one seems to like the plot. When Virginia Woolf wrote about the novel at length, in “The Antiquary” (1924, collected in The Moment and Other Essays, 1948), she was interested in characters and episodes only. The Antiquary has one great character who elevates every scene he’s in, and it has one great scene that justifies the concept of the novel. The character is Edie Ochiltree, the wise beggar. Please read Rohan on him. She gets right at the power of a character who could easily have been an unbearable stereotype (and in the process demolishes Ford’s criticism of The Antiquary’s gentlemanly Scottishness). The fine scene I’ll save until tomorrow, when I’ll return to Woolf as well – she liked it, too.
I haven’t said anything about what happens in the novel, because it doesn’t matter, or give an idea of what the writing is like, because it’s like Walter Scott. The story barely makes sense, the romantic couple are cardboard of the usual grade, and the scenes are held together by nothing stronger than clothespins. Ford is utterly wrong - Scott's merits are, with a bit of effort, discoverable. The enthusiastic Woolf is wrong, too. I would have trouble recommending the novel to any ordinary reader, anyone who is not a student of 19th century English literature, which is, of course, a nice thing to be.
* Readers of Parade’s End may discover some amusing hypocrisy here.