Walter Scott was, early on, a relentlessly experimental novelist. He had discovered a new kind of novel with new, unknown rules. Many of the flaws in Scott’s novels are the result of his experimentation. Scott’s response to serious weaknesses in characterization or storytelling was not so much to tinker with the novel at hand, but to write another novel.
The Antiquary (1816) was Scott’s third novel. Set in 1794, it is, unlike the first two books, not exactly a historical novel (Scott was 23 years old in 1794). It is, instead, about history, about Scottish history. It is a self-critique, sometimes even a self-parody. The Antiquary of the title is obsessed with every detail of Scottish history. His obsession turns him into a fool. How is Walter Scott any different?
The best scene in the novel, the funeral of the young fisherman Steenie Meiklebackit, suggests an answer. We are at the beginning of Volume III, two-thirds through the novel. Chapter One begins with Oldbuck, the Antiquary, asking his valet if “it is expected I should attend the funeral?” It is, within some narrow prescriptions:
Ye ken in this country ilka gentleman is wussed to be sae civil as to see the corpse aff his grounds – Ye needna gang higher than the loan-head – it’s no expected your honour suld leave the land – it’s just a Kelso convoy, a step and a half ower the door-stane. (III.1.237-8)
That “Kelso convoy” gets Oldbuck’s attention, something new for him to research. The rest of this chapter is deliberately packed with antiquarian nonsense. An old vase is broken by a dog, an Egyptian cameo is described in detail, and, most importantly, Oldbuck argues with his nephew, at length, about the authenticity of the poems of Ossian. The last paragraph sneaks in a reference to the 17th century poet William Drummond. Now, some of the Ossian stuff is quite funny, and, for Scott, even a bit smutty, but the reader wanting Scott to just get on with it may be pulling hair out by the fistful.
This chapter of trivialities is purposeful, though. It highlights the moral seriousness of the fisherman’s wake, and it works. Scott emphasizes the various traditional mourning customs, but in a way that makes them deeply meaningful. This might be my favorite part of the novel – long, but that’s Scott (Elspeth is the dead man’s ancient grandmother):
When Oldbuck entered this house of mourning, he was received by a general and silent inclination of the head, and, according to the fashion of Scotland on such occasions, wine and spirits and bread were offered round to the guests. Elspeth, as these refreshments were presented, surprised and startled the whole company by motioning to the person who bore them to stop; then, taking a glass in her hand, she rose up, and, as the smile of dotage played upon her shrivelled features, she pronounced, with a hollow and tremulous voice, "Wishing a' your healths, sirs, and often may we hae such merry meetings!"
All shrunk from the ominous pledge, and set down the untasted liquor with a degree of shuddering horror, which will not surprise those who know how many superstitions are still common on such occasions among the Scottish vulgar. But as the old woman tasted the liquor, she suddenly exclaimed with a sort of shriek, "What's this?—this is wine—how should there be wine in my son's house?—Ay," she continued with a suppressed groan, "I mind the sorrowful cause now," and, dropping the glass from her hand, she stood a moment gazing fixedly on the bed in which the coffin of her grandson was deposited, and then sinking gradually into her seat, she covered her eyes and forehead with her withered and pallid hand. (III.2.249)
Although the grandmother’s grief is especially dramatic, the mother and father are given their own, personal, responses to the death of their son. At the end of the chapter, the father is incapable of carrying the head of the coffin. Oldbuck, “landlord and master to the deceased,” takes his place - as I mentioned yesterday, he is not a fool about truly important matters. The old ways, in this scene, have real meaning. Most of Oldbuck’s antiquarianism is nonsense, but in the fisherman’s cottage, we find something worth preserving. What is Scott doing, if not preserving it?
I was happy to see Virginia Woolf – I’m back to her essay on The Antiquary – single out the same scene as especially fine. But she also uses it to club Scott about the shoulders, too, because “it is true that his scene breaks into ruin without his caring.” Another character arrives at the fisherman’s’ hut, “[f]alsity breaks in,” and the plot, long in abeyance, creaks forward again. We’re told of a secret marriage, an infant smuggled away, a sinister French nursemaid, that sort of thing. I didn’t care much before Steenie’s funeral; after, it’s hopeless.
Something for Scott to work on in the next novel.
Page numbers from the Edinburgh Edition of The Antiquary, 1995.