Monday, March 2, 2015

As if her clothes had been flung on with a pitchfork - specific Scott

Walter Scott is not usually thought of as a first-rate prose writer, and he is not, but he was moving in the right direction.  He in fact had, from my perspective, crossed a threshold in the physicality of the novel.  Many of the greatest 18th century novels have plenty of stuff – see Crusoe salvage a shipwreck, or worry with Clarissa Harlowe about where she can hide the supply of paper that will allow her to crank out a thousand pages of letters – but Scott had a stronger sense of the artistic uses of the thickly imagined world.

Perhaps the blending with history focused his imagination, or perhaps he was adapting aspects of Romantic and proto-Romantic poetry into prose.  Jane Austen was working on the same problem, so I assume mostly the latter.

It is not easy to find much of this in 18th century fiction:

By this time the Baron… had indued a pair of jack-boots of large dimensions, and now invited our hero to follow him as he stalked clattering down the ample stair-case, tapping each huge balustrade as he passed with the butt of his massive horse-whip, and humming, with the air of a chasseur of Louis Quatorze…  (Ch. 12)

Well, obsolete verbs like “indued” are easy to find.  I mean the specific actions that help – or demand that – the reader visualize the character’s descent of the staircase.  A film version of Waverley will have to interpret the exact sound of the boots on the stairs (“stalked clattering”), but the whip and the tapping can go straight into the screenplay.  The Baron is a figure from an earlier time even in the context of the history of the novel and in many ways a figure of ridicule, but here Scott shows him at his confident best in every detail.

Metaphor creates a different kind of precision:

… a strong, large-boned, hard-featured woman, about forty, dressed as if her clothes had been flung on with a pitchfork, her cheeks flushed with a scarlet red where they were not smutted with soot and lamp-black… (Ch. 30)

The passage continues with more detail in description and action, perhaps even too much.  Nothing as good as that pitchfork.

My favorite in all of Waverley – a drummer has fallen in with a troop of Cameronians, religious fanatics, on the march:

[H]e protested he could beat any known march or point of war known in the British army, and had accordingly commenced with “Dumbarton's Drums,” when he was silenced by Gifted Gilfillan, the commander of the party, who refused to permit his followers to move to this profane, and even, as he said, persecutive tune, and commanded the drummer to beat the 119th Psalm.  As this was beyond the capacity of the drubber of sheepskin, he was fain to have recourse to the inoffensive row-de-dow as a harmless substitute for the sacred music which his instrument or skill were unable to achieve.  (Ch. 34)

Again, I have some doubts here – “drubber of sheepskin” is awful fussy – but otherwise this is all a fine joke.  The (omitted) next couple of lines are pedantic, but I want to save Scott-the-pedant for tomorrow.

With Waverley, English letters have not quite achieved the fog of Bleak House or Becky Sharp throwing Johnson’s Dictionary out the window or that idiot in Wuthering Heights mistaking a pile of dead rabbits for kittens or whatever your favorite concrete piece of fiction might be, but it is on its way; it is now well on its way.


  1. I like this--the way you focus on transition and the examples. Love the pitchfork. Wandered around in your Waverley posts and think I now need a reading vacation.

  2. Good, thanks! There is some wonderful stuff in Scott. And then a lot of other stuff, but plenty of wonderful stuff.