Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Jenny Jop, Corporal Bullock, and the periphrastic and ambagitory Waverley

This is close to my favorite bit of Waverley:

Tired of the attendance of Callum Beg, who, he thought, had some disposition to act as a spy on his motions, Waverley hired as a servant a simple Edinburgh swain, who had mounted the white cockade in a fit of spleen and jealousy, because Jenny Jop had danced a whole night with Corporal Bullock of the Fusileers.  (Ch. 51)

The sneaky Callum Beg was a famous character for a while.  “[M]ounted by white cockade” means “joined the rebellion.”  So much of Scott has to be explained now.  None of this is what I like, but rather that none of the last three characters in that sentence, the swain who becomes Waverley’s servant, Captain Bullock, or the high-spirited, fickle Jenny Jop are of any importance.  The servant is at least mentioned a couple of times, leading Waverley’s horse and so on, but never with the life he is given when he is introduced here.  A little touch of Nikolai Gogol; an entire little scene popping into existence, then popping like a bubble.

Most impressive is how little pedantry there is in the sentence, or in the other examples of Scott at his best.  Pedantry is, unfortunately, a central technique for Scott.  One of the secondary characters, the Baron Bradwardine, a good one in most ways, is marred by his comic flaw, his tedious multilingual pedantry, his explanations of genealogy and heraldry interspersed with Latin and French, translated in the endnotes if for some reason you want to bother.  Or I should say he is marred by Scott’s insistence on taking the joke so far, always giving two paragraphs or pages of dull, mangled gibberish when one might still be funny.

Scott is not quite in on his own joke.  Flora Mac-Ivor, super-patriot, super-woman, not remotely a comic character, is as much of an antiquarian as the Baron, specializing in “the music and poetical traditions of the Highlanders” (Ch. 21).  Her brother, a paragon of obsolete and misguided but real heroism, is almost as bad.  See their conversation in Chapter 23:

“A truce, dear Fergus! spare us those most tedious and insipid persons of all Arcadia.  Do not, for Heaven's sake, bring down Coridon and Lindor upon us.”

“Nay, if you cannot relish la houlette et le chalumeau, have with you in heroic strains.”

And the author himself is worst of all.  This is meant to be self-mocking: 

But without further tyranny over my readers, or display of the extent of my own reading, I shall content myself with borrowing a single incident from the memorable hunting at Lude, commemorated in the ingenious Mr. Gunn's essay on the Caledonian Harp, and so proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me.  (Ch. 24)

Scott’s third novel, written two years later, puts the argument in the title.  The Antiquary (1816) is a self-critique, a justification of Scott’s method, a defense of the minutiae that compose culture.  Scott saw his novels as a way to preserve what was lost, or destroyed.  Few of his successors – few that we still read – had much interest in this idea.  Few writers of historical novels are themselves antiquarians.  Maybe this is one more obstacle in the way of reading Scott well, or at all.  I think he gets it out of his system, though.  I’ll reread Old Mortality for its bicentennial next year and see what I think.  It’s a novel about religious fanaticism, a subject of continuing rather than antiquarian interest.


  1. "Few writers of historical novels are themselves antiquarians." Ain't that the truth. Guy Mannering, at least, is in many ways a museum of Scottish history. I don't think Scott is trying--as so many of today's 'historical' novelists do--to write disguised morality plays about current events. But of course I don't know what the hot social topics of 1815 were, so I might be talking out of my hat.

    One thing I want to say on my own blog but I'm possibly too lazy to write that post, is that Scott's ironic presentation of the human comedy--the particular way he pokes fun at his characters--might be one of the most influential aspects of his writing. Some passages read like Wodehouse. That is, I begin to think that Wodehouse (and many another English writer) often reads like Walter Scott. I haven't done enough thinking about this yet.

  2. Scott is making an argument about the meaning and means of honor and glory, and he is writing about how cultures are created and destroyed, and I could go on like this, but I agree that he is thinking of these as enduring or universal topics rather than satire about Napoleon or Pitt the Younger or whatever. And similarly, the history is not just decoration against which to play the same old plot.

    Baron Bradwardine, the voluble pedant, would make a great Wodehouse character. Scott unfortunately does not have Wodehouse's gift, even if he has the right idea. Dickens learned a lot from Scott, some of it bad - you can blame some of those flat Dickens heroes and heroines on his thieving them from Scott, except in Scott they are not so flat.

    Austen was at the same time as Scott coming at some of the same problems from a different direction. So to go back to Wodehouse, Aunt Agatha is more of a descendant of Austen. Other characters are more Scott-like.

    My tree of English fiction has Samuel Richardson as one big trunk and Henry Fielding as the other. Austen emerges from the Richardson side, Scott from the Fielding side. Not everyone fits and various grafts occur. Still, I have found this schema useful.

    I should write this up some time. I could kill of many days of posts.

    1. Oh, yes, do write this up some time! And I adore Austen and Fielding. They are both people I reread.

    2. How encouraging, Marly, someday I'll do it. The Amateur Reader's Half-baked, Half-remembered History of the Novel.

  3. Your take on Scott and Daniel Deronda have made me a huge fan of this blog (I only wish I had discovered it years ago). Your point about Scott is one that both endears me to him and frustrates me: his desire to preserve is often overtaken by his linguistic tics and the mere passage of time and changes in the language. What, one wonders, will happen to someone like Thomas Pyncheon who is to many nearly incomprehensible even though he still lives and breathes? While writers like Dickens and Austen remain nearly clear as a bell to most reasonably educated modern readers, Eliot and Hardy, as time passes, will most likely need as many footnotes as Scott does now. Keep on with your erudite and idiosyncratic apercus. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, C., that is nice to hear. You are right about Scott, I think, and it does make me wonder about, well, about who is next to expire.

    Scott had a number of close imitators in English who were for a long time thought of as great writers - I am thinking of Bulwer-Lytton, Harrison Ainsworth, and Hall Caine. They are all now authors of unopened books. So whatever it is gets the second tier first; then the predecessor collapses.

  5. I'm tempted to borrow that sentence on tyranny over the readers and the Caledonian harp. It's so over the top! On the other hand, maybe that sort of excess--not really the good kind--is one of the reasons I haven't picked up Scott since I was in my early teens or thereabouts. Will read the rest of your Scott posts and reconsider, I guess.

  6. Simultaneously slack and fussy, that's Scott at his worst.