Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Bride of Lammermoor and Lucia di Lammermoor

Ford Madox Ford on "the amateur literary hack" Walter Scott: "His literary merits are almost undiscoverable," and "We are no longer inclined to sit four hours over a book before the author will deign to give us some idea of what his story is." See The March of Literature, pp. 711-13 for more. Ford explicitly compares Scott to Flaubert, which will not get us very far with very many pre-Flaubert novels - let's leave that topic for another time.

In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley singles out and recommends The Heart of Midlothian and The Bride of Lammermoor. Unfortunately, I don't remember why. The Bride of Lammermoor is a solid novel of thwarted love, with a good semi-Dickensian comic relief character who I find funny and an especially good climax. It's also short, for a Scott novel - 330 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. So far, so good. What's the problem?

The novel forms the basis for Donizetti's bel canto opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia is a silly piece of work, in general, but it has one unbelievable scene, the main reason the opera is still performed (besides the popular sextet). The heroine is married against her will and goes mad. Her mad scene, amongst the wedding guests, is one of the greatest in opera history, several arias blended into a perfect twenty or thirty minutes. Ravishing, powerful, and such words. Ahead of its time.

Here's the thing. Lucia di Lammermoor is typically long, about two and a half hours. Opera-goers are patient folk, happily waiting for the choice bits. How much of The Bride of Lammermoor does the opera include? The last thirty pages. Of 330. Less than ten percent. The first 300 pages are squashed into the minimal exposition, or ignored.

Here's something I won't say very often: the librettist was right, completely right (hats off to Salvatore Cammarano). The real story of the novel doesn't get moving until the very end. The rest is filler, sometimes engaging, sometimes not. Maybe the novel couldn't function at all if it were trimmed down. But 300 pages to get to the good part - that's a lot to ask of a reader.

This hardly means The Bride of Lammermoor is not worth reading. You might agree with Jane Smiley rather than with me, and I'm glad I read it myself. But it would take special pleading to get me to reread it.


  1. I dunno: I like lots of parts of Lucia! I have a (probably bootleg) recording of Sutherland's 1959 Covent Garden performance. Now that's singing.

    The novel is odd, that's for sure. I wrote up a few thoughts after rereading it recently; I was thinking it might be more popular with my students than Waverley because of all the gothic stuff. And the going mad and stabbing your husband stuff.

    I think it's interesting that in Forster's A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch sings Lucy Ashton's song from Lammermoor. Now there's a tempting bit of intertextuality to analyze.

  2. You're right, Lucia has a lot of lovely music. But through most of the opera, there is a serious mismatch between the bel canto style and the gloomy subject matter. Sweet, pretty songs on grim subjects. The mad scene transcends all this.

    Your students will appreciate that The Bride is shorter, I'm sure! And the payoff at the end is good. A lot of readers forgive anything if the ending is good.