Friday, May 30, 2008

Scott and Redgauntlet - alcoholics and ghost stories

So there's slack and there's slack. Scott's Redgauntlet (1824) doesn't really get moving until, in my Oxford World's Classic edition, p. 262.* But once it does, it goes to some interesting places.

I'm exaggerating, and skipping to my favorite part, the two or three chapters one of the protagonists spends in the company of the smuggler Nanty Ewart, a great talker, a great drinker (an alcoholic, actually), and one of Scott's greatest characters. Here's a sample of the adventures of Ewart, related by himself:

"'Well, brother, something or other I did or said -- I can't tell what -- How the devil should I, when I was as drunk as David's sow, you know? But I was punished, my lad -- made to kiss the wench that never speaks but when she scolds, and that's the gunner's daughter, comrade. Yes, the minister's son of no matter where -- has the cat's scratch on his back! This roused me, and when we were ashore with the boat, I gave three inches of the dirk, after a stout tussle, to the fellow I blamed most, and took the bush for it. There were plenty of wild lads then along shore -- and, I don't care who knows -- I went on the account, look you -- sailed under the black flag and marrow-bones -- was a good friend to the sea, and an enemy to all that sailed on it.'" (Ch. 14, p. 277-8)

Here he is on his besetting vice:

"'Here is no lack of my best friend,' -- touching his case-bottle; -- 'but, to tell you a secret, he and I have got so used to each other, I begin to think he is like a professed joker, that makes your sides sore with laughing if you see him but now and then; but if you take up house with him, he can only make your head stupid. But I warrant the old fellow is doing the best he can for me, after all.'

'And what may that be?' said Fairford.

'He is KILLING me,' replied Nanty Ewart; 'and I am only sorry he is so long about it.'" (p. 278)

It's maybe only a chapter and a half where Nanty Ewart takes over, but it's one of Scott's finest pieces. Almost all of it could have been eliminated if all Scott wanted to do nothing but push the story forward.

Redgauntlet is probably a terrible "first Scott". The preceding Waverley, Old Mortality, The Black Dwarf, and Rob Roy all deal with Scottish rebellions against English rule, scattered over 150 years. Redgauntlet serves as a sort of sequel. It's 1765, twenty years after the Rebellion of 1745, and the Jacobins are going to raise the call to arms one more time. But it's too late. In all of the earlier rebellions, the Scots had at least a chance of success. In Redgauntlet, the cause is lost. This is really what much of the novel is about - the discovery by honorable men that the cause to which they have devoted their lives is lost forever. The emotional effect of this theme has to be stronger for a reader who has, like the title character, been here before.

Honor and loyalty - Scott returns to this theme repeatedly. Perhaps one reason we do not read Scott so much now is that our ideas about honor have changed too much since Scott's time.

* Aside from "Wandering Willie's Tale." Letter XI contains a first-rate ghost story, complete in itself, and worth reading for its own sake.

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