Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Who reads Walter Scott? I read Walter Scott - The Heart of Midlothian

I count 27 Walter Scott novels in at the Edinburgh University Walter Scott archive, plus several best-selling book-length poems, and a life of Napoleon. Complete sets of Scott were once common in elegant U.S. households. By "once", I mean a hundred years ago, or more. Nobody reads all of these novels now. Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics have a total of nine Scott books in print now - Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and seven less famous novels (where's Redgauntlet?). This tells you which books people are teaching.

Who reads Scott anymore, Prof. Novel Reading wants to know (she does - teaches him, too). She's responding to a 1997 article by Brian Nellist that cleverly draws it's title from To the Lighthouse, called "People Don't Read Scott Anymore". Nellist in turn is implicitly responding to the classic Irving Howe essay "Falling Out of the Canon: The Strange Fate of Walter Scott" (The New Republic, 1992) .

My favorite Scott novel, of the six I've read, is Old Mortality (1816), a novel about the violent religious conflicts in 17th century Scotland. It's thoughtfully constructed, funny here, serious there, and the ending is plausible, sometimes a weakness with Scott. The two battle scenes are excellent, even better than those in Waverley, although they're not Stendhal, or Tolstoy. The novel is about, among other things, politics and religious fundamentalism, and I'll bet it's partly taught for just that reason, it's "relevance".

As much as I admire Old Mortality, though, I'll bet that The Heart of Midlothian (1818) impresses more readers. The title refers to the prison in the center of Edinburgh, which at the beginning of the novel houses Effie Deans, imprisoned for the presumed murder of her missing illegitimate infant. The heart of the novel concerns the heroic efforts of Jeanie Deans to save her sister. I am not completely sure what people mean when they say a character is "strong", but I think they mean someone like Jeanie Deans, honest, stubborn, who will do anything honorable to save her sister.

The Heart of Midlothian begins with a trick. The first quarter or so of the novel is about a mob attack on the prison, and the main character is Jeanie's fiancé, who it seems will be the hero of the novel. But no, when the central action gets going, he proves to be useless. It's really Jeannie's story. Scott was formulaic in some ways, but he was always playing around with his stories' structures.

A unique (as far as I know) feature of The Heart of Midlothian is the madwoman Madge Wildfire, the center of some of the novel's best scenes. Her mad songs let Scott include some of his poetry:

Proud Maisie is in the wood,
Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
Singing so rarely.

'Tell me, thou bonny bird.
When shall I marry me?'
'When six braw gentlemen
Kirkward shall carry ye.'

'Who makes the bridal bed,
Birdie, say truly?'--
'The grey-headed sexton,
That delves the grave duly.

The glow-worm o'er grave and stone
Shall light thee steady;
The owl from the steeple sing,
'Welcome, proud lady.'

I have known at least one Professional Reader to give up on The Heart of Midlothian, put off by Scott's abiding weakness. The word that Scott can't escape is "slack". Rarely is he in a hurry to get anywhere, so he requires patience, perhaps too much at times. The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency. Tomorrow I think I'll look at a worse offender.


  1. "The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency." I think this is the most succinctly accurate criticism of Sir Walter Scott I have ever seen. I thought that Osbaldistone guy in Rob Roy would *never* get to Scotland...and then once he finally got there, I thought he would *never* wrap things up.

  2. When the Outmoded Authors challenge was on Walter Scott was among the highest read authors along with W Somerset Maugham, oddly enough. Only a few of the readers posted reviews though.

  3. I've got some cruel Ford Madox Ford Scott-bashing I need to post.

    I read the Outmoded Authors reviews with interest. I seem to remember that Waverley defeated a couple of readers. It's not obvious to me why that novel or The Heart of Midlothian are not as accessible as, say, Mansfield Park, but that's clearly the way it is.

  4. My Ford? No, it is not so. :-o!

  5. I remember when I first studied The Heart of Midlothian: my excellent teacher really impressed upon us the significance of Jeanie's going out (on behalf of her sister) to meet someone she truly believes may actually be the devil...strong indeed! But I admit H of M is not one of the books dearest to my heart. There's something so stolid about Jeanie's virtue!

    Reading some of the aggressively elliptical writing that characterizes so much 'serious' fiction these days I often think efficiency is overrated. Waverley would be shorter without the Baron of Bradwardine's long speeches--but hey, he's just the kind of guy who would go on and on like that. Imagine Dickens being efficient: we'd have Bleak House without Mr Guppy or David Copperfield without the head of Charles I. And sometimes I just want the author to do the work, not to read pages and pages and wonder what it's all supposed to be about. With Scott (or Trollope, another pretty inefficient writer) you know you'll be taken care of. I guess that's why I'm a Victorianist!

  6. I was one of the ones defeated by Waverley -- I finished it, but it wasn't a whole lot of fun. Perhaps I should try again with another Scott novel?? It's hard to say what makes the difference between Waverley and, say, Mansfield Park, but part of it for me was the difficult accents, the slow pace, and this feeling that none of the characters were real or meaningful to me. I couldn't bring myself to care much.

  7. Austen's characterization is much richer than Scott's, more "real", especially of the protagonists (as with early Dickens, Scott's secondary characters often have more life than his heroes - but I'll save this for next week). So, Dorothy, you must be right that this is a place where many readers with the best intentions will lose their stake in the novel.

    Prof. Maitzen, fine defense of the loose baggy monsters! What's important, the story or how it's told? Depends on the story. Depends how it's told. In high school, we were assigned an efficient (brutally edited) Great Expectations. One copy should be saved for the Museum of Pedagogical Disasters, the rest incinerated.

    PS Imani - Ford Ford's The March of Literature is a favorite literary history. It's idiosyncratic, though. Or eccentric. Or nuts.