Monday, June 14, 2010

His literary merits are almost undiscoverable - the highly recommended The Antiquary

Two views of Walter Scott, of his third novel, The Antiquary (1816). Virginia Woolf, first, picking out her favorite Scott:

I can’t read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favorites). (Sep. 12, 1932, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, p. 104)

By heart!  Her favorites!  A strong recommendation.  Woolf, throughout decades of letters, is effusive about Scott, sometimes casting herself as his only remaining reader (see Aug. 12, 1928).

Now, Ford Madox Ford, from his eccentric literary history, The March of Literature (1938):

The Antiquary is a more serious attempt at novel writing [than Ivanhoe or Rob Roy], but its longwindedness is unbelievable and its insistence on assuring the reader that Scotland is a historically important and gentlemanly kingdom, not to be born...

His literary merits are almost undiscoverable… [The Antiquary] takes exactly forty pages of the closely printed pages of the 1837 edition of the “Waverley Novels” before anything like an adventure is so much as adumbrated.  This is a damning defect.* (711)

But when Ford includes only two Scott novels in his “essential reading” list at the end of his history, they are Ivanhoe and The Antiquary!

Someone, here, is wrong (preview: both are wrong).  Since I have been paying attention, I have noticed as many references to The Antiquary by Victorian writers as to any Walter Scott novel.  For readers who took Scott as the center of great literature – George Eliot, for example, or Robert Louis Stevenson, The Antiquary was at the center of the center.  They can make off-handed references to The Antiquary because of course everyone has read it.

Now I’ve read it, too, as has Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings.  I’ll just speak for myself in saying that Ford’s description of the novel is accurate, but if I replace “adventure” (a rescue from a fast-rising tide) with “story,” I then have to replace “forty pages” with “a third of the book.”  And even then, I wish Scott had taken more time to get to the plot as such, since it is terrible – “a fearsomely predictable long-lost-heir plot,” Rohan calls it.

No one seems to like the plot.  When Virginia Woolf wrote about the novel at length, in “The Antiquary” (1924, collected in The Moment and Other Essays, 1948), she was interested in characters and episodes only.  The Antiquary has one great character who elevates every scene he’s in, and it has one great scene that justifies the concept of the novel.  The character is Edie Ochiltree, the wise beggar.  Please read Rohan on him.  She gets right at the power of a character who could easily have been an unbearable stereotype (and in the process demolishes Ford’s criticism of The Antiquary’s gentlemanly Scottishness).  The fine scene I’ll save until tomorrow, when I’ll return to Woolf as well – she liked it, too.

I haven’t said anything about what happens in the novel, because it doesn’t matter, or give an idea of what the writing is like, because it’s like Walter Scott.  The story barely makes sense, the romantic couple are cardboard of the usual grade, and the scenes are held together by nothing stronger than clothespins.  Ford is utterly wrong - Scott's merits are, with a bit of effort, discoverable.  The enthusiastic Woolf is wrong, too.  I would have trouble recommending the novel to any ordinary reader, anyone who is not a student of 19th century English literature, which is, of course, a nice thing to be.

* Readers of Parade’s End may discover some amusing hypocrisy here.


  1. I had the same thought on the "damning defect" comment by Ford. Yet the more I think about it I wouldn't call it hypocrisy. While Parade's End and The Good Soldier take a while to "reveal" anything (I'm assuming that's the meaning of adumbrate he meant), something is constantly being built so that when a disclosure is made it does more than just put everything in context.

    Maybe he's just complaining that if you're going to write an adventure novel, why take so long to get at it? But then, this is Ford. Consistency isn't always a strong suit.

  2. Now that's a first-rate defense of Ford. I buy it.

    The aesthetic purposes of Ford's and Scott's delaying tactics are a wee bit different. Some of the "tension and release" sections of Parade's End were unbelievably effective.

    I can think of some comparable passages in Scott, but they're sure not in The Antiquary!

  3. Heh, I wasn't really selling anything, but glad someone will buy it.

    I'm just glad to see that people DO read Scott anymore.

  4. Perhaps already well-known to you & your readers (but I can never resist mentioning the book)
    Walter Allen's 1954 survey "The English Novel" contains a fine, brief appreciation of Scott's virtues, faults, and historical importance
    (just as it contains fine brief appreciations
    of the other authors it deals with).
    And the Scott section begins with Allen citing yet another example of Antiquary-bashing; he quotes E. M. Forster expounding Scott's faults, then continues: "Forster concedes that Scott could tell a story -- and then synopsizes The Antiquary in order to show how badly Scott did so."

  5. Thanks so much for the Walter Allen recommendation. I had not heard of him, and he seems to have written just the kinds of criticism I enojoy most.

    Forster is right about The Antiquary. As Johnson said about Richardson, if you read The Antiquary for the plot, you'll hang yourself.

    Which is decidedly not true of The Heart of Midlothian or Old Mortality! Scott had plenty of well-made stories.

  6. I am reading March of Literature now-it is a fascinating book-I concede it has a lot of very off the wall judgments but now that I have started it I cannot imagine not at least looking up his opinion on any writer likely to be covered-I am sure many holes can be picked in the book by academics (something Ford for sure was not and he did have contempt for the profession) but I really could care less-the March of Literature is a work of genius and was nearly done from memory-no internet in 1938 to verify your facts-but yes it is a bit of a "cracked" work also but anyone who neglects this book is missing out on a great experience-

  7. I love The March of Literature, and have read it twice. The portrait of a mind engaged with literature that comes out of it - it's the name of your blog, right, The Reading Life. That's what is so valuable in Ford's book. That's the part I take as a model. If I only had Ford's command of languages.

    And, absolutely, the fact that it is all basically from memory is amazing.