The Too Well Known

Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown

by Edgar Johnson
Macmillan, 1,397 pp., $25.00

This life of Scott owes both its usefulness and its faults to its main characteristic: it has been intensively, even completely, researched. If there were, shall we say, 27,463 facts available about Scott, then Professor Johnson must have recorded a good 27,000 of them. If Scott went to dinner, we learn what meats and wines were served, what other notables were there, when he had last met them, which of his cousins were married to them, what jokes he told, and how he felt the morning after. We learn what books he bought, what paths he walked along, how often he was bled (by applying leeches), the names of his visitors and how they had come (by stagecoach or packet boat, by bridge or ferry), the mementos he was given, and above all the money he earned, invested, paid out, borrowed, lost, or gave. The questions I find it natural to raise are: Is the value of the work proportionate to its bulk? Is the residue it leaves in the mind proportionate to the time it takes to read it? And does it define truly the significance, whether in his day or for us, of Scott’s life and works?

This vast book is useful because it brings together more or less everything that can be found out about an early nineteenth-century Scottish lawyer, the outstanding folklorist of his time, who dominated fiction, poetry, pamphleteering, and the theater, and who is credited with originating the modern view of history as the sum of the experiences lived out by all of the people alive in any place and time. I say “brings together” because the fact is that there was not much left for Johnson to discover. In the Introduction he justifies his subtitle, “The Great Unknown” (which was the contemporary catch phrase for the anonymous author of the Waverley Novels), by alleging that “the very outlines of his character” have remained controversial to this day. But his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, wrote the first biography only five years after Scott died and its seven volumes brim with documents and firsthand evidence.

Johnson continually cites Lockhart yet only three or four times has substantial corrections to make. The main one is Scott’s deathbed speech, which in Lockhart’s version had always sounded too perfect to be true: “My dear, be a good man—be virtuous—be religious—be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here.” In fact Scott’s brain had been ruined, and his speech made unintelligible, for several weeks before he died. A letter written by his elder daughter shows that he was unconscious throughout his last two days of life.

This source was used by Sir Herbert Grierson in his life of Scott in 1938. Grierson also brought out the twelve volumes of the Letters in the Thirties. Moreover, Scott kept a journal from November, 1825, when his finances collapsed, till April, 1832, six months before …

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Reading Scott November 18, 1971