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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 he died: this text has been available since 1950.

The only important source from which Johnson has drawn new material is the mass of manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland, especially family letters and publishers’ letters, and they do little more than fill in details of stomach complaints, money worries, and the like. The one point that struck me forcibly was the greed of Robert Cadell, partner with Archibald Constable in the firm that published most of Scott from 1813 onward (including all his novels). But Cadell’s unattractive candor was already recorded in Grierson’s Scott: ” ‘Strange to think that all the Ballantynes and Constable are gone…I came here a raw young man of twenty-one in the winter of 1809-10, and have cuckooed all these men out of their nests.’ ” To this Johnson adds a gleaning from a letter two days after Scott died: ” ‘Money I love, I always avow it.’ ”

Johnson’s book, then, consists of sheer, or mere, accumulation. It depends on a vast and accurate card index. It makes few demands on the imagination or on psychological insight or judgment. At times when I felt I would never get out of the jungle of facts I began to think that the book should have been written in the form of a calendar of Scott’s life, made up solely of entries like:

25.12.1811: Scotts spend Christmas with the Scotts of Harden, eat geese with apple sauce, duck, chicken, turkey, Westphalian ham, codlins in cream, strawberries and raspberries in Bordeaux, cheese cakes and tarts, syllabub, and white and red wine.

or

14.3.1826: Scott writes in Journal: “read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice…. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and of the sentiment, is denied to me.”

Instead Johnson has aspired to the opulent and congratulatory style suitable for an American Heritage Biography Prize winner. He has poured over the facts a thick sauce of Prose and garnished them with elaborate Scholarship. What he has not done is to develop a satisfactory study of the character of Scott and his family and friends or a thoughtful social history of his times.

To take these points in order: When Scott was twenty-one he fell in love with Williamina Belsches, the only daughter of a rich lawyer and landowner, who had a title. Scott stayed with the family and wrote ardent letters until it was made plain that the lame son of an Edinburgh lawyer with a still tiny legal practice of his own had no business to be going after an heiress. Scott’s energy was so overweening that he never idled in the pursuit of what he wanted, whether it was slates from a historic ruin for his new house, a new vein of best-selling work when the old showed signs of being worked out, or a wife. When he met a pretty, or at least interesting, French girl of mysterious origins at a Border spa, he soon proposed to her and was accepted.

Obviously we want to know what she was like. Apparently her manner struck people as odd, and apparently their marriage was faithful and contented enough. But we are not told what she was like until page 814, which is 560 pages or twenty-six years after the wedding. Luckily, the sharp-witted novelist Maria Edgeworth visited them in Edinburgh and wrote in a letter:

Lady Scott is very civil & always crowned with large full blown roses—and the oddest dressed out French large black-eyed brown-skinned & rouged figure I ever saw, her hands are always in motion picking at some imaginary pin in her sash, or touching herself here & there as if she was picking off hairs & getting out her broken French English sentences all the while making a prodigious number of faces with as much difficulty as if she had not landed from France above a week….

At last we are given the description for which we have been gasping for the previous 659 pages. An intelligent biographer would surely have used this item early on, whereas Johnson, being the slave of chronology, waits until it occurs in time.

In place of coherence and timing, we are given purple prose and brimming details. In the second week of March, 1806, we are told, Scott was welcomed home from London “joyfully” by Charlotte, Sophia, “now growing into a big girl,” and by his two greyhounds, Douglas and Percy, “eagerly bounding about.” Is this a fact? No, because it was not recorded. Is it an insight? Hardly, because it is obvious that Scott would be fondly received by his family after he had been away in London for two months. The purple mercifully fades as the book wears on and hard facts take over entirely. Still, it is hard to have confidence in the literary skill of a biographer-critic who can write sentences like “When the board was cleared, fair lips did not hesitate to taste the punch. Gay sallies mingled with witticisms not always of the most delicate….”

Scott’s brimming activities and interests and acquaintanceship seem to have overwhelmed his biographer. Once you decide that you are going to record everything, you are as good as drowned in your card index. For Scott was something like Winston Churchill. Both had an unlimited appetite for drink and tobacco and company and conversation. One can hardly call such men greedy because they are so unthinking and so generous. They are forever getting up when the whole house is asleep and dashing off sixty pages, or telling stories until four o’clock in the morning, or riding furiously across the hills and bogs, and laughing when a distinguished visitor falls waist-deep into a moss-boil.

Such people are men of action, and if they cannot actually lead a charge and saber a few Arabs or Turks, they need some substitute. Political experts often say that Churchill was a maverick with abundant talents but not the consistency or authority to become a leader in peacetime politics; fortunately the Second World War broke out and Churchill could stop writing his long-winded histories and laying bricks for his garden wall and could harness his energy to working out bold global strategies and booming encouragingly at his subjects over the radio.

That writing was a surrogate for Scott both Grierson and Johnson virtually concede. Johnson likens Scott to Redmond, the hero of The Lord of the Isles. “Redmond,” he writes, “is the young Walter Scott who galloped his black charger along the surge on Portobello sands, cracked the skulls of the Irish brawlers in the Edinburgh Theatre, and hacked with his sword at the Tranent rioters.” Unfortunately the implications of the statement have escaped Johnson.

Scott was a doer, not an artist brooding on his inner self and experiences. He wrote in one of his self-revelations about which Johnson is understandably nervous: “What a strange scene if the surge of conversation could suddenly ebb like the tide, and [show] us the state of people’s real minds!… Life could not be endured were it seen in reality” (Journal for December 21, 1825).

What D.H. Lawrence in his essay on Galsworthy wrote about critics is equally true of artists: they “must be emotionally alive in every fibre, intellectually capable and skilful in essential logic, and then morally very honest.” It seems to me that because Scott backed away from emotional honesty his imaginative works, even his novels, are barely art at all. They are the superabundant by-products of a youth spent galloping through the Border hills and drinking half the night with sheep farmers who could sing the ballads. This apprenticeship produced one of the major collections of British folksong and then, unfortunately, the pseudo-epics, Marmion and the rest, whose interminable jingle and jog-trot numbed me with boredom when I was fourteen.

Scott’s middle age was spent partly on legal practice, partly in compulsively acquiring and reading every antiquarian document he could set eyes on. This was his prime: he was able to write the only works of his that manage to sustain, for a few pages at a time, a creative level of intensity and actuality—Rob Roy, Old Mortality, The Heart of Mid-Lothian. His old age he spent tragically: writing desperate hack-work from dawn to dusk in order to pay in full a debt which was not all his fault and which most men would have settled by going bankrupt. At the same time his wells of native experience were running dry and for works like Ivanhoe and Kenilworth and Woodstock he resorted to book-knowledge and melodrama.

This book, then, contributes a whole life to the social history of the age from 1770 to 1830. It does not contribute to literary understanding. Fortunately Scott’s life was so extraverted that a biographer is never at a loss in describing it, as he might be with an artist who lived largely in his imagination. Scott’s life was not a sequence of intense experiences whose smallest details are valuable, as is surely true of Beethoven, Tolstoy, Van Gogh, Conrad, Picasso, Lawrence, and Brecht. Lawrence is the kind of artist whose casual self-expression, conversations, and letters are so suggestive that we need them whole, and Stravinsky is another.

Scott is not in that league at all. He was a caricature of the country gentleman of late eighteenth-century vintage, in his multiplicity of interests, his confident use of contacts in high places (Scott always had someone to turn to when he wanted advancement for his sons and nephews or a sinecure for himself or a penniless friend), and in his openhanded affluence mixed with business sense (whether he was letting local boys come into his woods to gather nuts at a time when other landlords were setting man-traps, or laying on road-making jobs for the local poor during the periodic slumps). The tragedy of Scott’s bankruptcy is well-known, but it should also be noted that, however impoverished, Scott kept the full use of a huge country house and its estates and equipment, and when he had to sell his Edinburgh house he was able to take with him to Abbotsford 350 dozen bottles of wine and thirty-six dozen of spirits.

A book so stuffed with information can at least serve others as source material. It may also have the harmful effect of encouraging people to waste their intellectual lives in the arid wastes of Scott’s collected works. Obviously this judgment is debatable, and for the detailed grounds of it I must refer the reader to Part II of my Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830 (1961). Professor Johnson has attempted fourteen chapters of literary criticism but the results are embarrassing—works are puffed with the word “masterpiece” loosely used, characters are praised on moral grounds, and plots are uncritically paraphrased. The standard is well below what I expect, and get, from undergraduates.

Scott was by nature too shallow in his approach to human experience and by habit too clumsy and thoughtless in his use of words to compose a single successful work of fiction, long or short. This has been the judgment of Carlyle and Taine and Leslie Stephen and F. R. Leavis. It also seems to be the judgment of the common reader, although this bicentenary year will no doubt yield a crop of reprints and unnecessary criticism.

Letters

Reading Scott November 18, 1971

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