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People Don't Read Scott Any More

This article by Brian Nellist appeared in the very first issue of The Reader and was recommended in issue 25 by Jane Davis, who is a founder of the magazine and was its editor for ten years. Brian Nellist was a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool University and has been on the editorial board of the magazine from the start. Back issues of the magazine and subscriptions are available here.

People Don’t Read Scott Any More

The first part of To the Lighthouse ends with Mrs Ramsey returning to her knitting and Mr Ramsey, that would be Eminent Victorian, reading Scott. Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page. He is a writer himself and fears that automatic dismissal by changes in intellectual priorities implied by ‘people don’t read’. Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, had opened his article on Scott in his Hours in a Library by asking ‘whether he is still read” and while he was writing the entry on him for The Dictionary of National Biography noted in The Mausoleum Book, the private record of his life left to his children, that he would like his last years to be like Sir Walter’s, working to the end. Virginia Woolf’s own novels express in a new shape how strong and confident personalities feel their isolation in time and are vulnerable to changes in their world and that is also what is a more fundamental issue in Scott than his delight in strange adventures.

Scott, that is, would have accepted his own comparative neglect today much more dispassionately than those who love him (the word is deliberate) can do. Tansley’s brisk dismissal identifies a problem for all readers of literature. It is not difficult to persuade people that Eliza Haywood, Nathaniel Lee, John Clare or May Sinclair have been neglected: the problem lies in insisting that Sidney, Dryden, Matthew Arnold or even Wordsworth, say, are not in some sense alternatives who can now be discarded. There never has been a static list of great names, a canon, which denies entry to gate-crashers as literary arrivistes. The idea is a fairly recent discovery of politicised critics to cast writers once admired in the role of aristocrats oppressive of dissenting talents: a la lanterne. Actually, the once great writer loses his status less by reasoned obligation than by cold neglect. Scott would, of course, have to be mentioned in any old-fashioned literary history concerned with origins since not only Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy would have written differently without him but so would Balzac, Tolstoy and even Proust.

But we don’t read, though we may study, in order to understand historical importance. Sir Leslie Stephen claimed incautiously and grandly:

What you really have in the picture or the poem is the painter or the poet whom it brings into sympathy with you across the gulf of time. He tells you what are the thoughts which some fragment of natural scenery or some incident of human life excited in a mind greatly wiser and more perceptive than your own.

Though we wouldn’t use these terms today, the implication for reading remains valid, demanding in attentive trustfulness of the text, an expectation of discovery, with which prior conceptions should not he allowed to interfere. In response to Tansley’s dismissal, Mr Ramsey reads, with total absorption; ‘His lips twitched. It filled him. It fortified him.’ Egotist as he is, he has the generosity to find another life within his own while he reads:

This man’s strength and sanity, his feeling for straight-forward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old creature in Mucklebrackit’s cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something, that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears.

Manifestly, Virginia Woolf’s image of a Victorian man reading does not make him merely uncritical in his response: he needs a literature that will repay the absorbed attentiveness he gives it.

The answer to Tansley’s taunt is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading. It is evidently chapter 31 of The Antiquary that Mr Ramsey has turned to, the funeral of Stevie Mucklebrackit. He has been a minor character in the novel, assistant to his fisherman father, son of a wild and ‘masculine’ mother, grandchild to the sublime and senile Elspeth. He has drowned while fishing in a storm and now lies in his coffin on his own bed. Jonathan Oldbuck, laird of Monkbams, the antiquary of the title, comes to the cottage to attend the burial. Mr Ramsey, always in competition with his own sons, with Virginia Woolf’s truth of insight, is made to read a passage about a father, unused to expressing his feelings, losing his eldest son:

At a little distance stood the father, whose rugged, weather-beaten countenance, shaded by his grizzled hair, had faced many a stormy night and night-like day. He was apparently revolving his loss in his mind, with that strong feeling of painful grief peculiar to harsh and rough characters, which almost breaks forth into hatred against the world, and all that remain in it, after the beloved object is withdrawn. The old man had made the most desperate efforts to save his son and had only been withheld by main force from renewing them at a moment when without the possibility of assisting the sufferer, he must himself have perished. All this apparently was boiling in his recollection. His glance was directed sidelong towards the coffin as to an object on which he could not steadfastly look, and yet from which he could not withdraw his eyes.

How different from the writing of the novel in which Mr Ramsey himself appears this is and the difference lies partly in the apprehension of time, Virginia Woolf writes out of the sense of the momentary shifting of consciousness, with the page transcribing always the present, where in Scott it is like understanding afterwards, a scene visually recomposed in the tranquility of recollection. Twice Scott uses ‘apparently’ to remind us that we cannot actually pretend to become the old father himself and we are made to surmise his feelings by reference to an assumed wide experience of other seemingly stern characters resentful of being brought at last and too late to acknowledge their feelings. The tender words Mucklebrackit needs the author to say for him are made in terms totally alive to his own vocabulary, ‘beloved object’, The emotion is itself less apparent than hatred which is not quite that either, because what we really see is the ‘boiling’, the storm of inexpressible extremes tearing him apart, The ‘almost’ is like the ‘sidelong’ look by which he forces himself to see the coffin (‘directed’) without actually looking.

Scott wrote fast and it is the order in which the details occur in a paragraph which makes his points, as a fastidiously chosen diction would in a slower writer. For the watcher of that scene the father’s face is a history of the storms he’s suffered but for himself his mind is fixed on that single storm which is the reader’s first clear knowledge in the novel of what has happened and his memory that he was prevented from going after Steenie one more time; cooler heads, gifted with Scott’s own prudence, had made the decision that he was ‘without the possibility of assisting the sufferer’. But Scott’s own imprudence replies that wasn’t a ‘sufferer’; it was his son.

We are not expected to identify with the father but to see him as in a picture, Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. This scene is witnessed by the laird and compared to a picture by David Wilkie, the Scottish game painter. The detachment induced by that preliminary reference could easily be read as the patronage extended to the poor by the Laird of Abbotsford on behalf of the feudally-minded reader. But Scott both understands the economic argument (Mrs Mucklebrackit has earlier haggled with Monkbarns over the price of fish caught at the risk of human life) yet still wishes to insist on the human connections as well as the separateness. When, at the end of the chapter, the father cannot move to take his expected place with the bearers at the head of the coffin, Oldbuck silently assumes that post and is blest by one of the fishwives with the invocation of the same economic facts. Though the seas should storm, says old Alison Breck, she would set out herself so that ‘His honour Monkbams should never want six warp [two dozen] of oysters in the season’.

Scott is not oblivious of ideologies but too sceptical of their capacity (including his own constantly parodied conservatism), to give any final account of how lives have to be lived. But he is just as cautious about any supposed identification from within. The German psychologist Theodor Lipps thought that our pleasure in any object primarily offered to our senses lay in our identification with it, in its reconstitution in our own experience, so that instead of two identities there is a single passionate blending, einfuhling, which, according to OED, since around 1904 we have in English called ’empathy’. Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. Mrs Mucklebrackit, a fierce woman, is appalled by the intensity of her husband’s refusal to grieve openly and sends one of the other children over to tempt him to eat but the father thrusts the boy away so violently that he frightens him. His next action is:

to snatch up the boy and devour him with kisses. ‘Ye’ll be a bra’ fellow, an ye be spared, Patie – but ye’ll never – never can be – what he was to me! – He has sailed the coble wi’ me since he was ten years auld, and there wasna the like o’him drew a net betwixt this and Buchan-ness. – They say folks mun submit – I will try.’

At the moment the father expresses his love for his living son, the hunger of his love replacing any need for food, he also has to be unjust to him for the sake of the 500 that he’s lost. Cruel to Patie, we may think, but even crueller to the father if he was not allowed to say this.

Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t. Elspeth, the senile mother, for example, has lived, we know, as waiting woman and confidante to the Countess of Glenallan, the head of the local great family. When, according to custom, wine is offered to the Monkbams and all in the cottage, memories of former grander days pierce Elspeth’s mental mist and she suddenly rises to offer the toast:

‘Wishing a’ your healths, sir, and often may we hae such merry meetings!’
All shrunk from the ominous pledge, and set down the untasted liquor with a degree of shuddering horror.

But old Elspeth does drink and it is the taste of the wine which reminds her of the cause and returns her to ‘the apathy of her usual unconsciousness’. One of the original reviewers admiring the passage called her ‘a female Struldbrugg’, the characters in Gulliver’s Travels who are cursed with immortality without perpetual youth, and even Mr Ramsey thinks of her as ‘the poor old creature’. Yet the violence of the pathos may strike us as typical of Scott’s sacrifices to extreme effects. There is another reason, however, which requires a longer explanation. Scott conceives his characters as separated even from those they are closest to by their distinct histories. Their lives are rooted in what have become secrets that make them appear incomprehensible or, as here, dismissable as a medical condition.

Elspeth has not lost her memory, however, but lives entirely within one particular moment of it that we discover two chapters later and which makes her not fey but finally understood. The Glenallans are a Catholic family surrounded by Protestant hostility, excluded from politics, burying their own dead by night to avoid disturbance ‘by the law and the commons of Fairport’, the local town. It is the dowager Countess through whom the title has come down and she has already seen her younger son inherit his father’s English estate and surrender his religion. The elder son wishes to marry another English intruder, Eveline Vernon, a relative of the father living in the house. The Countess persuades her son that she is his half-sister not realising he has in secret already married her. Lord Geraldin goes abroad in horror and Eveline, who has already fled the house, walking the cliffs waiting for her husband to return and ignorant of what he’s been told, falls from them one murky day, witnessed by Elspeth on the beach:

‘I saw a white object dart frae the top o’ the cliff like a sea mew through the mist, and then a heavy splash and sparkle of the waters showed it was a human creature that had fa’en into the waves.’

Eveline gives birth to a child prematurely before dying and the baby is given with Elspeth’s aid to the Countess’s Spanish attendant to be destroyed.

For Scott much of the primary activity of the mind of his characters is governed by visual impressions and the startling clarity of his images, as here, is not a matter simply of an admiration for the picturesque but of a moment of undiminished terror always present at the back of Elspeth’s mind. Earlier in the novel before we understand it, she has remembered Eveline, ‘wi’ her long hair dreeping wi’ the salt water’ and at once asks ‘Is my son out wi’ the coble this windy e’en’. It’s understandable that the anonymous reviewer in The Lady’s Magazine should have complained about ‘the illiberality of appropriating dark and horrible doings to Catholic families’. But that is to miss the point. The English girl who didn’t know what was involved in her laughter at Scottish language and custom or her indifferent response to religion has for the Countess and Elspeth become the representative of everything that threatens the survival of what has taken three hundred years of struggle to maintain, of what is turning Scotland into an English province. This has already brought changes which mean that such fierce loyalties are now themselves almost the subject for study by an antiquary. Scott is not primarily a moralist, as the critical reviewer implied he should be precisely because what Lady Glenallan did was always self-evidently wrong yet had seemed at the time, terrible though it was, the only way out. The Glenallans, because of their cultural isolation, had always been a law to themselves.

In her secret mind, then, as we discover two chapters later, all through the funeral chapter Elspeth had been with Lady Glenallan, and especially so since Lady Glenallan is now herself dead, refusing consolation from the minister, for example, because secretly Catholic herself and because of her unconfessed obsession with the events of twenty years before. Life is rendered by Scott as a surface of discontinuities and sudden intrusions, violations of the expected which become, when we know more, understandable. Elspeth’s congratulatory cackle at the funeral conceals a deeper terror that she is responsible for the death. It is as though Scott takes as normal to life the supernatural events of The Mysteries of Udolpho which later turn out to be the misunderstandings of rational happenings but gives that process of delayed discovery a more serious foundation. In place of the continuities of thought, he gives us the comic surprise or the pain, as here, of the world outside breaking in upon the individual. His strength lies in dialogue but chapter 81 is mainly empty of voices. Another of the moments of intrusive action is the creak of the screwmills going into the coffin lid, preparatory to its being borne from the cottage. Only Scott would notice a detail like that and only Scott would then explain that no religious words accompanied it because of the Scottish dislike of the Roman and English burial rites. The detail seems obtrusive, utterly real, but belongs finally within the massive act of understanding the novel offers.

This is not the complex plotting of a Wilkie Collins novel with its eye maybe too clearly on providing puzzles to entertain the reader. But the sense of secret forces at work to disrupt the apparently everyday sorrows and pleasures of life lies behind situations often criticised in the Victorian novel, Margaret Hale’s mutinous brother in North and South, Mordecai and the whole Jewish section of Daniel Deronda for example. Yet that sense in a Scott novel that few of the characters understand what is shaping their lives, for all the ‘unlikely” situations it depends on, is for me totally convincing. In the Poetics, Aristotle argues for an art of probability but then suddenly admits the possibility of the opposite ‘because it is probable that the improbable will occur’. Improbable is what the past looks like to the present which sees it the wrong way round, shorn of the logic that justified it at the time. Characters in Scott are often incapable of explaining themselves because they have too long depended on a forgotten momentum to drive them forwards; habit may limit but it is a source of energy as well as at times, as to Elspeth, of a great weariness. The mother and son in this chapter both mourn the loss of Steenie yet their shared feeling drives them further apart because the grief comes from such different sources. Yet Scott refuses to surrender to a belief in the inevitability of isolation. However tortuous the process, the novel is become an explanation which makes of the characters a single community, united at last in the reader’s mind by an eventual comprehension of their relations. The warmth and the coolness of understanding in that process are there in Monkbarns at the very end of this chapter where he returns to the cottage after the burial out of ‘compassion’ but also led by ‘a curiosity which induces us to seek out what gives us pain to witness’.

In her essay ‘How one should read a book’ in the second Common Reader, Virginia Woolf points out the consistency of the reality of great novelists, including Scott in her list:

Different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book.

It is because Scott is so unmistakably and consistently and irreplaceably himself that the failure to read does him and his novels no harm–he and they can wait if they must–but it certainly robs us of a unique, large-hearted and profound mode of understanding.


By Brian Nellist

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