Tuesday, 14 August 2012

My foray into Sir Walter Scott

Before this, I had never read a line by Sir Walter Scott. Though that isn't strictly true, I did look up certain quotations by him in Charlotte Brontë and analysed them. But I went to this really cool secondhand bookshop in Truro (I'm doing an internship in Cornwall), which shares the same building as a place called Charlotte's Tea Shop, famed for its Victorian-style decor.

The building which contains Charlotte's Tea House, Truro
I'm a sucker for anything Victorian. Heck, if you even showed me a Victorian toilet I'd probably go ecstatic. Anyway I was hoping for a Cornish tea (it involves scones, clotted cream and jam and tea) but they had run out of scones so I had an egg custard and strawberry milkshake.

Interior of Charlotte's Tea House

egg custard
That wasn't the main point, though it was a pleasant sit on those seats with old-fashioned fabric, the red floral sort I believe. Right next door is the second-hand bookshop with old books at quite reasonable prices. They also sell Victorian photographs and stamps if you want, though you will leave with your wallet much lighter. The real steal are the books. They're stored in wooden cabinets, yes the old ones you may have seen in your grandparents' house. What amazed me was the lack of surveillance. But the British seem to be trustful of everyone, especially if they're booksellers.

I saw leatherbound volumes, some in good hard material, some in soft leather, copies of Tennyson, or Byron (That one comes with an introduction by Matthew Arnold who asserts Byron is a major literary figure and not an idiot the Victorians supposed him to be), even Mrs Hemans, a bestselling Romantic poet who is now obscure to most except literary scholars.  The Mrs Hemans was £ 7.50 I think but the quality of the poems wasn't good enough to make me want to buy it. I'm researching into the Romantic era because partly I want to understand the Brontës' influence, also I'm writing a story set in it.   If you want to know what people in that era read, don't read Wordsworth and Keats, read Byron, Mrs Hemans and Scott. Oh, and I forgot to mention several volumes of Scott. There was a softcover leather one that wasn't cheap, neither was my copy (I think it was £24).  But worth every penny I paid. It's an 1872 edition with an introduction by Francis Turner Palgrave, a well-known scholar. The cover seems to be dark navy blue or indigo and there's a purple bookmark ribbon inside, the pages are lined with some golden material. It must have cost a great deal when it was first sold, and I understand these sort of books were over a pound back then which means tens of pounds today, beyond most readers' incomes. Also a 1922 edition of Matthew Arnold's poems. Now Arnold is scarcely spoken of in mainstream poetry circles, unless you happen to study literature or are well-read. Lots of people know Tennyson and Browning, but Matthew Arnold seems to be a minor figure. Well, he was a well-respected poet in the Victorian era - known for Dover Beach. His forte was to criticise the times he lived in, which makes him a very topical poet, at least for his time. But his topicalness is why he is not as immortal as Tennyson and Browning, who either revered some chivalric code, or immortalised grief and passion, or dramatised people's emotions. Browning is the most "literary" among them in his perception of varied characters, something even many Victorians couldn't do. In this way he's like Jane Austen, though Jane Austen was shrewd rather than intense. She saw people's motives, understood them, wrote about them realistically, but unlike Browning, she wouldn't go deep into their feelings. Deep empathy is a Victorian invention. I doubt Austen could write about a crazed murderer from his point of view, or describe to us an intellectual, anguished soul.  Mainstream was her byword, which makes it extremely realistic. Thus Fanny Price is really an achievement for someone so mainstream. But I'm rambling now.

I didn't have very much cash with me, so I hesitated to buy, but the proprietor, who is a balding, middle-aged man of refined voice and appearance (I notice many second-hand bookshops with decent old books have these sort of proprietors. I wonder why?) said he would sell me these two for £25. So I bought them. Here they are.

I looked over Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel and now I understand why it captivated so many readers of its time.  Scott is actually easy reading for poetry, his words are fairly simple and straightforward. He is descriptive, which adds to the picture he's trying to convey. But the description is far easier to stomach than Keats, though Keats is the better poet. It is a tale of chivalry and daring and revenge - which reminds me of those poor blighted souls who swear by Twilight. There's also an element of Gothic fantasy, which is far more than I can say for Twilight.  There's plot, adventure, love, violence, and castles - who wouldn't want? But you wouldn't have to analyse it the way you would Keats and Wordsworth, which is why Scott remains a minor poet. A lesser mortal, however, wouldn't find it boring as Wordsworth - understandably.

£25 is not the sort of money a struggling undergraduate should be throwing away on books - we normally get paperbacks. But I don't feel cheated at all. A new clothbound Penguin edition would cost £15 each and if I'd got 2 of those that makes £30. I have 2 leather books for £5 less, and what's more, they're old editions which makes them potentially more valuable.  I told my friend (who knows a bit about finding old books) about the good value I got for an old edition and he was envious. Though if they're sitting in a bookshop for less than a few hundred, one wonders how much they'll appreciate in value, so my friend's envy might be a little misplaced.

Why you should read Sir Walter Scott:
1. Jane Austen admired him. He admired her as well. Now Jane Austen derided Gothicism but the fact she liked Scott despite his Gothic stereotypes shows you something
2. Charlotte Brontë loved his works. Several of his quotes appear in Jane Eyre, and in The Professor, Scott excites Frances' ardent imagination.
3. He was friends with Maria Edgworth, whose bestselling books (far more intellectual than most books of her time, and in many ways more penetrating than Frankenstein, that overrated classic) were admired by Jane Austen.
4. He can really describe an abbey, the interiors of a castle, and chivalric knights
5. He popularised the historical novel genre. Because of him we have bestselling crap like The Other Boleyn Girl.
6. Without him it is likely we wouldn't have Jane Eyre. Now this one is likely true. Jane Eyre is noticeably more Gothic and Romantic than Charlotte's other novels, and during and before her time Gothic novels were derided as mass pulp fiction. The difference was, an intelligent author now wrote intelligent issues, a well-crafted heroine using a Gothic setting and an abundance of poetry championing the Romantic era. She made the Gothic novel a respectable genre - see Dracula, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rebecca.

Interestingly Scott's son-in-law was the caustic critic John Gibson Lockhart who I believe was unduly harsh to the Cockney school of poets. Scott was a mild, benign old man, which makes you wonder how the two got on. Especially since Scott was considered popular stuff rather than truly highbrow literature. Still he was respected (I suppose you could compare him to JK Rowling, who though a really awesome novelist, is nothing as intellectual as Pullman and Pratchett or psychologically realistic as Diana Wynne Jones. If Diana Wynne Jones had written for adults she would have revolutionised fantasy as realistic literary fiction. Sadly, she died a year ago. RIP).

I glanced at the Arnold book and the stuff is not bad, only I think he relies too much on Greek learning and books and Victorian social criticism. True natural love is not as abundant as in Wordsworth, he is more rational, more cynical, less Romantic. Which is why even today he is a respected critic among literary circles who still know his name, long after his death.

1 comment:

  1. The only Sir Walter Scott I've read is Ivanhoe - didn't enjoy it when I read it but I loved it when I listened to it afterwards. I tried to read Marmion and Kenilworth but just couldn't get into them.

    I read "The Green Dwarf" - one of the stories that Charlotte Bronte wrote when she was 17 or 18, somewhat modeled on some of Scott's books and it was really good.