By Chip Prehn
When I told an English teacher friend that I was going to “do a Scott year,” he leaned forward with narrowed eyelids and asked, “Why?” His and my education in literature had come largely through works of realism, naturalism, and modernism. Most of our instructors in school days found Romanticism passé, and the college professoriate thought it entirely fitting that Mark Twain sank a steamboat named the “Walter Scott” in Huckleberry Finn (1885). So why did I decide to do the Scott year? Not through literary but historical studies I learned that Sir Walter Scott was the most-read author of the 19th century and that some historians hold Scott partly accountable for the American Civil War. Thus, I was curious to know why such a reputation was neglected in my own education.
The fact of Scott’s popularity is confirmed by driving through any part of America settled during the 19th or early 20th century. Lanes, roads, and towns are named after characters or places found in the Waverley novels. The Germans and the French turned Scott’s poems into songs. The Italians wrote operas about the novels. Hollywood made movies. “Ivanhoe” was produced as late as 1982, the late James Mason playing Isaac of York and Olivia Hussey, Rebecca. Scott was still read and admired in my father’s World War Two generation, and I know a grand and sophisticated gentleman of that ilk who says without hesitation that Quentin Durward (1823) is the best book he ever read. So admired was Scott in the English-speaking world that John Lockhart’s official biography — seven volumes published in 1838 — is considered a great work of literature in its own right, often given second place behind James Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Fame often turns to blame. Literary hindsight is 20-20 when a new agenda comes along. Secular righteousness goes dumb in the face of chivalry but is no less proud. To honor the critics, it is true that Scott’s novels are full of romantic love and old-fashioned courtship rituals. The actor Anthony Andrews said in a New York Times interview of his Ivanhoe character for the eponymous 1982 film that Scott made him “a straight-cut hero with no rough edge. Each time he opens his mouth he says something incredibly just. The problem was to turn him into a human being” (February 23, 1982). Okay. But the historical settings of the novels are not, in fact, an idealized world. They happen to be the real world of the seven deadly sins, geo-politics, and courage called forth by challenge. The poems and stories are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to the core. Every artist works in his own time and from his native culture.
We find some anachronisms in Scott’s historical romances. I think we might make some allowances for a writer who published 23 novels in 14 years, and, when a historical solecism was pointed out to Scott by a competent scholar, the author was quick to note the error. Perhaps anachronism allowed Scott to be generous and magnanimous. In The Talisman (1825), for instance, Scott invested Saladin the Sultan with Christian virtues. In Scott’s hands, we meet the Muslim king in three different guises, an ingenious device. Saladin steals the show in many respects. As the mystic medicine man, El Hakim, he heals King Richard the Lionheart of a mysterious malady and offers the court wise sayings. “In the East,” he advises, “wisdom is held to consist less in a display of the sage’s own inventive talents than in his ready memory and happy application of, and reference to, that which is written.”
Scott invests many of his characters with moral goodness and, occasionally, holiness. His heroes and heroines are inspiring. The sheer degradedness and badness of his anti-heroes leaves the strongest impression. The novels are above all about character. Any historical misstep pales in comparison to the moral power of the tales. In fact, it is Scott’s great attention to historical detail that will annoy readers in our own day more than anything else. His rich knowledge of the past can be overwhelming.
The second reason I hoped to read Sir Walter Scott was that I knew Scott had influenced the Tractarians, also known as the Oxford Movement. Darwell Stone (1859–1941), Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, wrote in his famous essay called “Anglo-Catholic Tradition” (1904) that the Romantic Movement in English literature was a veritable “condition” of the Tractarian movement of 1833–1845. The ways and means of the medieval Church had been essentially proscribed in England for hundreds of years. Scott opened up this world to his generation and brought history to life in vivid color, interesting personalities, deep humor, and, often enough, profound wisdom.
Scott’s role in letting a little fresh air into Anglican Christianity was seminal. He remarks in the autobiography that he developed “a love of natural beauty, more especially combined with ancient ruins or remains of our fathers’ piety or splendor.” Scott changed the course of Anglophone history not only by flooding the North Atlantic market and mind with a forgotten world of chivalry and examples of affecting religious devotion; he also made that lost world interesting and attractive. Religious characters such as the Hermit of Engeddi (Talisman) are permanently interesting to the devoted religious person. Scott’s rather expert sketches of monasteries, churches, and liturgies were nothing less than new knowledge to many of his readers on both sides of the Atlantic. His alchemy was to transform history into art. The art altered human behavior. The great Henry Beers of Yale (1847–1926) wrote of him, “He possessed the true enchanter’s wand, the historic imagination. With this in his hand, he raised the dead past to life, made it once more conceivable, made it even actual. Before Scott no genius of the highest order had lent itself wholly or mainly to retrospection.”
My third inspiration to read Walter Scott came unexpectedly. A friend gave me a copy of the Bishoprick Papers (1946) of Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947), the controversial Bishop of Durham. Since I knew that Michael Ramsey valued Henson as a Christian intellectual, I was interested to read the Papers. One of them was composed in 1932 for the hundredth anniversary of Walter Scott’s death. I was surprised to learn that Henson regarded Scott as “second only to Shakespeare” in the history of English literature.
Scott’s phenomenally wide reading — a legitimate if vicarious form of experience — drove him to embrace a more commodious Christianity than the strict Calvinism of his early home. As a young man, he left the kirk to join the Scottish Episcopal Church and became a happy and thoroughly Anglican Scot. His diligent — indeed, practically manic — passion to know the past began with his own family genealogy. His border people had been in succession Celtic pagans, medieval Catholics, Roman Catholics, Knoxian Presbyterians, Covenanting nationalists, Solemn Leaguers, High-Church Cavaliers, semi-religious rationalists, and pious assumers of the Scottish Enlightenment. He made room for these familial commitments in his imagination and became more religiously tolerant than most believers of his age and ilk. (We should recall that generous religious policy in England was effected by the Tory party to which Scott belonged. It was Wellington and Peel, not the Whigs, who successfully enacted Catholic Emancipation in 1829.)
To do everything he wanted to do each day, Scott rose at five o’clock A.M., lit his fire, said his prayers, and worked at his desk for a few hours. Since he loved dogs and hounds, he kept several with him in and out of doors. They loved him and he loved them back by ensuring they were his companions on long walks every day, rain or shine. He sometimes walked thirty miles. Scott was an excellent and daring horseman. He loved hunting, shooting, and coursing, and worked at these sports assiduously. Surely Scott’s childhood handicap (a limp) was completely forgotten when he was mounted on a spirited hunter handled with impressive skill. Scott founded a squadron of light-horse dragoons in the late-1790s, just in case Napoleon succeeded in his long-range plans.
Nothing pleased Scott more than to get friends and acquaintances to Abbotsford, his country estate on the Tweed. He showed his guests good sport in field and stream, and good port. He was lavish in his feasts and perhaps over-generous with anecdotes and songs. Here’s a morsel from “The Chase,” which forms the first canto of The Lady of the Lake.
Yelled on the view the opening pack;
Rock, glen, and cavern paid them back;
To many a mingled sound at once
The awakened mountain gave response.
A hundred dogs bayed deep and strong,
Clattered a hundred steeds along,
Their peal the merry horns rung out,
A hundred voices joined the shout;
With hark and whoop and wild halloo,
No rest Ben Voirlich’s echoes knew.
Happy as he tended to be, he knew all about suffering too. His books sold so well that he risked financial over-extension. Abbotsford was a bottomless pit for expenditures. When Ballantyne his publisher failed, Sir Walter was caught short and went bankrupt. This was a terrible burden from which he barely extricated himself before he died. But characteristically in Scott’s case, this was just a setback. He wrote in The Monastery (1820), “Perhaps the knowledge which causeth not to err is most frequently impressed upon the mind in seasons of affliction. Tears are the softened showers which cause the seed of Heaven to spring and take root in the human breast.”
My Scott year has turned into two, and I shall keep going for a while. I’ve now opened Lockhart’s biography which is first-class reading and includes an amplitude of Scott’s own reflections. I cannot say exactly whence comes the desire in me to enjoy Walter Scott. I say he wrote rollicking fun stories. I say he was not a phony but an artist filled with joie de vivre. He didn’t have a priggish bone in his body and yet avoided anything low-life or degrading. He was fun-loving, generous, and brilliant without pretension. To readers of Covenant I heartily recommend the works of Sir Walter Scott. Any hard work ahead I compare to the quickly learned facility for reading Shakespeare. You won’t be sorry; for, as A.N. Wilson puts it in The Laird of Abbotsford (1989), Scott “was not only a good novelist, he was a good man.”
Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a Director of The Living Church Foundation.