November 29, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

In Defense of Walter Scott

In E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a book made up of a series of lectures the author gave at Cambridge in 1927 and which I’ve discussed on this blog a few times before, Forster spends a good portion of his first chapter making fun of nineteenth century historical novelist Walter Scott, and in particular his 1816 novel The Antiquary, which Scott said was his personal favorite. Forster is of course not alone in his negative assessment of Walter Scott. Today, most people regard Scott as a minor nineteenth century novelist, not as psychologically insightful as Austen nor as socially conscious as Dickens, and associated mostly with flat characters, excessive sentimentality, wild historical inaccuracies, and a Romantic love of Scotland bordering on the volkishly nationalistic.

My own introduction to Walter Scott came in my ninth-grade high school English class, when during a discussion of Huckleberry Finn our teacher pointed out that the steamboat that sinks the middle of the novel is called the “Walter Scott”—Twain’s way of mocking the historical novelist whose Romantic excesses he was challenging with his realist novel. Thus, for a long time, I thought of Walter Scott as my English teacher had described him, the kind of bad novelist whom better writers would rightfully mock.

But when I read The Antiquary (after being inspired to, ironically, by E.M. Forster’s devastating critique), I realized that we’ve all been terribly mistaken about Sir Walter. Far from being an excessively sentimental and mediocre Romantic novelist, Scott is actually a comic genius, and The Antiquary is his satirical masterpiece—an amusing critique of Scottish nationalism, a deconstruction of the tropes of the novels of the day, and ultimately—yes, I really mean this—a postmodern commentary on narrative and history.

E.M. Forster’s main critique of The Antiquary appears in a chapter he entitles “The Story.” According to Forster, “the story” is the most basic and least interesting aspect of a novel, “a tapeworm,” to use his metaphor, that runs the length of the novel and holds it together. Simply put, the story is the thing which gets readers to want to know what happens next—and according to Forster, Walter Scott is the kind of novelist who can write a good story but can do nothing else. Forster then gives a lengthy and snarky summary of The Antiquary to show how the novel might keep us asking the question “And then?” but doesn’t offer anything else in terms of depth of character or emotion. And in Forster’s retelling, the central storyline of The Antiquary does indeed appear ridiculous: a young, genteel, and mysterious man named Lovel appears in Scotland and meets a host of thinly developed characters, including Sir Arthur Wardour (“old family, bad manager”) and his daughter Isabella (“haughty”), with whom Lovel is in love. From here, various things happen: Sir Arthur and Isabella get trapped on a cliff and then are rescued by Lovel, Lovel fights a duel and then goes into hiding, a shady German treasure hunter tries to swindle Sir Arthur of his money, and the sad Catholic nobleman Lord Glenallan learns a long-kept secret about the woman he loved and married when he was young but who’d committed suicide after discovering that she was actually Lord Glenallan’s half-sister (the secret Lord Glenallan now learns is that she wasn’t actually his half-sister, and that his mother had only spread the lie because she was opposed to him marrying an Englishwoman and a Protestant, and also that before she died she’d fathered a son who’d survived). Eventually, reports circulate the town that the French are coming to attack (it’s the 1790s and everyone is terrified of the Jacobin armies of the French Revolution), Lovel returns with a contingent of British troops, and everything is resolved when Lovel reveals his true name and it’s discovered that he’s actually Lord Glenallan’s long-lost son. And so, he marries Isabella, and the novel ends.

Told like this, it is clearly a ridiculous story. But, to judge The Antiquary on its story, as Forster does, is to miss Scott’s point entirely. The story is simply a collection of common gothic and sentimental tropes Scott uses as his novel’s frame—a guilt-ridden nobleman, a family secret, duels, foreign armies, secret parentage, and a marriage-ending that restores the social order. More importantly, Scott seems to go out of his way to spend as few pages as he can on this actual story—Lord Glenallan isn’t introduced until over halfway through the novel, Lovel himself disappears for almost two hundred pages, and Isabella is only present in one or two scenes. And so, amusing as it is, Forster’s summary misses what the novel is actually about, and it’s telling that he never actually describes the true central character—Jonathan Oldbuck, the titular antiquary.

While Oldbuck doesn’t figure at all in “the story” of The Antiquary—he has no character arc and no central conflict—he is the novel’s most vivid character, and most of the text is taken up with his ramblings, long digressions that go on for pages in which he discusses various topics from Agricola’s invasion of Scotland during Roman times to the etymological origins of various contemporary idioms to the history of Scotland’s noble families as evident in their heraldry. Most importantly, Oldbuck is presented as a foil to Dousterswivel, the novel’s primary villain, a German treasure hunter who believes in alchemy and who cons Sir Arthur Wardour into investing large sums of money in various foolhardy ventures, such as using magic to discover treasure hidden in the ruins of St. Ruth’s Priory, a key location in the novel, meant to evoke the eerie settings of gothic novels of the time. Naturally, Oldbuck views Dousterswivel with skepticism and helps expose him to Sir Arthur as a fraud, thus saving the hapless nobleman from financial ruin. Oldbuck therefore represents good old-fashioned Enlightenment values, since behind the gothic facade of ruins and mystical enchantments, there is nothing that a rational historian can’t explain. In this way, The Antiquary is actually a critique of Romantic tropes.

Additionally, through Oldbuck, Scott’s also critiques the Romantic nationalism he’s often accused by his critics of promoting—for though Oldbuck is a Scottish landowner, he actually traces his lineage back to a German printer who was expelled from his country during the Protestant Reformation for printing the Augsburg Confession. Thus, this character who the novel sees as the preserver of Scottish history is actually the descendent of a German immigrant, whereas the Scottish noblemen with ancient lineages like Sir Arthur are depicted as gullible fools. Moreover, the novel also does its best to satirize Scotland’s conception of its own glorious past—far from being a Braveheart-like celebration of military prowess, the novel is mostly filled with legal contracts and old documents. The real hero is not the descendant of warriors but of a printer. Even the ending, when everyone arms themselves believing that the French are coming to attack, turns into a comic jest when it’s revealed that the whole thing was a false alarm. All that Scottish nationalism and bluster turns out to be for nothing—Walter Scott’s ultimate climactic joke.

Most importantly, The Antiquary has a very postmodern approach the idea of history and narrative. The flimsy storyline about Lovel’s secret parentage and Lord Glenallan’s first wife rests on the revelation of the poor old fisherwoman Elspeth Mucklebackit, who helped Glenallan’s mother keep the secret, and Oldbuck’s ability to piece together the whole story. Essentially, the difference between Lovel being the bastard spawn of accidental incest and the legitimate heir to the Glenallan name rests on the memory of an old woman and our Antiquary hero’s ability to make meaning from the clues she’s left behind. What Scott is thus saying is that narrative meaning, in this case the story that outwardly conforms to a traditional sentimental novel’s plot line, is in fact the construct of a historian—for, without Oldbuck, the titular antiquary, the narrative would not have been brought together and no one would have been able to connect Elspeth’s revelations, Lovel’s identity, and Glenallan’s secret. The fact that the story feels so ridiculous, as Forster noted, and hastily cobbled together is really Soctt’s way of suggesting how tenuous the whole thing is. Thus, the apparently conservative storyline, in which the hero is revealed to be a nobleman all along and the traditional social order is upheld through marriage, is in fact a subversive postmodern joke about the flimsiness of all such narratives and how much they rely upon constructed histories.

In his afterword to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco suggests that what we call
“postmodernism” is actually a meta-historical category, and that many time periods have literary reactions in which authors point out the constructedness and artificiality of the current literary forms. Thus, it’s not at all anachronistic to argue that Scott, at least with The Antiquary, is postmodern. After all, realist writers like Twain and Forster criticize Scott for many of the same reasons that contemporary critics like James Wood criticize Thomas Pynchon—flat characters, unreal situations, and an overall lack of psychological depth. But postmodernists aren’t concerned with psychological depth and certainly aren’t concerned with realism. Walter Scott is not trying to convince us that Lovel or Oldbuck or Glenallan are real. They are obviously comic types, exaggerated in order to make a larger point about the artifice of history—for just like Oldbuck, Scott himself is also an antiquary, piecing together the fragments of history into the semblance of a coherent narrative, but doing so in such a way that he, just like any good postmodern novelist, never lets us forget that the whole thing is just his construction.