Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott was a normal man. I think that's what strikes me most about him--unlike extreme womanizer Byron or heart-rending tragedy Keats, Scott was a Romantic who was really just trying to take care of his family, pay the bills, and somehow live his dream at the same time.

The closest thing that comes to drama in Scott's life was his small romantic intrigue around 1796 that is still a little mystifying. He fell in love with Williamina Belsches, who broke his heart by getting engaged to someone else. Scott married Charlotte Carpenter only a little over a year later. So, historians wonder...was Williamina Scott's one true love, and Charlotte only the rebound?

I'm not an expert or anything, but there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Scott was pining after Williamina all his life. I mean, I was pretty upset when my boyfriend before my husband dumped me, but I'm certainly not pining after that guy. (Not that I'm comparing myself to Sir Walter Scott; just saying, I can understand how it's possible to fall in love with someone else that quickly.)

Scott wasn't first and foremost a writer. He wasn't the type to be woken up in the middle of the night by inspiration and to spend hours feverishly trying to write it all down. He was just your average family man trying to make a decent living. He actually studied law and was admitted to the Scottish Bar, and held two government offices most of his life that provided a fair salary. Scott's writing almost seemed to be more of a hobby/profession than a life's calling to him.

Even so, Scott had an enormous output of writing. He wrote poems and plays in addition to novels. He also wrote a great deal of non-fiction, some that was even added to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. (He wrote a certain Lives of the Novelists which sounds very intriguing.)

Scott's novels came from his love of history. In a way, he gave the public what it wanted by including deeds of virtue and courage in the face of immorality (popular at the time), but his novels are primarily concerned with history. The superficial outer themes disguise the deep inner themes that are the guiding force in the novels. (I don't think I gave Scott nearly enough credit in this post.) It's clear that Scott believed in the crucial importance of connecting with one's ancestors and past.

Scott was pretty successful during the first part of his career, but toward the end of his life his financial situation went tragically downhill and in the end, he lost just about everything, barely holding onto a thread with his writing. Unfortunately, his financial disaster happened almost simultaneously with his wife's death.

It was in his journals, as I was reading Scott's own words about Charlotte's passing, that I was completely convinced that whether or not Scott was madly in love with Charlotte when they were married, he truly loved her at the end of her life. His hopelessness and despair at her passing are heartbreaking.
For myself, I scarce know how, I feel sometimes as firm as the Bass rock sometimes as weak as the wave that breaks on it. . . . when I contrast what this place now is with what it has been not long since I think my heart will break. Lonely--aged--. . . an embarrassed man, I am deprived of the sharer of my thoughts and counsels who could always talk down my sense of the calamitous apprehensions which break the heart that must bear them alone. Even her foibles were of service to me by giving me things to think of beyond my weary self-reflections. 
The one that particularly spoke to me reminded me of my husband. He has seen much more death than I have, and he always avoids viewing the body, for reasons that Scott explains much more eloquently than I could:
I have seen her--The figure I beheld is and is not my Charlotte--my thirty years' companion . . . that yellow masque with pinchd features which seems to mock life rather than emulate it, can it be the face that was once so full of lively expression? I will not look on it again. 
What I loved most about Scott was that he seemed to be such a kind man. He could find it in his heart to feel compassion on anyone, no matter what their place in life or even what they had done; he even felt sorry for the dog, recognizing that animals have their own sorrows to deal with. He loved his family and would do anything for them. He has sometimes been criticized for not putting writing first in his life, but I admire him much more for having his priorities straight. Sir Walter Scott may not have been the Shakespeare of the 19th century, but he was a good writer and a good man.


Walter Scott (Scottish Writers Series, 1)

The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (Canongate Scottish Classics)

Sir Walter Scott: An Edinburgh Keepsake


  1. "He has sometimes been criticized for not putting writing first in his life..."

    That attitude really bugs me. It's like you can't be a Real Writer if you aren't neglecting everyone around you and starving in a garrett. They did the same thing to Trollope when he said it, too--suddenly he was no good anymore. Personally I'd rather live with a Scott than a Milton or a Burns. People matter more than Art, IMO.

    The expectation that Scott would pine over his first lost love also seems unrealistic, like people don't think Victorians were human. First love is a nice romantic trope, but in real life we usually seem to muddle into a permanent relationship after a few false starts. I'd hate to spend eternity with either of my earlier boyfriends, ack!

    1. I agree, on both counts. Being good at life and being good at writing aren't mutually exclusive. Scott said something to the effect of "you only experience true love once," and I think that's partly where people get the idea of his pining over his first love. But he was clearly in love with his wife (or at least believed he was), so I really don't think we can take that meaning from that quote.

  2. I'm a SWS fan, and really enjoyed reading some of his Waverley Novels a few years back. I have The Antiquary up next but still haven't started it. (I'm a pretty slow reader in general, and even slower reading Scott, so it's daunting to begin a new novel of his). Have you read Guy Mannering? That was probably my favorite so far.


    P.S. I have toyed with the idea of starting aSir Walter Scott book club here in town (we would, naturally, hold our meetings at MacNiven's Restaurant :-) ) but I fear I might be the only member...

    1. Ivanhoe is the only SWS I've read so far, and I didn't think I would want to read his other novels but now I think someday I might. Are his other novels as long? I like the idea of a Sir Walter Scott book club; there are probably more SWS junkies out there than we know of... ;)