Monday, June 10, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE BRIDE OF LAMMERMOOR” by Sir Walter Scott (first published 1819)
            You will find this a very eccentric statement for a modern and literate person to make, but there was a time when I thought Sir Walter Scott was a good writer.

I have the excuse that I was thirteen or fourteen years old at the time.

I read one of Scott’s shorter effusions – his romance of the Crusades, The Talisman – and I was off reading others of his medieval tales, notably Ivanhoe, which at that age I thought quite wonderful. Why? Partly, I now suspect, because I thought the language was somehow quaint and pretty and I had the vague idea that this was a “classic” and that I was very clever to be reading it.

For a number of weeks I spent the money I earned from my paper round (12 shillings a week delivering the Auckland Star) buying new Collins hardback imprints of novels by Scott. The three or four volumes I bought now sit on the bookshelves of my eldest brother in far-distant Wellington, because I gave them away when I subsequently inherited from my father a handsome, elaborately-bound nineteenth century collected edition of the all novels of Scott. They contain two novels per volume and therefore they have very small print, but they do look handsome on the shelves.

By that stage, I knew enough about Eng Lit to know that Scott was now more praised for his earlier Scottish novels than for his later Hollywoodish medieval efforts. So one summer I set about the mad task of reading his novels in the order in which they were written. I read Waverley, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary and Rob Roy – and then I gave up, wearied by the effort. Later I cracked The Heart of Midlothian and Redgauntlet (because in various surveys of literature I’d seen them cited as his best novels) and The Bride of Lammermoor (because I knew it was the basis of the most famous opera based on Scott – and I also knew there were Lammermoor Hills in New Zealand named after the ones in southern Scotland).

And then I parted company with Scott.

I was fully over him, being now adult enough to yawn at all his faults, his unreal view of history and especially his pompous prose style. I was, and still am, fascinated by the knowledge that at one stage he was the most popular and widely-read novelist in all of Europe, which says much about the state of civilization in his day. But that alone was not enough to sustain a continued interest in reading him; and after having downed at least nine of his novels, I thought I had the right to make this judgement. I was no longer thirteen or fourteen and I had other literary idols.

But not too long ago, I re-read The Bride of Lammermoor as I was preparing for Opera New Zealand a programme note for their production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

True to my customary practice, I made a detailed summary of its contents, which go like this:

Sir William Ashton (often known as the “Lord Keeper”) and his wife Lady Ashton (Margaret Douglas) are Whiggish landowners in Scotland in the very early eighteenth century, during the reign of Queen Anne. The land they own and occupy was previously owned by the Ravenswood family, which has been largely dispossessed. At the opening of the novel, old Sir Allan Ravenswood dies, and there is almost a riot when his son Lord Edgar Ravenswood wants him to be buried according to Episcopal rites, but the local justice prevents this and insists on the Presbyterian-Protestant rites.

            Edgar, generally known as the “Master of Ravenswood” seethes at the injustice done to him and his family. Yet one day, by chance, he saves Sir William Ashton’s beautiful daughter Lucy Ashton from being attacked by a wild bull. He feels himself strongly attracted to her, but his family honour means he keeps aloof from her. Later, when Edgar is keeping to the one, tumbledown, cliff-top “castle” (Wolf’s Crag) that he still possesses, Sir William Ashton and his daughter Lucy happen to be hunting nearby. Lord Edgar joins in the chase, and then, as a thunderstorm breaks, he cannot prevent himself from inviting them into his home. As he entertains them, his feelings for Lucy Ashton grow, observed surprisingly benignly by Sir William Ashton. Indeed, to Edgar’s surprise, Sir William is remarkably friendly to him and seems to approve of the mutual attraction between the young people. But what we know, and Edgar doesn’t, is that Sir William is trying to forestall a Tory court intrigue that might find in favour of the Ravenswood family and dispossess him of all the Ravenswood estates he has recently acquired. His friendliness to Edgar, and dangling of his innocent daughter before him, are sheer policy. Even hunting near the Ravenswood home was not accidental.

            Edgar accompanies Sir William and Lucy to their home, Castle Ravenswood, which had formerly been his family’s seat. His mind is filled with contradictory thoughts  - on the one hand, his family’s dispossession and ancestral honour; on the other, his growing love for Lucy. Lucy is also torn in two by her feelings. While out walking, he resolves to break off their attachment, but her tears change Edgar’s mind and instead he pledges his love to her in a woodland glade near a natural fountain. Almost at once there is a scene where an ancient family retainer, the blind old seer Alice Gray, who lives as a sort of hermit, predicts disaster for both their families.

            Meanwhile a neighbouring laird, Francis Hayston of Bucklaw, irritated by Edgar’s slighting treatment of him, determines to win Lucy for himself. He uses the parasitical Jacobite factor Craigengelt as his agent.

            Lady Ashton has been away in London. She returns and takes a firm hand against Edgar, banishing him from Castle Ravenswood. Edgar leaves and finds employment overseas with his powerful kinsman the Marquis of A. As he goes into exile from his ancestral home, he encounters the ghost of the prophetic old Alice Gray, who has just died. He also meets a gravedigger who, like the one in Hamlet, talks unaware of whom he is addressing, about the fallen fortunes of the Ravenswoods. He tries to write to members of the Ashton family, pressing his suit for Lucy. But he gets a firm rebuff from Lady Ashton, and from Lucy a fearful note suggesting her reason is in danger.

            A year passes. In one of the big holes in the plot, Scott does not tell us why, but Edgar is busy overseas on some important, unspecified work. Edgar’s kinsman, the Marquis of A., has been working to get Ravenwood’s former estates transferred back from the possessing Ashtons. This has served only to make the Ashtons (especially the domineering Lady Ashton) even more hostile to the absent Edgar. So they have arranged for Hayston of Bucklaw to marry Lucy.

But Lucy is hesitant and falls into deep melancholy, because she believes herself pledged to marry Edgar.

She writes to him, but does not hear back. In fact, Lady Ashton is stopping all her letters. Lady Ashton also encourages the third-hand rumour that Edgar has already married somebody else abroad. Lucy is kept in virtual house arrest, as her artless and loving little brother Henry at one stage inadvertently reveals to her.

            Lady Ashton stoops to crueller devices in forcing her daughter to relinquish her pledge to Edgar. She employs a “witch”, Ailsie Gourlay, the “Wise Woman of Bowden”, to frighten Lucy with tales of Edgar’s infidelity. She also brings in the Presbyterian minister “Bide-the-bent” to remind Lucy of her duty to her family. Bide-the-bent, however, much as he hates the High Church party to which Edgar adheres, has a conscience, and realizes Lucy is being persecuted, and allows a message about her to get to Edgar abroad.

            Lucy is worn down, distracted and pale. At this point, the family arrange for the signing of her marriage contract with Bucklaw. The whole family gather. She signs with a wavering hand, guided by the implacable Lady Ashton. Whereupon footsteps are heard outside. A distracted, armed Edgar bursts in to confront the family. The males of the household withdraw, despite the oaths of Lucy’s elder brother, the choleric Douglas Ashton. Edgar tries to get Lucy to tell him if she has renounced her oath to him of her own free will, but Lady Ashton does all the answering for her daughter. Finally, Lady Ashton (with some sophistical help from the Presbyterian minister) persuades Edgar that Lucy has indeed given him up. Distracted and angry, Edgar burns their love-tokens in the grate, and departs, but not before Douglas Ashton has sworn to fight a duel with him.

            The wedding day. Lucy and Bucklaw are married (by Presbyterian rites). As Lucy and Bucklaw head for the bridal chamber, there is planned revelry in the great hall. But there is an omen. Mysteriously, the portrait of a Ravenswood ancestor is hanging in the place where an Ashton portrait should be. A scream is heard from the bridal chamber. The door is broken in. Bucklaw is lying as if dead, covered in blood. A search is made for Lucy, and she is found, her gown stained with Bucklaw’s blood, a knife in her hand, quivering in the great fire-place. She dies a few days later, distracted and insane. Bucklaw recovers, but refuses to say what happened in the bridal chamber.

            At Lucy’s funeral, a muffled stranger mingles with the Ashton family. Douglas Ashton takes him aside. It is Edgar. Douglas renews his challenge to a duel. Edgar accepts, and after one last visit to Wolf’s Crag, he gallops off to meet Douglas in combat. But he is too hasty, and drowns in quicksand. An epilogue tells us that the fortunes of both the Ravenswood and the Ashton families were ruined.

            There are historical and political overtones to this. The plot’s most sensational event (bride stabbing bridegroom) was loosely based on a real event that had happened some forty or so years before the time the novel’s plot is set. Scott appears to have moved it to Queen Anne’s reign, just before the Act of Union that abolished a separate Scottish parliament, so that he can draw a contrast between the new Anglophile possessing class (the Ashtons) and the old feudal lairds who were now losing power (Ravenswood). If he were more honest and less Romantic, Scott would have had Ashton as a pure Whig and Ravenswood as a Jacobite, the novel’s setting being some years after the exile of King James II, but before the 1715 uprising. Indeed the Jacobite agent Craigengelt, depicted unsympathetically, attempts to get Edgar to join the cause of the exiled king. But Scott can’t bring himself to support a Catholic king like James II. So (most improbably) he makes Edgar a supporter of the tiny (Anglican-type) Scots Episcopal church instead. (This was the church to which Scott himself belonged). Only fairly late in the novel are court intrigues between Whigs and Tories alluded to.

            The plots that Scott spins are often passionate ones – in this case a forced marriage that leads to madness and murder. I have remarked before on this blog [look up the posting on Trilby on the index to the right] that some novels are remembered for just one incident. But what is remembered of this novel – Lucy stabbing Bucklaw in the bridal chamber and going mad – takes up at most about three pages of the 288 closely-printed pages in the nineteenth century edition I read. The overall impression is that the whole story preceding this incident is mere pretext to get us there.

Scott sometimes shows amusing insights into character, as in the way Sir William Ashton lives in constant fear of being henpecked by his termagant wife. There is the odd pleasing touch, like the incidental introduction of Lucy’s little brother Henry, with his boyish enthusiasm for hunting. Occasionally, Edgar’s contradictory feelings are examined closely. But Lucy remains a pretty doll, passive and seen only from the outside. Early in the novel (Chapter III) she is described thus:

“Lucy Ashton’s exquisitely beautiful, yet somewhat girlish features, were formed to express peace of mind, serenity, and indifference to the tinsel of worldly pleasure. Her locks, which were of shadowy gold, divided on a brow of exquisite whiteness, like a gleam of broken and pallid sunshine upon a hill of snow. The expression of the countenance was in the last degree gentle, soft, timid and feminine, and seemed rather to shrink from the most casual look of a stranger, then to court his admiration….”

Frankly, she never develops beyond this description. If you wished to get all Freudian, you could see the (undramatised and off-stage) hysteria of Lucy in the bedroom as this virginal creature’s shocked reaction to the prospect of real sexual intercourse – but I doubt if this was either Scott’s intention or his perception. Lucy is even more of an inane puppet than Dickens’ Dora Spenlow.

            Even worse than having this unreal heroine, Scott tells his tales in the language of a law clerk filing a report. The vocabulary, even by the standards of 1819, is formal, archaic, Latinate and unnatural. Dialogue is forced and pedantic. Colloquialisms appear only when the “comic” minor characters break into broad Scots dialect, like the three harpies discussing the family fortunes at Lucy’s funeral. Attempts at humour are laboured. In The Bride of Lammermoor, we have pages of Lord Edgar’s servant Caleb Balderstone attempting to cover up his master’s poverty by pretending to prepare great banquets, or scrounging for food in the local villages. Comic climax is supposed to be his pretending to burn down Wolf’s Crag (by burning off scrub-grass nearby) to prevent guests coming in and seeing he has no dinner for them. This is as funny as a tax demand.

There were some stiffer and more inept stylists than Scott. But not many of them. (His near-contemporary, the American James Fenimore Cooper, makes Scott look a master a suppleness and wit). Scott’s descriptions are pure pasteboard, and most of the action in his novels consists of set pieces. The attack by a wild bull! The hunt for a stag! The thunderstorm! The lovers’ pledge in a woodland setting! The dire prophecies of blind Alice! Her ghost! The description of the fire! Edgar’s bursting in to the signing of the contract! The stabbing in the bedchamber! Etc. etc.

It sounds far more exciting in summary than the text of the novel itself is. These set pieces, I suspect, are what translate so well into bel canto opera. Each is waiting for an aria or a duet. Some weeks back, looking at Victor Hugo’s The Laughing Man [see index on the right], I said it was not a novel but notes towards the libretto of an opera nobody had yet got around to writing.

After only Shakespeare, and perhaps level-pegging with Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott was the most popular source for European opera plots in the nineteenth century. Literally dozens of operas were drawn from his works. Verdi never touched him, because Verdi chose to wrestle with Shakespeare, and I verily believe that Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello are in every respect works of art as great as the plays that inspired them. Indeed Verdi’s Falstaff is a much greater work of art than the lame Shakespeare play (The Merry Wives of Windsor) that inspired it. Likewise, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a much greater work of art than the halting novel from which its libretto was drawn. The tale of passion, implicit in Scott’s plot, works much better against music, and with a coloratura soprano doing her damnedest, than it does in the trudge through Scott’s stodgy prose.

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