It’s true that Sir Walter Scott these days is a man more written about than read, and a writer who is hard to ‘sell’ to a modern audience. I am not the only one who has struggled manfully over many years to try and engage with his work. It seems it has been that way for quite a while.
Writing a century ago James Leatham notes: ‘As at the end of a century of fame on still meets many good people who say they ‘can’t read Scott,’ a word may not be out of place as to this great man and great writer by one who owes so much to him as I do. I had begun to read the Waverley novels before entering my teens, and I have been reading and re-reading them ever since, with increasing appreciations.’
Leatham then goes on to give us a load of good reasons to read Scott. He’s a favourite with many 19th and early 20th century writers. Writers I respect and enjoy such as R.L.Stevenson, James Leatham and S.R.Crockett grew up on Scott. Surely I should be able to enjoy his work as well as they?
We need to remember though, that these three men all read Scott in their youth (can you imagine it being deemed appropriate children’s reading today?) and this was in no small part due to the fact that there wasn’t ‘the competition.’ Crockett had a choice of The Bible, Histories of the Covenanters or sneaked copies of ‘penny dreadful’ magazines – until he discovered Scott. At which point he forsook all reading of penny dreadfuls; considering Scott to be much more worthy of his attentions. He bullied his schoolfriends to do likewise! This was in the 1860’s. Stevenson would have been introduced to Scott in the 1850’s and Leatham in the 1870’s. By the turn of the century though, things had changed.
I know this because Crockett’s children, ‘could not read Scott’ and when he was tasked by Scott’s publisher with writing abridged children’s versions, Crockett made good mileage of this fact. He created a ‘fictional’ family who engaged with the stories in ‘The Red Cap Tales’ and ‘The Red Cap Adventures.’ I’ve read Scott by extension, this way, but I still have to say the bits I enjoyed most in Crockett’s books were the Picton-Smiths interjections rather than the Scott stories themselves. Even at one step removed they didn’t do it for me.
My track record on Scott is not impressive. Over 30 years I’ve tried and failed to read: ‘Ivanhoe,’ ‘Heart of Midlothian’ (twice) ‘Rob Roy’ (3 times) and I’ve more or less skimmed my way through ‘Guy Mannering.’ It’s a pretty pitiful record, but enough to give me the reasons why I think I can’t read him. I determined that I would read one novel thoroughly before penning this piece though – and so I fought my way through ‘The Antiquary.’ Of it Leatham says:
‘as representing Sir Walter on Scottish ground, where he was undoubtedly at his best. ‘The Antiquary’ was Scott’s own favourite novel, and the reason of this preference should not be difficult to understand.
I finished it. I even enjoyed bits of it. Some of it’s about publishing and that was interesting to me. But it also reconfirmed my personal reasons for not liking Scott. I shall share them with you. Not to discourage you from reading the man, but to give some insight into the nature of reading preferences and what we can derive from them.
Read without prejudice?
Generally speaking I think it’s important to read without prejudice. Yet I find that I cannot shake my prejudice of Scott’s politics, his class, and his view of the world, when I try to read his work.
As Leatham says: ‘Scott was an aristocrat in sentiment and opinion. He preferred to write of kings and nobles, of tournaments and sieges and pitched battles and hand to hand encounters.’ This is part of my problem. I’m not interested in the lives of those at the top of the hierarchy.
I also, personally, struggle with all 18th century novels. I just don’t like the 18th century. I don’t like the attitudes, the social hierarchies and I don’t like the way they are reflected by the writing of the time. It’s not surprising that the ‘classic’ fiction from that time supports the establishment view. This still holds true today to a great extent and in the 18th century, before writing really opened up to the ‘lower’ classes as a job rather than as an aspirational pastime for those with nothing else to do but vicariously manage their estates and count their money, publishing was a market for the aristocracy and upper middle classes.
I am wise enough to know that one doesn’t have to agree with what one reads, and that stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a good way to learn, but you have to believe me when I say, I’m very well read, and I’ve read more than enough 18th century fiction and history to give me the basic idea of what it’s all about. By choice I prefer to read 19th century fiction, written by what were then the ‘new’ writers, whose perspectives tended to be sighted lower than the manners and joys of the ages of Enlightenment and Improvement. For people who like the 18th century (or want to know more about it) and for people who are interested in the views of the elite during that time, Scott and many others will be and will remain ‘great’ works. What we need, I suggest, to recognise, is that we all have life prejudices (or belief systems) and that not all writing will re-inforce our views and that after a time, life becomes too short to read work that counters all you hold dear. But this in no way is a reflection of the works themselves.
Hitting the target (market)
For me, Scott offers a view of Britain which I cannot endure or accept. I resist it both on grounds of nationality and class. Scott was writing for a particular audience and it’s not just that I am not that audience, how could I be 200 years on? it’s that the values of that audience are anathema to me. Scott was writing from a class position which was privileged, he saw romance in nature but he was stuck with the view that class hierarchy was vital to maintain propriety in society and that he was motivated largely by status and money. I am only interested in the romance in nature part of his writing and I find this is too often swallowed up in the ideological stance he promotes. According to Scott, England and Scotland can (and should) come together to form Britain. Working together (post union) he believes we will be stronger both economically and as a society. Scott is ‘High Tory’ and I’m not. The divisions he shows between Highland and Lowland serve to illustrate what happens if you don’t have a clear, strong, unified society. The ‘Romance’ of the Highlanders and the ‘dourness’ of the Lowlanders are not just pastiches, they are deliberately used to show parts of a divided whole and Scott’s answer to resolving the divisions seems to be to place Scotland in its rightful place as part of a bigger Union, Great Britain.
Do books have a shelf life?
I find Scott’s characters are generally somewhat cardboard. To be fair, I find this about most 18th century writing. Perhaps it is because they were not intended to be ‘realistic’ in the way I expect or enjoy. After all, it was not (I believe) until George Eliot that the ‘interior’ world of the character was used in fiction. It’s no surprise then that with Scott I can find no empathy with the characters. I don’t have enough to connect me to them. It is in this respect that I differ in opinion from Leatham who said: Scott’s men and women in humble life are the real flesh and blood folk of fiction. Nothing is more signally characteristic of him than his dramatic faculty of going out of himself, of putting himself in the place of the widely diverse characters by whose mouth he speaks.
Does this serve to do anything other than tell us that what we think of as ‘real’ these days is quite different from 200 and even 100 years ago. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, should it?
Scott is hard to read, not just because of the themes and content of his writing but because of the language and most importantly the ‘style’ of his writing. The 18th century style is long-winded and difficult for many modern readers. I had to read ‘The Antiquary’ out loud (in my head) to engage with it. It’s a much slower read, but then remember in its day – and for a long while afterwards – it was the way people read. They did not have the diversion of radio or TV, the pacing of modern film (and novels) and the general speed or range of cultural consumption that we enjoy today.
Those times are not our times and we should not expect to read 18th or even 19th century fiction as if they are modern stories for modern people. There is much more to learn from them. My interest in 19th century fiction is contiguous with my interest in the 19th century in particular, and ties in with an interest in the social changes, the ‘Romantic’ tension between civilisation and the individual, the shift from rural to urban and the loss of ‘community’ that went with it and issues such as that. I am not interested in ‘modernist’ fiction any more than in 18th century because, for me, the modernists try to make things intellectual and complicated whereas I am all for emotion and sentiment and heart in my reading matter. All I’m saying is it’s horses for courses and when we read (or struggle to read) we would do well to have an awareness of this. Of why we even want to read in the first place. What does reading do for us?
I submit that books do not have a fixed shelf life, but that our relationship and engagement with them, and what we want or can get out of them is both personal and changes with time (in our own lifespan and during the cultural and social transformations we experience.)
Is the naturalistic fallacy a fallacy?
The key thing I want to keep in mind about Scott and my failure to relate to his work is that we’re not dealing with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here. We’re not playing a ‘blame’ game. We’re not even really saying he’s irrelevant. I’m just suggesting that we need to understand our expectations and learn to appreciate that our personal opinion is not the authoritative thing we all too often promote it as.
Everyone has an opinion on just about everything. People tend to think their own opinion is the right one. Because opinion is linked firmly to belief system. But the difference between belief and fact, the shift from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ and the whole notion of the naturalistic fallacy – and whether it is one or not- are important aspects of our lives and of our engagement with fiction (among other things).
The difference between ‘I like’ and ‘it’s good’ is one that too many people too often forget. If you want to delve further into this you’re going down the path of G.E.Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy and ‘between good and yellow.’ I advise you to do so, but I don’t have time to explore it in depth here. I’ll take it as given (dangerous I know). The basic suggestion is that that ‘good’ (like colour) cannot be defined by anything other than itself.
When we talk ‘good’ in a book we are privileging our own personal opinion. And our ‘authority’ stands or falls by the respect others accord to our opinion. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery in this respect. I’m not interested in that. What I look for is sound reasoning as to why something is or isn’t appealing to a particular reader. I’m looking for points of connection between myself as reader and the original writer, and also between myself as reader and the critic/writer. I don’t need to be told what is ‘good’ by anyone else. It’s interesting to know how they engage/respond to writers but I am not in the business of doffing my cap to anyone, be they academic or award winning bestseller. For me the only authority that counts is epistemic, and that’s not always the most appropriate criteria for writing about works of art.
Let’s just accept that when even the most adept critic says ‘this book is good’ they are in fact saying ‘it’s good for me, from my perspective, according to my understanding.’ Having spent over 30 years personally engaging with fiction/literature and all manner of other writing, I have a position of quite some strength from which I can argue my ‘belief’ which is that (for me) authorial intention is important. For me, a certain concurrence between form and content makes reading easier (and often more enjoyable) but I also can appreciate work which steps outside of my ‘rules.’ For me the ‘heart’ of the writer is more important. The ‘honesty’ with which they write is my guide. And this, of course, is something of a personal experience. And that said, I can appreciate writers without enjoying them. After all, primarily what I want from reading is enjoyment, and this comes from both confirming and challenging my belief system and prejudices and my belief in the honesty, integrity and skill of the writer.
What is definitely unacceptable to me is anyone turning ‘I don’t like it’ into ‘It’s no good.’ There is no shame in saying a writer is not for you. Especially if you are able to articulate your reasons. As I said, the respect accorded to the critic should be the strength of their reasoning not where they stand in any hierarchical system. But all too often writers are put down because they are not ‘liked’ by the right kind of people. This is fine to keep a mainstream hierarchical society ticking over smoothly. But if you are in any way a radical, or position yourself out of the mainstream of consumer capitalism, you should pay scant attention to the ‘authoritative’ position.
And what about Scott? Well, when all is said and done, as regards Scottish fiction, Scott does still have an important cultural place. Scott is the daddy. What he was doing in his day was new and in some ways challenging – and certainly had significance for those who came immediately afterwards. He was at the forefront of Romanticism, but struggling with the tension of the changes between 18th and 19th century Britain (and Scotland in particular). His work does to an extent hold a mirror up to the age and culture in which it was written. Scott has a deal of narrative significance.
I suggest that before you read Scott you need to consider your expectations very closely. And if he doesn’t fit your reading enjoyment matrix, then don’t read him – but don’t blame him. Conversely, if you like 18th century literature you most likely will enjoy Scott.
Perhaps if you rub Burns and Scott together and blow on them hard enough you create at least Stevenson, Crockett and Buchan. There is no doubt that Stevenson and Crockett especially were deeply influenced by Scott and that both of them took him forward a step. The difference between Stevenson and Crockett in this regard is less in their narratives structures (though again, as each moves fiction on by a generation they find their own narrative styles) and more their perspective as writer. They both loved adventure romance but Stevenson was closer in background to Scott and Crockett was the living, breathing example (as was his contemporary Barrie) of the ‘lad o’pairts.’ With Scott, Stevenson and Crockett you have the chance to look at Scotland (and particularly the Lowland Scot) from top to bottom and that’s an interesting comparative analysis. For my generation Stevenson and Crockett are not ‘hard’ to read, but I can accept that for younger people they may be. That’s to do more with language and pacing than it is to do with anything else. I’ll come clean and say that while I’ve long enjoyed Stevenson and Crockett, I’m less interested in their 18th century stories than in their other work. That’s me. It’s no recommendation or otherwise to you.
It’s simply a suggestion to explore your prejudices and expectations before you engage with any writer (particularly from the past) and to recognise that in reading a book you are entering into a two way relationship the goal being communication. If you don’t like something, perhaps you don’t understand it, or perhaps you just don’t like it.
Will I read more Scott? I can think of as many reasons not to as to do so. There are more than enough books I enjoy reading to keep me going for the rest of my life. I like to re-visit books I read in earlier decades, to see how I and they have changed in the intervening years. I read for my own reasons and my own pleasure. I have long since ceased reading to ‘impress’ or ‘be accepted’ into any social or cultural group.
Each person has their own reasons for reading and their own opinion on what they read. Reading is an intensely personal thing after all. May I suggest that, when we bring our reading experience into the public arena, there are better things to do than puff ourselves up and suggest that our personal opinion is what it’s all about.
I may not enjoy reading Scott, and I may not like all that he represents. But I’m not going to suggest those are reasons for anyone else not to read him.
So – if you struggle –ask yourself why. Honesty is the best policy after all. And it’s not Scott’s fault.
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