Burying Scott

Marilyn Butler

  • The Life of Walter Scott: A Critical Biography by John Sutherland
    Blackwell, 386 pp, £19.99, January 1995, ISBN 1 55786 231 1

John Sutherland’s pithy, cynical Life of Scott is very much a biography of our time: irreverent, streetwise, set foursquare in a ‘real world’ in which careers achieve money and power and character is at least 51 per cent image. In its worldly wisdom it resembles the first of its kind, John Gibson Lockhart’s pioneering five-volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-8), though the drift of the two Lives is in opposite directions. Sutherland has come to bury Scott, while Lockhart, the great man’s son-in-law, praises him in a public-relations exercise calculated to maintain the family’s prestige and income. Yet Lockhart in the 1830s was quite as committed as Sutherland in the 1990s to a commercially-driven real world, as he proves by his mastery of its classic plot-line, ‘making it’.

Lockhart presents Scott’s rise and rise as an exemplary fable for a commercial age, heavily reliant on its author-hero’s middle-class virtues – hard daily work, bonhomie and of course family values. Each success comes lightened by homely, humorous touches that bring out not Scott’s towering genius but his ordinariness and niceness. Before his years of fame, an Edinburgh neighbour is traumatised by the apparition, which he sees towards dawn from his window, of a disembodied hand travelling tirelessly across the page: no ghost story, but the neat framing of Scott’s life in terms of the homely myth of the Industrious Apprentice. In a series of transformations Lockhart’s Scott becomes both the Wizard of the North and the rich Laird of Abbotsford, graced with titles (baronet and sheriff), broad acres and his own baronial hall.

Success is the central theme of John Sutherland’s book too. But step by step he unwraps Lockhart’s packaging, beginning with the anecdotes. Too many couldn’t have occurred at the date specified: Sutherland refers drily to Lockhart’s ‘usual pragmatism about chronology’. Place can also be a problem: there isn’t a local vantage-point, apparently, from which Scott’s novel-writing hand could have been seen.

As for the great man’s amiability, Sutherland wheels out his own tales of Scott the cold-hearted and neglectful son, brother, husband and father, a paterfamilias with a track-record of absenting himself from key family deathbeds and funerals. In dealing with his betters, from clan chiefs to politicians in power, he was obsequious and manipulative. He stole the materials and labour of writer friends and co-authors. He deceived creditors, and manipulated or where necessary sacrificed his business partners. Sutherland swings the hatchet, for the same reason at least one recent biographer has hacked at Scott’s contemporary Jane Austen, another writer bleached by 19th-century family laundering. And reviewers have taken it personally, as though an old and close friend is being traduced, which indeed is close to the mark.

Sutherland has one good answer to those who hate his book: his subtitle, which is in fact the series-title of a list of new literary biographies under Claude Rawson’s general editorship. If you want an uncritical biography, Sutherland might say, don’t buy this one but stick to Lockhart, or to some other modern academic biography (such as Edgar Johnson’s two volumes, 1970) which essentially accepts Lockhart’s facts and interpretations. At its best this book establishes that received literary history, often based on biography, is too credulous, and that writers and their advocates may have interests in lying. It can’t replace Lockhart or Johnson as a detailed biographical record (it’s a fraction of the length of either), but can and does target the ways in which they and their kind deceive.

Rather like saints’ lives, to which they have a family resemblance, literary biographies exist to exalt a writer and recruit admirers for an oeuvre. The soft focus hasn’t been an absolute requirement (witness Lytton Strachey), but the soft pedal is common to academic and nonacademic authors. It’s not Sutherland’s style to debate what literary biography mostly does or what his will do. He is, however, already the biographer of Mrs Humphry Ward, a personality he found at least as objectionable as he finds Scott. He chooses to work against the grain – by insisting that his subjects are anything but admirable characters, and by adding that their fame exceeded their talent.

Sutherland cuts Scott down to size in his trim discussions of each of the longer poems and novels in their chronological place. Partly because Scott was so prolific, these discussions can be bite-sized, at not much more than a page. Even at the maximum eight pages, they come several to a chapter. It’s conventional in a biography to give priority to hard facts – information about the first idea, if any, then composition, publication and reception. But it seems to me a fault in Sutherland’s method that he takes a consistently narrow view of the first and last of these categories. First ideas tend to be something external that just turned up – a crisis in the Peninsular Wars, a visit to the field of Waterloo, or one or more grandees Scott wanted to compliment. Reception is less likely to include a book’s reviews than its sales figures.

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