- 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.
Ideas are the grand, damaging omission: Sutherland has made Scott’s motives for writing merely reactive and manipulative. And not accidentally, to judge by his description of the problem Scott experienced when writing Marmion. Old college friends wanted him to emulate Shakespeare, Milton or Dryden. ‘Noble female admirers flattered him towards elegant drawing-room verse.’ His comrades in the Light Horse Cavalry wanted war-songs, political Londoners wanted verse satire. ‘Ballantyne wanted bestsellers – poems that would sell 20,000 copies a year and make them all rich.’ The only person who emerges with no view worth recording is Scott himself.
Except that he wrote ‘to better himself’. Several of the much-admired portraits of monarchs in the poems and novels were intended, says Sutherland, for flattering images of the Prince Regent, soon to be George IV, from whom a title might be hoped for in return. Leading examples of Scott’s oiling of royalty are his James V of Scotland in The Lady of the Lake (1809), Queen Caroline, consort of George II, as a healing principle of Mercy in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Queen Elizabeth I, epitome of successful English monarchs, in Kenilworth (1821).
Sutherland is especially dismissive of Kenilworth, since he sees it as little better than an extended compliment to royalty. The festivities it describes for Elizabeth in 1575 are plainly identifiable with George IV’s ostentatious, much-advertised coronation in 1821. (‘As such, it has no more artistic durability than a 1953 Coronation mug.’) But Sutherland also complains of the plot’s many reckless anachronisms, which suggest ‘something like scorn for his public’. These complaints are alike only in linking the fictional world with the real one in a direct, unproblematical way. Sutherland deems the novel so bad by these criteria that he caps his critique with a magisterial put-down, as startling in this businesslike book as if it came from outer space. It was Kenilworth, apparently, ‘that led Goethe to repudiate Scott in 1823 with the lofty declaration: “I can learn nothing from him, I have time only for the most excellent.” ’ But if Germanic loftiness is intended as a reminder of literary quality, the point is instantly lost by Sutherland’s ironic payoff:
And yet, as a mass-produced article of fiction Kenilworth did exactly what Scott required of it: it pleased discriminating critics (his close friends), it caught the mood of the day (and would appeal to the brazen nationalism of the later century), it made pots of money, and it left tens of thousands of readers eager for more of the same post haste. It is an achievement as worthy of studious examination as the inner meaning of Elective Affinities.
This is one of very few passages in Sutherland’s book to raise the question of Scott’s status as an artist, or to propose (even in jest) a studious examination at its own level of his mass-produced work. Tantalisingly, the discussions of Scott’s individual works seldom engage with either art or craft. Nor are his millions of readers considered anything but proof of stooping to get them.
Yet Sutherland does take three general themes seriously: Scott’s professionalism, his nationalism and his social climbing. The first two in particular help to bond Scott at different levels to his colleagues and contemporaries, the wider milieu that Sutherland tends otherwise to neglect. And the first, professionalism, provides the book’s star turns, its most richly informative passages, thanks to the half-dozen current scholars who have worked closely on Scott in relation to publication, and to Sutherland’s skill in fitting their findings to his narrative.
Scott’s distinction, it may well be, lay in his consummate professionalism as a man of letters – an ironic conclusion, since he spent a lifetime hiding his involvement with trade. Though a child prodigy at six, he had a sluggish professional launch in his twenties (the 1790s) as an unimpressive and underemployed barrister. His keen literary interests – folk and literary ballads, the new German medievalism – were still a sideline. But after 1800 he plunged for a decade into an orgy of bookmaking that was also literary revivalism, a grandiose project of ‘a complete edition of British poets ancient and modern ... At least a hundred volumes to be published at the rate of ten a year.’ Parallel schemes for drama and the novel were to run alongside, so that the plan in its entirety amounted to a reissue of the national literature, with Scott himself, secret partner of the printer Ballantyne, often in real editorial control.
The sudden grandeur of Scott’s thinking remains unexplained in Sutherland’s account but was not so surprising at the time. In addition to literary classics, collections and anthologies, an unprecedented number of long-forgotten medieval romances first appeared in print in this decade. An incipiently nationalist impulse to reconstruct the cultural history of the British Isles, already a private scholarly enthusiasm in the 1750s of England’s Gray and Percy and Scotland’s Macpherson, becomes a minor publishing revolution half a century later, just in time for Scott to grab a sizeable share in it. Though credited with editing over seventy volumes of works from the historical canon, Scott was not regarded as himself a leading scholar, and in omitting the literary milieu Sutherland for once gives him too much credit rather than too little. He worked at a lower level, as an inspired disseminator, facilitator and populariser in a field then known as ‘antiquities’, which later became social anthropology and the history of everyday life; or as a collector of objects for handling that conjured up the past – Sutherland calls this ‘technical history’.
Scott collected ballads too, and made his name by publishing many of them in what was visibly a middlebrow format as Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Here the word ‘minstrelsy’ gives away the general readers aimed at: it falsely suggests a medieval court, highborn ladies, famous deeds and heroes. Three years later Scott wrote his own pastiche ‘ballad’, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), a fictional successor to the Minstrelsy in that it is visibly an expression of the same impulse to popularise history. The Lay’s extravagantly Gothic cast, two magicians and a goblin page, benefit from their setting in a period and countryside Scott had already done much to document in the earlier volume. This tactic of mixing fiction with prosaic fact, yet keeping each element distinct, is characteristic of Scott’s novels too. It gives them two quite different merits, human energies and feelings, the staples of fiction, and thick documentation or real knowledge, equally appealing to the avid general reader.
Historical facts, as facts, contributed greatly to Scott’s popularity, but they were also the guarantee, for most if not all readers, of his intellectual respectability. A point Sutherland doesn’t raise is that the Lay appeared in the year an old scandal was laid to rest: James Macpherson’s long poems, published as translations from the Gaelic in 1761 and 1763. A Scottish patriot and initially a Jacobite, Macpherson had genuinely collected songs and fragments from folk-singers, but had supplemented and reshaped them, with what degree of duplicity isn’t clear, as neo-Homeric epics. A report in 1805, by an investigative committee set up by the Highland Society, avoided the verdict of deliberate forgery that would still have offended nationalist sentiment. In neutral tones it made the careful distinctions between editing and reconstruction that current editors of damaged and fragmentary ancient texts needed as guidelines.
The debate and findings must also have been hugely suggestive to Scott as a historian preparing to venture into fiction. He seems to have concluded that in historical fiction the fiction needs to be flagrant and immediately identifiable. Modern-day readers should have what they wanted, not serious history, authentic romance or pastiche but story. His ‘presentism’ is the product of his work not only among antiquarians but among commercial publishers. He stays in antiquities by finding a form that sells.
The runaway success of Scott’s second narrative poem Marmion (1808) owed much to a flamboyant layer of non-historical added value: this time a proto-Byronic plot of sex and violence, or as Robert Southey put it, ‘rust and tinsel’. As the author of two long metrical romances and editor-translator of another, Southey was the contemporary poet most sympathetic to Scott. But he agreed with Wordsworth and Coleridge that Scott had gone too far down-market, even if Marmion’s academic freight must have been some reassurance – three thousand cross-references in its text, glossary and footnotes to authorities, sources and parallels. Scott was well on the way to setting up the experiment with ‘faction’ that was to have such an extraordinary appeal across barriers set up by differences in education, politics, gender and nationality.
Sutherland leaves us to work out Scott’s apprenticeship as a writer, but gives a first-rate account of his immersion in all aspects of book-production. In an outstanding chapter, ‘The Complete Author’, he shows that Scott’s overarching role by 1809 was essentially that of a highly ambitious, expansionist publisher, commissioning whole series of works, and through his editorial and authorial activities opening up a market for both highbrow classics and popular historical romance. At this stage Scott had the luck to encounter the canniest, most high-minded of current publishers, Archibald Constable, who as founder-owner of the Edinburgh Review had already done more than anyone else to develop a ‘quality’ readership, and figures in Sutherland’s book as the nearest thing to a hero.
Seeing Scott’s energy and flair, Constable did his best to recruit him as his leading author. He paid him a munificent 1000 guineas for Marmion and 1500 guineas for the projected edition of Swift. For a year or two they made an extraordinary team – twin pillars, Sutherland calls them, of a remarkably optimistic phase in publishing. But Scott fell out with the Whiggish, modern-minded Edinburgh Review under Francis Jeffrey, went slow on Constable’s commissioned books, and intrigued backstage to launch a Tory rival and copy of the Edinburgh, the Quarterly Review(1809).
Though he did later allow Constable to publish his novels, Scott had acted disingenuously by him, and continued to do so by other friends, when in the next years he had to borrow heavily to keep himself and his real partners, the Ballantynes, from bankruptcy. The rocky years 1811-12 proved a trial run for the ultimate catastrophe of 1825-6, when the Ballantynes and Constable were brought to total ruin by the failure of the business they shared with Scott, but Scott himself preserved his house and part of his income from the wreck. He cheated his colleagues and creditors then. He was cheating them and the public throughout the years in which, as Sutherland puts it, he could be covertly promoting, printing, publishing, writing, selling and reviewing his own copy.
Nationalism is a theme Sutherland raises but makes much less of. Yet as an identity based not on the state but on shared language, land, culture and perhaps religion, it has become a hot topic again in the post-1989 world, and a reason good new books and major articles on Scott have appeared since 1990. His novels set in Scotland focus with unprecedented realism and geographical representativeness on custom, clanship, family, historical memory and dialect. He imagines the national community in ways that reach back before the modern state: not just cultural identity but powerful nationalism becomes possible for small and stateless peoples, Scots or Basques or Croats. Already by the second quarter of the 19th century Scott’s work found a huge readership and many imitators in the small nations of Eastern and Southern Europe, and in the American South, all factional regions within larger states: in the last case, his clans returned as the (Ku Klux) Klan. Yet Sutherland sees only fakery in Scott’s remarkable invention of Scotland, and far too readily diverts discussion with the counterclaim that Scott was more interested in currying favour in present-day England.
A personal animus against Scott the man, it seems, invades this book’s discussion of the writing, whether the topic is the trajectory of Scott’s oeuvre or its characteristics, reception and lasting value. It’s as if Sutherland has persuaded himself that Scott cheated his way by false gentlemanliness and false niceness into huge fame and historical importance. Even if Sutherland were not exaggerating Scott’s sins, it’s hard to see how they delivered his literary success. The public, then and later, trusted the tales, not the teller.
In practice this has meant that Scott’s Toryism, which Sutherland treats as both diehard and opportunistic, occasional yet somehow dominant, has never intruded in the novels in the way suggested here. True, James Hogg deplored the lack of sympathy Scott showed for the martyred Covenanters in Old Mortality; Peacock thought his synthetic past was a kind of opium, dulling public perceptions of modern society – a common complaint against pulp fiction. But though these are sharp, well-founded criticisms, a literary biographer surely needs to ask why vastly more readers praised Scott’s universalism – for instance, his inclusion of the poor, hard lives, oral traditions and all, as well as the famous, whose doings and records fill more conventional histories.
One reason Scott’s work was held in affection was its acclaimed similarity to that of Shakespeare, the national poet. But this was not the canonical Shakespeare of the editors Johnson and Malone or the lecturer Coleridge. The popular antiquarians saw Shakespeare as an anthropologist like themselves, who opened a window onto language, customs and daily life in Elizabethan England: not the tragedian who wrote Hamlet and Lear, but the chronicler who wrote Henry IV Part I and The Merry Wives of Windsor. In George Steevens’s edition of 1793, long historical annotations explained obscure attitudes or words and dwelt with particular relish (one critic complained) on the bawdry. Certainly Steevens, Francis Grose and Joseph Ritson all promoted a view of the later medieval period as rumbustious and festive, the Rabelaisian moment long afterwards developed by Mikhail Bakhtin.
The doyen of the group in Scott’s lifetime was the book-collector and cultural historian Francis Douce. In his Illustrations of Shakespeare (1807), Douce traces many of Shakespeare’s sources and allusions to the late Middle Ages, and dwells on the eclectic character of this culture, its unorthodox, scurrilous and Middle Eastern elements: for many conservatives a disturbing emphasis, because it shows up serious schisms which, if they can’t be healed, could make the people ungovernable. Douce’s book makes a specialism of Shakespearean comedy and the stereotyped figures that suggest popular origins, the clown, the jester and the fool. At about the same time he published a scholarly article on the late medieval French tradition, the annual Feast of Fools, when (as if in anticipation of the French Revolution) the populace invaded the Church and performed obscene, blasphemous rituals there. Scott describes just such rites in The Abbot (1820), acknowledging Douce’s article as his source.
Sutherland’s profile makes Scott the Tory a man who hates and fears the multitude. Yet clowns recur in most of Scott’s novels; fools, who prove wise in the Shakespearean manner, in many of them. He has space for the multitudes turned ugly – not only the desecrators of the church in The Abbot but the Porteous riots in Edinburgh on which The Heart of Midlothian (1818) opens. Sutherland himself remarks on an unexpectedly complex, dark emphasis in Ivanhoe(1819), an adventure-yarn of the Crusades set against a fissured medieval Christendom, full of ethnic and religious tensions between Saxon and Norman, Christian and Jew. But even here he doesn’t give Scott credit for correctly representing contemporary anxieties.
Sutherland finds the treatment of the Jewish characters problematical now – in fact racist – but doesn’t observe that in its own day it might read as troubled, perhaps fearful, anything but prescriptive. Europe’s old monarchies had been restored, following the fall of Napoleon; their legitimacy rested on medieval foundations. To draw the medieval world riven and terminally sick, as Scott took to doing at this juncture, wasn’t the obvious tactic of a lackey of the Hanoverians.
Then again, what had Scott been doing, or more to the point what had he been reading (Cobbett? Robert Owen?), when in 1828 he wrote The Fair Maid of Perth? He portrays 15th-century Perth as a community run by craftsmen organised in guilds, and proudly independent of the feudal lords in the countryside. Sutherland writes of Victorian racism as a product of Ivanhoe, and of William Morris’s utopian socialism as a product of The Fair Maid of Perth. These are exciting suggestions, which don’t define Scott’s own politics at all clearly. But then they may not need to. The power of Walter Scott’s tales to survive owes much to the eclecticism of their materials, relatively little to message. There will have to be another Critical Biography.