Northern Laughter

Karl Miller

  • The Life of Sir Walter Scott by John Macrone, edited by Daniel Grader
    Edinburgh, 156 pp, £65.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 7486 6991 2

Students of the life and works of Walter Scott and James Hogg may have glimpsed the shadowy, not to say meteoric, not to say dubious presence of the publisher John Macrone, and learned of his prompt desire, after Scott’s death in September 1832, to write his Life, basing it to a large extent on rural informants. Here was the promise of a main event in the comet’s six-year visit to the Anglo-Scottish cultural scene. A few of these students may have formed the impression that Macrone’s Life would never see the light of day, and that it would be no loss if it didn’t. Macrone’s fragmentary text, however, has now been found in the John Galt archive at the University of Guelph in Canada. So now we know what we have been missing, or not missing.

The editor of this book, Daniel Grader, sees Macrone as hailing from Scotland, on the say-so of the poet Thomas Moore; others favour the Isle of Man. Hogg met him when he was working as a shopman in Mayfair, and was then published by Macrone when Macrone went into partnership with James Cochrane in Pall Mall. Hogg came to like the two men, together with Cochrane’s wife and family, in his capacity as ‘the old shepherd’. But a snake was to slide into this garden. Love letters from Macrone to Mrs Cochrane were found in her petticoats. When Macrone had been up in the Borders researching his book, Hogg had spied letters signed by a Miss Salem which he was fairly sure were from the adultress. Recent research, however, has established that the sinner in question was a Miss Sala, aunt of the American literary journalist George Augustus Sala. The aunt lent Macrone £500, which enabled him to set up on his own after the break with Cochrane, and to acquire the copyright for Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. Soon afterwards he married someone else, the daughter of a respectable professor of military engineering. The scandal was shocking: Mrs Hogg, who’d earlier taken a shine to this admired singer of Hogg’s songs, now closed her door to him.

Macrone was seeking testimonies which would reveal of the very virtuous and famous Scott ‘How was he in the parlour?’ Hogg, as an obvious informant, fell into a bitter quarrel with John Gibson Lockhart, who was engaged in writing his Life of Scott, his father-in-law. Lockhart caught sight of papers of Hogg’s in which he noticed unacceptable candours about Scott, and a ferocious vulgarity. Hogg’s contributions were suspended, and Macrone’s project might have seemed to have been frightened off. Hogg’s recollections were not lost, though. A manuscript entitled ‘Anecdotes of Sir W. Scott’ was published, in different forms, around the world. Class was an aspect of these events. ‘Poor Hogg’, as he was called in the prints and elsewhere, was a friend of Scott’s and of Lockhart’s. He was also their social inferior, blamed on all sides for being vulgar. Vulgarity, the Ettrick Shepherd’s celebrated ego, and a general devotion to celebrity, had smoked the dead man from his parlour.

The present edition is a miscellany, a ‘gallimaufry’ in Scots, chiefly distinguished by an essay, ‘The Afterglow of Abbotsford: John Macrone, Celebrity Culture and Commemoration’, in which Gillian Hughes, a biographer of Hogg’s deeply cognisant of the literary culture and daily life of the Romantic period, does what the rest of the compilation does not: gives body to the elusive figure of Macrone. He seems, she writes, ‘a typical speculator of the 1830s, when improved communications and a rapidly expanding and somewhat unstable capitalism rendered London a world-class financial and publishing centre’. He was not just a pirate and a chancer. He was an expert on the ancient and now hotly contemporary art of mixing up celebrity and money and advertising. He was what Coleridge had in mind when he complained that this was an ‘age of personality’. He was utterly obsessed with fame, with mementos, autographs, contracts, copyrights, a rising, under-capitalised publisher, let down by some of his authors. What he was not was a gifted writer.

Walter Scott, ‘The Great Unknown’ of the anonymous Waverley novels, was known to the point of dedication by many Scots, who did not mind that he had no taste (as an Episcopalian) for the national religion, or for clergymen, that he was an enthusiast for birth and breeding, and that he hated the Reform Act, believing that most Scots were unfit to vote. Parliamentary reform threatened to be the end of his world, and of him. Troja fuit, he mourned as his deathbed approached. For some Scots, he was like what became the latter-day royal family, as they filed, to the applause of millions, into their Scottish and Scott-like castle of Balmoral. Macrone and his editor join in this worship, which has perhaps yet to wear out. The worship was scarcely universal: it was possible to speak of his enemies, then and afterwards, and there were whispers at the time that his wife was a cross and self-centred snob. John Sutherland’s vigorous account of Scott, published in 1995, broke ranks and was a welcome swerve from hagiography; studies of his in 19th-century publishing had delivered an earlier essay on Macrone.

An acid test for the degree of candour achieved in Scott biography is the treatment given to his French wife. Macrone is not outspoken, but he does permit himself a breath of discrimination here. ‘Her memory is adored by the rustic population, and the “gude Leddy Scott” is a name never mentioned but with humble affection and gratitude,’ Macrone writes, sickeningly. But he also suggests that she and her husband were imperfectly suited. Her Frenchness was a snag. ‘Sir Walter lived as happily with his lady as might be supposed capable for one whose tastes and habits were so essentially dissimilar.’ A dodgy sentence, but one that rings true. Lady Scott appears in a better light when Hogg, in his parlour mode of loveable blurting, congratulates her on her ‘wonderfu’ bonny curls’. Macrone suspects that the Ettrick Shepherd had been ‘entirely thrown aback’ by her rejoinder: ‘“Aha! Mr Hogg,” said the candid lady, “it is de wig.”’

Hogg’s Anecdotes offended Lockhart by telling what was customarily hushed up or passed over, such matters as Scott’s wife’s drug dependence, his excessive regard for titled rank, his thinking more of his heredity than of his art. The little book is frank all right, but it portrays a human being of undoubted appeal, Scots to the hilt, and ubiquitously understood as such, but far more than a national effigy.

The present over-annotated edition of Macrone’s Life looks at moments like a book that only a university publisher could love. Many of its stories are familiar, but some of these, and some of the less known, are piquant and informative. One old man had been inspired by Scott’s fiction and Hogg’s ‘daft sangs’. And not all of the recollections are sweet. A Macrone footnote alludes to Scott’s poem on ‘The Field of Waterloo’ and to a ruthless rhyme on the subject which diverted Grader, who quotes it:

Of all the heroes who were slain
On Waterloo’s ensanguined plain,
Not one, by sabre, lance, or shot
Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.

Macrone tells the tale of a wily French Scott buff, a Monsieur Petizon, who petitioned Scott for an exchange of gifts: a complete edition of all his works in exchange for ‘a corresponding quantity of champagne of the best vintage in France’. The writer was chagrined to receive ‘some two or three dozen of very inferior champagne, which he could in no wise present to his guests, without bringing a stigma upon his hospitality’. These French! This foreigner also ‘wormed’ out of him the secret of his hidden authorship of the Waverley novels. I doubt whether Scott would have been ‘entirely thrown aback’ by the wine trick. He would have reached for a self-deprecating irony. Deemed to have a poor singing voice, unlike Macrone, and to have made a disappointing speech, he remarked that ‘it was a desperate thing to hae naething either to sing or say.’ Neither Macrone’s fragments nor Grader’s introduction give much space to Scott’s courage in writing on in old age, courting death, in order to pay off his debts; nor is there much sense in either quarter of the excellence of a great deal of his now insufficiently appreciated fiction.

The book offers the opposite of nominal aphasia: there’s a curious sparkle to the biography’s naming of names. Macrone published a memoir by an adventurer, Francis Maceroni, who’d served as an aide-de-camp to the Napoleonic general Murat; Thackeray served as an aide-de-camp to the memoir, making it more publishable, less digressive. ‘Macaroni’ was then an English word for a dandy prone to foreign expressions. It sounds here like a misprint for ‘Macrone’, and a certain fellow-feeling may account for the attention he awards the veteran.

Macrone remarked in his introduction to Hogg’s Anecdotes that it had been the fashion ‘to portray the immortal author of Waverley as a perfect being, untainted by any weakness or frailty. The exuberant praises of his admirers do more to weaken the faith of his real friends as to their truth, than the collected attacks of a thousand miscellaneous enemies.’ Both Macrone and his editor see the point of Hogg’s recollections of his friend and mentor.

Macrone’s biography bears the mark of the fall of capitalism, one of capitalism’s successive falls, the one discussed here in Gillian Hughes’s essay. It also bears the mark of the Regency cult of games-playing and fame, and of a very frisky time in the literary culture that prevailed in Edinburgh, the Borders and, indeed, south of the Border. Parody, anonymity, pseudonymity, aliases, impostures, quizzes, teases, ruthless rhymes were rife – in Blackwood’s Magazine especially, the North’s ludic heartbeat. The false coin of investments and paper money stirred the literati and brought them down: Scott went bankrupt, and so did Hogg and Macrone and Henry Cockburn. Creativity, insolvency and disguise went together, adventure their common ground. Publishing took off, and there was a pioneering interest in authorship, and in personality. The Great Unknown, the Great Anon, was a leading player, and so was the austere Carlyle, for whom Hogg was, for a while, like others, a ‘celebrity’, though also ‘a poor “herd body”’.

Hogg volunteered to write Lockhart’s Life of his father-in-law in Hogg’s name and in his distinctive style. The proposition was refused or ignored, but may have seemed less outlandish then and there – Hogg’s contributions to the Blackwood’s symposia, the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’, were ghost-written – than such a proposition would have done elsewhere and at another time. Hogg’s single-handed Confessions is one of the best of all fictions, then, there or anywhere. The tricks, jokes and shifting identities that occur are a dimension of its deadly earnest. It is, among other things, a speaking likeness of the world that awaited him when he left the land and headed for the journals and pen-names of his romantic town.