I’ve read a reasonable amount of 19th-century British literature, but somehow up until this point, I’ve never read anything by one of the most important and influential 19th-century British authors around: Walter Scott. I don’t know how I missed such an obvious trick, but I am so glad that (on Tom’s advice) this is where I started.
Old Mortality was written in 1816, but it’s a historical novel, set in Scotland at the end of the 17th century. It deals with the bitterly drawn lines between the Royalists and the Covenanters, which is history that Scott takes for granted and I had to look up in order to understand more fully. If you know something about the succession of British kings (well, around this time period — no need to go right back to Aethelstan or anything), the reasons behind the first English Civil War, and the rudiments of Scottish Presbyterianism, it will help enormously in making this book go smoothly.
Not that it’s difficult to enjoy this novel. Old Mortality begins with a wapenshaw held by Lady Margaret Bellenden and her granddaughter Edith, fervent supporters of the Royalist cause. (Dunnett lovers: the main sport at the wapenshaw is a shoot at the popinjay! I saw so much Scott influence on Dunnett, and I expect I would see more if I knew Scott better.) The extremely likable Henry Morton, winner of the shoot, is celebrating that evening when he finds himself entangled with the grim and overzealous Covenanter John Balfour. Morton’s principles are primarily political rather than religious — he wants the Scots to have a say in their own rule, as well as to be able to worship according to their own conscience — but once outlawed, he aligns himself with Balfour against the King, and from then on his fate is sealed.
In this novel, Scott shows the dangers of extreme beliefs and factionalism on both the Royalist side and the Covenanter side. Morton, and a few other characters, are logical and moderate in their approach, and are presented as rational men trapped in a bad situation. Characters like Balfour, and his opposite Royalist number, James Claverhouse, though, are extreme in their beliefs and also in their methods — doing things no honorable gentleman would consider in order to bring about the end that they believe to be right.
Scott is not even-handed, however. It’s clear that the Royalist cause is more appealing and more… gentlemanly, I suppose is the way I want to put it, and Scott shows this primarily through characters, rather than through exposition. Balfour is rough, crude, and violent, but Claverhouse is not only cool as fresh-fallen snow, he’s intelligent enough to see Morton’s value and compassionate enough to reach out to it.
Another thing that tips the scales in this novel is the comic relief. Two of Lady Margaret’s servants are Cuddie Headrigg and his fanatical Covenanting mother. Scenes with these two, along with the Covenanting pastor, are unfailingly hilarious: the mother wailing and weeping and calling down elaborate Old Testament curses on anyone who opposes her, the pastor nervously backing away from physical danger as he prays in heavy Scottish dialect, the son stoically enduring his embarrassment. There’s nothing comparable on the Royalist side, except the courageous Lady Margaret’s tendency to retell her encounter with King Charles at every possible opportunity. This is a running gag, and it’s funny, but it’s not outright ridicule.
The plot moves along briskly and romantically (or I should probably say Romantically), with sieges, proposals, exiles, torture, madness, and True Love. (Did I mention influence on Dunnett?) The ending of the novel is entirely sentimentally satisfying, without being maudlin. Old Mortality was a splendid novel in every respect. Why have I never read Scott before? It won’t be the last time, I can tell you. What should I read next?