Old Mortality

old mortalityI’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?

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18 Responses to Old Mortality

  1. realthog says:

    Always lovely when someone else discovers Scott!

    What should I read next?

    My favorite of them all is I think Guy Mannering.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I love this post! I haven’t read Old Mortality in years but I remember liking it a lot — time for a reread! I actually have read only a handful of Scott, but now that you’re warmed up I would recommend Waverley — which is also quite hilarious at times. Or for more melodramatic fun, there’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

    • Jenny says:

      I know some of the books are called the Waverley novels — is it a series? I’d like a series. I admit I wasn’t expecting this to be so funny, which of course is my fault, since so many classics are completely hilarious. I’d love more of that.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve only read Ivanhoe, many years ago now, and I struggled with it. This sounds much more interesting and appealing – even without the wapenshaw.

    • Jenny says:

      Why did you struggle with Ivanhoe? This was so much fun for me — historical and romantic and Scottish and funny and political all at once — but, not knowing what it was about Ivanhoe you didn’t like, I can’t tell whether to recommend it!

      • Lisa says:

        I’ve had to think about why for a bit. I read it in high school, and other than Louisa May Alcott, most of what I read was contemporary fiction (or at least 20th century). I tended to read more children’s and young adult books at that point. I think I lacked the context to appreciate it, and I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with. I know I struggled with the language. The historical fiction I’d read up to that point was again aimed at a younger audience, and the language was simpler. Since I started blogging, I’ve seen reviews of Scott’s novels that made me realize they would read very differently to me now. He has been on my “someday” list, and your review makes me think this would be a good book to start with.

      • Jenny says:

        My mom started giving me 19th-century novels to read when I was about 12 (The Woman in White and Jane Eyre, to begin with), so I would have been used to that part of it. But I admit, this was a wee bit more digressive than some! Still, I thought it was marvelous. I do think you’d like it, Lisa.

  4. I adored this book when I read it last year at a time I thought I would plow through Scott before I got distracted by a shiny object (probably a re-reading of Dickens). I was told to read Scott’s “Scottish” novels, as opposed to those like Ivanhoe and The Talisman (from the Authors playing cards deck–I dream some day of reading every work mentioned in them), and the ones I’ve read, including Old Mortality and Rob Roy, are great, even though I have to work hard at Scott like others complain of having to work at Dickens. I have a slew of his books on my toppling TBR shelf, including The Bride of Lammermoor and The Heart of Midlothian, which is alleged by some to be the best (it is also the longest). I loved Kenilworth (it’s very swashbuckling and grossly historically inaccurate, apparently, and not set in Scotland), and liked Waverley, Scott’s first novel, published anonymously, which gave him the title of the “author of the Waverley novels,” (as opposed to Walter Scott, the poet) if my memory serves me correctly. He’s right in there with Fenimore Cooper–a great storyteller once you get into the groove of his sentence structure.

    I’d love to read more Scott, but I’ve decided that 2016 is the year of Melville, and I’m going to read everything in order, while I follow along in the 2,000 pages of the two-volume biography by Hershel Parker. I’ve read everything before (including the epic poem Clarel) but I think Melville is the Mt. Everest of writers; a more tortured soul could not have existed.

    Keep up posting great reviews of the true classics. I love this blog. It and Tom’s are the only two I follow any more; this one for being so careful in its book choices; Tom’s because it’s just so–eclectic sounds better than odd, doesn’t it? Keep up the great work, ladies! And did I mention Melville? Redburn would be a good place to start, or Typee, Melville’s most popular book during his lifetime. But I digress…

    • Jenny says:

      All of Melville in order! I hope you don’t get lost in a crevasse. I have been thinking about Moby-Dick for this summer, so perhaps we’ll cross paths! And thank you so much for your kind words about the blog and for your Scott recommendations. I always love your commentary, so it’s mutual!

  5. jenclair says:

    I really enjoyed several of Scott’s novels, but I think Kenilworth fascinated me the most. A mystery that will never be solved….

  6. Laura says:

    The Antiquary is my favorite. I did a Sir Walter Scott reading group with students a few years ago. Not surprisingly, Ivanhoe was their favorite.

  7. First, this post is fun to read. Old Mortality is a great novel. Why is it so little read? Austen readers could handle it, and there are so many of them.

    Second, you are right about Scott’s lack of even-handedness. Both James Hogg and John Galt wrote responses to Old Mortality. I read Galt’s novel, Ringan Gilhaize because the Little Professor described it as “awesome,” which is accurate, but the novel is written with such strict conceptual purity that I could not recommend it to many people. Once it gets rolling, though, wow, look out. The Covenanters strike back.

    Third, I pick The Heart of Midlothian as Scott’s next best novel, or maybe it is just as good. It stars the strongest Strong Female Character in 19th century English literature. I’ll note that I have read seven Scott novels but have not read several of the titles mentioned by other commenters. Maybe they’re even better. The Antiquary was Virginia Woolf’s favorite. She had a running joke in her letters that she was the last living reader of Scott – he was already in noticeable decline.

    Fourth, the Waverley novels are a series in the sense that all of Scottish history – all of human history – can be thought of as a series. All novels can be thought of as a series, really. All art. All of everything.

    Fifth, “odd” will do.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve done rather well taking your recommendations in the past, and now I’ve accumulated two for Heart of Midlothian, so I might read that one next (of Scott.) Currently, I’m discovering that Oscar Wilde is a decadent fantastic Naturalist, so I see what you’re saying about all of art being a series.

  8. Christy says:

    I also remember being surprised by the humor when I read Scott’s The Talisman. That’s the only one I’ve read by him so far, though Ivanhoe is in my sights.

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