This Week in My Classes: My Waverley Intervention

My sincere thanks to everyone who weighed in, here or on Twitter, with advice about handling the classroom slump brought on by Waverley. Here’s an update on what I decided to do.

highlanderFirst of all, I did decide to do something different, rather than just pressing on with my usual strategies. I had to admit to myself — and I admitted this morning to my class — that if year after year a critical mass of students just isn’t getting engaged by the novel, at least to some extent this is a failure on my part — a pedagogical failure. Dropping Waverley from my reading list was also a failure: some students in Waverley-free years have told me how happy they were to have missed it, but missing out on it was not a win for them any more than it was one for me. As I told my class this morning, it’s a novel that deserves its place on our syllabus, one that is well worth reading for our curriculum, whatever anyone’s personal response to it. But the failure isn’t all mine. To use the analogy I suggested to my class, if you’re stumped by a difficult calculus problem, you don’t blame the problem: you work it as hard as you can, get more help if you need it, and try to bring your skills up to the level you need to solve it.

I decided to approach the class, then, as a problem-solving opportunity: we all, collectively, needed to think about what was going on and what our own role could be in addressing it. I said frankly where I thought I had been going wrong: struggle is part of learning new things, and they needed to be free to talk about their difficulties without my getting all judgmental. I told them that I thought I needed to back off a bit, and listen, so that they could trust me to work with them. But so that we didn’t fall into an unproductive gripe session, I suggested they approach Waverley in the spirit of couples therapy: avoid “you” statements in favour of “I” statements, to stimulate not blame but agency. “Waverley is boring” doesn’t help: you can’t change Waverley, after all! “I am finding Waverley boring / frustrating / confusing” is more constructive because there may be something you (or I, as the teacher) can do differently.

All of this preamble took only a  few minutes at the start of class. Then I went to work on getting out of their way. I’d made up a handout with three simple questions:

  1. How is Waverley going for me? What do I like about it? What specific challenges does it pose?
  2. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for things I could try to make it go better:
  3. Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for what Dr. Maitzen could do to help:

I gave them about 10 minutes to respond honestly to these questions — the handout was explicitly not to be submitted or evaluated. Then on the other side of the handout they each had one of five different passages I’d picked out, and they got into small groups with the other students who had the same passage. They had two tasks in their groups: first, to talk freely about how they’d answered their questions, then to read their passage aloud and discuss it, considering it in light of their general comments about reading Waverley as well as in the context of the issues we’d been working on in our previous classes. I left the room entirely for the first five minutes of the group work, literally getting out of their way so they would be uninhibited in their discussion.

The room erupted into noise behind me as I went out, and the conversation seemed energetic for the whole period. While they talked over their passages, I went around offering my help and inviting comments on the question about what I could do to help with their reading of the novel. I got some very specific requests: the most frequent was to go over the political / historical factions again, clarifying who was on what side. A couple of people thought a handout listing characters and their affiliations (and their various names) would be great, so I think I’ll do some version of that. Another suggestion was for some straightforward plot summary: because a number of them are really struggling through Scott’s prose, they lose track of what’s actually happening. Plot summary is not usually high on my priorities for class time, but I can see how confusion about the novel’s events would inhibit class participation! So I’ll do that too, though I’m going to think about ways to make it interactive.

As for things that they could do, a couple of students said that reading the passages out loud helped their comprehension, so that might be something they’ll try on their own (we talked about the audiobook option, though sadly there doesn’t seem to be a really good one available). I showed them the e-text available through the University of Adelaide, which might help anyone struggling with the small print of our Oxford edition. I think others realized that looking more words up in their dictionary will help, and I continued to urge them all to get started trying to write about the novel. It was clear that not everyone had the same issues, and not everyone even had any problems with it — I hope the students who were already getting along fine don’t feel the class was wasted: I think we will all benefit if our remaining two sessions go better.

However it goes on Wednesday and Friday, I won’t regret having tried to change the dynamic that was developing. Lecturing more is one way to get through a slump like this, but it isn’t the best way, since (as I often remind them) the objective of an English class is for them to be better readers themselves: the process of reading and discussion is not just important, but in some ways it’s the whole point.

This Week in My Classes: In which I return to Waverley after many years.

waverleyIn class this week one of my students asked me when I last taught Waverley. “2006-7,” I promptly replied — I knew this because I had gone back to my old files to see what notes and handouts I had in reserve.* It used to be a fixture on my syllabus for The 19thC Novel from Austen to Dickens — but it was also, without fail, the least popular book on the syllabus. While I don’t typically let such considerations steer me in choosing assigned texts (a literary education is about challenging and extending our existing taste and skills as readers, after all), it did get to be a drag coaxing and cheerleading and exhorting the students to get any kind of discussion going. Sure, Scott is probably the most popular and influential author of the early 19th century: all of our other novelists read him (mostly, with passionate affection) and learned from him. And sure, Waverley itself is heaps of fun if you can get into the spirit of things, and if you can get past the garrulous, curmudgeonly, oversharing, occasionally pedantic, highly self-conscious narrator … and sure, there’s all kinds of metafictional proto-post-modernist fun to be had with that narrator, too, if, again, you can get into it. But when at least 75% of the students really can’t get into it, then their boredom and resentment infects the classroom atmosphere, and not necessarily just for the two or so weeks spent on Waverley itself. So I stopped assigning it, and have been teaching Austen to Dickens with no Scott at all since then, except for “The Two Drovers” in a recent summer session of the course.

But I’ve missed Waverley: unpopular as it was, and its intrinsic merits aside, it provided an infinitely valuable touchstone for interesting features of our other novels. As I was already tilting this year’s incarnation of the course towards the Bildungsroman by including both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, I knew I was going to miss it even more. So it’s back  — and, judging by the last two class meetings, so is the stupified resentment it inspires. Not, by any means, among all the students — but even those who are writing smartly in their reading journals seem uncharacteristically reticent in class, and I have numerous indications that a lot of students are falling behind in their reading as well as in their appreciation of the novel. And so I’m back wondering, as I was in 2006-7, what I could be doing differently to make things go better, or whether it’s just not worth the effort.

My basic approach is a ramped-up version of what I do with every assigned novel, which is to present the novel as enthusiastically as I can, front-loading our time on it with a lecture or two clearing up historical information and setting up some interpretive frameworks which then, in theory, enable everyone to read on and consider how the particulars of the novel fit into those broader patterns. There is a bit more context to be established here than usual, but as Scott himself says,

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probably, without it.

If that was true in 1814 (or 1805), it’s even more so today, when there’s barely any chance at all that those terms will mean anything, even to a History major. But once you see what the stakes are, it seems to me that it’s not impossibly difficult to follow the story! It takes patience for a modern reader to settle into the prosy narration, but it’s great stuff once you do, and there’s as much “action, laffs, and romance” as in any Captain Underpants novel!  So once we’re launched on the more discussion-based classes, I start from my stock of open-ended questions (“What kind of a fellow is Waverley?’) and then draw us along into analysis of the answers (“What’s the value of such a ‘wavering’ hero in a novel about civil conflict?’) — focusing, along the way, on particularly fun or revealing scenes. An early episode in Waverley that’s good to discuss, for instance (in theory) is the banquet at Tully-Veolan that ends in a drunken brawl at Luckie Macleary’s inn. In addition to being a great comic scene and one that illustrates Waverley’s uncanny (and symbolic!) habit of falling down in times of crisis, it shows the living importance and potentially violent results of the broad political conflicts we’ve gone over: the fight begins with “a toast which seemed . . . to have a peculiar and uncivil reference to the government that [Waverley] served.”

bustofscottAgain, this is all standard classroom procedure — lecture mixed with discussion prompted by questions designed to build interpretations out of observations. But it just doesn’t go well with Waverley, though there are always a few stalwart souls who put their hands up (thank you!). I’m always a bit puzzled by the conspicuous collapse: the novel doesn’t strike me as that opaque, especially once we’ve done our warm-up sessions. On the assumption that incomprehension is a problem, though, my first response is usually to step up what I think of as the ‘modeling’ component of class — that is, walking the students through those key episodes and showing them what’s in there to notice, enjoy, and work with. Then I try backing off again — but still with lackluster results. Is it me, I wonder? Perhaps I come on too strong: if they are feeling bemused or bored, then my enthusiasm, rather than ‘selling’ them on the novel, may just alienate them from both it and me. Also, sometimes I catch myself hectoring them: this week, for example, I gave them a heads-up that we’d be discussing three particular incidents, and when hardly anyone seemed prepared to do that, well, I did take them to task! But that backfires too, I bet: rather than feeling challenged to do better, they probably just feel defensive.

I really want them to rise to the challenge of this novel. I really don’t think it’s an impossible task. But for many of themI think it does require letting go of the expectation that class reading will be immediately accessible and ‘relatable.’ It’s a class , after all: you’re supposed to learn from it — cue the speech about this not being a book club! Last class I urged them to get started writing about it, if they hadn’t already: they’ve got study questions they can use as prompts for their journals, plus the questions we’ve been working on in class. Active engagement of that kind is a good way to learn, and Waverley is a genuinely interesting novel to write about even if you aren’t finding it a treat to read. But I’m stumped about what else to do, and about what attitude to take in class. I should probably just go on as usual and try not to make a big deal out of the slump we’re experiencing — but that’s easier said than done.

Any tips? Teachers, how do you handle it when you think you’re losing your students and, as a result, they’re missing out? Students, what tactic is most effective, in your experience, at motivating you to get on board with something you don’t find immediately compelling?

*2006-7! That means it was in the era Before Blogging, which is why I have never blogged before about the pleasures and perils of teaching Waverley.

The Antiquary: A Treasure-house of Details, But an Indifferent Whole

I finally finished reading Scott’s  The Antiquary, the first of my commitments for the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge. As some of you will have recognized, my title for this post is actually a line from Henry James’s review of Middlemarch. I have quoted that line often, usually as evidence of James’s failure (or refusal) to acknowledge or appreciate the extraordinary and beautiful convergence of idea and form in that great novel, but also to make the point that James’s idea of wholeness was simply quite different from Eliot’s, partly by design. He had to make his own way, after all. I am quite prepared to blame my own failure to appreciate The Antiquary as a “whole” on my own failure of understanding, my own inability to grasp the motivating or unifying idea of this odd novel. After all, I’ve read it only once, and that with difficulty. I’ll be happy to improve my reading, if only retrospectively, with the help of other people’s insights into its particular merits. (Amateur Reader–I’m counting on you here!)

I settled on The Antiquary for this project because it came highly recommended. Here’s an excerpt from one of Virginia Woolf’s letters:

I don’t know [Scott] accurately and minutely as you do, but only in a warm, scattered, amourous way. Now you have put an edge on my love, and if it weren’t that I must read MSS…I should plunge–you urge me almost beyond endurance to plunge once more–yes, I say to myself, I shall read the Monastery again and then I shall go back to Midlothian. I can’t read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favourites).

Then there’s this famous passage from Eliot’s “The Natural History of German Life”:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. When Scott takes us into Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage, or tells the story of “The Two Drovers,”–when Wordsworth sings to us the reverie of “Poor Susan,”–when Kingsley shows us Alton Locke gazing yearningly over the gate which leads from the highway into the first wood he ever saw,–when Hornung paints a group of chimney-sweepers,–more is done towards linking the higher classes with the lower, towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. All the more sacred is the task of the artist when he undertakes to paint the life of the People. Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life. It is not so very serious that we should have false ideas about evanescent fashions–about the manners and conversation of beaux and duchesses; but it isserious that our sympathy with the perennial joys and struggles, the toil, the tragedy, and the humour in the life of our more heavily-laden fellow-men, should be perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of the true one.

Eventually, I’ve always known, I probably had to get to Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage myself, and Woolf’s endorsement seemed to clinch the deal.

As it turns out, Luckie Mucklebackit’s cottage is well worth a visit, if only for this exchange:

“Ay, ay,” answered Luckie Mucklebackit, “I see you hae gotten a’ your braws on; ye’re looking about for Steenie now—but he’s no at hame the night; and ye’ll no do for Steenie, lass—a feckless thing like you’s no fit to mainteen a man.”

“Steenie will no do for me,” retorted Jenny, with a toss of her head that might have become a higher-born damsel; “I maun hae a man that can mainteen his wife.”

“Ou ay, hinny—thae’s your landward and burrows-town notions. My certie!—fisherwives ken better—they keep the man, and keep the house, and keep the siller too, lass.”

“A wheen poor drudges ye are,” answered the nymph of the land to the nymph of the sea. “As sune as the keel o’ the coble touches the sand, deil a bit mair will the lazy fisher loons work, but the wives maun kilt their coats, and wade into the surf to tak the fish ashore. And then the man casts aff the wat and puts on the dry, and sits down wi’ his pipe and his gill-stoup ahint the ingle, like ony auld houdie, and neer a turn will he do till the coble’s afloat again! And the wife she maun get the scull on her back, and awa wi’ the fish to the next burrows-town, and scauld and ban wi’ilka wife that will scauld and ban wi’her till it’s sauld—and that’s the gait fisher-wives live, puir slaving bodies.”

“Slaves?—gae wa’, lass!—ca’ the head o’ the house slaves? little ye ken about it, lass. Show me a word my Saunders daur speak, or a turn he daur do about the house, without it be just to tak his meat, and his drink, and his diversion, like ony o’ the weans. He has mair sense than to ca’ anything about the bigging his ain, frae the rooftree down to a crackit trencher on the bink. He kens weel eneugh wha feeds him, and cleeds him, and keeps a’ tight, thack and rape, when his coble is jowing awa in the Firth, puir fallow. Na, na, lass!—them that sell the goods guide the purse—them that guide the purse rule the house. Show me ane o’ yer bits o’ farmer-bodies that wad let their wife drive the stock to the market, and ca’ in the debts. Na, na.”

“Aweel, aweel, Maggie, ilka land has its ain lauch.”

The Antiquary of the title, Jonathan Oldbuck, is a tedious windbag: imagine Waverley‘s Baron of Bradwardine turned protagonist and given free run of the novel, and you have some idea. Of course, he has moments of dignity and a heart of gold, the latter manifested particularly through his steadfast loyalty to his friend and long-time antagonist Sir Arthur Wardour but also through his inexplicable, immediate and unshakeable attachment to the young man Lovel whose mysterious identity becomes the creaky hinge of a fearsomely predictable long-lost-heir plot. Appreciating Oldbuck’s virtues means enduring his endlessly reiterated benevolent misogyny, something I’m sure we are supposed to grin and bear because obviously he doesn’t really hate “womankind.” But he and Lovel and Sir Arthur and the dashing but dull Hector M’Intyre and the conniving German ‘adept’ Dousterswivel and even the surprisingly melodramatic Elspeth, are all just laboring cogs in the unwieldy plot of the novel. To be sure, there’s some intrinsic interest in the Antiquary’s monologues about historical relics, etymologies, and so forth (if you like that kind of thing, well, this is the kind of thing you’ll like), and though dramatizing pedantry is a risky aesthetic strategy, Scott’s dry humor bathes Oldbuck in an affectionate glow that almost (but not quite) redeems the concept. I enjoyed the walk to poor Steenie Mucklebackit’s funeral, for instance, when poor Hector rushes off to wrestle a seal to escape his uncle’s pronouncements on the “funeral rites of the ancient Scandinavians.” There are some other pretty funny bits: the sneezing ghost sequence, for instance, and the anticlimactic non-invasion of the French. There’s some pathos, too: the funeral itself is recounted with a wonderful balance between the parents’ grief and the communal rituals that recognize it and begin the process of healing it. The minister may have the improbable name of ‘Blattergowl,’ but his anxiety about approaching the stricken mother is strikingly rendered:

The minister next passed to the mother, moving along the floor as slowly, silently, and gradually, as if he had been afraid that the ground would, like unsafe ice, break beneath his feet, or that the first echo of a footstep was to dissolve some magic spell, and plunge the hut, with all its inmates, into a subterranean abyss.

But what greatness there is in the novel seems to me highly concentrated in the character of the ‘mendicant’ Edie Ochiltree. He strides through the novel with his own unique dignity and resonance, his rootlessness giving him a particularly mobility which enables him then to mediate between the many forces and systems at play. Edie seems privy to some kind of fundamental knowledge, as well: not a ‘wise fool’ (he’s too explicitly savvy for that), he nonetheless carries the moral force of someone who sees through the inessentials.  Here I’m indebted to Adam Roberts, who through the magic of Twitter picked up my puzzlement about The Antiquary and pointed me here, where he quotes G. K. Chesterton, as he says, “at length”:

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise.

In all this Scott, though a Royalist and a Tory, had in the strangest way, the heart of the Revolution. For instance, he regarded rhetoric, the art of the orator, as the immediate weapon of the oppressed. All his poor men make grand speeches, as they did in the Jacobin Club, which Scott would have so much detested. And it is odd to reflect that he was, as an author, giving free speech to fictitious rebels while he was, as a stupid politician, denying it to real ones. But the point for us here is this that all this popular sympathy of his rests on the graver basis, on the dark dignity of man. “Can you find no way?” asks Sir Arthur Wardour of the beggar when they are cut off by the tide. “I’ll give you a farm . . . I’ll make you rich.” . . . “Our riches will soon be equal,” says the beggar, and looks out across the advancing sea.

That’s beautiful. To be clearer, Chesterton’s idea is beautiful, and so too is Scott’s, seen through this filter that allows the clutter of the novel to fall away and leaves us this piece of pure gold. I’m pretty sure The Antiquary is not a great novel, maybe not even a good one: it’s just too clunky and uneven–dull, even, for long stretches. But it has some great moments! And we read these things not because they are easy, but because they are Scottish, and they are challenging.

Google Books Makes the Scottish Literature Challenge More Challenging…

I’m reading Scott’s The Antiquary as one of my books for Wuthering Expectations‘s “Scottish Literature Reading Challenge.” My only hard copy is an elegant but fragile 19th-century edition, but that’s no problem: I just downloaded it from Google Books, “a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books discoverable online.”  I am happily reading it on my Sony Reader–happily, that is, except that I have to repeatedly infer the wording because their careful scanning wasn’t followed by anything like careful proofreading. “Die” repeatedly appears instead of “the,” for instance, and “9” instead of “?” It’s mostly not that hard to figure out what is meant, though it’s confusing that one of the protagonists keeps changing from “Lovel” to “Level,” and then sometimes when we get deep into Scots, I can’t be sure what it’s supposed to say, and when it comes to the (not infrequent) Latin, well, I have no idea at all. And sometimes–well, sometimes, I get to something like this:

I knew Anaelnw. Tic irai shrewd and prudent,
Wisdom and cunning had their shires of him;
But be was ihrew ah u a wayward child,
And pleased again by lays which childhood please’;
A»—took of faLIes graced with print of wood,
Ordae the jingling of a rusty medal,
Or the rare melody of nine old ditty,
That fint Wm sun? to pltase King Pcpiu’i cradle.

And then I just know that all the predictions about how Google Books will change the way we do everything are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Who Reads Scott Anymore? (A Reprise)

There’s an interesting piece at Standpoint on Scott and historical fiction, by Allan Massie:

I still meet people who read and appreciate Scott, and the splendid new Edinburgh edition of his works has led to a reawakening of academic interest. Yet Woolf was probably justified in saying that he had “entirely ceased to influence” other writers, even 80 or 90 years ago. Certainly, it is likely that none of the authors on the Man Booker list owed him anything, consciously or unconsciously. It was different in the 19th century. Dumas and Hugo in France, Manzoni in Italy, Fontane in Germany, Tolstoy in Russia, and Thackeray — in Henry Esmond certainly and Vanity Fair probably — were all in his debt, as were Stevenson and Buchan in their historical novels. Hugh Walpole, in his Herries chronicles, was one of the last novelists to regard himself as a disciple of Scott. But though he was Woolf’s friend, he knew, to his dismay, that she didn’t think much of his books. (read the rest here; HT 3QD)

He doesn’t mention George Eliot, who famously  wrote that she couldn’t bear to hear a disparaging word about Scott, and whose novels are infused with the same interest in people as embodiments of complex historical conditions. I don’t know if it makes sense to say that contemporary writers don’t owe Scott anything even unconsciously: the genre they work in was surely shaped and formed by him, even if (as does seem likely) they aren’t aware of it.Reading this piece, I was reminded of an earlier post I wrote calling attention to a wonderful essay by Brian Nellist at The Reader Online. Here’s the old post, and then the follow-up with links to the wonderful response at Wuthering Expectations, one of my favourite literary blogs.


I recently came across this article in “The Reader Online” by Brian Nellist, a long-time member of the English faculty at the University of Liverpool (and, among many other things, co-editor of the edition of Margaret Oliphant’s Hester that I recently used in my graduate seminar on Victorian Women Writers). Titled “People Don’t Read Scott Anymore,” the article pushes off from the scene of Mr. Ramsey reading Scott in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which “Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page.” “The answer to Tansley’s taunt,” Nellist proposes,

is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading.

He follows this up with a fascinating and detailed account of the experience of reading Scott, particularly The Antiquary, the novel Mr. Ramsey is reading in To the Lighthouse. Some samples:

Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. . . .Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. . . . Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

And now here’s the question: Is it true that people don’t read Scott anymore? I admit I haven’t read The Antiquary, but I’ve read a modest number of Scott’s novels and until this year have persisted in including Waverley on the syllabus every time I teach the early 19th-century novel course here. My special affection for this smart, funny, poignant, satirical, self-conscious novel was begun and fostered by my studies with Harry Shaw at Cornell, and repeated re-readings and, especially, re-teachings have only enhanced the pleasure I take in it (though, sadly, I can’t be as confident about the pleasure my students have taken in it, though I have found that you can predict someone’s overall success in the course pretty well from whether they ‘get’ the humour in Waverley). My favourite exam “sight passage” (future students take note) is from the end of Chapter 16:

[Waverley] had now time to give himself up to the full romance of his situation. Here he sate on the banks of an unknown lake; under the guidance of a wild native, whose language was unknown to him, on a visit to the den of some renowned outlaw, a second Robin Hood perhaps, or Adam o’ Gordon, and that at deep midnight, through scenes of difficulty and toil, separated from his attendant, left by his guide. — What a variety of incidents for the exercise of a romantic imagination, and all enhanced by the solemn feeling of uncertainty, at least, if not of danger? The only circumstance which assorted ill with the rest, was the cause of his journey — the Baron’s milk-cows! This degrading incident he kept in the background.

Waverley and the excesses and errors of his “romantic imagination” obviously provide much of the comedy, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the novel (along with the Boring Baron of Bradwardine)–I always recommend to my students that they count the number of times “our hero” trips, falls down, or is carried injured or unconscious away from some potentially heroic situation. But the best scene for grasping what I take Nellist to be talking about, in terms of Scott’s engagement with the past, is Fergus’s trial, including Evan Dhu’s heart-stoppingly sincere offer of his life in exchange for his feudal master’s:

Evan Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court, and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The Judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed. ‘I was only ganging to say, my lord,’ said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, ‘that if your excellent honour and the honourable Court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and no to trouble King George’s government again, that ony six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye mysell, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.’

Notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a sort of laugh was heard in the court at the extraordinary nature of the proposal. The Judge checked this indecency, and Evan, looking sternly around, when the murmur abated, ‘If the Saxon gentlemen are laughing,’ he said, ‘because a poor man, such as me, thinks my life, or the life of six of my degree, is worth that of Vich Ian Vohr, it’s like enough they may be very right; but if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.’

There was no farther inclination to laugh among the audience, and a dead silence ensued.

(Haven’t read it? You really should! Here’s an etext, though you’ll probably want an edition with lots of notes.)

Let’s see: I’ve also read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, The Talisman, Kenilworth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, and Redgauntlet (on which I actually published an article once). That’s not really very many, considering the man’s vast output, but I’d consider it a good sampling. I am also the owner of a battered copy of Quentin Durward inscribed to my grandfather as a Christmas gift in 1910, from the boys’ school he attended. (I’m guessing that he was more excited about Quentin Durward than he was the volume of Mrs. Hemans’s poems they gave him in 1912 “for good conduct”!)

So, what about it, dear readers (to use a very Victorian address)? Do people read Scott anymore? What Scott have you read, what are your favourites, and what would you say is special about the experience he offers us as readers?


My previous post inspired Amateur Reader to reflect on the joys and challenges of Scott, with engaging posts on The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Redgauntlet so far:

The word that Scott can’t escape is “slack”. Rarely is he in a hurry to get anywhere, so he requires patience, perhaps too much at times. The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency.

But AR acknowledges the charms of Scott’s inefficiencies, giving due attention, for instance, to Madge Wildfire in Heart of Midlothian and Wandering Willie’s Tale in Redgauntlet. I think we agree that there’s more to life than “push[ing] the story forward.” (In a comment at AR‘s place, I tried to imagine Dickens being efficient. Sometimes perhaps writers should do things just because they can–Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Great Expectations, or the head of Charles I in David Copperfield. Constrain that imagination and maybe you don’t get Krook’s spontaneous combustion, or Miss Havisham and her wedding cake….)

Another interesting comment: “Honor and loyalty – Scott returns to this theme repeatedly. Perhaps one reason we do not read Scott so much now is that our ideas about honor have changed too much since Scott’s time.” Scott isn’t afraid to showcase virtue, either: I’m thinking of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian, almost certainly too steadfast to be the heroine of a novel by any other 19th-century novelist.

Still, the evidence of my very small sample (including those commenting at WutheringExpectations) is not overwhelming in Scott’s favour. No question, he’s not a crowd-pleaser, but I’m reminded of the annoying ads for local brewery Alexander Keith’s: “Those who like it, like it a lot!”


Do pitch in with your own thoughts on or experiences with reading Scott–and take note that, as part of the ‘Scottish Literature Reading Challenge’ that Wuthering Expectations is hosting, I’ve committed to reading The Antiquary this summer, because, after all, Viriginia Woolf considers it one of Scott’s best. I’ve also been thinking about The Heart of Midlothian as a candidate for this year’s Summer Reading Project at The Valve (following up on Adam Bede, in 2008, and Villette, last year). It does rather seem to be the Year of Historical Fiction.

Some People Read Scott, Anyway!

My previous post inspired Amateur Reader to reflect on the joys and challenges of Scott, with engaging posts on The Heart of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Redgauntlet so far:

The word that Scott can’t escape is “slack”. Rarely is he in a hurry to get anywhere, so he requires patience, perhaps too much at times. The story of The Heart of Midlothian is not told with anything resembling efficiency.

But AR acknowledges the charms of Scott’s inefficiencies, giving due attention, for instance, to Madge Wildfire in Heart of Midlothian and Wandering Willie’s Tale in Redgauntlet. I think we agree that there’s more to life than “push[ing] the story forward.” (In a comment at AR‘s place, I tried to imagine Dickens being efficient. Sometimes perhaps writers should do things just because they can–Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Great Expectations, or the head of Charles I in David Copperfield. Constrain that imagination and maybe you don’t get Krook’s spontaneous combustion, or Miss Havisham and her wedding cake….)

Another interesting comment: “Honor and loyalty – Scott returns to this theme repeatedly. Perhaps one reason we do not read Scott so much now is that we our ideas about honor have changed too much since Scott’s time.” Scott isn’t afraid to showcase virtue, either: I’m thinking of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian, almost certainly too steadfast to be the heroine of a novel by any other 19th-century novelist.

Still, the evidence of my very small sample (including those commenting at WutheringExpectations) is not overwhelming in Scott’s favour. No question, he’s not a crowd-pleaser, but I’m reminded of the annoying ads for local brewery Alexander Keith’s: “Those who like it, like it a lot!”

Who Reads Scott Anymore?

Skipping back along a chain of links this morning, I found myself at this article in “The Reader Online” by Brian Nellist, a long-time member of the English faculty at the University of Liverpool (and, among many other things, co-editor of the edition of Margaret Oliphant’s Hester that I recently used in my graduate seminar on Victorian Women Writers). Titled “People Don’t Read Scott Anymore,” the article pushes off from the scene of Mr. Ramsey reading Scott in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which “Charles Tansley their intellectually arrogant house-guest has declared ‘People don’t read Scott any more’ and Mr Ramsey, who does, needs to confirm that what he admires is still alive on the page.” “The answer to Tansley’s taunt,” Nellist proposes,

is experto crede, not ‘Trust the professional’, heaven forbid, but ‘have faith in the man who’s tried it’ and that means because literature allows us all that privilege, ourselves reading.

He follows this up with a fascinating and detailed account of the experience of reading Scott, particularly The Antiquary, the novel Mr. Ramsey is reading in To the Lighthouse. Some samples:

Scott is a historical novelist not mainly because he is interested in inventing a new genre or likes picturesque effects but because the past provides a medium through which he establishes the difference, between himself and the reader together, from the characters (in the whole range of his moods there is no single character who can be identified directly with the novelist himself). This difference does not express the Modernist apprehension of the isolation of personality within its inevitably over-evolved identity but the opposite, a sense that we can after all in part understand lives inevitably beyond our own experience. Scott uses history and picture to maintain his balance between the warmth of knowing where the characters are coming from to admit their inevitable helplessness, and yet preserve a stoical silence over our incapacity to inhabit the same human space. . . .

Scott requires of us not that Paterian aesthetic of intensity but a generous acknowledgement of permanent difference to which we are to bring heart and mind in understanding, the older idea of sympathy in fact. Sympathy makes rational objections, moral dissent, even though the text provides a basis for it, an irrelevance in the face of greater considerations: the ‘facts’ are more complex than any ideas we might have about them. . . . Sympathy is the bit of freedom given to the reader when we look at characters who seem, like Scott’s do, so gripped by the circumstances of their lives that their own freedom has been smothered by habit. What is for us the sharpness and individuality of his characters is often for them within the novel a painfully circumscribed identity: we laugh but often they don’t.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

And now here’s the question: Is it true that people don’t read Scott anymore? I admit I haven’t read The Antiquary, but I’ve read a modest number of Scott’s novels and until this year have persisted in including Waverley on the syllabus every time I teach the early 19th-century novel course here. My special affection for this smart, funny, poignant, satirical, self-conscious novel was begun and fostered by my studies with Harry Shaw at Cornell, and repeated re-readings and, especially, re-teachings have only enhanced the pleasure I take in it (though, sadly, I can’t be as confident about the pleasure my students have taken in it, though I have found that you can predict someone’s overall success in the course pretty well from whether they ‘get’ the humour in Waverley). My favourite exam “sight passage” (future students take note) is from the end of Chapter 16:

[Waverley] had now time to give himself up to the full romance of his situation. Here he sate on the banks of an unknown lake; under the guidance of a wild native, whose language was unknown to him, on a visit to the den of some renowned outlaw, a second Robin Hood perhaps, or Adam o’ Gordon, and that at deep midnight, through scenes of difficulty and toil, separated from his attendant, left by his guide. — What a variety of incidents for the exercise of a romantic imagination, and all enhanced by the solemn feeling of uncertainty, at least, if not of danger? The only circumstance which assorted ill with the rest, was the cause of his journey — the Baron’s milk-cows! This degrading incident he kept in the background.

Waverley and the excesses and errors of his “romantic imagination” obviously provide much of the comedy, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the novel (along with the Boring Baron of Bradwardine)–I always recommend to my students that they count the number of times “our hero” trips, falls down, or is carried injured or unconscious away from some potentially heroic situation. But the best scene for grasping what I take Nellist to be talking about, in terms of Scott’s engagement with the past, is Fergus’s trial, including Evan Dhu’s heart-stoppingly sincere offer of his life in exchange for his feudal master’s:

Evan Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court, and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The Judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed. ‘I was only ganging to say, my lord,’ said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, ‘that if your excellent honour and the honourable Court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and no to trouble King George’s government again, that ony six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye mysell, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.’

Notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a sort of laugh was heard in the court at the extraordinary nature of the proposal. The Judge checked this indecency, and Evan, looking sternly around, when the murmur abated, ‘If the Saxon gentlemen are laughing,’ he said, ‘because a poor man, such as me, thinks my life, or the life of six of my degree, is worth that of Vich Ian Vohr, it’s like enough they may be very right; but if they laugh because they think I would not keep my word and come back to redeem him, I can tell them they ken neither the heart of a Hielandman nor the honour of a gentleman.’

There was no farther inclination to laugh among the audience, and a dead silence ensued.

(Haven’t read it? You really should! Here’s an etext, though you’ll probably want an edition with lots of notes.)

Let’s see: I’ve also read The Bride of Lammermoor, The Heart of Midlothian, The Talisman, Kenilworth, Old Mortality, Ivanhoe, and Redgauntlet (on which I actually published an article once). That’s not really very many, considering the man’s vast output, but I’d consider it a good sampling. I am also the owner of a battered copy of Quentin Durward inscribed to my grandfather as a Christmas gift in 1910, from the boys’ school he attended. (I’m guessing that he was more excited about Quentin Durward than he was the volume of Mrs. Hemans’s poems they gave him in 1912 “for good conduct”!)

So, what about it, dear readers (to use a very Victorian address)? Do people read Scott anymore? What Scott have you read, what are your favourites, and what would you say is special about the experience he offers us as readers?

Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings and Queen’s Play

Reviewing these first two books in the Lymond Chronicles, I have confirmed both that they are exceptionally convincing and vivid historical novels and that it is nearly impossible for me to approach them with anything like critical detachment. Part of the reason is just how well-known they are to me after all these years; another part is how almost wholly concerned they are with historical context, plot, and character. If there are broad “themes,” they arise from these fairly concrete elements, I think, rather than from abstractions or philosophies. One idea they explore through the protagonist is what I might call the burden of excellence, the expectations and responsibilities that arise for the possessor of extraordinary gifts, such as those with which Lymond himself is endowed. In their own quite different styles, Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda also investigate the challenges faced by people of outstanding abilities who sometimes resent the leadership or guidance others want from them. In this age of Forrest Gump and books “for dummies,” we seem much more at ease withweakness and stupidity than with brilliance, but these protagonists show there is plenty of drama (and perhaps even more significance) in intelligence and strength.

The Lymond books do also engage with other ‘issues’ that are somewhat less personal or less tied to the main character, though he is the agent for their examination. Nationalism, for instance–the costs and benefits, beauties and absurdities–of love for country is a major problem in The Game of Kings and also, through the Irish connections, in Queen’s Play, which also picks up questions about aesthetics and morality. But though I have not done a patient analysis, I would not consider any of these ideas central to the ‘aboutness’ of the novels. They seem more part of the cultural context of the characters, which is a world in which these ideas are being given new urgency (as borders and allegiances shift) and new forms. That is, it seems to me at this point that the characters debate because they need to, to be themselves at their time in history, not because Dunnett has a larger agenda about Scottish identity or the role of art in life.

But it’s the charisma of the novels themselves that overwhelms me: they are remarkably wide-ranging, as daring as any of Scott’s in their insistence on informing us about history and politics, and allusive beyond any other novels I’ve read–and yet all of this never oppresses or overwhelms. It also transforms plots that are improbable, melodramatic, and grandiose into narratives that (to me, anyway) never feel that way. It’s remarkable, actually, how tawdry the novels can sound even in some of the blurbs that are meant to market them. Here’s the cover copy from my old Popular Library edition of Checkmate:

Against the splendor and squalor of the dissolute court of France…amid the crosscurrents of political intrigues and passionate liaisons…through a labyrinth of danger and deceit…a bastard nobleman searching for his heritage, and the beautiful virgin bride he married but could not bed, move toward the climax that will mean greatmess and fulfillment, or else disgrace, destruction and damnation…

Any reader of Checkmate knows that in a way, that’s an accurate description, but it is entirely unfaithful to the tone and quality of the novel, which is not at all the kind of bodice-ripping pathos-soaked costume drama evoked. I suspect that the publishers figured nobody would buy the book if it were described more accurately!

Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor

This novel, like Wuthering Heights, is on my list of “alternates” to consider for my 19th-century fiction course–it would replace Waverley, which I have persisted in teaching for over a decade, despite its inevitable status as least-popular-book-on-the-reading-list. I thought I’d review Bride in particular because not only is it relatively short (OK, by 19thC standards) but its tragic plot and gloomy drama seem likely to have more crowd appeal. I did, mostly, enjoy reading through it this time: it’s relatively fast moving (again, by 19thC standards) and there’s plenty of thematically interesting material to work with, especially about fate vs. individual choice or agency, women and power, aesthetics, and also some of the same historical and historiographcial problems explored by Waverley. But–though this may be because I have not worked with Bride carefully at this point–Waverley just seems much more useful for demonstrating what Scott means to the history of the novel…plus (though I usually have trouble convincing all but a few students of this) Waverley is a very funny novel, and except for the tedious Caleb, Bride is pretty slim on humour.

Thinking about Scott while also beginning Linda Holeman’s The Linnet Bird has helped me clarify a bit what I mean when I say I find a book “thin.” Holeman’s novel, while entertaining so far, does not give a rich sense of why, historically, its people are as they are: what are the social, economic, intellectual, and other structures that shape (if not necessarily determine) the options they have and the ways they understand them? Both Scott and George Eliot are particularly good at presenting their stories of past times so that you understand that a plot just like this particular one would not unfold in the same way, not just with different characters, but at a different historical moment. Other Victorian novelists have been described as writing ‘histories of the present,’ because they perceive their own time with a similar commitment to understanding its complexity and contingency. My dissatisfaction with Quindlen’s Black and Blue can be traced to a deficiency in its historical sense as well, I think: though unlike The Linnet Bird it is not deliberately a historical novel, it might have done much more to explore violence against women as a phenomenon manifested in a particular way at a particular time. What are the forces and systems that enable a husband’s violence, a wife’s shame and submission, in that place at that time, so that at some other point along the way things would have developed differently? What are the ideas of masculinity or femininity that are at stake? Many more specific questions would fill in this list (for instance, questions about the significance of Fran’s job). Quindlen focuses much more on the psychological, individual factors–on personalities–than on these broader issues, but her novel thus stands more as a case study than a social analysis, taken from a late 20th-century context it does not attempt to understand. In that sense it is written for its own time (contemporary readers will fill in that context based on their own sense of how things work today) rather than to offer insights (rather than snapshots) for later generations of readers. Is it fear of exposition (of the dreaded ‘telling,’ instead of ‘showing’) that limits how much explanation authors writing for a general readership are willing to include? In Waverley, Scott apologizes for his lengthy accounts of history and politics but protests in his defense that his story will not be intelligible without them. In the deeper sense–that is, beyond the simple action of the plot–every story relies on that kind of context, and I appreciate novelists able to integrate it in some engaging way, thus offering the reader a fuller picture of what the world looks like from their perspective. (I’d say this is one of McEwan’s accomplishments in Saturday.)
http://rcm-ca.amazon.ca/e/cm?t=rohmaisboonot-20&o=15&p=8&l=as1&asins=0140436561&IS1=1&fc1=000000&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&npa=1&f=ifr