A defense of The Bride of Lammermoor

For all the action I’ve given you so far, I don’t think I’ve given away really anything at all of the main plotline of the novel. If you read the book yourself, you’ll find out much faster, because Scott gives away the whole thing in his introduction. Or rather, he gives away the true story behind the novel: a lawyer of distinction marries a woman a bit above him, something of a Lady MacBeth. Their daughter becomes engaged without the knowledge of her parents, and her mother opposes the match upon finding out. After being bullied by her mother, the daughter breaks her troth and agrees to marry another. And then:

The bridal feast was followed by dancing; the bride and bridegroom retired as usual, when of a sudden the most wild and piercing cries were heard from the nuptial chamber. It was then the custom, to prevent any coarse pleasantry which old times perhaps admitted, that the key of the nuptial chamber should be intrusted to the brideman. He was called upon, but refused at first to give it up, till the shrieks became so hideous that he was compelled to hasten with others to learn the cause. On opening the door, they found the bridegroom lying across the threshold, dreadfully wounded, and streaming with blood. The bride was then sought for: She was found in the corner of the large chimney, having no covering save her shift, and that dabbled in gore. There she sat grinning at them, mopping and mowing, as I heard the expression used; in a word, absolutely insane. The only words she spoke were, “Tak up your bonny bridegroom.”

Within two weeks, of course, the good lady died, while her husband survived his wounds and refused ever to speak about the incident.

Scott gives away in a few pages what seems like the whole of the story, and for some, what should really have been the whole of the story, as all the rest is “filler.”

First, one of the things I loved most about The Bride of Lammermoor was how it was like an exercise in storytelling. Scott gives us this legend or myth or rumor or bit of gossip he heard from his aunt and then, yes, he fills it out. He takes the reader vividly from beginning to terrible end, so the end has a reason for being at all. Lucy Ashton’s stabbing her husband on their wedding night may be “the good part” in the sense of being the sexy crowdpleaser, but how much substance is in such a scene on its own? The family politics and the Gothic prophecies are good parts too, as far as I’m concerned; they’re “filler” insofar as they round out Scott’s basic story, but isn’t that just what we want the novelist to do?

And Scott’s introduction makes the book a nice study in what the novelist does. In the novel itself the narrator (not Scott) comments exensively if sometimes obliquely on what the novelist, or artist, does, in telling the story of how he heard the story Scott told us in the introduction. We can pick out the bits and pieces that came straight from Scott’s source, and imagine exactly which others are made up, and from where…and which scenes have been altered, and which facts transposed, for dramatic effect…and which seemingly ingenious detail is a really real detail, and which is a well-chosen illusion. This is fun for other people, right?

And that climactic scene is my favorite example of novelistic use of these real details. A cry is heard, they must get the key from the brideman, a bloody bridegroom lies on the threshold, and Lucy Ashton is found in the corner of the chimney, saying, “So, you have ta’en up your bonny bridegroom?” Yes, 330 pages of build-up so Scott can get us to that line, but that’s sort of what makes it impressive.

It’s a slightly later passage that I liked best, and that reminds me most of the first time I found something like this. After he recovers from his injuries, Bucklaw is a changed man, whose transformation we witness by his statement to his friends:

‘I wish you all,’ he said, ‘my friends, to understand, however, that I have neither story to tell, nor injuries to avenge. If a lady shall question me henceforward upon the incidents of that unhappy night, I shall remain silent, and in future consider her as one who has shown herself desirous to break off her friendship with me; in a word, I will never speak to her again. But if a gentleman shall ask me the same question, I shall regard the incivility as equivalent to an invitation to meet him in the Duke’s Walk, and I expect that he will rule himself accordingly.’

These are the best little details both from the real story Scott relates in the introduction as well as from the novel. As AR speculates, I don’t think we could have gotten here without the rest, even if you don’t view it as well as I do. And based on Fiona Robertson’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, it appears Scott agreed: “He always spoke of The Bride of Lammermoor as a story he could have told no other way, privileging tradition over personal creativity, the narrative sequences laid down by previous story-tellers over the new pace and emphasis of his own novel.” And that layered effect was one of the things I liked best in the book.

Just a bit more evidence, if totally subjective, about whether the bridal scene is really “the good part”: When I read the introduction, I briefly thought, “Wait, this is what this is about? Do I really want to read about a madwoman stabbing her husband on their wedding night?” And then I found I was not, in fact, going to be reading about that for quite a while, and that I would be getting much more than that gruesome if riveting scene.

3 comments to A defense of The Bride of Lammermoor

  • Hi Nicole, I’m glad to see that you’re back. I’d tell you that I missed you but that just sounds odd, so instead I’ll say hey. Cheers, Kevin

  • Thank you, Kevin, it’s very good to be back.

  • All right, I think I see my problem. The Donizetti opera is, of course, moving implacably to its climax, to the mad scene. It’s one of the all-time great scenes in opera. I must have been too focused on how the Scott novel fails to duplicate that movement and that climax. I mean, the mad scene, in the opera, is something like a fifth of the total length! How would that possibly work in the novel?

    I say this, ’cause tyou’ve written a convincing defense. Maybe I was jaded, too – Lammermoor was my fourth or fifth Scott novel.