The Highland Widow by Sir Walter Scott

Ah, The Highland Widow. Let me count the ways in which it is awesome.

First, look at that cover. We have Hesperus, not Walter Scott, to thank for that of course, but yum. (The firearms-loving consumption partner couldn’t understand why these two guns appear to be stuck in the ground. Who cares? Look at the almost-symmetry, and the orange!) We can thank Scott for the title, which I enjoy for personal aesthetic reasons (there is something wrong about liking the word “widow,” but I do). And to get to the work itself, it’s a novella (points!), it has a framing story (points!), and it’s about some awesome Romantic Highland business (double points!).

The framing story should actually get double points, as it’s (at least) a double frame. The Highland Widow is part of the Chronicles of the Canongate, narrated, like The Bride of Lammermoor, by a Scott-substitute, Chrystal Croftangry. But Croftangry has the story from one Bethune Baliol, who “undertook what was called the short Highland tour” several decades earlier and tells the story she heard from her bodyguard of Elspat MacTavish, the Highland widow herself.

Elspat “was once the beautiful and happy wife of Hamish MacTavish, for whom his strength and feats of prowess had gained the title of MacTavish Mhor.” Those feats mostly included stealing; he was a “cateran,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “a former military irregular or brigand of the Scottish Highlands.” He went around demanding tribute and stealing your sheep if you didn’t give it to him. These wild Highlanders, you see, didn’t care about property rights. If MacTavish Mhor was strong enough to take what you had, and you too weak to keep it, what you had was justly his.

Eventually this reign of cateran terror is put to an end by redcoats (“Saxons”), but not until after Hamish, fending them off, has gone as far as to shoot all his silver waistcoat buttons at them after running out of bullets. Elspat and her infant get away and go on to continue demanding tribute (not alms) of the Lowlanders. She raises little Hamish and simply knows that once he’s old enough to wield his father’s claymore he will take up the old family profession and her Highland pride will come into its full once more.

But Scotland has changed a lot since the days of MacTavish Mhor, and young Hamish knows there is no future for him in cateran-ing. Elspat can’t accept this, and much emphasis is placed on how she has lived her life isolated and in the past, and doesn’t realize the extent to which those nasty Saxons have brought the rule of law to her fellow clansmen. When Hamish reveals that rather than banditry he’s decided to turn to the army and joined a Highland regiment sent to fight the French in the New World, she is outraged at his willingness to abase himself “like a hound” rather than remain a free and independent man. And the extent of her outrage and selfishness will doom them all—in a fittingly Romantic Highland way, of course.

I still know hardly anything about Scott and his concerns as a writer, but it seems safe to say one of them is exactly these changes that come over Scotland and in some sense convert it from a land of independent brutality to one of trust in the law. And the way that even those who do come to trust in the law and its rightness, and reject the old ways of life, still understand the pride of the Highlanders and try to resist a complete cultural overthrow. As Hamish’s captain explains to his chaplain, their general “has no idea of the high and enthusiastic character which in these mountains often brings exalted virtues in contact with great crimes, which, however, are less offences of the heart than errors of the understanding.” But the general’s answer to this is that “[t]hese are Highland visions, Captain Campbell, as unsatisfactory and vain as those of the second sight.” Ach, those myopic Saxons; the second sight can be so beautiful and exciting.

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.

The tidiness of The Bride of Lammermoor

Yesterday, talking about some of the excellent action in The Bride of Lammermoor, I may not have mentioned that they are all also excellent scenes. One of the things most apparent for me, reading Scott for the first time, was how skilled he was. Like with Flaubert, I was reading to some extent hoping to uncover these influences that have percolated down from Scott to, I guess, pretty much everyone who came after. He is another one who changed all of literature, &tc. And again, it’s hard to recognize, but it’s not at all hard to recognize how good he was. Every scene is carried off, the plot runs along just as it should, the principal characters are perfectly worthy of their Gothic story.

And then what I really began to notice was Scott’s parsimony. A lot happens in the novel, there are several settings, and the not-quite-omniscient (?) third-person narration closes in on various points of view as the story goes along. But nothing is wasted, nothing is not key to the main plotline, and despite the novel’s seeming to encompass so much, everyone is re-used to keep for a remarkably tight cast of characters.

First, the old woman Alice, a tenant of Sir William Ashton (and formerly of the Lord of Ravenswood). Ashton is out walking with Lucy and they meet and speak with Alice. Ashton shows his ignorance about his own estate in speaking to her, but she’s not just any old tenant either. She’s important to the Master of Ravenswood, serves as a major source of prophecy in a novel where prophecy is key, and will continue to reappear to gather and impart information.

Then we have Bucklaw and Craigengelt. We meet them at an inn, discussing a plan to spirit the Master of Ravenswood away to France, for their own personal gain. Their ideas are thwarted, and Bucklaw becomes something of a temporary hanger-on of Edgar’s. If this were most other novels Bucklaw might play a recurring minor role as Ravenswood’s male companion, but he becomes something much more. He weaves himself even more closely with the Ashton family than Ravenswood does and ends up one of the most important characters in the climax of the story.

My favorite example is with the villagers of Wolf’s-hope, the hamlet just outside Wolf’s Crag, Ravenswood’s remaining property. No longer feudal subjects, they’ve cast off most obligations to Ravenswood while still feeling at least some of the hereditary respect for his position. The dealings Ravenswood’s butler Caleb has with the villagers are wonderful; Caleb is worth a whole blog post of his own though I don’t think he’ll get it. But to the point of parsimony: we feel we know the entire village, its workings, its economy, the general feelings of the townsfolk. But we go into only one household—and that household repeatedly, though for entirely different purposes, making it seem almost like more than one household—and meet just a few other residents besides, most only for a line or two. Scott has created a whole village out of little more than a single family and descriptions of the rooms in its house.

Still, a question remains: what do we need all this for, it might just be filler? Tomorrow, tomorrow.

The Bride of Lammermoor is super fun

I’d always thought of Sir Walter Scott as boring, probably due to too-early contact with the first few pages of Ivanhoe (and knowledge of its length), and when I began reading The Bride of Lammermoor I felt I was enjoying such things as I usually do anyhow, but that it was an awful lot of pretty dry exposition. Then, after the first real evening of reading it, I started to tell the consumption partner about what had gone on so far, to make conversation.

The first thing to really happen in the novel is the funeral of Allan Lord Ravenswood, a once-important lord who had lost his lands and then his rank, winding up with just one tower on a barren bit of coast and driven to a bitter death. “The pomp of attendance, to which the deceased had, in his latter years, been a stranger, was revived as he was about to be consigned to the realms of forgetfulness.” The funeral is grand and romantic: the train of mourners was so long the tail end had not left the castle gate by the time the principals reached the chapel. And the drama of Scottish history intrudes even here. Ravenswood wanted to be buried by a Scottish Episcopal priest, but a warrant had been issued to prevent it. Enter Edgar, “popularly called the Master of Ravenswood” and son of the deceased:

He clapped his hand on his sword, and, bidding the official person to desist at his peril from farther interruption, commanded the clergyman to proceed. The man attempted to enforce his commission, but as an hundred swords at once glittered in the air, he contented himself with protesting against the violence which had been offered to him in the execution of his duty, and stood aloof, a sullen and moody spectator of the ceremonial, muttering as one who should say, ‘You’ll rue the day that clogs me with this answer.’”

Did I say boring exposition? The narrator himself calls the scene “worthy of an artist’s pencil,” and it certainly is. The funeral of course ends with the procession back to the castle, where the mourners eat every morsel and drink every drop the Master of Ravenswood has, and break his plate and cups besides. What more grand and romantic story—a funeral carried out at the point of 100 swords, followed by an orgy that lasts for days?

What next? The Master of Ravenswood’s blood enemy, usurper of his ancestral lands, walks around his estate with his charming young daughter and the two are nearly gored by a wild bull (more Scottish drama: they still have wild cattle roaming around their forests). A shot at the last possible moment saves them!

Later, a stag-hunting scene. You see, Scottish gentlemen only know how to do two things: fight, and hunt. Witness Scottish gentlemen hunting and yes, even field-dressing, a stag. And let there be no mistake about what that means—the stag at bay, one of the hunters must find the courage to jump out and slash its leg with a short hunting-sword. These guys are old school.

And of course, we know what the highest drama will be at the very beginning, because Scott tells us in his own introduction to the novel. I’ll have more on that later, but suffice it to say, I suddenly realized when recounting all this action that this business is super exciting.

Shame me for it if you must; I am Emma Bovary, as they say. I now love Scott, and specifically for all this romantic, rugged action, set in a place and time less civilized, with blood feuds and religious wars and real political tumult. Fortunately, unlike Emma watching Lucie de Lammermoor, inspired by this very novel, I did not get so emotionally invested in the love story bit. No, I don’t want to live this, but I want to read it.