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The Antiquary, Page 2

Walter Scott

  The author's contemporaries at the university of Edinburgh will probably remember the thin, wasted form of a venerable old Bedesman, who stood by the Potterrow-Port, now demolished, and, without speaking a syllable, gently inclined his head, and offered his hat, but with the least possible degree of urgency, towards each individual who passed. This man gained, by silence and the extenuated and wasted appearance of a palmer from a remote country, the same tribute which was yielded to Andrew Gemmells' sarcastic humour and stately deportment. He was understood to be able to maintain a son a student in the theological classes of the University, at the gate of which the father was a mendicant. The young man was modest and inclined to learning, so that a student of the same age, and whose parents where rather of the lower order, moved by seeing him excluded from the society of other scholars when the secret of his birth was suspected, endeavoured to console him by offering him some occasional civilities. The old mendicant was grateful for this attention to his son, and one day, as the friendly student passed, he stooped forward more than usual, as if to intercept his passage. The scholar drew out a halfpenny, which he concluded was the beggar's object, when he was surprised to receive his thanks for the kindness he had shown to Jemmie, and at the same time a cordial invitation to dine with them next Saturday, "on a shoulder of mutton and potatoes," adding, "ye'll put on your clean sark, as I have company." The student was strongly tempted to accept this hospitable proposal, as many in his place would probably have done; but, as the motive might have been capable of misrepresentation, he thought it most prudent, considering the character and circumstances of the old man, to decline the invitation.

  Such are a few traits of Scottish mendicity, designed to throw light on a Novel in which a character of that description plays a prominent part. We conclude, that we have vindicated Edie Ochiltree's right to the importance assigned him; and have shown, that we have known one beggar take a hand at cards with a person of distinction, and another give dinner parties.

  I know not if it be worth while to observe, that the Antiquary,[A] was not so well received on its first appearance as either of its predecessors, though in course of time it rose to equal, and, with some readers, superior popularity.




  "THE ANTIQUARY" was begun in 1815; the bargain for its publication by Constable was made in the October of that year. On December 22 Scott wrote to Morritt: "I shall set myself seriously to 'The Antiquary,' of which I have only a very general sketch at present; but when once I get my pen to the paper it will walk fast enough. I am sometimes tempted to leave it alone, and try whether it will not write as well without the assistance of my head as with it,—a hopeful prospect for the reader!'" It is amazing enough that he even constructed "a general sketch," for to such sketches he confesses that he never could keep constant. "I have generally written to the middle of one of these novels without having the least idea how it was to end,—in short, in the hab nab at a venture style of composition" (Journal, Feb. 24, 1828). Yet it is almost impossible but that the plot of "The Antiquary" should have been duly considered. Scott must have known from the first who Lovel was to turn out to be, and must have recognised in the hapless bride of Lord Glenallan the object of the Antiquary's solitary and unfortunate passion. To introduce another Wandering Heir immediately after the Harry Bertram of "Guy Mannering" was rather audacious. But that old favourite, the Lost Heir, is nearly certain to be popular. For the Antiquary's immortal sorrow Scott had a model in his own experience. "What a romance to tell!—and told, I fear, it will one day be. And then my three years of dreaming and my two years of wakening will be chronicled doubtless. But the dead will feel no pain." The dead, as Aristotle says, if they care for such things at all, care no more than we do for what has passed in a dream.

  The general sketch probably began to take full shape about the last day of 1815. On December 29 Scott wrote to Ballantyne:—


  I've done, thank'God, with the long yarns

  Of the most prosy of Apostles—Paul, 1

  And now advance, sweet heathen of Monkbarns,

  Step out, old quizz, as fast as I can scrawl.

  In "The Antiquary" Scott had a subject thoroughly to his mind. He had been an antiquary from his childhood. His earliest pence had been devoted to that collection of printed ballads which is still at Abbotsford. These he mentions in the unfinished fragment of his "Reliquiae Trotcosienses," in much the same words as in his manuscript note on one of the seven volumes.

  "This little collection of Stall tracts and ballads was formed by me, when a boy, from the baskets of the travelling pedlars. Until put into its present decent binding it had such charms for the servants that it was repeatedly, and with difficulty, recovered from their clutches. It contains most of the pieces that were popular about thirty years since, and, I dare say, many that could not now be procured for any price (1810)."

  Nor did he collect only—

  "The rare melody of some old ditties

  That first were sung to please King Pepin's cradle.

  "Walter had soon begun to gather out-of-the-way things of all sorts. He had more books than shelves [sic]; a small painted cabinet with Scotch and Roman coins in it, and so forth. A claymore and Lochaber axe, given him by old Invernahyle, mounted guard on a little print of Prince Charlie; and Broughton's Saucer was hooked up on the wall below it." He had entered literature through the ruined gateway of archleology, in the "Border Minstrelsy," and his last project was an edition of Perrault's "Contes de Ma Mere l'Oie." As pleasant to him as the purchase of new lands like Turn Again, bought dearly, as in Monkbarns's case, from "bonnet lauds," was a fresh acquisition of an old book or of old armour. Yet, with all his enthusiasm, he did not please the antiquaries of his own day. George Chalmers, in Constable's "Life and Correspondence" (i. 431), sneers at his want of learning. "His notes are loose and unlearned, as they generally are." Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, his friend in life, disported himself in jealous and ribald mockery of Scott's archaeological knowledge, when Scott was dead. In a letter of the enigmatic Thomas Allen, or James Stuart Hay, father of John Sobieski and Charles Edward Stuart, this mysterious person avers that he never knew Scott's opinion to be held as of any value by antiquaries (1829). They probably missed in him "a sort of pettifogging intimacy with dates, names, and trifling matters of fact,—a tiresome and frivolous accuracy of memory" which Sir Arthur Wardour reproves in Monkbarns. Scott, in brief, was not as Dry-as-dust; all the dead bones that he touches come to life. He was as great an archeologist as a poet can be, and, with Virgil, was the greatest antiquary among poets. Like Monkbarns, he was not incapable of being beguiled. As Oldbuck bought the bodle from the pedlar at the price of a rare coin, so Scott took Surtees's "Barthram's Dirge," and his Latin legend of the tourney with the spectre knight, for genuine antiquities. No Edie Ochiltree ever revealed to him the truth about these forgeries, and the spectre knight, with the ballad of "Anthony Featherstonhaugh," hold their own in "Marmion," to assure the world that this antiquary was gullible when the sleight was practised by a friend. "Non est tanti," he would have said, had he learned the truth; for he was ever conscious of the humorous side of the study of the mouldering past. "I do not know anything which relieves the mind so much from the sullens as a trifling discourse about antiquarian oldwomanries. It is like knitting a stocking,—diverting the mind without occupying it." ("Journal," March 9, 1828).

  Begun about Jan. 1, 1816, "The Antiquary" was published before May 16, 1816, when Scott writes to say that he has sent Mr. Morritt the novel "some time since." "It is not so interesting as its predecessors; the period does not admit of so much romantic situation. But it has been more fortunate than any of them in the sale, for six thousand went off in the first six days, and it is now at press again." The Preface of the first edition ends with the melancholy statement that the author "takes his respectful leave, as one who is not likely again to solicit favour." Apparently
Scott had already determined not to announce his next novels ("The Black Dwarf" and "Old Mortality") as "by the Author of Waverley." Mr. Constable, in the biography of his father, says (iii. 84): "Even before the publication of 'The Antiquary,' John Ballantyne had been impowered by the Author to negotiate with Mr. Murray and Mr. Blackwood for the first series of the 'Tales of my Landlord.'" The note of withdrawal from the stage, in the first edition of "The Antiquary," was probably only a part of another experiment on public sagacity. As Lockhart says, Mr. Murray and Mr. Blackwood thought that the consequent absence of the Author of "Waverley's" name from the "Tales of my Landlord" would "check very much the first success of the book;" but they risked this, "to disturb Constable's tenure."

  Scott's temporary desertion of Constable in the "Tales of my Landlord" may have had various motives. There was a slight grudge against Constable, born of some complications of the Ballantynes' affairs. Perhaps the mere amusement of the experiment on public sagacity was one of the more powerful reasons for the change. In our day Lord Lytton and Mr. Trollope made similar trials of their popularity when anonymous, the former author with the greater success. The idea of these masquerades and veils of the incognito appears to have bewitched Constable. William Godwin was writing for him his novel "Mandeville," and Godwin had obviously been counselled to try a disguise. He says (Jan. 30, 1816) "I have amused my imagination a thousand times since last we parted with the masquerade you devised for me. The world is full of wonder. An old favourite is always reviewed with coldness. . . . 'Pooh,' they say; 'Godwin has worn his pen to the stump!' . . . But let me once be equipped with a significant mask and an unknown character from your masquerade shop, and admitted to figure in with the 'Last Minstrel,' the 'Lady of the Lake,' and 'Guy Mannering' in the Scottish carnival, Gods! how the boys and girls will admire me! 'Here is a new wonder!' they will say. 'Ah, this is something like! Here is Godwin beaten on his own ground. . . Here is for once a Scottish writer that they cannot say has anything of the Scotchman about him.'"

  However, Mr. Godwin did not don the mask and domino. "Mandeville" came out about the same time as "Rob Roy;" but the "craziness of the public" for the Author of "Waverley" was not changed into a passion for the father-in-law of Shelley.

  "'The Antiquary,' after a little pause of hesitation, attained popularity not inferior to 'Guy Mannering,' and though the author appears for a moment to have shared the doubts which he read in the countenance of James Ballantyne, it certainly was, in the sequel, his chief favourite among all his novels.'"

  As Scott said to Terry, "If a man will paint from nature, he will be likely to amuse those who are daily looking at it." The years which saw the first appearance of "Guy Mannering" also witnessed that of "Emma." By the singular chance, or law, which links great authors closely in time, giving us novelists in pairs, Miss Austen was "drawing from nature" at the very moment when Scott was wedding nature with romance. How generously and wisely he admired her is familiar, and it may, to some, seem curious that he never deliberately set himself to a picture of ordinary life, free from the intrusion of the unusual, of the heroic. Once, looking down at the village which lies on the Tweed, opposite Melrose, he remarked that under its roofs tragedies and tales were doubtless being lived. 'I undertake to say there is some real romance at this moment going on down there, that, if it could have justice done to it, would be well worth all the fiction that was ever spun out of human brains.' But the example he gave was terrible,—"anything more dreadful was never conceived by Crabbe;" yet, adds Lockhart, "it would never have entered into his head to elaborate such a tale." He could not dwell in the unbroken gloom dear to some modern malingerers. But he could easily have made a tale of common Scotch life, dark with the sorrow of Mucklebackit, and bright with the mirth of Cuddie Headrigg. There was, however, this difficulty,—that Scott cared not to write a story of a single class. "From the peer to the ploughman," all society mingles in each of his novels. A fiction of middle-class life did not allure him, and he was not at the best, but at his worst, as Sydney Smith observed, in the light talk of society. He could admire Miss Austen, and read her novels again and again; but had he attempted to follow her, by way of variety, then inevitably wild as well as disciplined humour would have kept breaking in, and his fancy would have wandered like the old knights of Arthur's Court, "at adventure." "St. Ronan's Well" proved the truth of all this. Thus it happens that, in "The Antiquary," with all his sympathy for the people, with all his knowledge of them, he does not confine himself to their cottages. As Lockhart says, in his admirable piece of criticism, he preferred to choose topics in which he could display "his highest art, that of skilful contrast."

  Even the tragic romance of "Waverley" does not set off its Macwheebles and Callum Begs better than the oddities of Jonathan Oldbuck and his circle are relieved, on the one hand by the stately gloom of the Glenallans, on the other by the stern affliction of the poor fisherman, who, when discovered repairing "the auld black bitch of a boat," in which his boy had been lost, and congratulated by his visitors on being capable of the exertion, makes answer, "And what would you have me to do, unless I wanted to see four children starve, because one is drowned? It 's weel with you gentles, that can sit in the house with handkerchers at your een, when ye lose a friend; but the like o' us maun to our work again, if our hearts were beating as hard as ony hammer." And to his work again Scott had to go when he lost the partner of his life.

  The simple unsought charm which Lockhart notes in "The Antiquary" may have passed away in later works, when what had been the amusement of happy days became the task of sadness. But this magic "The Antiquary" keeps perhaps beyond all its companions,—the magic of pleasant memories and friendly associations. The sketches of the epoch of expected invasion, with its patriotic musters and volunteer drillings, are pictures out of that part in the author's life which, with his early Highland wanderings ("Waverley") and his Liddesdale raids ("Guy Mannering"), was most dear to him. In "Redgauntlet," again, he makes, as Alan Fairford, a return on his youth and his home, and in "Rob Roy" he revives his Highland recollections, his Highland lairds of "the blawing, bleezing stories." None of the rest of the tales are so intimate in their connection with Scott's own personal history. "The Antiquary" has always, therefore, been held in the very first rank of his novels.

  As far as plot goes, though Godwin denied that it had any story, "The Antiquary" may be placed among the most careful. The underplot of the Glenallans, gloomy almost beyond endurance, is very ingeniously made to unravel the mystery of Lovel. The other side-narrative, that of Dousterswivel, is the weak point of the whole; but this Scott justifies by "very late instances of the force of superstitious credulity, to a much greater extent." Some occurrence of the hour may have suggested the knavish adept with his divining-rod. But facts are never a real excuse for the morally incredible, or all but incredible, in fiction. On the wealth and vraisemblance and variety of character it were superfluous to dilate. As in Shakspeare, there is not even a minor person but lives and is of flesh and blood, if we except, perhaps, Dousterswivel and Sir Arthur Wardour. Sir Arthur is only Sir Robert Hazlewood over again, with a slightly different folly and a somewhat more amiable nature. Lovel's place, as usual, is among the shades of heroes, and his love-affair is far less moving, far more summarily treated, than that of Jenny Caxon. The skilful contrasts are perhaps most remarkable when we compare Elspeth of the Burnfoot with the gossiping old women in the post-office at Fairport,—a town studied perhaps from Arbroath. It was the opinion of Sydney Smith that every one of the novels, before "The Fortunes of Nigel," contained a Meg Merrilies and a Dominie Sampson. He may have recognized a male Meg in Edie Ochiltree,—the invaluable character who is always behind a wall, always overhears everything, and holds the threads of the plot. Or he may have been hypercritical enough to think that Elspeth of the Burnfoot is the Meg of the romance. Few will agree with him that Meg Merrilies, in either of these cases, is "good, but good too often."

  The supposed "originals" of c
ertain persons in the tale have been topics of discussion. The character of Oldbuck, like most characters in fiction, is a combination of traits observed in various persons. Scott says, in a note to the Ashiestiel fragment of Autobiography, that Mr. George Constable, an old friend of his father's, "had many of those peculiarities of character which long afterwards I tried to develop in the character of Jonathan Oldbuck." Sir Walter, when a child, made Mr. Constable's acquaintance at Prestonpans in 1777, where he explored the battle-field "under the learned guidance of Dalgetty." Mr. Constable first introduced him to Shakspeare's plays, and gave him his first German dictionary. Other traits may have been suggested by John Clerk of Eldin, whose grandfather was the hero of the story "Praetorian here, Praetorian there, I made it wi' a flaughter spade." Lockhart is no doubt right in thinking that Oldbuck is partly a caricature of Oldbuck's creator,—Sir Walter indeed frankly accepted the kinship; and the book which he began on his own collection he proposed to style "Reliquim Trotcosienses; or, the Gabions of Jonathan Oldbuck."

  Another person who added a few points to Oldbuck was "Sandy Gordon," author of the "Itinerarium Septentrionale" (1726), the very folio which Monkbarns carried in the dilatory coach to Queensferry. Gordon had been a student in the University of Aberdeen; he was an amateur in many arts, but antiquarianism was his favourite hobby. He was an acquaintance of Sir John Clerk of Eldin, the hero of the Praetorium. The words of Gordon in his "Itinerarium," where he describes the battle of the Grampians, have supplied, or suggested, the speech of Monkbarns at the Kaim of Kinprunes. The great question was, Where is the Mons Grampius of Tacitus? Dismissing Camden's Grantsbain, because he does not know where it is, Gordon says, "As for our Scotch Antiquaries, they are so divided that some will have it to be in the shire of Angus, or in the Mearns, some at the Blair of Athol in Perthshire, or Ardoch in Strathallan, and others at Inverpeffery." Gordon votes for Strathern, "half a mile short of the Kirk of Comrie." This spot is both at the foot of the Montes Grampii, "and boasts a Roman camp capable of holding an army fit to encounter so formidable a number as thirty thousand Caledonians. . . . Here is the Porta Decumana, opposite the Prcetoria, together with the dextra and sinistra gates," all discovered by Sandy Gordon. "Moreover, the situation of the ground is so very exact with the description given by Tacitus, that in all my travels through Britain I never beheld anything with more pleasure. . . . Nor is it difficult, in viewing this ground, to say where the Covinarii, or Charioteers, stood. In fine, to an Antiquary, this is a ravishing scene." He adds the argument "that Galgacus's name still remains on this ground, for the moor on which the camp stood is called to this day Galdachan, or Galgachan Rosmoor." All this lore Gordon illustrates by an immense chart of a camp, and a picture of very small Montes Grampii, about the size and shape of buns. The plate is dedicated to his excellency General Wade.