Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott: QUENTIN DURWARD (1823)

Mark Twain said, famously, that Scott's novels caused the Civil War. He meant that the Southern landowners, having acquired their romantic notions of chivalry and aristocracy from Scott's novels, were more than willing to idealize themselves as heroic cavaliers defending their organic agrarian utopia--and the honor of their women--against the commercial, money-grubbing, ignoble North. In Faulkner's allegory, Sanctuary, a beautiful, and very silly, southern belle who is looking for thrills is raped with a corn-cob by an impotent northern gangster.

I have only read a few of Scott's novels--has anyone, in recent times, read them all?--but I think Mark Twain got it wrong. Scott is not a romantic but a realist; it was his audience that was romantic. If Quentin Durward is a representative sample, its historical setting in the 15th century, during the reign of Louis XI, is nearly accidental. As the story of a bright, brave young Scot who makes his fortune in a brutal, treacherous, Machiavellian world, this novel could just as well have taken place in Napoleon's Europe--like the novels of Stendahl. But Napoleon was finished by the time Scott began to write fiction.

Scott knew by the time he wrote this book that there was a market out there for medieval materials. Waverley (1814) had been a huge hit. Scott saw that he had found a sort of literary gold mine: an audience that wanted to hear more about the 'romantic' semi-feudal world of those old Highland clans. By satisfying this new literary appetite, Scott became the most popular writer of his time--in Europe and America as well as England. In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Waverley, Andrew Hook says that "Scott's novels made an impact upon the reading public and literary culture of Europe and America unequalled by any literary phenomenon before or since."

The hero of Waverley, Edward Waverly, is not much more than a place-holder, a passive zone of consciousness, who is pushed hither-and-thither by historical events. Quentin Durward, published nine years later shows that Scott had learned how to tell a first-rate romance of love and adventure. Unlike Waverley, Durward actually makes thing happen. It is not my purpose, however, to discuss this novel but only to remark that it is not the least bit romantic: the King whom Durward, a young solder of fortune, finds himself serving is no different from any other modern Machiavellian tyrant: his is a police state, with a brutish chief of secret police and a death-squad; the first thing Durward notices as he approaches the King's castle is the number of trees from which men, like strange fruit, are hanging. (Since Durward is a man of principle, he thinks better of his plan to enlist in the King's elite guard, but accidents force him to change his mind.) Why would an intelligent King--and Louis XI is supposed to be highly intelligent--advertise his wares in this way? For a good Machiavellian King or President knows how to make himself appear virtuous. But now I have wandered away from my point.

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