This review fulfills a very long-held desire of mine. It has been my intention to become familiar with a work of Walter Scott since I was in high school. As an opera and classical music fan since the age of twelve, I could hardly help colliding with Scott’s name, since his novels and poems were inspirations for many composers throughout the nineteenth century. Literature being my first love, my interest was peaked. I tried reading Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor (the basis for Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor) and, as I recall, was actually enjoying it when I got sidetracked. Until quite recently, I had a terrible habit of not finishing books. It was even worse in my teens, so it doesn’t surprise me that this happened with The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott’s novels tending to be long and wordy. My interest lay dormant, but never totally vanished. In the last few years, I’ve become a fan of historical fiction and this rekindled my curiosity about Scott, who is regarded as one of the founders of the modern historical novel. My original intention was to pick up The Bride of Lammermoor again, something I absolutely intend to do before long. However, since I know Donizetti’s opera, I was already familiar with certain key plot points. Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto is only loosely connected to Scott’s novel, but I still wanted my first full encounter with this author to be totally fresh. When I came across a used copy of Rob Roy, it struck me as an ideal opportunity. I know this has been a rather long preface, and I apologize for that. It was intended as a slightly humorous tribute to Sir Walter, whose nearly endless introductions (often more than one for a single novel) are famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view. Just be thankful there is not, as there sometimes is in his work an “appendix to introduction”! Now let us begin the review proper. I am dividing it into two parts. First, my thoughts on Rob Roy. Second, my views on the fact that Sir Walter Scott, once hailed as one of the greatest authors in the English language, was practically banished from cultural memory, only to precariously return to its margins in recent years.
Rob Roy is often said to be two novels, somewhat awkwardly linked. To be totally accurate, it is probably three or four stories, but there is one dividing line clearer than the others. I enjoyed them both, although they each had their problems. Both halves star Scott’s protagonist Francis Osbaldistone. Francis promises to be an endearing figure but, despite narrating the action, he too often fades into the background. There were times I wondered if Scott didn’t regret employing first person narration for some reason and sort of forgot it. In the first half, Francis disobeys his merchant father and is essentially exiled to the north of England to live with his uncle. Unlike Francis, the northern wing of the family is Catholic and Francis develops a complicated friendship with his distant relative, Diana Vernon. Many critics and readers seem to fall in love with Diana. She is appealingly drawn, especially for a female character in an 1817 novel. She makes her own decisions, speaks her mind, and, far from being a damsel in distress, frequently seems to be more of an assertive rescuer. However, I had trouble becoming attached to her since she is barely in the book! Scott sketches her out well, then banishes her. Eventually, she reappears but it struck me as too little, too late. Many have faulted Scott’s characterizations as being rough and sloppy. Francis and Diana confirm that idea all too well.
The second half shows Francis traveling even farther north into Walter Scott’s native Scotland to try and save his father’s imperiled business. He ends up embroiled in the intrigue surrounding the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, which attempted to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne of Great Britain. Throughout both halves, the outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor is a crucial but elusive presence in Francis’s adventures. In contrast to the problems with Francis and Diana, I found Rob Roy himself to be very well-handled. Apparently, it is often complained that he is a marginal figure in his own novel, but I thought Scott used Rob Roy’s remoteness brilliantly to emphasize the foreignness of Scotland. In 1715, Scotland had not been fully Anglicized, and English visitors really were in a different country. This is cleverly embodied by Rob Roy who, while largely benign and certainly supportive of Francis, remains someone the protagonist never fully understands. A negative corollary is Rob Roy’s terrifying wife Helen MacGregor. Her final appearance in the narrative is particularly chilling, despite being her least violent. In it we see a woman, at the request of her husband, barely holding her contempt and rage in check. Despite Helen’s evil, part of the problem lies with the well-meaning Francis’s inability to comprehend the damage English rule caused to many in Scotland. Scott thus manages to explain the legitimate source of Helen’s anger without excusing her horrible actions. As such, I found her a much more intriguing and formidable antagonist than the primary villain, Francis’s cartoonish cousin Rashleigh.
By some distance, however, the strongest character in the novel is Nicol Jarvie, a Glasgow merchant and distant relative of Rob Roy. In outline, Jarvie would probably not sound very interesting to most readers, myself included. A somewhat stuffy businessman, Jarvie is a respectable, law-abiding, pillar of his community. While largely a comic figure, his sense of responsibility gives certain scenes a poignant quality. Cleverly, Scott makes many of his actions at odds with his pompous speeches. A good example is when he risks his life to accompany Francis into the Highlands, ostensibly for business reasons, but really because it is simply the right thing to do. In his complex relationship with Rob Roy, the characterization of Jarvie demonstrates that, even when morality is tricky, it is always important. Jarvie genuinely abhors his kinsman’s criminality, but understands that Rob is also a victim and doesn’t steal out of greed. In his tenacious decency, Jarvie reminds me of Hank Hill from King of the Hill, one of my favorite TV shows. For a while, you laugh at these characters’ Boy Scout do-gooding. Eventually, you come to regret that there aren’t more people like them.
Like the characterizations, other aspects of Rob Roy have their ups and downs. On the plus side, Scott evokes places like London, Glasgow, and the Highlands wonderfully. The Glasgow scenes are as riveting as a spy thriller. Of particular interest to modern readers are Scott’s comments on religion. While a devout Protestant, Scott believed that people should be judged by their actions, not by their professions of faith. (I understand these enlightened views are even more central in other Scott novels, particularly Ivanhoe and Old Mortality.) Catholic and Protestant characters in Rob Roy are capable of both heroism and villainy. Several months ago, I got into an online argument with someone who said that if any Muslims wanted to be exempted from what he chillingly called “judgement,” they would have to act fast. In this political climate, Scott’s message from another time when people “just knew” that all members of certain faiths were dangerous, could not be more timely.
On the downside, this book is interminable! I understand that traveling took quite a while in pre-industrial times, but the journey to Scotland just seems to go on and on. You genuinely feel every last step. Similarly, even when the dialogue is interesting enough, it frequently stretches to epic lengths. There were times when a conversation ended that I had forgotten how the whole thing had started. To make matters worse, there is a great deal of Scottish dialect. I really don’t like the use of dialect in fiction. It just usually seems to make things needlessly hard to follow. With Scott, it comes off as less shticky than usual. This is, after all, speech Scott knew well. All the same, I could have done without most of it.
So should Sir Walter Scott, once a colossus of literature, be returned to his perch, or did he deserve his fall? It’s a complex matter, and issues of personal taste will obviously be involved. Some time ago, mimetic realism in literary fiction became a matter of paramount importance. Fantasy, epic qualities, and theatricality became associated with popular fiction, or rebranded as avant-garde if the work was too good to ignore. Scott himself foresaw this. He admired his then little known contemporary Jane Austen, and famously lauded her Emma as embodying the future of the novel. No egotist, he would probably shrug off his displacement, and perhaps that’s the best response. There are obvious reasons why his work is no longer widely known, some of which I discussed earlier. Still, I think something more might be said. Just because realism became central to the literary establishment does not mean all readers agree. I recall a conversation with a high school acquaintance about English class. He thought all the books we read should be replaced with Stephen King novels. I didn’t (and don’t) agree, but his feelings shouldn’t be waved away. What did he find in King that he was not finding in the required reading? There are obvious answers, of course, but I’m not sure we should stop there. I fear sometimes that, by banishing certain techniques from the acceptable arsenal of literary authors, we have created a regrettable narrowness in fiction. This drives certain readers away from anything they think might be “literary.” It is worth remembering that it is possible for an author to want to fulfill higher ambitions with different kinds of tools. It is even more important to recall that our reluctance to admit this is a relatively recent state of affairs. Scott’s works and his reputation are fantastic reminders that literary views change, and that they are made by people, not etched in stone by aesthetic deities. As for how I feel about Scott, based on Rob Roy, I’m not exactly a convert, but I definitely intend to read more.