The Godfather: Peter Corris on Sir Walter Scott
When I was doing English II at Melbourne University in 1960 we had to sit one exam for the poetry component and another on the prose works. Swot that I was, I memorised reams of poetry (we had to identify excerpts), tackled all the novels before the year even started and began reading criticism.
For the prose paper we were faced with questions such as (I am parodying here): Beneath the delicacy of Henry James’s prose lies a psychological toughness that stamps him as modern rather than as mannered. Discuss. I plodded through The Portrait of a Lady (1881), disliked it intensely, and ducked the James question. At exam time I concentrated my energies on Hawthorne, Hemingway, Steinbeck and so on. The one book I was unable to read was (curious how one always uses the title when referring to him), Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818). Try as I might I could not get into it, finding it wordy, dull and inert. Another exam question to be avoided.
Having recently heard a remark about Scott, I thought I would try him as a talking book. Given his immense popularity, I thought there must be something to it and a good reading might bring it out. For no other reason than there is a Melbourne suburb (a dreary one as I recall) named after it, I selected Ivanhoe (1820) to give Sir Walter a test.
I was agreeably surprised. Ivanhoe is a stirring tale, set in 1194, of Norman knights in armour, Saxons in bondage, outlaws of Sherwood Forest, and beautiful damsels: one Saxon, one Jewish. There are villains, including Prince, later to be known as ‘Bad King’, John, and two puissant heroes along with comic characters. It all feels as though it is set on a gigantic stage with authorial interventions reading like stage directions and chapters like acts. The author frequently refers to ‘our drama’ and many of the epigraphs for the chapters are from Shakespeare and other playwrights. As well as touches of Restoration comedy there are elements of Jacobean tragedy.
The technique is very effective, allowing the story to proceed at pace and the lulls to be of historical interest and provide comic impact. It is easy to see how Scott was so popular in his day. There is something for everyone here and a pervading feeling of a story well told in good, humane hands while not shrinking from the violence and bigotry of the period.
All that said, it has to be admitted that the language is frequently overblown. I doubt that Norman knights and Saxon thanes swore oaths almost every time they opened their mouths, nor that England at the time was as ‘Merrie’ as some of the characters claim. In fact, while enjoying the story, I was frequently put in mind, just a little, of the Carry On films but more of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic spoof 1066 and All That (1930). But that is to look from a perspective of nearly 200 years gone by. Ivanhoe is an enjoyable and accomplished historical novel and I will invite Sir Walter into my earphones again.