Friday 14 December 2018

The Fallen World

'Well, this dame had a daughter—Jess Cantrips, a black-eyed, bouncing wench—and, as the devil would have it, there was the d—d five-story stair—her foot was never from it, whether I went out or came home from the Divinity Hall. I would have eschewed her, sir—I would, on my soul; for I was as innocent a lad as ever came from Lammermuir; but there was no possibility of escape, retreat, or flight, unless I could have got a pair of wings, or made use of a ladder seven stories high, to scale the window of my attic. It signifies little talking—you may suppose how all this was to end—I would have married the girl, and taken my chance—I would, by Heaven! for she was a pretty girl, and a good girl, till she and I met; but you know the old song, “Kirk would not let us be.”
'But the best jest was behind—I had just power to stammer out something about Jess—by my faith he had an answer! I had taught Jess one trade, and, like a prudent girl, she had found out another for herself; unluckily, they were both contraband, and Jess Cantrips, daughter of the Lady Kittlebasket, had the honour to be transported to the plantations, for street-walking and pocket-picking, about six months before I touched shore.'
Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet (1824), ch. 14

A tale of the eighteenth century - it concerns a third, fictional uprising by the Jacobites - Redgauntlet is reminiscent of that earlier century in other ways: not only in formal terms - it has long epistolary passages - but also in its treatment of sexual matters. It is always instructive to see how pre-modern writers tackle such themes. David Lodge has marvelled at Dickens's ability to write so copiously but without a word of bawdy. Other Victorian novelists - Thackeray, in particular - manage the issue skilfully and subtly. Trollope, in The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870), caused a small stir with his use of the word 'prostitute'.

Scott wasn't a Victorian, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by pieces like the above, part of a longer inset narrative spoken by a salty and attractive character called Nanty Ewart. Note Scott's use of indirection, evasion and euphemism. When by the end of the nineteenth century Scott's status had declined to that of a worthy children's author, were bowdlerised editions required?

In the next chapter we find Scott essaying something subtler still, as his adventurers approach the dwelling of a pair of religious ladies:
'The place they live in was some sort of nun-shop long ago, as they have them still in Flanders; so folk call them the Vestals of Fairladies—that may be, or may not be; and I care not whether it be or no.—Blinkinsop, hold your tongue, and be d—d!'
Scott doesn't tell us what this Blinkinsop, and others elsewhere in the speech, say. He doesn't need to. The innocent reader reads on, unconcerned. The knowing reader infers. But whose side is Scott on? Emphatically he was a denizen of the fallen world, yet his heroes and heroines remain virtuous and hopeful. With this author you're always in danger of sinking - as if, in this novel, into the sands of the Solway Firth - but somehow Scott always draws you clear, and your resultant gratitude is excessive.

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