Saturday 19 October 2019

The large tear gushed reluctantly

Christmas, 1900, and Henry James is visited at Lamb House by his young niece Peggy, whom he plies with sweets and good food. Into the old oak parlour he plants her, directing her to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The weather is poor, and Peggy, a good reader, gets through Redgauntlet, Old Mortality, The Pirate and The Antiquary.

All a Novelist Needs: the title of a book by Colm Toíbín on Henry James. One wonders whether James took a similar view of Sir Walter Scott.* For my part, I avoided Scott for years, limiting my attention to what seemed like the more conventional and familiar worlds of Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot. That Scott was read simply by university literature students, interested in how later, greater writers had been 'influenced', seemed the accepted view. I retain a sharp cold memory of sitting one early morning at seventeen in a deserted refectory in the youth hostel in the rue Vitruve, Paris, struggling to read the opening pages of Waverley, as prep for my undergraduate course.

Scott is an unpredictably elusive writer. When his writing works, it works wonderfully, creating 'carelessly' a 'complete presentation of life', as Virginia Woolf says: 'tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole'.

And with perseverance one can discover remarkable moments, equal to whole passages in Dickens, such as this encounter between an old courtier and King James I in The Fortunes of Nigel:
These suggestions, however reasonable in the common case, gave no comfort to Lord Huntinglen, if indeed he fully comprehended them; but the blubbering of his good-natured old master, which began to accompany and interrupt his royal speech, produced more rapid effect. The large tear gushed reluctantly from his eye, as he kissed the withered hands, which the king, weeping with less dignity and restraint, abandoned to him, first alternately and then both together, until the feelings of the man getting entirely the better of the Sovereign’s sense of dignity, he grasped and shook Lord Huntinglen’s hands with the sympathy of an equal and a familiar friend.

*Elsewhere James commends Scott for being a late starter as a novelist. It would have been well, he says, that writers such as Balzac had waited. No doubt James would have admired others who bided their time, Anita Brookner in particular.

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