Thursday 14 February 2019

Old and New

Remainer? Brexiter? Here's a fun if rather silly way of beguiling the time.

Henry James? Remainer.
Dickens? George Eliot? Remainers.
Thackeray? Brexiter.
Trollope? Not sure about him.

Sir Walter Scott? The knee-jerk response would be to say: High Tory, therefore Brexiter. But many such are Remainers. Scott exalted - indeed, exulted in - the notion of a United Kingdom. He championed the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian settlement. He cherished above all else the status quo that had been achieved, and was at pains to show how it might be, and had been, threatened.

I confess my knowledge of Scottish history is sketchy. Before reading Old Mortality (1816) I had no idea the English Civil War in effect continued in Scotland into the 1670s and 80s. I didn't know about the Covenanters and the Killing Time. It was all new to me, and I was glad to be taught.

Scott is brilliant at depicting periods of conflict and divided loyalties. Henry Morton, the son of a Civil War parliamentarian, gets sucked into the war between extremist puritans and Charles II's forces. Events move rapidly. There are battles, marches, a siege, night scenes, and a torture incident that really ought to carry a warning. There are also several love subplots involving high and low characters. All human life is there.

The war scenes are often harrowing, but the novel ends peacefully some years later. We see the story from new and surprising perspectives - perspectives well earned through the course of a tense and chaotic story. There are reunions that are genuinely affecting. There's a beautiful final line, a satisfying resolution as the curtain falls. We see time and change at work, and we see the triumph of Scott's conservative imagination:
Let the tide of the world wax or wane as it will, Morton thought as he looked around him, enough will be found to fill the places which chance renders vacant; and in the usual occupations and amusements of life, human beings will succeed each other as leaves upon the same tree, with the same individual difference and the same general resemblance.
Men, we learn, 'had begun to recover their ordinary temper, and to give the usual attention to their own private affairs in lieu of discussing those of the public'.

One lives in hope, in our own present times, of such an outcome.

For not altogether illuminating thoughts on Brexit and Brookner, see here.


  1. Scott's best book, says I, for what that's worth. Nice summary of its strengths.

  2. I'm very much enjoying Scott, having avoided him for many years. Dire lectures on Waverley and The Heart of Midlothian are associated in my mind with my earliest, most terrifying days at uni.


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