Wednesday 26 August 2020


How near the past is. Travelling by train from London to Edinburgh, I passed halts I'd previously only read of. Beyond Newcastle the land grew gradually wilder, mistier: forests, rocky descents, expanses of heath stretching into foggy distances, sudden glimpses of the grey sea. I was reading Scott at the time, appropriately. The Scottish Borders is his world as much as the Highlands, probably more so.

Always I come back to Virginia Woolf's assessment of a scene in The Antiquary:

...all come together, tragic, irrelevant, comic, drawn, one knows not how, to make a whole ... which, as always, Scott creates carelessly, without a word of comment, as if the parts grew together without his willing it, and broke into ruin again without his caring.

In Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel, Scott tells, early on, of the disappearance of a small child. It is a distressing episode. Later, much later, when the child, now a man, is restored, the scene is overwhelmingly affecting - because it is so long earned, and because Scott makes it human and stays on just the right side of sentimental. The following is a spoiler. Let it be a taster:

‘There,’ said the Colonel, ‘I can assure Mr. Brown of his identity; and add, what his modesty may have forgotten, that he was distinguished as a young man of talent and spirit.’

‘So much the better, my dear sir,’ said Mr. Pleydell; ‘but that is to general character. Mr. Brown must tell us where he was born.’

 ‘In Scotland, I believe, but the place uncertain.’

 ‘Where educated?’

 ‘In Holland, certainly.’

 ‘Do you remember nothing of your early life before you left Scotland?’

 ‘Very imperfectly; yet I have a strong idea, perhaps more deeply impressed upon me by subsequent hard usage, that I was during my childhood the object of much solicitude and affection. I have an indistinct remembrance of a good-looking man whom I used to call papa, and of a lady who was infirm in health, and who, I think, must have been my mother; but it is an imperfect and confused recollection. I remember too a tall, thin, kind-tempered man in black, who used to teach me my letters and walk out with me; and I think the very last time - ’

 Here the Dominie could contain no longer. While every succeeding word served to prove that the child of his benefactor stood before him, he had struggled with the utmost difficulty to suppress his emotions; but when the juvenile recollections of Bertram turned towards his tutor and his precepts he was compelled to give way to his feelings. He rose hastily from his chair, and with clasped hands, trembling limbs, and streaming eyes, called out aloud, ‘Harry Bertram! look at me; was I not the man?’

 ‘Yes!’ said Bertram, starting from his seat as if a sudden light had burst in upon his mind; ‘yes; that was my name! And that is the voice and the figure of my kind old master!’

 The Dominie threw himself into his arms, pressed him a thousand times to his bosom in convulsions of transport which shook his whole frame, sobbed hysterically, and at length, in the emphatic language of Scripture, lifted up his voice and wept aloud. Colonel Mannering had recourse to his handkerchief; Pleydell made wry faces, and wiped the glasses of his spectacles; and honest Dinmont, after two loud blubbering explosions, exclaimed, ‘Deil’s in the man! he’s garr’d me do that I haena done since my auld mither died.'

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