TBR 2: The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott

Yes, it’s the end of March and I need to wedge in another book or I’ll be seriously behind soon.

The Antiquary is a bit of a puzzle for modern readers who are used to being addressed on their level by a book. It’s full of everything you tend to dread in a nineteenth-century novel: florid descriptions of landscape; references to historical events you know nothing about;perilously-constructed sentences with multiple dependent clauses; untranslated Latin tags. And so, so much Scottish dialect! Although the dialect is mostly from people in low life: one wonders if it’s supposed to be the equivalent of the script of Trainspotting, minus the swearing. (I really need an edition with actual notes. Mine had none. I pride myself on being the kind of reader who forges on past bafflement and extracts only the relevant context, but I came close to foundering a couple of times.)

Here is a sample of the eponymous Antiquary talking (and he is supposed to be overeducated and baffling):

“You must know,” he said, “our Scottish antiquaries have been greatly divided about the local situation of the final conflict between Agricola and the Caledonians; some contend for Ardoch in Strathallan, some for Innerpeffry, some for the Raedykes in the Mearns, and some are for carrying the scene of action as far north as Blair in Athole. Now, after all this discussion,” continued the old gentleman, with one of his slyest and most complacent looks, “what would you think, Mr. Lovel,—I say, what would you think,—if the memorable scene of conflict should happen to be on the very spot called the Kaim of Kinprunes, the property of the obscure and humble individual who now speaks to you?” Then, having paused a little, to suffer his guest to digest a communication so important, he resumed his disquisition in a higher tone. “Yes, my good friend, I am indeed greatly deceived if this place does not correspond with all the marks of that celebrated place of action. It was near to the Grampian mountains—lo! yonder they are, mixing and contending with the sky on the skirts of the horizon! It was in conspectu classis—in sight of the Roman fleet; and would any admiral, Roman or British, wish a fairer bay to ride in than that on your right hand? It is astonishing how blind we professed antiquaries sometimes are! Sir Robert Sibbald, Saunders Gordon, General Roy, Dr. Stokely,—why, it escaped all of them. I was unwilling to say a word about it till I had secured the ground, for it belonged to auld Johnnie Howie, a bonnet-laird hard by, and many a communing we had before he and I could agree.”

And here is one of ye olde rustics, Edie Ochiltree, who is a professional licensed beggar, holding forth:

“Few folks ken o’ this place,” said the old man; “to the best o’my knowledge, there’s just twa living by mysell, and that’s Jingling Jock and the Lang Linker. I have had mony a thought, that when I fand mysell auld and forfairn, and no able to enjoy God’s blessed air ony langer, I wad drag mysell here wi’ a pickle ait-meal; and see, there’s a bit bonny dropping well that popples that self-same gate simmer and winter;—and I wad e’en streek mysell out here, and abide my removal, like an auld dog that trails its useless ugsome carcass into some bush or bracken no to gie living things a scunner wi’ the sight o’t when it’s dead—Ay, and then, when the dogs barked at the lone farm-stead, the gudewife wad cry, Whisht, stirra, that’ll be auld Edie,’ and the bits o’ weans wad up, puir things, and toddle to the door to pu’ in the auld Blue-Gown that mends a’ their bonny-dies—But there wad be nae mair word o’ Edie, I trow.

As you may be able to tell through all that language there are a lot of comic elements going on, with the antiquary and Edie both fond of their own personas and expressing them in oratory. Woven in between these two characters is a plot that involves secret identity, possible incest, the succession to a title, and, in possibly the novel’s oddest moment, a seal beating up a soldier who tries to hit him with a staff. (The Antiquary, who is his uncle, teases him about seals for the next many chapters, using its Latin name, “phoca.” There, we learned something.) From the perspective of the modern novel which values control and focus and tone and all those things, this book seems crazily maximalist. It’s very unlike, say, Austen. High life and low life interact all the time. Comic and tragic interweave. Characters break into ballads and get into digressive arguments about poetry.

There is plenty of fun in the book and the characters are amusing, but it’s hard to imagine listening to this kind of thing as a middlingly educated nineteenth-century person. And yet we know that Scott’s novels were extremely popular, and that they were read by children as well as adults. The gothic and comic elements must have been more important than grokking every word. Is this a side effect of listening to sermons all the time? Is it just that people in the early nineteenth century didn’t have as much entertainment to choose from? I don’t know! If you read some Scott, please tell me your reactions.


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