Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Old Mortality - Sir Walter Scott

I had carefully sort of planned holiday reading (Trollope and Macfarlane) but on my way out of the flat en route to the airport changed my mind and opted for Walter Scott's 'Old Mortality' (and I bet you were all fascinated to read that...) I am an almost evangelical convert to the idea of taking one big fat classic on holiday and virtually nothing else, 'Old Mortality' was positive reinforcement. 

In one of his novels Robertson Davies has a character make a joke about Scott claiming that he's no longer an 'author' but an 'influence'. I can't judge how accurate that is but there's no doubt that his fame and popularity have suffered a reversal in fortune. It's hard to grasp now just how big a deal Scott was in his day, an author with an international reputation, a train station named after him, and arguably the man responsible for tartan as we know it and all that goes with that - and yet how many people read him for pleasure these days? 

If you are going to read Scott (and he's worth the effort) 'Old Mortality' is a good place to start. I read and enjoyed 'The Bride of Lammermoor' a while back but found 'Old Mortality' even more accessible - due in part to the excellent introduction (my copy is the Oxford World Classics edition) which among other things gives guidelines about how to read the text; basically skip the introductions, get into the action proper, don't be distracted by the explanatory notes, don't worry about the dialect sections (go with it, they soon make sense) and be aware of Scott's perspective. It's good advice, Scott was a 19th century tory intent on presenting a 17th century situation in a way that suited him (I'm relying on the introduction for my information here) historical accuracy isn't always the top of his agenda. I knew nothing about the covenanter's or the killing time beforehand so didn't find the double perspective much of an issue, though as with all good history writing I'm now keen to learn more.

The action opens at a sort of latter day jousting tournament (wappenshaw) where young Henry Morton is taking all the honours - much to the secret delight of Edith Bellenden, but on his way home he falls into company with a man who knew his father. These are dangerous times; Scotland and it's whiggish covenanter's are not popular with the king (Charles the second) to the extent that the army is imposed on the countryside to keep order- a situation they're happy to exploit, the mood is volatile, and the stranger Henry meets turns out to be a murderous fanatic whose company endangers our hero's life. Henry Morton is forced by circumstance into taking arms against the king and eventually into exile. Meanwhile Edith's family also find themselves in dire straights with Edith convinced her lover is a traitor to everything she holds dear.

It's an exciting, fast paced read, Scott was rightly proud of this book. He throws in a bit of comedy which is both welcome and funny, and plenty of drama, but the main thing is the pace, sometimes it can be a struggle to keep momentum reading books this old as the action gets bogged down in pages and pages of words that feel like they're going nowhere. Scott doesn't do that here and I wonder if this is the key to why he was such a phenomenon in his day.  


  1. This is actually my favorite Scott novel. How nice to see someone else read it! Certain scenes - the first big battle, for example - are superb. And thematically the novel has great interest, even relevance. Religious fanaticism has not lost its importance.

  2. Fanaticism certainly hasn't lost it's significance and Scott does a great job of portraying it. I can see why this would be a favourite - there was such a good balance between comedy and tragedy, the battle scene was excellent, and all in all it's a rattling good read.