Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blogging Rob Roy

As promised, here is entry number 1. I had meant to deal with Chapters one and two but realized as soon as I started that some introductory remarks were required. Here they are.

Okay, ready to go. I have two Chet Baker concerts from 1964 and 1979 playing on the other computer as I type this up.

I read Rob Royonce before, quite a long time ago now. I remember tearing through it in a great rush to get to the end and that is probably not a bad way to read him. This time I’m going at it a little more slowly.

The big difference this time is that I’ve read Ann Radcliffe in the meantime and I was taken aback at how much of an influence she had on Scott. A typical Radcliffe novel begins with a character who has superstitious ideas about a place and the people who live there and allows themselves to get stirred up into a state of mind where they are particularly susceptible to crazy ideas but through solid virtue and rational analysis everything ends up having a sane explanation. What looked like evil supernatural forces in the beginning turns out to be the work of a particular group of bad characters with one especially bad character in charge.

That bad character in the end turns out to be his own victim as his twisted world view corrupts the guy to the point where he is irredeemable by neither his fellow man nor God.

Rob Roy follows more or less that pattern.

Another thing about Radcliffe novels is that they are haunted by the past, especially the Catholic past.  Both Radcliffe and Scott are careful to assert that individual Catholics can and often are good people and even that the institution itself was capable of good. Ultimately, however, Catholicism in their view is opposed to reason and its commitment to superstition leaves it ripe for exploitation by people of various degrees of bad faith.

You also get the feeling, however, that Radcliffe also has a deep fascination and love for the past culture. Even while celebrating the liberation the Enlightenment has brought about, you cannot help but think that Radcliffe is either intentionally or unintentionally telling us that there are limits to the Enlightenment and that there is stuff about this past culture that we need.

With Sir Walter we don’t suspect this, we know it to be true.

That something we need has ties with virtue.

In the classic modern work on virtue, Alasdair tracks a heroic stage of virtue and a later stage wherein virtues are criticized and refined. The heroes of Homeric epic are the inspiration for more nuanced and detailed accounts by the great tragedians and then Aristotle systematizes these hero warrior for use in the city. It matters little MacIntyre says, that these heroic tales may not be true. What matters is that they were the inspiration for lots of boys who believed them to be true and used these virtues in trying to figure out how to be men.

Sir Walter does something like what the great tragedians did. He takes these tales and reminds us of why they enchanted us by retelling their stories through the eyes of someone enchanted by these heroes but who lives in a nonheroic age.

What comes out in the end, is a story of how modern Enlightenment and market virtues get life breathed into them by heroic ideas of honour. Honour turns out to be something that we need to breathe life into our ideas of virtue.

And Jane Austen?
As regular readers will know, everything always comes back to Jane Austenfor me.

There is a great affinity between Scott and Austen although it is rarely acknowledged. Why? I think because admitting that affinity would force critics to confront a different Austen than the fictional creation they have been passing off as Austen all these years.

I won’t say much now but to note my often-repeated assertion that Elinor Dashwood is a not a character with too much sense and not enough sensibility. She triumphs because she has both in a dynamic tension. If we follow Francis Obaldistone in Rob Roy we will see a similarity. He will be vindicated because he respects the virtues of the rational, market-respecting man but wants some sort of balance between these and heroic virtues.

Speaking of Hero(in)es
This novel has a heroine unlike anyone you find in Radcliffe or Austen. Radcliffe’s heroines are helpless always fainting and collapsing as the bad guys hove into view so the hero has to stay with her and get captured along with her. Austen’s heroines are considerably more effectual but only in a domestic, feminine sphere. When it is time to get Lydia out of trouble, Elizabeth is a helpless female who bursts into tears so that Darcy can take pity on her and bail her family out.

Rob Roy is possessed of a heroine who can lick her weight in wildcats. This is something Scott does not get nearly enough credit for in my view. Diana Vernon, or Die Vernon as she is more often called, is a fascinating character unlike anything else of the time. She is a male creation and some would argue that prevents her from being a feminist figure but I disagree. Die Vernon is a great character and one of the real joys of reading Rob Roy is meeting her.

The next post is here.

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