Friday, August 20, 2010

How Rob Roy is like Mad Men

I was off on a pastoral visit this AM and thinking about how to frame the
blog post that no one will read. And then I walked into a grocery store and
saw the covers of all the magazines at the checkout and it suddenly was
obvious: I should frame it in a crass pop-culture way.

And the comparison is not insane. Rob Roy is an historical drama in prose by
the guy who invented the genre. And it's about an era that was famous for
its revolutionary attitudes and romantic rebellions being looked back on
from a more sober era. Both feature heroes who represent the virtues of an
era that has been usurped and we go to both admiring the hero but knowing
that he ultimately has to go.

The big difference is that Rob Roy is given to us principally from the
perspective if a rather Pete Campbell like character named Frank
Osbaldistone. He isn't quite as nasty a piece of work as Pete but he has a
lot in common with him. He refuses to pursue the career his father wants
and, like Pete gets disinherited for his trouble. He goes north to the
border country and there he meets and falls in love with a young woman who,
like Peggy Olson, does not act in the way that women of her era are expected
to. And she has a mysterious connection to the romantic and heroic outlaw
Rob Roy.

Here in the first two chapters, we get the some back story of the type that
we do not get in modern historical dramas. And we also get spoilers galore.
Unlike  Matt Weiner, Sir Walter does not in the least care if we know how
the story is going to turn out. He is perfectly confident that we'll stick
with him for the 400 or so pages even if he gives away the end in the first
few pages. And he does. He lives clues all over the place that while Frank
does indeed reject his father's offer to take over his business that Frank
ultimately ends up back home and reconciled to his father.

First we meet Frank though and that meeting is interesting. I love the way
these old novels pretended to be real. Here we are given to believe that
this is not a novel but a personal memoir written by Frank Osbaldistone for
a friend and that has been made available for publication after his death.
The "author" pretends to be only the editor and he occasionally points out
errors adn anachronisms as if to suggest that the old guy's memory was off
here and there. This, as Scott knew perfectly well, makes the story appear
more real even though each and every one of these "errors" was planted by
Scott so he could later uncover them.

More than being a clever device, though, I think Sir Walter is telling us
something important about his attitude towards history. He wants us to know
that what is really important about history is not preserving the facts but
the memories of the people. They are old and not what they used to be but we
owe it to them, as an act of love, to remember what they were. Frank, as he
tells us the story, is aware that he is fading and is honoured that Tresham
cares enough to want his memoirs.

He is also keen that Tresham should know of the people he missed not because
he didn't know them but because he didn't know them when they were young.
Here is how he tells Tresham about his (that is to say Frank's) father;
You must remember my father well; for, as your own was a member of the mercantile house, you knew him from infancy. Yet you hardly saw him in his best days, before age and infirmity had quenched his ardent spirit of enterprise and speculation. He would have been a poorer man indeed, but perhaps as happy, had he devoted to the extension of science those active energies and acute powers of observation for which commercial pursuits found occupation. Yet in the fluctuations of mercantile speculation there is something captivating to the adventurer, even independent of the hope of gain.
Almost right away, we notice that Frank sees the world of business as a
world of adventure and spirit. We soon learn that he did not always see it
that way and once rejected this for the hope of a more romantic career as a
poet or a soldier. That is the opening conflict.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
 Frank craves honour and he doesn't think business offers any scope for
Imagining myself certain of a large succession in future, and ample maintenance in the meanwhile, it never occurred to me that it might be necessary, in order to secure these blessings, to submit to labour and limitations unpleasant to my taste and temper. I only saw in my father's proposal for my engaging in business, a desire that I should add to those heaps of wealth which he had himself acquired; and imagining myself the best
judge of the path to my own happiness, I did not conceive that I should increase that happiness by augmenting a fortune which I believed was already sufficient, and more than sufficient, for every use, comfort, and elegant enjoyment.
We might think of him as a male Marianne Dashwood in some ways.

We soon learn that what he craves is a world where morality is founded on
honour and glory as opposed to on credit. Before we go there, we get a
couple of reminders that you can, and that Protestants of his era did, read
Christian ethics did, reduce Christian ethics to a matter of debts and
credit. We see this chiefly through the example of the chief clerk of his
father's firm one Owen.

Anyway, his father gives Frank just what he asked for and sens him north to
stay with his uncle who lives in  world brimming with honour and romance and
violence and where credit and willingness to pay your debts amounts to very

Next blog will deal with his voyage there.

The first post in this thread is here.


  1. The Serpentine OneAugust 20, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    Whaddya mean, a post "that no one will read"? What are we loyal readers (possibly few, but certainly mighty)--chopped liver? :-)

    Looking forward to following RR with you. Just have to figure out how to stay a chapter or two ahead!

  2. "Both feature heroes who represent the virtues of an era that has been usurped and we go to both admiring the hero but knowing that he ultimately has to go."

    Hmmmm, interesting, I'm looking forward to this. Some on the other sites are dismayed by Season 4 so far because of all the changes, others are saying it reflects that life is all about change. I can't imagine the DD we know in long hair and jeans, but I guess that's your point.

  3. Your comment about going on a pastoral visit this morning indicates to me that we both might be in the same or a similar line of work.

  4. A quick note re. the Pastoral visit. I'm just a volunteer on that front. I don't know enough nor do I have enough experience to do any professional work helping people who are shut in or lonely. I'm just trying to bring a presence to people who need it.

  5. And that is so needed Jules, you're doing God's work. Just being present for someone can make all the difference. A Montfort priest I knew several years ago compared it to Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry His cross.

  6. By "no one will read"i was referring to only hoi polloi. Of course, the studiously uncool elect will unfailingly see the merits of Sir Walter even through the misty veil that my posts will create.

  7. Thank you for the kind words Bob.