Monday, January 02, 2006

Walter Scott: Reliquiae Trotcosienses

So we're back from New York, where I saw a lot of the people I wanted to see, and didn't see a lot of the other people I wanted to see; where I didn't drink nearly as much as I ought to have, but managed to have a pretty decent time anyway. It's unseasonably warm back here in St. Peter's Waiting Room, & the house smells of cat.
Read a lot of poetry over the break, much of which I'm itching to comment on, so by all means stay tuned. But the book I'm really excited about at the moment is a recent Strand acquisition, and far more esoteric than even the most wacked specimen of alt-poetry: it's a recent volume from Edinburgh UP, Walter Scott's (we don't, mind you, call him Sir Walter anymore – that smacks too much of the leather-patched tweeds, brandy, and pipes – and besides, who can take the knighthood seriously anymore with all these Sir Eltons and Sir Micks running around?) Reliquiae Trotcosienses; or, The Gabions of the Late Jonathan Oldbuck Esq. of Monkbarns. What this volume amounts to is a guidebook to Scott's gothic folly mansion of Abbotsford and the astonishing collection of historical knicknacks, trinkets, and books that he amassed there, all written in the third person, in the voice of Jonathan Oldbuck, the protagonist of Scott's second novel The Antiquary.

Scott, as you all know, despite being the most successful and profitable author of his day, was involved in a rather horrendous financial crash in 1826, and for the last five years of his life was writing at a breakneck pace (or one might say, a Joyce Carol Oates pace) – every damn thing, novels, political pamphlets, histories of Scotland and France for children, a six-volume biography of Napoleon, heaven knows what else – in order to get himself out of debt. All of the profits from these major projects were funnelled thru a trust, which after making payments on his immense debts paid him a modest salary and allowed him to keep his estate (which might otherwise have been seized). But Scott made arrangements on the side to do little jobs for pin money, one of which was Reliqiae. One suspects that he enjoyed working on this little book (alas incomplete), even despite the fact that he was laboring under such adverse financial circumstances and in very ill health indeed. The editors of the present edition (which is not a volume in the Edinburgh Scott series, but has been issued in a format uniform with the series' other handsome volumes) have done really heroic work, not merely in deciphering the Laird of Abbotsford's handwriting, but in reconstructing English sense out of his largely punctuationless manuscript and wandering syntax: this is not merely a first draft, but a first draft written by a guy whose short-term memory is on the blink, and whose orthography is eccentric to say the least.

Astonishingly, Reliqiae, while it's by no means an easy read, is absolutely engrossing. So many of Scott's obsessions come together here: His fascination with physical artifacts and their connection with the historical past (Scott owned Rob Roy's dirk and sporran, and when I was at Abbotsford in 2000 I remember seeing James Graham's – "Bluidy" Claverhouse's – armor on display); his wry admission that the antiquarian obsession, as pursued mostly by well-to-do types in the early 19th century, was an eccentricity that sometimes bordered on madness, and at the best of times had something fundamentally risible about it; and most importantly, his conviction that physical history could never come alive without the aid of narrative, of story-telling. Of course, that's by no means a surprising conclusion for the first (and for my money, still the greatest) of historical novelists to come to.

I dote on Scott. I began Heart of Midlothian, the first of his novels I read, ten years ago on a snowy Northern Virginia day a week or two before I moved to Florida. I read thru most of the rest of them lying on the beach, in surroundings as far removed from Scotland as could be imagined – a breath of cold Calvinism to brush away the hot hand of the luxurious sun. He can be the most otiose storyteller imaginable, but he can also engross a reader who's interested in history and in the great seismic shifts of cultural and economic forces (as Lukacs was) like no-one else. If you haven't read him, by all means don't start with Reliquiae: begin with Waverley, or better yet Old Mortality, and if you have the kind of obsessive bent I do, you may just end up trawling thru Jonathan Oldbuck's gabions along with me.


Michael Peverett said...
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Michael Peverett said...

How wonderful to find another impassioned Scott admirer among contemporary poeticists!

I had never heard of the Reliquiae Trotcosienses - it sounds terrific.

Check out my own musings on that great stack of work