Tuesday, April 21, 2009

sloppy annotation, part 438

I highly recommend Clive Wilmer's 1985 Penguin edition of Ruskin's Unto this Last and Other Writings; it's a more than solid cross-section of 30 years of Ruskin's social criticism, from the early fairy tale The King of the Golden River thru the whole of Unto this Last down to a couple of letters of Fors Clavigera. At the start of his Select Bibliography, Wilmer (like every Ruskinian) pays homage to the Cook/Wedderburn "Library Edition," "a masterpiece of editorial scholarship and very easy to use. The introductions to each volume are unusually long, well-written and informative; it is beautifully illustrated, mainly with Ruskin's drawings; the notes are incomparable."

That last bit of italics is mine, because I'm thinking of Wilmer's own notes to the Penguin Unto this Last – over 40 closely printed pages to 250-odd pages of Ruskin's text. Wilmer sets out with the editor's usual brief: to fill in contemporary contexts with which 20th-century readers might be unfamiliar, and, since "Ruskin was an exceptionally allusive writer," to identify his quotations and allusions. For the most part Wilmer does a better than fine job; if anything, the book is over-annotated – but the notes are at the end, so they can be conveniently ignored. But what to make of the following?:

In Fors Clavigera 10 (7 September 1871), after having identified himself as "a violent Tory of the old school (Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's)," Ruskin goes on to describe the ideal of monarchy that he formed from such childhood reading:
I perceived that both the author of the Iliad and the author of Waverley made their kings, or king-loving persons, do harder work than anybody else. Tydides or Idomeneus always killed twenty Trojans to other people's one, and Redgauntlet speared more salmon than any of the Solway fishermen...
To the latter reference, Wilmer appends this note:
Redgauntlet: the hero of Scott's novel of the same name, a courageous young knight who undergoes many adventures in eighteenth-century Scotland. Scott's life and works are among the recurrent minor themes of Fors.
Where to begin with this? Redgauntlet (1824) is the last of Scott's novels to deal with the theme of Jacobite rebellion. In his first novel, Waverley, he had written about the 1745 Jacobite rising on behalf of Bonnie Prince Charlie (the "Young Pretender"); in Rob Roy (1817), he treated the 1715 rising on behalf of Charles's father James Stuart (the "Old Pretender"). Redgauntlet, set in the 1760s, imagines a final abortive Jacobite uprising, in which Prince Charles returns to Scotland (not so young anymore, & dissipated from his years of drinking & womanizing on the continent) & is swiftly more or less shoo'd off by the English military.

Hugh Redgauntlet personifies a kind of superannuated Jacobitism, a fierce loyalty to the Stuart cause & disdain for the Hanoverian monarchy. He is in short a man born too late, & when Charles returns to his continental exile, Redgauntlet, knowing that there will be no further Jacobite risings, turns his back on Scotland and leaves with him, making way – as is so often the case with Scott's novels – for a new, less romantic, bourgeois order. Jacobitism, in the late 18th-century, becomes a kind of sentimental conservatism, rather like Archie & Edith singing "Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again."

And Redgauntlet, whatever he may be, is most definitely not "a courageous young knight who undergoes many adventures." He's in late middle age, a grizzled laird best known for his prowess at fishing. So where in god's name did Wilmer get this annotation? Is this a joke? Did he just make it up?

Wilmer shows similar distance from other Scott references; rather than describe characters & situations, he throws out brief overviews ("Ruskin refers to characters and places in the two novels named, both of which are by Scott"). We all have blind spots: I suspect Sir Walter is one of Wilmer's, a writer he can't bring himself to read, even though he knows how important Scott was to the formation of Ruskin's imagination. But if you're out to fully annotate an allusive writer, for better or worse you need to have read everything the writer has read. No small order with Ruskin (or Pound, or...).

This is why the best annotated editions are the products of several hands, rather than a single editor, however devoted he may be.

[Cook & Wedderburn – as I find out from consulting my own lovely copy – don't annotate the Redgauntlet reference at all – I guess they assume it's a part of any educated reader's cultural vocabulary.]


Vance Maverick said...

Scott was a bright constellation in the sky of every Anglophone reader, not just educated ones. (Indeed, did education even concern itself with Scott?) So Wilmer is refusing a major point of contact with his subject's world.

I like the dead canons that litter the sides of old schools and libraries, and the maps of older towns -- in downtown Palo Alto there are streets named Lytton, Cowper, Emerson, Homer, and naturally Waverley too.

Vance Maverick said...

And more regionally, Ramona.

Archambeau said...

Clive Wilmer is a Chevalier in my personal Légion d'Honneur. His essays on John Peck for the TLS are probably the best things anyone'll ever write about Peck.

Mark Scroggins said...

Life is short, though. I give the man major kudos for the enormous amount of work he did annotating what he did on Ruskin -- and forgive him for not slogging thru *The Abbot* & *The Monastery*, two of Scott's dreariest reads. (He ought to pick up *Redgauntlet*, tho; it's one of the best.)

And certainly no aspersions on his Peckiana, which I think I've seen. But don't judge too hastily, Bob -- I'm still expecting a monumental Peck essay from you one of these days!

Michael Peverett said...

I assume Wilmer mustve blurrily confused Redgauntlet with Durward or Ivanhoe. - though you'd think self-doubt might have been aroused by this obviously medieval personage galloping across the 18th century - it's great when the hidden stodge of someone's inner mind slips out into broad daylight, but whose would really bear investigation?
Do you yourself really think that The Abbot is dreary? --- such an outrageous mischaracterization that I must suspect you of Wilmerishly picking on the wrong book. I wrote lovingly about it..: http://www.geocities.com/mpeverett/scott.htm#Abbot

Mark Scroggins said...


total confession: I read all of Scott in a year & a half run about a decade ago, perhaps the most enjoyable reading experience of my life. I remember the books that gripped me in one way or another -- Redgauntlet was one, Fortunes of Nigel another, etc., Old Mortality still one of my benchmarks of grand narrative -- and have only blurred memories of the rest.

Hey, I suspect I've conflated The Abbot -- about which I remember zilch, naught, zippo, nada, nothing -- with The Monastery, about which I remember only a general sense of the typist's "that's over & I'm glad." So yes, I ought to be plopped in the same dinghy as Wilmer, at least on this occasion.

(Maybe it's time to re-read Scott...)

Michael Peverett said...

Ah, in that case I imagine you experienced the not uncommon "great-book-by-favourite-author-seemed-like-crap" effect - often caused by over-immersion. I remember how bored I was by Little Dorrit the first time I read it (though I was a massive Dickens fan), and it's happened to me many times since, especially with Balzac for some reason.

Yes, I suppose I have to concede that the Monastery isn't much of a big deal...

Since I extorted that confession, perhaps I should confess in turn that it was only yesterday that I made the discovery that I had always thought of Howard Hawks and John Ford as one and the same. Scholars have to become skilled at concealing these chasms of ignorance, which is a pity really.