Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Walter Scott, ‘The Highland Widow’ (1827)

[Continuing my read-through of Walter Scott. Previously on this blog: Kenilworth (1821), The Pirate (1821/22), The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Peveril of the Peak (1823), Quentin Durward (1823), St Ronan’s Well (1823), Redgauntlet (1824), The Betrothed (1825), The Talisman (1825), Woodstock (1826) and The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827). There are other posts on other Scotts on other blogs. These posts are lengthy and full of spoilers, so, you know: have a care.]

Today’s blog is about Scott as a writer of short stories. It’s not what we think of, with Scott, of course. Stories he could do, often brilliantly. What he couldn’t do was short. And actually the best examples from this collection are what we would nowadays call novellas. But shortness is doing some kind of work here.

Context: Scott’s shocking bankruptcy in 1826 dominated the remainder of his writing life. He laboured hard to earn the money to clear his debts, putting himself under an enormous strain that materially contributed to the collapse of his health, a string of strokes and death in 1832. By a deal he negotiated with his creditors he divided his work into two streams: one — such as his mammoth Life of Napoleon (1827) — earned money to repay his debts; the other provided him with an income by which he could live and support his family.

The first of these latter projects was a two-volume miscellaneum of shorter pieces. This appeared under the general title Chronicles of the Canongate, the premise being that a retired individual of modest but gentlemanly means, a man with the improbable name ‘Chrystal Croftangry’, has moved back to Edinburgh’s Canongate and is collecting the stories he heard from (amongst others) his old landlady, Janet MacEvoy, now his housekeeper. The first iteration of the Chronicles appeared in two volumes in October 1827 (the print run was 8750 and the price one guinea). It contains a lengthy prelude ‘Chrystal Croftangry’s Narrative’ divided into six chapters, in which the narrator gives us his life-story, how his family’s substantial Clydesdale estate was frittered away by his improvidence, how he was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison, how he lived abroad but has now returned. This is followed by three longish short stories: ‘The Surgeon’s Daughter’, ‘The Highland Widow’ and ‘The Two Drovers’. He went on to publish a three-volume novel The Fair Maid of Perth (1828) as the second ‘chronicles of the Canongate’ and then abandoned the format.

Now: the edition I am reading for my go-through of Scott is the first collected edition, the ‘Magnum’, which reissued the whole Waverley set with volumes that came out monthly between June 1829 and May 1832. For that edition Scott distributed the stories differently: Vol 41 contained ‘Chrystal Croftangry’s Narrative’, ‘The Highland Widow’ and ‘The Two Drovers’ along with some much shorter squibs and pieces; vols 42 and 43 contained The Fair Maid of Perth and the series continued with Scott’s last three novels, tucking ‘The Surgeon’s Daughter’ into the final volume, number 48, alongside Castle Dangerous. So I’ll come back to this latter short when I get to that vol ume— a shame to postpone my thoughts, since it’s a very interesting Indian-themed novel. But there you go.

Nor do I have much to say about ‘Chrystal Croftangry’s Narrative’. It not really a narrative, and reads, even by Scott’s prolix standards, as filler. The most interesting part of it comes in the first of its six chapters: Croftangry’s shameful youth saw him imprisoned for debt, but he was released from this owing to the intervention of his friend Sommerville, a lawyer. After many years abroad, and now a reformed man, Crotftangry returns to Edinburgh to live. He goes to visit his friend, taking a gold snuff box as a gift, but he discovers that Sommerville has grown senile:

The easy-chair filled with cushions, the extended limbs swathed in flannel, the wide wrapping-gown and nightcap, showed illness; but the dimmed eye, once so replete with living fire — the blabber lip, whose dilation and compression used to give such character to his animated countenance — the stammering tongue, that once poured forth such floods of masculine eloquence, and had often swayed the opinion of the sages whom he addressed, — all these sad symptoms evinced that my friend was in the melancholy condition of those in whom the principle of animal life has unfortunately survived that of mental intelligence. He gazed a moment at me, but then seemed insensible of my presence, and went on — he, once the most courteous and well-bred — to babble unintelligible but violent reproaches against his niece and servant, because he himself had dropped a teacup in attempting to place it on a table at his elbow.

Scott does nothing more with this interaction, and Sommerville soon dies (‘when I had overcome the shock of this great disappointment,’ the narrator says, ‘I renewed gradually my acquaintance with one or two old companions, who, though of infinitely less interest to my feelings than my unfortunate friend, served to relieve the pressure of actual solitude’). It’s a striking rebus of decay, decline and collapse.

I’m more interested in the two long short-stories that follow. First ‘The Highland Widow’, from which (as you can see at the head of this post) the ‘Magnum’ vol takes its name. This, we are told, was a story told to him by Croftangry’s friend Mrs. Bethune Baliol, concerning a trip around the highlands she had undertaken forty years before, as a young woman. Her guide, or ‘conducteur’, shows her the sights, including a very big oak — ‘a tree of extraordinary magnitude and picturesque beauty, and stood just where there appeared to be a few roods of open ground lying among huge stones, which had rolled down from the mountain’ beside a waterfall. But Donald does not wish to loiter, for he has a superstitious fear — not of the tree, but of the turf-build hovel nearby and the old woman who lives in it. ‘“No — she is not mad,” said Donald; “for then it may be she would be happier than she is; though when she thinks on what she has done, and caused to be done, rather than yield up a hair-breadth of her ain wicked will, it is not likely she can be very well settled.’ She is shunned by the locals, who fear her.

This indeed was the feeling with which she was regarded by the Highlanders in the neighbourhood, who looked upon Elspat MacTavish, or the Woman of the Tree, as they called her, as the Greeks considered those who were pursued by the Furies, and endured the mental torment consequent on great criminal actions. They regarded such unhappy beings as Orestes and OEdipus, as being less the voluntary perpetrators of their crimes than as the passive instruments by which the terrible decrees of Destiny had been accomplished; and the fear with which they beheld them was not unmingled with veneration. [Highland Widow, ch 1]

Her story is as follows: in her youth she was married to Hamish MacTavish Mohr (mohr means ‘the elder’): a Highland bandit and cattle rustler who had been killed by the sassenach redcoats, who patrolled the territory after the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Elspat was left with her adult son, also called Hamish, and distinguished from his father by being called Hamish MacTavish Bean, or junior. Despite Elspat’s best efforts to get her son to follow in his father’s footsteps, young Hamish goes another way, joining the British Army. After the Jacobite rebellion wearing the kilt was proscribed, but an exception was made for a regiment recruited specifically from Highlanders. It is, therefore, dressed in full Highland gear that Hamish Bean marches to his mother’s house to tell her that he has been mustered, and is obliged to join his regiment in order to travel to America: ‘Mother, for six days I may remain with you .. then I will depart on the seventh by daybreak — I must set out for Dunbarton, for if I appear not on the eighth day, I am subject to punishment as a deserter, and am dishonoured as a soldier and a gentleman.’

Elspat is dismayed that her son has become, as she sees it, a ‘thrall of the Saxons’, and cannot bear the thought of him being so far away from her as America. She tries rebuking him, cajoling him, invoking the pride of his ancestry, all to no avail.

“Dearest mother,” answered Hamish, “how shall I convince you that you live in this land of our fathers as if our fathers were yet living? You walk as it were in a dream, surrounded by the phantoms of those who have been long with the dead. When my father lived and fought, the great respected the man of the strong right hand, and the rich feared him. …. That is ended, and his son would only earn a disgraceful and unpitied death by the practices which gave his father credit and power. The land is conquered; its lights are quenched — Glengarry, Lochiel, Perth, Lord Lewis, all the high chiefs are dead or in exile. We may mourn for it, but we cannot help it. Bonnet, broadsword, and sporran — power, strength, and wealth, were all lost on Drummossie Muir.”

“It is false!” said Elspat, fiercely; “you and such like dastardly spirits are quelled by your own faint hearts, not by the strength of the enemy!”

“Mother,” said Hamish proudly, “lay not faint heart to my charge. I go where men are wanted who have strong arms and bold hearts too. I leave a desert, for a land where I may gather fame.” [Highland Widow, ch 3]

Elspat is particularly infuriated that Captain Barcaldine, Hamish’s commanding officer and his friend, is from a rival clan, one against which she considers their clan to have a blood feud. But Hamish tells her: ‘yesterday was yesterday, and to-day is to-day. When the clans are crushed and confounded together, it is well and wise that their hatreds and their feuds should not survive their independence and their power.’ He adds that ‘young Barcaldine is true and brave’. He was advised not to let Hamish return home to bid his mother farewell, for fear she would ‘dissuade him from his purpose’, but replied: ‘Hamish MacTavish is the son of a brave man, and he will not break his word.’

“Mother, Barcaldine leads an hundred of the bravest of the sons of the Gael in their native dress, and with their fathers’ arms — heart to heart — shoulder to shoulder. I have sworn to go with him. He has trusted me, and I will trust him.”

At this Elspat changes her tone and seems to concur with her son. But it’s a trick: she gives him a drugged drink that means he sleeps two days and a night, and misses his appointed time. On waking Hamish is distraught ‘exclaiming, “Undone, undone!” to give vent, in cries of grief and anger, to his deep sense of the deceit which had been practised on him, and of the cruel predicament to which he was reduced.’ His mother believes he’ll get over this and accept his new circumstances, stay with her and pick up his father’s profession. But she has underestimated her son: believing himself utterly dishonoured, and fearing the military punishment — a flogging — for its shame rather than its pain, he refuses to take refuge with his cousins, but sits by his mother’s front door to wait for the military police to come for him.

There’s one final twist in the story. When the redcoats come to arrest him, Hamish is, in a strange manner, tricked again by his mother. Hamish stands at the door with his father’s musket, and tries to make a deal with the NCO of the group, Sergeant Allan Breack Cameron. He will surrender, says Hamish, if Cameron can promise his punishment will not include being flogged. Cameron replies that he can’t promise any such thing, ‘yet I will do all I can. I will say I met you on your return, and the punishment will be light; but give up your musket.’ As he reaches out to relieve Hamish of his weapon, Elspat suddenly shrieks ‘now, spare not your father’s blood to defend your father’s hearth!’

Hamish fired his piece, and Cameron dropped dead. All these things happened, it might be said, in the same moment of time. The soldiers rushed forward and seized Hamish, who, seeming petrified with what he had done, offered not the least resistance. Not so his mother, who, seeing the men about to put handcuffs on her son, threw herself on the soldiers with such fury, that it required two of them to hold her, while the rest secured the prisoner. [Highland Widow ch.5]

That’s that: Hamish is carried away to Dumbarton and executed. The local Presbyterian minister, meeting Elspat on the moor, and offering her the consolations of religion, is treated to a tongue-lashing:

“Be silent, priest!” answered the desperate woman; “speak not to me the words of thy white book. Elspat’s kindred were of those who crossed themselves and knelt when the sacring bell was rung, and she knows that atonement can be made on the altar for deeds done in the field. Elspat had once flocks and herds, goats upon the cliffs, and cattle in the strath. She wore gold around her neck and on her hair — thick twists, as those worn by the heroes of old. All these would she have resigned to the priest — all these; and if he wished for the ornaments of a gentle lady, or the sporran of a high chief, though they had been great as Macallum Mhor himself, MacTavish Mhor would have procured them, if Elspat had promised them. Elspat is now poor, and has nothing to give. But the Black Abbot of Inchaffray would have bidden her scourge her shoulders, and macerate her feet by pilgrimage; and he would have granted his pardon to her when he saw that her blood had flowed, and that her flesh had been torn. These were the priests who had indeed power even with the most powerful; they threatened the great men of the earth with the word of their mouth, the sentence of their book, the blaze of their torch, the sound of their sacring bell. … But you! — against whom are ye strong, but against women who have been guilty of folly, and men who never wore sword? The priests of old were like the winter torrent which fills this hollow valley, and rolls these massive rocks against each other as easily as the boy plays with the ball which he casts before him. But you! — you do but resemble the summer-stricken stream, which is turned aside by the rushes, and stemmed by a bush of sedges. Woe worth you, for there is no help in you!”

Thereafter Elspat lives her cursed, shunned life until, in an extremity of dotage and as the villagers believe she is dying, she instead vanishes from her bed, never to be seen again.

It’s an interesting speech, is Elspat’s there, as much about the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism in the popular imaginary as about the tragic inevitability of the story Scott is telling. As to the latter, it seems clear — as per Mrs Baliol’s references to ‘the Greeks’ and their stories of ‘such unhappy beings as Orestes and Oedipus’ — Scott is structuring his tale not according to the spacious tripartite form of his proper novels, but by the tighter shape of a Greek tragedy.

Attic tragic plays follow a particular formal pattern: there’s an opening speech by a character or a god that sets the scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epei(s)-odia, between the odes, you see) in which two, or in later tragedy three, actors interact with each other and with the chorus. Things end with an exodos. How many episodes? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, largely copied from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play should have five acts.

That’s what Scott is doing here, I think: The Highland Widow’s five chapters are the five ‘acts’ of a tragic drama. The first is Mrs Baliol, speaking in her own voice so as to set the scene — a parodos — and the remaining four tell the tragic story of Elspat MacTavish, interspersed with various pieces of poetry: for example, the epigraph to chapter 2:

Oh, I’m come to the Low Country,
Och, och, ohonochie,
Without a penny in my pouch
To buy a meal for me.
I was the proudest of my clan,
Long, long may I repine;
And Donald was the bravest man,
And Donald he was mine.

The tragedy is personal, but also social: the old Highland world has already died and the pathos of this story is that Hamish Bean’s choice — to preserve his Highland dress, and honour, precisely by enlisting in the army of the people who had defeated it — is the Scottian solution: the synthesis of Highland past and English antithesis present through which a future becomes possible. But his mother cannot allow this to happen. The minister, against whom she rails in the fifth act, determines ‘that Elspat had lost the Roman Catholic faith without gaining any other’, and in this state, Arnoldian avant-la-lettre, wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born, Elspat focuses the stories dramatic and tragic power.

I think Scott is thinking, and encouraging us to think, of Medea: another tragic heroine skilled in brewing potions who kills her own children. In Euripides play she does this to affront, or punish, her husband, who has abandoned her for another woman — she ends the drama by flying into the sky in a chariot drawn by dragons, just as does Elspat (some villagers assumed she crept away to drown herself in the lake; other ‘thought that the evil spirit, under whose influence she seemed to have acted, had carried her away in the body’). Elspat does not hate her departed husband the way Medea does hers: she (in effect) kills her son in an attempt to honour him, rather than to affront him. But one of the things this tale to which makes us aware is that honouring and affronting the (dead) father turns out to be, paradoxically, the same thing. Because history moves on.

As well as the characters, Scott ‘stages’ his drama by describing in detail its topography: the gigantic tree, with which (as ‘the Woman of the Tree’) Eslpat is identified, the waterfall, the nearby Awe river, flowing out of Loch Awe — a suitable name for the tragic sublimity of this tale! — and the colossal stage-dressing of the mountains. This is how the scene is set for the killing of Campbell and therefore the death of Hamish:

Evening approached; the gigantic shadows of the mountains streamed in darkness towards the east, while their western peaks were still glowing with crimson and gold. The road which winds round Ben Cruachan was fully visible from the door of the bothy, when a party of five Highland soldiers, whose arms glanced in the sun, wheeled suddenly into sight from the most distant extremity, where the highway is hidden behind the mountain. [Highland Widow ch.5]

The mountain, here (rather more beautifully described than is usually the case with Scott’s descriptive prose) figures tragic inevitability itself.

What does it all mean? I suppose this question entails a profounder: does it mean? Perhaps we’re better off not pulling on that thread (‘tragedy,’ says Adam Phillips, ‘questions our capacity — our wish — to make meaning’: incapacity, here, is one thing; disinclination something quite other, and much more destabilising). Scott’s story hangs upon three moments of arbitrariness, like Angel happening to push the letter not just under Tess’s door, but under the carpet inside so she never saw it: one, that Hamish returns home at all, to wish his mother farewell (he might just have well have stayed in barracks); two, Hamish not waking from his drugged sleep in time to make the muster (the Presbyterian minister Rev Michael Tyrie thinks of calling on the MacTavishes, but changes his mind: had he called Hamish would have been woken and crisis averted); three, the strangest of all: Hamish, who accepts his disgrace and concedes that he must be taken into custody, nonetheless shoots dead the sergeant come to arrest him. Why does he do so? Ah, now we’re asking the key question.

Scott very rarely wrote tragedy. Almost all his novels are, generically speaking, comedies — indeed, his influence on the development of the form has its part to play in shaping ‘the novel’ as fundamentally a comedic mode, departing from eg Clarissa, and differing from eg Anna Karenina. For the tragic stab he turned to shorter fiction, for good reason. Scott’s longer novels are all, in their way, panegyrics to bourgeois modernity, and that’s a logic that just isn’t tragic. Richard Halpern’s excellent Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy (Chicago 2017) explores the reason ‘tragedy went into retreat between Milton and Ibsen’, and suggests that Adam Smith might be the answer. Wealth of Nations is, Halpern argues, ‘antitragic’, since the operation of the market drains tragic force by alienating agency from action: ‘not only does Smith elevate production over action as the path to happiness … market mechanisms, which work only across vast aggregates or populations, also negate the ethical as well as the economic significance of the individual.’ In this new bourgeois, Whiggish order, ‘loss’ is both flattened and drained of emotional force by ‘the operations of the economy’ (his thumbnail, and rather neat it is too, is: ‘a public mourning raises the price of black cloth’). In calling Scott’s longer novels ‘comic’ I am not adverting to their capacity to make us laugh — though he is sometimes funny — but to invoke this formal or modal apprehension of a newer cultural-social logic. Here’s Terry Eagleton:

For George Steiner, one reason for the supposed death of tragedy in the modern era is the fact that the two ideologies which shaped the period most deeply, Marxism and Christianity, are both anti-tragic doctrines. But this is to define tragedy as a narrative which ends badly, rather than as the belief that any redemption worth the name involves a radical breaking and remaking. Tragedy need not mean that everything finally collapses into chaos, but that a painful self-dispossession is the condition of any enduring achievement; and in this sense both Marxism and Christianity qualify for the title. Crucifixion may issue in resurrection, but is not annulled by it.

Reverting to the shorter form of The Highland Widow frees Scott from the ideological constraints of his own longer-form dynamic. What is the future ‘bought’ by the tragic deaths and social alienation of this little story? Mrs Balliol has a pleasant and diverting holiday in the Highlands. Tourism — the reification of Highland lived-experience into a set of positions, experiences and itineraries (a larger phenomenon for which Scott bears significant responsibility, as Wordsworth does in the Lakes) reduces the phenomena of this particular story into something delimited, repackaged, commodified. One of things that is so magnificent about Elspat’s final monologue (“Be silent, priest!” answered the desperate woman etc) is the way her perspective on events, her rage and energy, don’t fit the bourgeois reified forms of comfortable tourist ‘experience’. She lives not just in a pre bourgeois world, but a world whose very pre-Protestant superstitions are themselves inchoate, ritualistic, pagan. The gods of Attic tragedy (unlike the grocer-God of bourgeois rationality and justice, jotting down pluses and negatives in His cosmic ledger) arbitrary, terrifying, thrilling. Why does Hamish shoot the sergeant? Killing the man or not killing the man, either way he’s an army captive, either way he faces army discipline. Having committed himself, rationally, honourably, as an agent under the new bourgeois dispensation to ‘pay’ for his transgression (the fact that it was not his fault matters not at all for Capitalism, after all: why you don’t pay your bill is irrelevant; all that matters is that you pay it) — having committed, that is, to paying for his transgression he yet breaks out with what amounts almost to an acte gratuit that guarantees his death. His mother yelling out now, spare not your father’s blood to defend your father’s hearth is presented as the trigger. It’s a remarkable phrasing in many ways, as if, by killing his military superior, Hamish is killing his father, but doing so in order to defend his father. The knot, that seeming contradiction, is tragedy as such.

It’s death, of course: the death of the Highland way of life, the death of MacTavish Mohr, of Sergeant Cameron, of MacTavish Bean, of — ultimately — Elspat herself. 1826 had been a year of death for Scott himself: the death of his wife, of his fortune. Earlier I mentioned Matthew Arnold, who worked through his anxiety-of-infuence with respect to his famous father by writing ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, in which the strong son is killed by the even stronger father. Something similar is going on here, with the terrible but unstoppable potency of the Mother, the Woman of the Tree. Some complicated and profound dynamic is working its way through this novella, at odds with, and perhaps in a meta-dialectical way in dialogue with, the more usual process of Scott’s longer fiction.

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