Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 11.

Morality and Religion.

The very same causes which limited Scott’s humour and irony to the commoner fields of experience, and prevented him from ever introducing into his stories characters of the highest type of moral thoughtfulness, gave to his own morality and religion, which were, I think, true to the core so far as they went, a shade of distinct conventionality. It is no doubt quite true, as he himself tells us, that he took more interest in his mercenaries and moss-troopers, outlaws, gipsies, and beggars, than he did in the fine ladies and gentlemen under a cloud whom he adopted as heroines and heroes. But that was the very sign of his conventionalism. Though he interested himself more in these irregular persons, he hardly ever ventured to paint their inner life so as to show how little there was to choose between the sins of those who are at war with society and the sins of those who bend to the yoke of society. He widened rather than narrowed the chasm between the outlaw and the respectable citizen, even while he did not disguise his own romantic interest in the former. He extenuated, no doubt, the sins of all brave and violent defiers of the law, as distinguished from the sins of crafty and cunning abusers of the law. But the leaning he had to the former was, as he was willing to admit, what he regarded as a “naughty” leaning. He did not attempt for a moment to balance accounts between them and society. He paid his tribute as a matter of course to the established morality, and only put in a word or two by way of attempt to diminish the severity of the sentence on the bold transgressor. And then, where what is called the “law of honour” comes in to traverse the law of religion, he had no scruple in setting aside the latter in favour of the customs of gentlemen, without any attempt to justify that course. Yet it is evident from various passages in his writings that he held Christian duty inconsistent with duelling, and that he held himself a sincere Christian. In spite of this, when he was fifty-six, and under no conceivable hurry or perturbation of feeling, but only concerned to defend his own conduct — which was indeed plainly right — as to a political disclosure which he had made in his life of Napoleon, he asked his old friend William Clerk to be his second, if the expected challenge from General Gourgaud should come, and declared his firm intention of accepting it. On the strength of official evidence he had exposed some conduct of General Gourgaud’s at St. Helena, which appeared to be far from honourable, and he thought it his duty on that account to submit to be shot at by General Gourgaud, if General Gourgaud had wished it. In writing to William Clerk to ask him to be his second, he says, “Like a man who finds himself in a scrape, General Gourgaud may wish to fight himself out of it, and if the quarrel should be thrust on me, why, I will not baulk him, Jackie. He shall not dishonour the country through my sides, I can assure him.” In other words, Scott acted just as he had made Waverley and others of his heroes act, on a code of honour which he knew to be false, and he must have felt in this case to be something worse. He thought himself at that time under the most stringent obligations both to his creditors and his children, to do all in his power to redeem himself and his estate from debt. Nay, more, he held that his life was a trust from his Creator, which he had no right to throw away merely because a man whom he had not really injured, was indulging a strong wish to injure him; but he could so little brook the imputation of physical cowardice, that he was moral coward enough to resolve to meet General Gourgaud, if General Gourgaud lusted after a shot at him. Nor is there any trace preserved of so much as a moral scruple in his own mind on the subject, and this though there are clear traces in his other writings as to what he thought Christian morality required. But the Border chivalry was so strong in Scott that, on subjects of this kind at least, his morality was the conventional morality of a day rapidly passing away.

He showed the same conventional feeling in his severity towards one of his own brothers who had been guilty of cowardice. Daniel Scott was the black sheep of the family. He got into difficulties in business, formed a bad connexion with an artful woman, and was sent to try his fortunes in the West Indies. There he was employed in some service against a body of refractory negroes — we do not know its exact nature — and apparently showed the white feather. Mr. Lockhart says that “he returned to Scotland a dishonoured man; and though he found shelter and compassion from his mother, his brother would never see him again. Nay, when, soon after, his health, shattered by dissolute indulgence, . . . gave way altogether, and he died, as yet a young man, the poet refused either to attend his funeral or to wear mourning for him, like the rest of his family.”1 Indeed he always spoke of him as his “relative,” not as his brother. Here again Scott’s severity was due to his brother’s failure as a “man of honour,” i. e. in courage. He was forbearing enough with vices of a different kind; made John Ballantyne’s dissipation the object rather of his jokes than of his indignation; and not only mourned for him, but really grieved for him when he died. It is only fair to say, however, that for this conventional scorn of a weakness rather than a sin, Scott sorrowed sincerely later in life, and that in sketching the physical cowardice of Connochar in The Fair Maid of Perth, he deliberately made an attempt to atone for this hardness towards his brother by showing how frequently the foundation of cowardice may be laid in perfectly involuntary physical temperament, and pointing out with what noble elements of disposition it may be combined. But till reflection on many forms of human character had enlarged Scott’s charity, and perhaps also the range of his speculative ethics, he remained a conventional moralist, and one, moreover, the type of whose conventional code was borrowed more from that of honour than from that of religious principle. There is one curious passage in his diary, written very near the end of his life, in which Scott even seems to declare that conventional standards of conduct are better, or at least safer, than religious standards of conduct. He says in his diary for the 15th April, 1828 — “Dined with Sir Robert Inglis, and met Sir Thomas Acland, my old and kind friend. I was happy to see him. He may be considered now as the head of the religious party in the House of Commons — a powerful body which Wilberforce long commanded. It is a difficult situation, for the adaptation of religious motives to earthly policy is apt — among the infinite delusions of the human heart — to be a snare.”2 His letters to his eldest son, the young cavalry officer, on his first start in life, are much admired by Mr. Lockhart, but to me they read a little hard, a little worldly, and extremely conventional. Conventionality was certainly to his mind almost a virtue.

Of enthusiasm in religion Scott always spoke very severely; both in his novels and in his letters and private diary. In writing to Lord Montague, he speaks of such enthusiasm as was then prevalent at Oxford, and which makes, he says, “religion a motive and a pretext for particular lines of thinking in politics and in temporal affairs” [as if it could help doing that!] as “teaching a new way of going to the devil for God’s sake,” and this expressly, because when the young are infected with it, it disunites families, and sets “children in opposition to their parents.”3 He gives us, however, one reason for his dread of anything like enthusiasm, which is not conventional — that it interferes with the submissive and tranquil mood which is the only true religious mood. Speaking in his diary of a weakness and fluttering at the heart, from which he had suffered, he says, “It is an awful sensation, and would have made an enthusiast of me, had I indulged my imagination on religious subjects. I have been always careful to place my mind in the most tranquil posture which it can assume, during my private exercises of devotion.”4 And in this avoidance of indulging the imagination on religious, or even spiritual subjects, Scott goes far beyond Shakespeare. I do not think there is a single study in all his romances of what may be fairly called a preeminently spiritual character as such, though Jeanie Deans approaches nearest to it. The same may be said of Shakespeare. But Shakespeare, though he has never drawn a preeminently spiritual character, often enough indulged his imagination while meditating on spiritual themes.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iii. 198–9.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 231.

3 Ibid., vii. 255–6.

4 Ibid., viii. 292.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29